A morally grey character is a character who is morally ambiguous. They’ve got good traits and bad traits. One moment they may seem like the good guy, the next moment, they may seem evil. Why is this concept so confusing? While the definition of morally grey characters may seem straightforward, it isn’t. No one can agree on how heavily we can read into the definition or what additives we can add.
So, morally grey characters do good and bad things and have good and bad motivations. Looking at this interpretation of moral greyness, a hefty chunk of characters fit under this label.
Whether they lean more toward being a good guy or a bad guy, many characters do both good and bad things for various impulses. For example, Robinhood steals from the rich, which is bad. But he gives to the poor, which is good. So, he would be considered morally grey.
How to write a morally grey character?
Morally grey characters have become increasingly popular in fiction. The problem is that there are different interpretations of what constitutes a morally gray/grey character, which leaves many writers confused. Thus, I’m going to try my best to demystify moral greyness so you can write yourself a bunch of characters.
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding moral grayness, and most of it stems from the fact that we operate under very vague definitions with no real honed terminology. It’s hard to take a solid stance when we lack specific terminology for this. You could argue that any character falls in either charcoal gray or metallic silver-gray.
In books, movies, and TVs, audiences gravitate more towards the gray characters because they are more realistic. But they don’t want every character to be purely altruistic, ready to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. The reason why you guessed it was tension. When a character is morally ambiguous, we will be getting the best type of drama and tension out of them.
While external conflict is engaging and fun to read, it will never reach as deep as an internal conflict that grows and challenges the person. So we know that we want morally grey characters, but how do we do it? Let’s learn 7 tips on how to write a morally grey character.
1. Give them a moral dilemma
The dilemma is whether it is okay to hurt people to help others? Throughout the story, they will be battling this question inside their conscience. It’s easy to write a heartbreaking scene once you’ve gone through the writing process.
Your characters do something with a moral goal. They want to do something good, but by trying to achieve this moral goal that will help people, they hurt many people. Also, they do it knowingly to achieve this moral goal. They feel bad about it, but they keep doing it because they think it’s all worth it. It will solve so many problems and suffering.
2. Don’t force your character
We’re taking overall good characters and toning them down to be more grey most of the time. The easiest way to get them into a grey space with good characters is to open them up to what they are willing to do to accomplish their good goals.
If the character wants to do good things but is willing to go into darker places to achieve them, that will pull them more into that morally grey space. It can be the easiest way to make a morally grey character, but it is also typically the weakest!
If the character has good goals, we want to present them with some truly dark options. We want the reader to consider if the ends justify the means now. We’ll typically need to build this up over time. Throughout the novel, if you start with a character who is okay with cold-blooded murder in the name of peace, that screams bad guy. So we need to establish that they are good at the onset.
One of my favorite ways to do this is when a character chooses to do good, but those good choices keep either failing or even potentially backfiring in their face. It pushes them to become desperate. However, we do it. The main question that needs to reside at the heart of this is,
- What are they willing to do?
- What depths are they willing to go to accomplish their goals?
- What injustices are they willing to turn a blind eye to?
So, the author needs to know where the line is.
3. Creat conflict
As characters do what they’re doing, they must continuously question themselves before and after they hurt people. That is the part that’s going to make them morally ambiguous. If they question themselves, it’s the battle inside their head. So it feels like an angel and a demon on the side of their shoulder.
One part says, “do it, do it,” and the other side says, “don’t do it. It’s wrong”. Then following that scene, when they hurt someone afterward, are they battling with their conscience. Was it the right thing to do? Also, they sometimes punish themselves for it or hate themselves for it. So, they get angry because of this conflict going on in their mind.
4. Make your character be a hypocrite
What I mean by this is typically going to be where we place them in a situation where they are forced to do the thing that they tell others not to do. Maybe your heroine stumbles in on the room, and an assassin is struggling on the floor to save her mother.
The main character picks up a blade tossed in the fight, and she stabs that assassin in the back and kills her. The character preaches pacifism, even in the face of violence. Even when a loved one’s life is on the line, killing another is not the right option.
Your character believes that this could even be a core value that they stand on. But at the moment, she failed to uphold that core value. When she speaks to others about pacifism, she becomes a hypocrite. The reader can rightly call her that. However, we’re going to have some empathy for her, and we can see this internal struggle.
Making the character a hypocrite will be tricky, depending on the circumstances. Readers don’t like hypocrites, but it can create incredible internal conflict, especially since the character should see their actions as hypocritical, and they’re torn inside.
