A Shoutout to Morally Gray Characters: Who They Are and Why We Love Them
Chaos is a ladder. –Peter Baelish (Game of Thrones by GRR Martin)
What kind of a person decides that chaos is a chance to fulfill personal ambitions?
It sounds awful, we must admit. The notion of chaos means that people are getting hurt. In the stories that inspired Game of Thrones, chaos means that all hell would break lose on the lives of the innocent. War is underway—people, including children, are going to die by the thousands.
Yet, there is a kind of person who seizes an opportunity to act on personal ambitions and grow from them.
We may argue both for and against moral ambiguity. Love him or hate him, a character like Peter Baelish is the kind of plot device whose repulsive charm makes you question yourself for liking him. That's precisely what successful authors hope to achieve—immerse the readers' own sense of purity and wrongness to form a strong emotional connection with a book.
Now, on to the philosophy of morally gray characters.
Gray Morality: Neither the Good Guy nor the Evil
Long gone are the times when readers loved entirely pure or inherently evil characters. If only your daily living was that simple, especially writing! Your modern reader, even one who isn't inclined to introspection, knows that "how people turn out" is a combination of learning, upbringing, and experience.
Modern readers won't 'buy' irredeemable bad traits in a character so easily, nor will they enjoy a "Goody Two-shoes" who never does anything wrong. Most people understand that it's a true privilege to do only good things, given that the demands of daily living frequently necessitate behavior that falls short of the highest morality standards.
Your average reader is morally ambivalent, as are most people in real life, except some position themselves more on the 'good' or 'bad' side, either intentionally or by chance.
What's commonly accepted nowadays when grouping characters into "good or bad" guys is to create a certain boundary within the authors' world that one doesn't cross. That line doesn't have to match with the modern notions of right- and wrong-doing. It needs to be consistent within the book's universe.
For example, in the first chapter of "The Song of Ice and Fire," we see Ned Stark execute a deserter single-handedly. We know that our beloved Ned also waged wars, which means that he likely killed dozens of people in his long career. Yet, within the gory universe of the series, in which life is the cheapest currency, we actually see Ned as the "Goody Two-shoes" who eventually succumbs to his own naivety and not the bad guy.
What Does Morally Ambivalent Mean?
A morally gray character never truly 'tips' the scale to the "right/wrong" or "good/evil" side. They dance around the line-that-can't-be-crossed, keeping the reader in suspense as to what they'll do next.
You wouldn't expect a lion not to attack a baby, so you wouldn't call it a "evil" for doing so. But, chances are that you wouldn't forgive a single human character for doing so, and they could never again be morally ambivalent in your eyes—they'd become evil.
Or would they? The intention is an essential factor for the audience to decide on the 'wrongness' of a character's action. Did they intend to cause harm, or did they do so by accident?
Covert intentions are crucial to morally gray characters. The moment their intentions and personal motivations are revealed, they tilt the scales to either good or evil. Once this point is reached, they're no longer a morally gray character.
Morally gray characters never cross the line to the other side, regardless of the situation. Their intentions and motives are ambiguous, always keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Shades of Morally Gray Character Traits
These characters wouldn't be what they are if they didn't have complex personalities, ambiguous morality, and secret motivations. These signature traits separate them from all the other characters in a book whose morals align with the common society rules.
What Makes Good Morally Gray Characters?
Not all morally gray characters are well-written. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when writing them so that you don't end up alienating your readers and having them form strong opinions about the character. Here are the staples of writing morally gray characters:
Charisma has many shapes, and so should your characters. Give them intelligence, puns, a memorable appearance, and shocking (yet not divisive) actions that "pull the rug" from beneath everyone's feet when least expected. That way, you introduce suspense into your story, causing the audience to always "look beneath the surface" and expect the unexpected.
However, be careful not to make the character appear psychologically divisive. The reader shouldn't suspect that they have the 'irredeemable' (narcissistic, psychopathic, or sociopathic) personality traits. If the characters' superficial charm serves only to manipulate, you'll land them in the category of bad guys, and any of their redeeming qualities will later be seen as unrealistic or makeshift and will ruin the story.
Never Cross the Line to the Dark Side (Unless Planned)
A morally questionable character can become mainly good or bad in the reader's mind. This can jeopardize the success of your book. Specifically, as you envisioned your character's development, it doesn't align with the reader's notion of what should have happened naturally with the character and the plot.
Keep the Mysterious
The mystery surrounding a morally questionable character keeps the audience from forming an opinion ahead of time. Avoid revealing too much about them too soon.
