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We're all familiar with stories about good and evil, where characters are unambiguous. The benefit of this sort of a story is that we can enjoy the conclusion of the good struggle, without being taxed morally or intellectually. Many of the most popular stories take this form, from the New Testament, to the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, even the Second World War is usually framed in the context of the Axis powers being uncomplicated in their evil.

Other stories present morally grey characters who are ambiguous; they have good and bad traits, and judging their motivations is difficult. I've noticed that often stories which on first glance appear to be about moral ambiguity usually unfold into more simplistic moral metaphors, either by slowly revealing the good and bad characters, or by simply transitioning characters from one to another.

What I'd like to know, is if there are problems associated specifically with writing morally grey characters, and how to avoid these issues. What issues can occur if a writer attempts to create an ethically complicated story?

  • I think most books are weaker after the first act, and what you are describing is just part of that problem – Andrey Nov 9 '17 at 14:22
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The reader must want to read

As far as I'm concerned, this is the basis for nearly everything you put into a novel. If the reader doesn't want to read your book, he will usually stop. Everything, therefore, must focus first on making sure the reader wants to read your book.

The same logic applies to characters. The reader must want to read about the characters you create. This makes sense. The story is about someone, after all; it makes sense that the reader should want to follow that person's story. Following this logic, a very simple truth emerges:

Your reader must like your character

While plenty of authors would like to explore the dark side of people, the truth is that we - no matter what we think - do not want to read about evil people or characters. We do not sympathize with them or their motives. There's no connection. We want to read about people we understand, people we can look up to, people we like. Therefore, it makes sense that the reader should like your main character. And that gets difficult if they are evil (don't worry; I'm getting to gray characters).

That being said, there are plenty of novels which succeeded, which feature evil, depressing, or downright mean protagonists. How can these possibly work? This leads us to another simple truth:

The reader must see the light at the end of the tunnel

No matter how bad your protagonist is, as long as there is hope, some flicker of something better, the reader has something to hang onto. If you write about, say, a brutal murderer, but every time he kills he feels a shred - if only for a moment - of remorse, you still have a story. Granted, you have a job ahead of you, but there is a glimmer of hope. There is something to work with.

That is how you write evil characters, otherwise known as Dark Protagonists. So how do you write a gray protagonist?

If you think about it, the answer should be obvious: You know the reader must want to read about the character. You know for this to happen, the reader must care about the character. It's reasonable to assume that a morally gray character will do some good things, and some bad things. The reader will support the good things, but the truth is that any amount of bad always outweighs the good when evaluating someone in fiction.

So that leaves us dealing with the bad side of the character. However, we already know how to deal with bad or evil characters: give the reader something to hope for. In this case, a morally gray character will already have some good things pulling for him; simply make those things the light at the end of the tunnel. Give the reader hope that those parts of the character can win out over the bad. Give the character a struggle between the bad and the good within himself.

That's how you write a gray character: the same way you would write a dark character. Give the reader something to hope for, and play that up as much as you can.

If you have a gray or dark character who is not conflicted about his actions, or is actively trying to stomp out his good side with no second-thoughts, then you have a problem. You might think people want to read about such a person. Other readers might think so too. But I can guarantee, that when they actually start seeing the person how he really is, they will change their mind very, very quickly.

I hope this helps you. Best of luck in your endeavors!

