Why I Love Morally Gray Characters

(Last Updated On: March 16, 2021)

We all have certain fiction tropes which instantly make a book a little more interesting. I’m a simple lady: tell me that a book involves time travel or morally gray characters and it will be shoved onto my TBR with glee.

This post was inspired (a year ago lol) by Sophie @ Me and Ink’s The Morally Gray Discussion.

I have a confession to make: I hoard not only tags but also post ideas. I have over 300 posts in varying levels of completion just waiting to be released into the world. I have a lot of ideas but limited time and energy, so my patrons have taken control and vote on my monthly discussion topics for the blog. Be sure to check out Sophie’s blog and give her some love for sparking this topic!

A Love Letter to Morally Gray Characters

I love my characters like I enjoy my coffee: complex and dark. Ideally with a side of brooding.

Morally gray characters are those whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good. They can be the main character, the villain, a side character; ultimately they are the ones keeping us guessing on what they are going to do in any given situation and who often have the most compelling character arcs. (And no I am not talking about villain redemption arcs here. I have complex feelings on that but it’s a discussion for another time.)


More Realistic

As much as we like to think in terms of black and white, the world is shades of gray and things are never so cut and dry. And honestly? That would be boring! This applies to people, too. We’ve all read books where the characters fall flat and feel one dimensional; for me this means they lack complexity. What are their desires? Why do they do the things they do and where did that come from? How are their ideals and concepts of right and wrong challenged?

I think a big component of growing up is learning to think for yourself. You begin to form your own opinions which may or may not be opposed to existing worldviews. When a character learns that they’ve been on the wrong side and fed lies? I lap that up like a kitten with milk. And when characters do a “bad” thing but it is for a “good” reason? Those internal conflicts make a character – hero or villain – a thousand times more interesting for me to read.


Challenges the Reader’s Notion of Right and Wrong

I’m sure by this point in the post my interest in ethics and moral philosophy is abundantly clear. The sociologist in me loves to look at how we as a society form mores and rules and how the characters on an individual level interact with society: the social constructs, sense of right and wrong, and how we determine the Other.

Well-written complex characters will make the reader (or viewer, as this happens in tv & film as well) reflect on right and wrong. We often root for the dark and brooding bad guy despite knowing he is the villain; I think we as a society want to believe that people can change and redemption is possible. (I could go into a tangent about Foucault here but I will refrain.)

To tie this in with the Spike versus Angel debate briefly: why do we see Spike as evil and Angel as good? Angel merely changed because his soul was forced upon him, whereas Spike started his path to being a better person prior to getting his soul reinstated. He wanted to be a better person and I think that ties to who he was as a man: William was a poet in life and wouldn’t hurt a fly. Angel’s darkness was always there when he was Liam in life, and the demon just let it out. Which redemption arc makes the most sense to you?


They are Unpredictable

With a wholly good or wholly evil character, there is no question what the character will do in any given situation and there is little to no discussion or struggle on their part.

I don’t like villains that are just the stereotypical guy with the mustache tying the woman to the railroad tracks because he can. The ones whose sole characteristic is being evil. The ones without clear motivation for their actions. Because right or wrong, everyone has a motivation behind the things that we do, and to the person breaking social norms or laws they are doing the right thing. Remember: the villain is always the hero of their story, they just end up on the “wrong side.”

Think about the most shocking twists and reveals you’ve read: I bet a lot of them come from a character doing something you weren’t sure they would do. The assassin who struggles with their assignment, the clueless royal who learns about the reality beyond the castle walls, the group of teenagers set to start a revolution who may resort to breaking the rules for “the common good.” Moral ambiguity leads to character development. Seriously, I find the moment a character’s goal becomes diametrically opposed to what they want to do to be the most interesting in an arc.

Let’s Chat!

Thank you so much for reading this post, friends! It feels good to finally start writing discussion posts again and look forward to chatting with you all in the comments about morally characters.

💬 What characteristics do you enjoy in characters? What makes a character complex to you?

💬 Do you love morally gray characters as much as me? Why or why not?

💬 What are you favorite books that feature morally gray characters?

Thank you so much to my Patrons for supporting me and my content! This was a really fun post to write that I likely would have let sit in my drafts for another year if not for you, so thank you and I hope it lives up to your expectations!

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25 Comments

  1. Kate @ Your Tita Kate

    March 18, 2021 at 4:32 AM

    I find the moment a character’s goal becomes diametrically opposed to what they want to do to be the most interesting in an arc.

    THE SOUND I MADE AT THIS LINE WAS NOT HUMAN

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:24 AM

      I WISH I COULD HAVE HEARD THAT NOISE.

  2. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    March 18, 2021 at 5:58 AM

    I love this post. I would agree with everything you said. I find myself always leaning towards that “bad guy” that is trying to “be good” at some point. Your comparison of Spike and Angel also made me think of Stephan and Damon from The Vampire Diaries. I always hated Stephan – he was just good because he was good. Whereas Damon, when he did good things, it went against what he was. I like those characters that make it hard to root for them but you can also empathize with them.

