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I've been kind of interested in writing a grey vs gray story. For those who don't know grey vs gray is two or more sides of conflict that aren't full on good or full on evil.

I'm writing a webcomic that will become an animation with this idea. Basically the idea is that there is a planet filled with an alien race called stick figures (inspired by Hyun's Dojo and Stickpage versions of stick figures which are more stylized, you can view one of their best here) who love to fight yet are great companions in their group evolution. Which explains how they haven't died off (since last I checked in regular evolution the evolved species in question must get along with each other).

I'm inspired by Hyun's Dojo (obviously), My Hero Academia, Avatar The Last Airbender, Dragon Ball Z, Marvel movies, martial arts movies, etc.

The trouble is figuring out how to do it. I don't want to risk having multiple sides look like pricks (especially since I use to day dream scenes that are very angsty and it's a little hard to put those into scripts). So how do I show all the sides not being assholes?

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Remember two things:

  • "no man is all of one stripe" meaning that people are always multi-faceted, villains who seemingly care only for power still love their children and pacifists who wouldn't raise and hand in their own defense may well kill to protect theirs.

  • "people's motives most always seem good to them" people can usually rationalise their way to feeling justified in their actions no matter how extreme.

By showing that neither side are all one thing, good or evil and by showing the reasons that they feel justified in their actions you can have two sides that are at each other's throats but neither one comes out smelling of roses and neither one looks truly villainous once the dust settles.

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My current work is one where there are no heroes, no villains - just people doing things. I have characters remark that good versus evil is a naive concept. They go on to explain that so called villains are quite capable of doing good things and that the supposed good guys are often required to do some very nasty things.

Life is complicated and so are my characters.

Ash has a good point. All characters have a blend of virtue and vice and no one regards themselves as the bad guy.

Just get to know your dark characters and they will show you how best to portray their complexities.

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    I like this. Don't make sides, make people and let their nature play out. Though "have characters remark that good versus evil is a naive concept" can be a bit on the nose if not done tastefully. – linksassin May 15 at 5:09
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One approach to this is what I would call a "family first" story; it is a product of our familial and tribal instincts. The idea is that group loyalty trumps all law and morality. The "group" can be actual blood relations, or partners in crime, or the soldiers you fought with, or your classmates, or your cheerleading squad. It can be a gang, or the mafia. The only deadly sin is betraying your group; but everything else, up to and including murder or sex slavery or drug dealing, is on the table (depending on your genre and audience).

In such stories, it is Family that matters. The 2005 crime movie "Four Brothers" with Mark Wahlberg is an example; four guys adopted by the same woman come back together to avenge her murder. As I recall most were criminals and willing to kill anyone that stood in their path.

The current TV series "Vikings" is also an example. They are a murderous, looting gang, killing and torturing innocents without compunction: But what truly troubles them (and drives much of the story) is the betrayal within their ranks, by their psychopathic sibling.

"The Godfather" mafia movie is similar. Nobody blinks twice at ruining innocent lives by extortion, forced prostitution, armed robbery, crippling assaults, murder or assassination. And to an extent dealing drugs and causing addiction (with one exception; our MC Don Corleone doesn't want to be involved in drugs: Making him a better guy than the other gangsters). The story problems that give them angst are losing family members to other gangs, and betrayal by a family member (in once case an actual sibling). There is a reason the first scene is set at an important wedding; what could be more about their tribe; their family and friends? Even the title fits the theme, and action within the first act is intentionally foreshadowing this: Sonny is violent and commits crimes against law enforcement with impunity, also adultery, supplicants are asking for extra-legal favors of violence, etc.

In such stories, we can end up sympathizing with a truly bad family, because within their family they seem normal and, for the most part, love and forgive each other even if they disagree. We overlook how ruthless they are outside their family.

It helps if the author doesn't concentrate too much on the plight of those they exploit, we never get to see much more than snippets of that. Instead the author focuses less on their victims and more on their rivals that are just like them.

To make the story enjoyable (to a mass audience) the reader MUST sympathetically identify with at least one person, they have to like somebody, or at least start out liking them. You have to show your MCs in some light that makes them seem human and vulnerable in some way; even if they are murderers. They have to love somebody and do something for love. When your main characters are brutal they are doing things no reader could do; so the justifications for the brutality need to be something the reader can understand. Vengeance for brutality against one of their own. Reasonable self-defense.

The rubric "live by the sword, die by the sword" is another reasonable excuse if your MC is committing preemptive crimes against other criminals. Show the "others" doing something brutal to innocents, and although the MC isn't taking vengeance for those acts and is only acting for personal gain, the reader won't care: The "others" deserve whatever they get. John Wick is liked because he is always killing violent criminals, often for his own selfish reasons or preemptive self-defense, but they are clearly always bad guys, serving violent criminals.

Grey-vs-Grey can be a very interesting and engaging story, a bestseller. Just make sure you show why it is "grey", the characters need to mix good and evil. An easy way to do that is the "family first" theme, which plausibly shows them being "good" within their "family" and brutal to those outside it.

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