  • likeable character != good character – FFN Nov 7 '17 at 13:12
  • Certainly not. But you have to agree that the reader must like the character if he wants to read about him. And you also have to agree that a character who exhibits things we ourselves want to exhibit or attain (ie, good traits), is likeable. Unless you have a reader who wants to become evil, creating a good character is the surest way to creating a likeable character, just like creating an evil, depressing, or mean main character is the surest way to getting the reader to close the book. It's simple logic. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '17 at 16:55
  • Well, I have to disagree. A likeable character is indeed one we can relate to, and we can only relate to good and bad characters. Likeability is something complex to understand and explain and I don't see myself as the one who will finally solve the problem of what makes a character likeable. HOWEVER, I have seen plenty of likeable bad guys or morally grey characters. Team Rocket, Deadpool, Disney's Hades, Gru, GLaDOS and Beetlejuice are likeable. Zuko is very likable, even in Avatar's first episodes, when he is very evil. And he is likeable because we can relate to his motivation. – FFN Nov 7 '17 at 20:51
  • I haven't seen most of those characters, but I have seen two, and I know exactly why they are likable. Oddly enough, it follows to the letter what I said about Dark Protagonists. You see the light at the end of the tunnel with Gru. You sympathize when he goes to the bank (relatable experience), and eventually the girls bring out his true nature. GLaDOS is simply following her interpretation of her programming. Once we understand this, we realize she is not technically evil; she's just trying to do what she was told. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '17 at 21:05
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    Seems to me that "interesting" is better than "likeable". Plenty of characters exist who we would not like to be friends with, but from a distance we can enjoy them. Morbid fascination, really. – inappropriateCode Nov 9 '17 at 14:06
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Some very good information already in the existing answers so I'll try and avoid repeating it but here are some thoughts on how to position a morally grey character..

The Ends Justify the Means

If the aim is to write a morally grey protagonist that the reader still "roots for" a good way to achieve this is to differentiate between the "ends" and the "means". If their overall goal is something that the reader can get behind you can have the protagonist carry out some morally questionable actions in support of that goal. This can add a layer of depth and interest to the character and lead the reader to wonder if they themselves would do the same in the circumstances. Obviously this is a TV character but think about someone like 24's Jack Bauer, he kills and tortures his way through his days in service of the "greater good", which is an interesting ethical question for the viewer to ponder over and additionally in later seasons it's interesting to watch the effects this has on his psyche.

Good by Comparison

It's tricky to pitch correctly but if the morally grey protagonist is a saint relative to the antagonist or to their "victims" then the reader can root for them because the antagonist is so much worse, especially if the only people who suffer at the hands of their actions aren't characters the reader would identify with or see as morally good people. Take the titular character from Dexter, it's not morally right that he should go around killing people, and furthermore it's made plain that he's not doing so for any moral reasons (it's purely to satisfy his own needs to kill). The nature of the killers he murders is made out to be so much worse that the viewer can let themselves off the hook for rooting for him to succeed.

You can also combine this with the Affably Evil or Magnificent Bastard tropes - take the example of Locke Lamora and co. from Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard Sequence books. The main characters are un-apologetically thieves and con-artists but the primary antagonists are usually much worse (mass murderers, tyrants etc) and the main characters' antics are written with style and humor so it's easy to want to root for them.

Even Evil has Standards

As 99.999999999999% of all humans ever to have lived are themselves morally grey establishing that a morally questionable character has limits to how far they will go is a good way to make them into someone the reader can relate to.

Oh that's why!

Characters on the darker end of the grey scale are more interesting when you can follow how they got there - even if the choices they made in response to things happening to them aren't the same ones the reader would have made as long as they are reasonable the reader should be able to identify with them.

This is also a great way to keep the reader interested in a character. Sometimes you want to introduce someone in a classically "Evil" archetype because the story needs someone to fulfill that role, but maintaining that over a longer arc is difficult without them becoming a bit one dimensional and cartoon-like. Exploring the reason's why they acted the way they did when introduced gives them more depth and allows the reader to see them as a properly fleshed out character rather than just a plot device.

It also leads to opportunities for..

Growth is good

Real people are almost constantly evolving in response to the people and events they encounter, to a greater or lesser extent obviously but there's always some change - and characters of any morality position should show the same behavior. 180 degree morality turns on a dime are unrealistic and often boring, as are "I used to be evil but I know better now" speeches. Nuanced changes over a proper arc are interesting however and can be highlighted by throwing up similar situations to those encountered early on and showing how their responses/choice differ.