5. Create a jerk moment
The characters are complete jerk that touches on true moral greatness. The first example is where a character was pushed more and more towards disastrous decisions because they were in worse circumstances. The second example is where the character made a mistake in the heat of the moment. They have good goals that are a total freeze.
The characters are egotistical, but their goals are good. Their methods are mostly good. They might be doing good work, but they’re terrible personalities. Moreover, they still view other characters that would put them in a near villainous light. Yet they do good things, choosing good ways to do those things.
6. Add a law-abiding villain
Law-abiding villain creates odd situations where you have a character who you would think would not care about the law and disregard it at every single turn. But for some reason, this character is very law-abiding. They follow it to a tee, so they are morally obligated to follow the law when they don’t, but they want otherwise evil things.
This character is morally ambiguous because they have friends on the other side. People remember them, and, tragically, their friend is not only gone but replaced by this new villain. It can be a great tool for tension because it allows the villain to make a legitimate call to the heroes, to switch sides, usually with compelling arguments.
7. Develop a 4D character
One-dimensional and two-dimensional characters are similar. Any characteristics they have or surface level, there’s no development and a limited range of how this character acts. We call these characters one-note and flat 3D characters. That tells us a lot about the whole character overall. Seeing how they change and what they changed into gives us a picture of a full person.
4D is a term I’m giving to characters with two arcs that give us two pictures of two full, entirely separate people. These are two arcs layered on top of each other. They consist of the same set of events but tell two full versions of two entirely different characters, even though there’s only one actual character.
The 4D thing is complex, especially when dealing with multiple characters. It has to encompass the whole character arc. The moments of weakness template works similarly, but it’s about moments in the character’s arc, moments that make us question our judgment of the character. We see something much different in the sequencing here.
The character is already well developed. They have goals, conflicts, and nuance then something unfortunate happens. We see the character have an uncharacteristic moral failure. For the rest of the show, they’re dealing with the consequences of their moral failure and trying to redeem themselves. So, it is very similar in function to the ill-fitting moments.
How do you write a sympathetic morally grey character?
A sympathetic, morally grey character is a morally grey character that readers root for, and there are two components to nailing this. First, your character needs to wrestle with important decisions that could potentially be bad. If they’re wonderful at doing something evil, they will be seen as evil.
The reader needs to see a struggle before or after the decision is made. Maybe they feel guilty afterward or apprehensive about taking the plunge. That’s not to say that every less than pure act requires shame or a meltdown.
The second point is that certain lines cannot be crossed because you will lose a big chunk of your audience once you do so. The lines in question are subjective, so I advise looking at your lines. Figure out where you draw the line and keep your character away from it.
What are the benefits of writing morally grey characters?
The biggest benefit is that they’re realistic. Even if they’re good or bad, most people are not 100% pure or 100% evil. Readers tend to find morally grey characters believable because they’re an accurate and often relatable look into the human experience.
The next benefit of morally grey characters is that they are multi-dimensional, making them engaging to read. Sometimes characters who are good or bad can come off as flat. Morally grey characters tend to come off more layered because their assets and flaws are on full display.
What are the pitfalls of writing morally grey characters?
The first pitfall is also realism. While it’s true that most people are not 100% pure or 100% evil, many people lean heavily in one direction or the other. You can think of many people throughout history who have done many horrible things. Maybe they had a redeeming quality. But in prejudice and genocide, that doesn’t amount to much.
Additionally, people have devoted their lives to others or making the world a better place. Sometimes people are genuinely good-natured. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with writing morally grey characters because they are prevalent, but sprinkling in some evildoers and good-doers is smart because they exist.
The second pitfall is the unlikeability factor. While not all morally grey characters are supposed to be likable, especially if they’re the protagonist. The problem is when you’re juggling both good and bad acts and good and bad motivations, it can be easy to tip the scales in one direction and turn the audience against the character. Certain lines, once crossed, there’s no going back. So, you have to heavily weigh the justifications of their actions and make sure the audience is on board.
Writing a good morally gray character means that your reader is always guessing what this character will be doing in any given situation. You don’t know what this character is going to do. They’re on their side, or you don’t know the side that they’re on because they keep playing both sides. You need to make their backstory and or motivations sympathetic to the reader.
Morally grey characters are fun to have, keeping readers on their toes. Having too many morally grey characters running around isn’t fun. They never pick a side, and you don’t know their motivations. So keep a few characters and have the good and the bad characters in there.
Give them a believable reason for all of their actions. Show apprehension in their choices, or show guilt afterward. All characters make decisions, good and bad, but it’s not going to pull them into the morally grey area of the spectrum.
In the comments below, let me know who your favorite morally grey character is.
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