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How to Write Morally Ambiguous Characters


Morally ambiguous characters are those that are not simply heroes or villains. They fall somewhere in between, and as such, add a layer of depth and complexity to your story. The truth is that most humans in real life are not pure angels or simply bad people, but rather hold elements of both. Morally ambiguous characters can drive the plot in interesting ways, allow for great character growth, and sometimes end up being some of the most memorable characters in a book or movie. Think of the success of the recent Joker movie, and the love so many people have for Severus Snape. These characters sometimes give us an insight into our own dark side or show us that redemption is possible.

Morally ambiguous characters can start off with good intentions and then be driven to evil by others or by society, or they can start off evil and come to redeem themselves. Alternatively, they can remain ambiguous and complex throughout the whole narrative, and leave the reader to make up their own mind about them. Either way, these characters certainly make us think about the nature of good and evil and the complexity of the human psyche.

Writing ambiguous characters can be very rewarding and enrich your writing immensely. But unlike heroes and villains, they are a bit more challenging to write. Without further ado, here are some tips on how to write morally ambiguous characters.

Give them a backstory

Understanding where they came from is important for any character, but it's particularly crucial when your characters are morally ambiguous. Often, the struggles the character went through in the past go some way to explaining their negative character traits now, or at least make us empathize with them a little. For example, the relentless bullying Severus Snape went through makes us understand his later hostility towards Harry.

Sometimes, the backstory is the entire point of the book. In the original Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein's monster is initially full of goodwill and does not want to cause harm or pain. He develops feelings of real tenderness towards a family he observes and desires to protect them. However, everywhere he goes, he is feared and hated due to his monstrous appearance. In the end, after being mistaken for a murderous fiend for so long, he is driven to becoming exactly that. The book ends up as an allegory both for how those perceived as different are feared and hated, and for the way a person's experiences can lead them to evil. This trope has been used countless times to explain villains in superhero narratives and abusive characters in more serious pieces. Often, the real villain is society itself, but the question remains whether this excuses the character's behavior or not.

The backstory is important for character development, and it is a great place to explore ideas of personal responsibility vs critiques of society and the results of terrible experiences. Whether your character was bullied as a child, pushed to the margins of society, or something else entirely, give them a rich background that helps us understand why they act the way they do.

Understand their motives

All characters should have needs and desires, and reasons they do the things they do. Often, when it comes to morally ambiguous characters, their motive is exactly what causes them to slip up and do morally questionable, cruel, or destructive things. This can be true whether or not the motive is itself a good one or not. In the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, Lord Asriel is a prime example of a morally gray character. He cares for his daughter and is on the right side in the great battle, but cruelty comes easily to him and his motives are ultimately selfish. His daughter Lyra knows that he has the capacity for cruelty, but trusts his innate goodness right up until the end of the first book, when he commits the unthinkable in order to follow his own desire for exploration and knowledge.

On the flipside, when we think of Daenerys Targaryen from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (a treasure trove of morally complex characters), her motives are somewhat good but lead her to commit despicable actions. Some may argue that her actions are primarily driven by a lust for power, but she does display a strong desire for justice and a will to create a better society. Whether or not you believe her power ends up corrupting her or whether her core of goodness remains intact, it is a fact that she commits ruthless and brutal acts along the way. Like Dany, a morally ambiguous character can be a wonderful opportunity to explore the idea that the ends justify the means, and the corrupting force of power.

Whether your character's motives are good but lead them to terrible actions, or whether it is precisely the selfishness of the motives that lead to your character's downfall, give them goals and desires that force them (and the reader) to grapple with choices and dilemmas. And the motives don't have to be as dramatic as the ones mentioned – as with Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, it can be something as simple as a desire to win back a lover that leads a character into moral ambiguity.

Give them a weakness

Going all the way back to ancient Greek tragedies, the idea of the hero with a fatal flaw has lived on in literature for thousands of years. A morally ambiguous character may be fundamentally good, but marred by a particular weakness, such as cowardice, vanity, shame, or anger. The characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are full of fatal flaws. For Daisy Buchanan it is her vanity and desire for wealth and admiration. For Jay Gatsby it is his love for Daisy, as well as his shame surrounding his background.