  • Some good advice - particularly the reference to The Gentlemen Bastards (it is, after-all, right there in the title Gentlemen Bastards), and well written! – Thomo Nov 10 '17 at 5:16
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In my opinion, when we read --or watch--, we are looking to learn something of value to our lives. We don't want a didactic lesson, but a visceral one, an emotional one. So we need a character and/or a situation we can identify with, that character needs to make choices, and those choices, for us, need to be either aspirational, the kinds of choices we can aspire to, or cautionary, the kinds of choices we should avoid.

The advantage to morally unambiguous characters is that they spell out for us which lesson we are learning. But the advantage to morally ambiguous characters is (when done well) that they are more relatable, because we all know ourselves to be not wholly good or evil, but a mixture of both. But we still want to learn something. For example, consider Woody Allen's Match Point, which features an sociopathic antihero, whose remorseless actions appear to be rewarded rather than punished. The deeper lesson, however, is that he's destroyed everything truly real and good in his life, in pursuit of rewards that are ultimately empty and meaningless. It's a fine line to walk, you can easily confuse the audience, and turn them away, especially if your work feels too nihilistic or absurdist at its roots.

It's also a question of audience. Something like Match Point isn't to everyone's tastes, it requires a certain amount of sophistication and discernment to appreciate. But on the other hand, people tend to get tired of big cartoonish morality tales --witness how even super-hero movies, the ultimate in brightly colored fables --have trended towards shades of grey.

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Issue: Readers don't empathize with your morally grey character.

Read: Your character isn't likable.

Suggestions (choose some, not all of them):

  • Go for first person perspective instead of third person. It brings your reader deeper into the character's head and actually makes it easer to empathize even with unlikable characters.
  • Surround the character with even worse people. Think Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games: She's not exactly a nice person. But there's so much bad stuff happening around her that we actually start liking her.
  • Give the character a few entertaining traits. He could be funny, smart, inventive, speaking the truth when others don't, ...
  • People care about people who care. Make the character love somebody. No matter how evil he is (Snape), people are going to melt.

Issue: Your readers don't want the character to succeed.

Usually we root for the protagonist. But if your protagonist does things the reader does not agree with, your reader might actually eagerly wait for the character's punishment. Think Joffrey from Game of Thrones: People did like to watch him, they did like to follow his story. But not because they wanted to see him win. They celebrated when he finally died a painful death. Now, Joffrey didn't have many redeeming traits, so he wasn't exactly grey. But there's other examples as well: 13 going on 30 is a great example of a protagonist that isn't evil by any means, but we still are waiting for her to get punished or to at least learn how wrong she is.

So when writing grey characters, you need to consider that not everybody might root for their cause. People might be looking forward to the character redeeming themselves.

Suggestions:

Just keep in mind that what the character wants might not be what the reader wants and give the reader plenty of reason the follow the story even if they aren't really interested in what the protagonist wants. Instead, you can just assume that what the reader is interested in is how the character develops. This brings me to my next point:

Issue: Readers expect growth.

If a character has very visible negative traits (and if they are an important character), the reader might expect for the character to eventually grow out of these traits. They might be very diappointed if the character never learns to be a better person or if they don't at least get punished for their evil acts.

Suggestions:

Make sure the character develops a lot. Don't give them a flat arc. I don't think you need to correct every trait, just make sure that they end up a slightly better person in the end than they were at the beginning of the story.

Not everybody might agree on how grey your character is.

Maybe some people think killing is okay, as long as it's because you're protecting your loved ones. Another person might think killing is never okay. People might have very different ideas on what exactly is good and bad about your character. I believe it's more agreeable to judge a completely good or completely bad character, but it's much harder to agree when the character is somewhere in between.

Suggestions:

I'm not sure about this one, but I'm going to write how I would deal with this.

If your character is neither absolutely black nor absolutely white, neither should be your moral standards. Make the story full of different opinions, but don't neccessarily decide on which opinion is the best. Make it so the readers can have different views and argue. Be open towards people with different opinions in your writing.

For now, this is all I can think of. I believe, grey characters are the best, so go for it :-)

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