The only time when it's a good idea to end the character's 'gray' journey is when you're ending the character. Either a character's death or the end of your book is a good opportunity to reveal their "true nature" and the reasoning behind their actions.
Keep in mind, though, that the character's underlying motivations should tie in with the book's concept and make sense of its main philosophy and message.
Don't Tilt Toward Dark Personality Traits
Remember, a reader isn't as easily convinced by an author as they might have been in the pre-internet era. Readers are now much more educated in psychology, and can make up their minds about the character by learning psychology and forming an opinion about what's realistic and what isn't.
If you have characters do destructive things that make readers think "Dark Triad," you've lost your character. The audience is now viewing them as "irredeemable personalities" because they categorize them as people known not to possess empathy.
What Makes Books With Morally Ambiguous Characters a Success?
Creating a believable fiction world has never been more challenging. Your work is compared to the cult titles in the genre, and the audience has also changed. Creating a compelling world now means creating a complex one, in which none of the characters are completely good or bad.
Flawed characters appear more human, which is why readers love them so much.
A Morally Ambiguous Side Character Emphasizes Main Characters
This type of character is a great basis to show the light and the darkness in all other characters. A reader will unconsciously compare the actions of other characters against those of a morally ambiguous characters, which will help form an emotional relationship with all additional characters.
Good Base for Inciting Incidents
The majority of great literary works revolve around inciting incidents that trigger the entire story. One event can cause good and bad things to happen to various characters, creating your hero, anti-hero, and the entire story.
Where does a morally ambiguous character fit in? They might trigger or create conditions for the inciting incident (e.g., Peter Baelish creating conditions for Ned Stark to join the court), or to escalate events caused by human errors (e.g., participating in the cover-up of a crime that triggers a mystery plot).
It's often easier, and better, to land the inciting incident in the hands of characters instead of circumstances. Readers consider it to be more realistic, and it solidifies the book's plot with willful action.
Keeping Suspense in Your Fiction: No One Knows What Will Happen
A morally ambiguous character is unpredictable. They give you the space to introduce plot twists without having to wrap your brain around dozens of plots and subplots to set the stage. Instead, having a character in a story such as this "turn the tide" at the right moment allows the plot to take the desired direction much more easily.
Playing With Socially Acceptable Behavior
It's not always easy to entertain a reader with socially accepted behavior alone. Even the purest of characters must step out of line from time to time. The involvement of these characters provides good reasons for your 'straight-laced' character to dress or act more provocatively, dance and have fun, or participate in an inciting incident that sets the plot in motion.
Justifying Main a Protagonist's Difficult Decisions
Say you want to show that your main protagonist has great fighting or strategizing skills, but you can't really put them in a situation where it would be justified to exercise said skills. Gray characters are great tools to push heroes slightly over the edge and show their flawed nature as well, without compromising their good guy status.
How to Write a Morally Ambivalent Character
Writing morally ambivalent characters can be incredibly fun if you do it the right way. Guess what? We have prepared a short, easy-to-follow list of valuable instructions:
Rule #1: Keep Things Mysterious
Don't give out too much information about morally ambivalent characters. Just the very minimum of information needed at this time is sufficient. The pivotal points in a character's development should be revealed strategically when it best serves the plot development.
Rule #2: Give the Character an Important Role—and Keep it to Yourself
Morally ambivalent characters should have an essential role in the plot, but it's best kept a secret until the right time comes for a revelation.
Rule #3: Give Them Charisma
There should be a charm or at least a quirky likeability to your ambiguous character. Give them humor, pleasant looks, likable mannerisms, and other things that a reader would find charming.
Rule #4: Give Them a Logic
Cover all your bases regarding human psychology. Try to find real-life inspiration for their backstory, looks, style, mannerisms, and speech. Then, do a little character analysis to create their unique moral philosophy.
Rule #5: Create Signature Patterns
Although complex, your character should have signature behaviors that are noticeable from the beginning of your story.
Top 7 Morally Gray Characters by The Urban Writers
For more inspiration, let's give an honorable mention to some of the best morally gray characters known to modern literature:
Sang Woo, Squid Game
Veronica Sawyer, The Heathers
Stefan and Damon Salvatore, The Vampire Diaries
Boromir, The Fellowship of The Ring
Lord Varys and Peter Baelish, The Song of Ice and Fire
Robin Hood, English folklore
Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series
Morally gray characters can give a wonderful dimension to your book. Without them, the polarization of characters could easily become boring to your reader. Don't let your stories fall short of suspense! If they're done well, you can write as many of these characters as you like.