Clearing Up Morally Gray

Why Your Favorite Character Isn’t Just A Jerk

A loss of faith in the institutions claiming to uphold justice and order, among other things, has led to a marked increase in the appeal of baddies, knaves, and all sorts of prickly fictional figures since the reigning age of Superman, Uncle Sam, and G.I. Joe. These days there is an ever-growing audience for the likes of Christian Gray, Deadpool, Joker, and Maleficent: prickly, capricious, and even sadistic characters; but what makes them work? And are any of them really morally gray?

Darth Vader (Star Wars)

A solid grasp of the reasons why (or why not), a character falls under the umbrella of Morally Gray will help you write compelling, crowd-loved protagonists without sacrificing kill counts or resorting to the transformation of their whole identity by the narrative’s end: and if you’re not a writer, it might finally explain why you like the “bad guys” so much!

Urban Dictionary defines “morally gray” as a character who does too much bad to be a good character, yet too much good to be a bad character.

This tidy little definition only raises another quandary: for depending on how we define “good” and “bad”, the corresponding middle ground shifts as well. It’s also a pretty broad brush to paint with, so instead of attempting the impossible task of reducing all moral viewpoints to a monolith, let’s focus on what can we can determine using a character’s motives.

A common blanket use of the term “morally gray” is for characters with motivational conflict. This character has a strong tie to both sides of the struggle, and multiple goals which contradict each other. They may spend time switching sides, manipulating others, and deceiving or deprecating themselves. This character moves in reaction to more powerful forces and characters, granting their own moral compass little influence; this character is also usually killed off while defending the hero(es) as a sort of redemption. Examples include Harry Osborn, Zuko, Murtagh son of Morzan, Killer Frost/Caitlin Snow, Harley Quinn, and Hugo/Scarlemagne.

Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Another common misemployment is the term morally gray for antihero: simply put, a character whose influence on the plot is near or equal to the protagonist’s, but with a conflicting goal. Whether that goal is more or less justifiable than the protagonist’s is irrelevant– at times it may be arguably better (this is what differentiates an antihero from a villain), but whatever it is, they are willing to go just as far for what they want as the hero is (or farther). They are often on respectful and even admiring terms with the protagonist, and may work with them for a time if a threat to both is introduced. Unfortunately, this character is another one who is often killed off, usually with a measure of the protagonist’s regret and sympathy. Examples include Magneto, Killmonger, The Master, Moriarty, Thanos, Aaron Burr, Gorilla Grodd, Boromir, and Sebastian Michaelis.

If the reader cares, I don’t think it matters so much whether your hero is in fact an anti-hero. –Barry Eisler

And finally, there are neutral characters, perhaps the most deserving of the title ‘morally gray’: actors in the plot whose motivations are ever-changing, solely self-serving, or just plain beyond our understanding. If they have a moral code, no one knows what it is for certain; this character spices things up by being influential and unpredictable at the same time. This character has no interest in moral questions, and even their selfish desires may not be for something inherently evil. They serve themselves, first and foremost. Stories starring a neutral main character often have a comedic or satirical spin, as the lack of a moral homing-point opens the gate for all kinds of irreverence. Examples include Galactus, Q (Star Trek), Bender Bending Rodríguez, Lando Calrissian, Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, Loki Laufeyson, and Deadpool.

It’s worth noting that these orientations overlap a great deal in places, both with each other and with other layers of heroism and villainy, and a character can fit into more than one of them at the same time: indeed, any character worth their salt can and should shift between moral stances over the course of their narrative.

Now, an answer to the oft-lamented question:

The greatest appeal of moral ambiguity in fiction is the humanity we feel in someone who, like us, doesn’t always know or do what is right. Someone who lies, and wrongs, and cowers, and changes their mind– even straight-up frightens us. Seeing our own self-contradictory wants and actions reflected may not be charming, but it gives us reason to sympathize and root for them, and we become attached to their journey and growth as we do our own. We want something more entertaining than a fixed outcome of “do good or die trying”, and a motive a little more layered than “because it’s right”. Morally ambiguous characters deliver this to your story. And it’s why we attach to the flawed, changeable, or broken characters so strongly: more often than not, they fall on this spectrum.

Unfortunately, hardly any mainstream writers have the understanding or the willingness to lead a morally gray character down the difficult path to a happy or peaceful ending; conflicted or anti-hero types in particular. These characters would land in an uncomfortable place by the end of the story, being neither all good nor all bad, involved in a lot of mess, and doubtless with a heap of consequences waiting with their name on it. Many writers choose to avoid this awkward fallout by killing the character or otherwise removing them from the scene. (Prison, exile, etc). It’s a lot easier than writing the long road to reparation and peace, or their gradual descent into villainhood.

Serverus Snape (Harry Potter)

Having now explored in some detail what a morally ambiguous character is, let’s take a brief look at what a morally ambiguous character isn’t:

  • A character who claims they are the source of an overriding morality, thus whatever they do is justified (e.g., “I have been hurt, and thus I have authority to punish and kill as I choose.”) There is nothing ambiguous about that. (Punisher, Wolverine)
  • A character who consciously balances destructive, non-neutral actions with performative “good” ones, making themselves (appear) too valuable or beneficial through the latter to be condemned by the surrounding system. Again, very clear morality. (Culverton Smith)
  • A character who performs as a villain but shows tenderness or mercy to a certain individual or individuals. (Phantom Of The Opera)
  • A character who performs as a villain but is beloved to one or more protagonists. (Christian Gray, Edward Cullen)

Not that there’s anything wrong with writing or enjoying the above types of characters; indeed, they are much-needed in all narratives. But writing/presenting them as heroic or morally gray is inaccurate, and such inaccuracy normalizes and then excuses a plethora of dangerous behaviors.

This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of what it means to write morally gray, but if you’ve read this far, you’re off to a great start! I encourage you to go ahead and subvert everything I have told you as hard as you can: the only fun of knowing the rules is getting to break them, especially when it comes to creative writing! Using what you’ve learned to your advantage will make your characters stand out in the crowd, and will keep your readers hooked through any narrative.

To see how I apply this and other writing know-how, head over to my portfolio.

I’m a freelance ghostwriter and copywriter, focused on inclusion and progression in the media.