Greed is a fantastic flaw for characters to have and is deeply explored in The Lord of the Rings books. Most of the central characters are tempted by greed at some point in the series, and whether they can triumph over it or whether they succumb is a big part of whether their story has a happy ending or not. Boromir lets his greed overcome his moral nature and causes him to attempt to steal the Ring. He does not succeed, but he does end up being killed at the hands of the orcs. On the other hand, Gollum serves as a stark reminder of what can happen when you allow greed to take over your entire being.

Your character's weakness doesn't have to be the ultimate cause of their downfall or even their central character trait. The main point is that they have certain elements in their nature that challenge them, tempt them, or cause them to struggle. It doesn't matter what they are, but weaknesses make morally ambiguous characters more believable, layered, and human.

Give them redeeming qualities

This goes without saying, but you can't have a morally ambiguous character without giving them some redeeming qualities. Whether they are primarily good but are driven or tempted to wicked acts, or whether they are basically villains with good motives or elements of kindness, there needs to be some level of balance.

Severus Snape is often cruel and sometimes corrupt, but he ultimately makes the right choices where it matters. The Artful Dodger is a thief and ultimately betrays Oliver in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, but he also helps Oliver and displays feelings of sympathy towards him. Moreover, his actions can be understood in light of his circumstances and experiences. Even Lord Asriel from His Dark Materials, who carries out something truly horrific, is also a powerful force for good and displays love and protective feelings towards his daughter Lyra.

In the end, it doesn't matter where your character falls on the scale of morality. The important thing is that they have a believable and interesting combination of motives, flaws, and redeeming qualities. If you can get these elements right, you will have yourself a really fascinating, morally ambiguous character.

Let them grow and change

Character arcs are essential to good storytelling. No character should be exactly the same at the end of a book as they were at the beginning. The mechanics of plot are important but are ultimately meaningless if they don't cause development on the part of the characters. However, when it comes to morally gray characters, the way they change throughout the narrative is particularly important.

George R. R. Martin is a master of the character arc. Both of the Lannister brothers are not presented as particularly praiseworthy at the beginning of the series. Tyrion, while harmless, is shown to be philandering, selfish, and lazy. Jaime Lannister, on the other hand, is an outright villain, as he pushes a young boy out of a high window just to protect the reputation of him and his sister. Both go through redeeming character arcs, with Tyrion becoming a paragon of thoughtful justice with a commitment to seeing good prevail. Jaime has perhaps the most striking redemptive arc of the series, but his love for his sister is the fatal flaw that spells disaster in the end.

Many supervillains and other characters experience the opposite type of character arc. In the recent Joker movie, we observe the Joker not as a simple villain, but as someone who was pushed to evil from his experiences and the cruelty he suffered at the hands of society. He begins as a sympathetic character, but by the end he is without question a villain. However, it need not be as black and white as this. Jay Gatsby's weaknesses certainly lead to his downfall, but it is up to your interpretation whether he is ultimately a tragic character or someone who has received his comeuppance.

As we can see, a character arc need not be simple or go only in one direction. Your character can struggle continuously with moral questions, leaving the reader unsure up until the finale what side they will end up on. You can end your book and leave it ambiguous whether the character was ultimately good or evil, or perhaps a very human combination of the too. The main point is that the experiences they have and the actions they undertake throughout the novel must affect them in some way, so that they develop as a character.

Keep the readers guessing

The previous point touches on this, but one way you can keep readers fascinated throughout the whole book is to keep them guessing about the true moral nature of the character and what they will do next. Severus Snape is a prime example of this. We as readers are left unsure right up until the end of the series whether his loyalties lie with the Death Eaters or with the Order of the Phoenix and those fighting Voldemort. In fact, people still argue about whether Snape really redeemed himself enough to be the namesake of one of Harry's sons or not. If your character causes arguments, you have done something right!

