If you’re anywhere near BookTok or Bookstagram these days, you’ve probably seen books advertised as having “morally gray characters” or “a morally gray MMC,” to name the two more popular versions of the trope.
Maybe you love morally gray characters and want to craft your own. If so, welcome! Let’s talk about it.
What is a morally gray character?
Morally gray—sometimes called morally ambiguous—characters are complex. They have a range of motivations and actions, and they don’t usually fit neatly into either the “hero” or “villain” category.
Sometimes they show very kind, loving, caring sides of themselves. Other times, especially in genres like fantasy, they show very violent and aggressive sides. Maybe it’s even a little hard to pinpoint their moral compass considering they’re willing to cross certain lines and never look back.
As with any character, your morally gray character is going to need some baseline things defined:
1. What is their goal? Why do they want to achieve that? It’s important that these are logical, in that readers can understand them. Maybe your character has a selfish goal, but it makes sense, even if not everyone agrees with it. Readers must at least be able to say, “Okay, I understand why they want this, even if I disagree with them.”
2. What redeeming qualities do they have? If you write a morally gray character who is only ever an asshole, shows no remorse, never self-reflects, and is generally ruthless, you aren’t diving into the complexities of moral grayness. Be sure to give them some positive traits.
For more about developing complex characters, check out this blog post, which includes 52 questions to help you develop your next character.
How gray is a morally gray character?
Your character’s morality is not necessarily as simple as they took “good” actions or “bad” actions.
I’m no philosopher, but there’s this school of thought called “moral relativism.” Painting in broad strokes, this is the idea that different cultures have different moral and ethical standards.
I’m not here to say whether that’s right or wrong. Instead, I suggest that you think about your fictional world’s moral philosophies and how your character(s) relates to them. Because it’s very likely that different cultures in your fictional world have different views on what is “right” versus “wrong,” and your character will probably be influenced by these in some way!
Not only will each of your characters likely have some varied stance on their culture’s moral compass, but they will likely have their own moral compasses based on their life experiences, including social class, career path, upbringing, and more.
A morally gray scale
Think of moral grayness as a scale. At one end, you will have characters who are likely to take small “bad” actions but never go past that, while others are willing to go to the extreme. Moral grayness comes in a variety of shades.
Each character has a different line in the sand. Maybe one character is totally fine with stealing and larceny but says no to murder. That is still a type of moral grayness. Think about what those lines are for your different characters, and think about why they would be willing to cross the line.
If your character draws the line at murder but must choose between killing an enemy or letting their friend die, how do they deal with that decision? Assuming they save their friend, then how do they deal with the fallout of crossing that line?
Just because they are morally gray doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with their decisions, and this balance between the internal and external conflicts offers a nuanced look at your character.
In a larger-scale example, let’s say your fantasy world is at war. The morally gray character may have to make a difficult decision that results in innocent people getting hurt no matter what. How do they make that choice? What do they feel about it? Do they not think twice? Do they struggle with this idea?
Characters will likely have to make the best out of a bad situation… and that means hard decisions. Instead of painting a decision as “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad,” have characters and readers grapple with the complexity of making such decisions. Can there be any real winners in a war? What does it mean to fight for an oppressive system just to beat an even worse enemy? What does it mean to kill someone in self-defense when the character never wanted to do that? How does this change their view of themselves and the world?
These questions and internal conflicts are what make morally gray characters so compelling and interesting. Simply making them broody and “stabby” does not make for a complex morally gray character.
1. Let morally gray characters grow. Not every character is going to grow and change, but consider your morally gray character and the ways they may evolve. Chances are that if they see their mistakes, face consequences, and witness both the good and bad that comes from their decisions, they’ll grow or change in some way.
2. They don’t have to be antiheroes. Many morally gray characters, especially in fantasy, have noble intentions but take questionable actions to achieve their goals. This is all well and good, but your morally gray character doesn’t have to fit into this specific archetype.
3. Give them a personality outside of brooding and tortured. Let readers see a wide range of personalities in your characters, especially your morally gray ones. Let them experience a variety of emotions and display their full selves as appropriate for the story.
4. Remember that they aren’t always morally justified. Just because your character is willing to cross lines to, let’s say, fictional murder, doesn’t mean that that choice is without consequences or even justified. In a truly morally gray character, some of their choices will likely be justifiable and some will not be. That’s okay. Their moral ambiguity is part of being a morally gray character.
5. Do explore backstory. What makes your character willing to make such difficult and morally ambiguous choices? What kind of events or traumas have they experienced that have shaped their moral compass and view of the world? This adds depth to the character’s development and important context for readers and other characters.
6. Don’t forget that their actions affect others. Your character certainly has other people in their life, whether allies or enemies. How do the morally gray character’s choices impact those around them? How does this shape other characters’ reactions, perceptions, and world views?
Not everyone will like this character
And finally, remember that not everyone is going to like this character. Whether characters or readers, your morally gray character will have some haters. In the story, this can make for interesting interpersonal conflict. As for readers, well, you can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try to.
As you embark on the journey to creating a morally gray character, remember to give them clearly defined goals, a mix of “positive” and “negative” traits, and ethically complex situations to deal with. This will help you explore the nuances of your character and plot and keep readers intrigued.
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