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.)
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.
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?
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