Jaime Lannister is a similar example of someone who struggles constantly with different elements of his nature and his loyalties. The reader is never sure what decision he will make and whether he will continue to redeem himself or fall victim to his family loyalty and love for his sister. Some may feel sympathy for him, while others may believe that his final decision erases all the positive character developments he went through. Either way, he is certainly a complex and fascinating character.

There are multiple literary devices you could use to keep your readers guessing. You could pepper little hints throughout the narrative that show the possibility of redemption or allude to potential disaster. Instead of revealing what the character is thinking, you could merely show us their actions, leaving us to interpret them. Alternatively, you could be explicit about the mental struggles the character is going through when making moral decisions. Whatever your method is, leaving things uncertain and keeping various possibilities open is what makes the audience want to keep reading.

Give them difficult choices

Choices often drive plot and character development, and difficult decisions are a central way in which authors can allow ambiguous characters to struggle with moral questions and keep readers guessing. The choices that these characters make can redeem them or be the catalyst for their downfall. Jaime Lannister's final choice to go to the capital to try and save Cersei casts doubt on the moral development his character has gone through. Snape's decisions to join the Death Eaters and later to leave and join the fight against them, is the cornerstone of his character development and much of the plot of the Harry Potter series. Jay Gatsby's initial decision to lie to Daisy about his background is the key choice that leads to his life of dishonesty and unhappiness.

In many cases, the choices that characters make are key events that determine the shape of a book. They are also great opportunities to explore difficult moral questions and dilemmas. Maybe your character has to choose between the greater good and personal desires. Perhaps they are faced with a decision that hinges on loyalty to loved ones versus making the moral choice. They could be tempted by greed, vanity, cowardice, or anger. There are so many difficult choices you can force upon your characters.

Not only can such decisions drive the narrative of a book, but they can also make readers think about very real dilemmas they face in their own lives, and broader questions about the nature of "right" and "wrong." A really good book doesn't just entertain us, but makes us think and forces us to come to our own conclusions. It makes us consider things we may not have before and leads us to apply ideas to the real world, no matter how magical the setting of the book is.

Focus on relationships

Often, the decisions that a character has to make and the experiences they go through are closely linked to other characters. In the case of Frankenstein, the central relationship is between the monster and the scientist who created him. It's not a relationship that involves much contact, but it is what the narrative revolves around. Relationships can redeem, such as Snape's love for Harry's mother Lily. Alternatively, they can cause a character's downfall, such as Jaime Lannister's incestuous relationship with Cersei or Gatsby's obsession with Daisy Buchanan. Humans are social creatures, and we are affected by our relationships with others. Moreover, relationships are a great motivating factor for morally ambiguous characters, whether they lead to temptation, redemption, or other moral challenges.

In addition to that, it's important to consider the conflicting motives and forces informing all of your characters. Although not all your characters need to be morally ambiguous, they should all be complex. Even the most heroic character can struggle with temptation and can make the wrong choice from time to time. Even the evilest villains should have elements that we can empathize with or moments of kindness. Otherwise, they are nothing more than a caricature. That does not mean that you cannot have people who are essentially good and those who are essentially evil. However, inserting a little ambiguity into all of your characters makes them more authentic and human. Each character should be well-rounded, believable, and multifaceted. Writing explicitly morally ambiguous characters can help you make better characters all round.

There is so much you can do with morally ambiguous characters, whether you write mystery, adventure, social commentary, literary or speculative fiction. They can lie anywhere on the morality scale, and they change and develop in a myriad of ways as the narrative progresses. Their transgressions can be major or mostly within themselves. Their goodness can prevail, or they can succumb to their fatal weakness. They offer opportunities to bring up moral dilemmas and questions about what makes up a person's character and what deserves sympathy or forgiveness. They can make us look deep within ourselves, and they can keep us riveted. If you write them well, they can end up being the most interesting characters in a novel, whether they are central to the narrative or not. You can write from their perspective or someone else's who is trying to figure them out. The possibilities are endless.

Even beyond the explicitly ambiguous characters, expanding the lessons they teach us about humanity by adding elements of ambiguity to all your characters can really elevate your writing. Hopefully, reading this has made you excited to pick up your pen or fire up your computer and start crafting some great complex characters!

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