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:26 AM

      I never read or watched The Vampire Diaries, but that’s totally the same dynamic for sure. But one thing I didn’t mention in the post is that I also love when our protagonist is morally gray… it really drives home the idea of “every villain is the hero of their own story” and makes us question our notion of right and wrong. Thanks so much for your comment, Molly!

  3. Plaid_Reader

    March 18, 2021 at 10:00 AM

    I love when a character has to make a choice that we know is going to change them as a person. What they want and who they are kind of do a tailspin when they are faced with a choice and they have to make it anyway. That and the character they become after is the most interesting for me.

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:27 AM

      YES YES YES! You nailed it on the head right there. And morally gray doesn’t necessarily mean the villain, I also love this ambiguity in protagonists (perhaps a bit more because I have a complicated relationship with villain redemption arcs lol). Thanks for your comment!

  4. Kristi Housman

    March 18, 2021 at 10:10 AM

    I love this post! Morally gray characters are my favorite. I just can’t help it. They always stand out to me.

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:29 AM

      Me too, me too! Thanks for reading!

  5. Mek

    March 18, 2021 at 11:42 AM

    Morally Gray characters tend to be my favorites in books too, I just love how enigmatic they are and they always keep me guessing and as much as I love hero characters, morally gray characters are definitely more realistic just like you said.

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:34 AM

      Ahh, I am so glad a lot of people agree with me on this! And my fave heroes also tend to be morally ambiguous, which I think says a lot about me as a person lol. Thanks for reading!

  6. Tasya @ The Literary Huntress

    March 18, 2021 at 6:13 PM

    I love this post! I agree that morally gray characters always have the best character arc because they have internal conflict that always make them more real for me. I also love how unpredictable they are when faced with certain situations!

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:35 AM

      Ahhh, we agree on this and I love that for us, Tasya!

  7. Kelly @ Stories & Screens

    March 19, 2021 at 7:02 AM

    Couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said! I love morally grey characters. It isn’t as cut and dry as just ‘good’ and ‘evil’. People are generally a lot more nuanced than that and I just think morally grey characters are much more realistic and relatable. Great post!

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:35 AM

      I just like my characters as complex and conflicted as I am on the daily lol. Thanks for stopping by, love!

  8. Dedra @ A Book Wanderer

    March 19, 2021 at 10:11 PM

    Morally Gray villains are my favorite villains. They’re so much more compelling than just straight evil characters. I finally read Six of Crows at the end of last year, and I loved that almost all the characters were morally gray characters. Great post!

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:37 AM

      I honestly love it when books are just… all morally gray characters. It is the biggest serotonin boost for me. and I WISH I liked Six of Crows but I DNFd the book four times and have come to accept that Bardugo’s writing style isn’t for me.

  9. Davida Chazan

    March 19, 2021 at 11:06 PM

    I like how they’re usually more complex, but if they don’t do the right thing in the end, I have a problem with them. If they do the wrong thing in the end and aren’t punished, I also have a problem with that. That said, a character doesn’t have to have questionable morals to be complex…

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:42 AM

      Ah yea, I get where you’re coming from and I think if they end up on the “wrong” side at the end with no punishment I would for sure have an issue with it.

  10. Mary

    March 22, 2021 at 10:35 AM

    Yes, yes, and YES again! Morally grey characters are so much more interesting. Like you said, when someone is wholly good/evil, there’s so much less to their character. Sure, they might be able to captivate for a while, but they’re almost always going to end up doing something predictable, and it’s just so much better when they do the unexpected, or something that’s opposed to their goal because DAMN, that’s when the truly fun writing begins.

    1. Kal

      March 22, 2021 at 10:47 AM

      Unpredictability is an amazing thing for a character, and I just love seeing their arc as they grapple with various things throughout a book or series. And who they end up being. Rooting for them to go against their instincts, just *chef’s kiss*

  11. Sophie @ Me & Ink

    March 26, 2021 at 3:17 AM

    Thank you so much for linking to my post, it was so sweet and I LOVE that you’ve done your own discussions on morally grey characters because naturally I do think they are great characters to get involved with. I think the conflict and journeys they go can be full of some much emotion and honestly have more areas to explore than most other characters. I loved reading this, and I love that you mentioned sociology and Buffy as well because they are very relevant !!

    1. Kal

      March 30, 2021 at 12:37 PM

      Of course, I love linking to the posts that cause my creative juices to flow… even if it is years later lol. Thanks so much for reading, and I agree that the conflict and journeys really affect me a lot

  12. Jayati

    March 27, 2021 at 12:14 AM

    Honestly, if someone is always ‘good’ I start to think there’s either something wrong with them or they’re hiding something huge because no one can be good all the time – everyone makes mistakes and exists in the gray area. I also definitely love the way a morally grey character makes me think about what is right and what is wrong and still learning to accept and love them!

    1. Kal

      March 30, 2021 at 12:42 PM

      Jayati you are just out here spitting truths lmao. “Something wrong with them” ahahaha. But yea I often do think that they may be hiding something and read them as possibly unreliable. We all make mistakes, and I think that’s something a lot of flat characters lack

  13. Monthly Wrap-Up: March 2021 – Shamelessly Bookstruck

    April 2, 2021 at 9:09 AM

    […] Book discussion: Why I love morally gray characters by Kal @ Reader Voracious […]

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