How to write morally grey characters
Hey guys! Today we are going to talk about morally grey characters! We see more and more of these characters in fiction and I don’t know about you but I LOVE morally grey characters. Before We get started be sure to check out my post on creating a great MC and download my FREE CHARACTER PROFILE Your morally grey characters can also benefit from a good character profile.
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What is a morally grey character?
Many people have different interpretations of what morally grey characters are, but here’s mine. A morally grey character is one that has both selfish and selfless motivations, they’ll also cross a few lines and get their hands dirty to get what they want. They may have a twisted world view or mindset and oppose what a "good" person or character is said to be.
Morally grey characters aren’t all bad, in fact I’d say they’re the most realistic characters we see in fiction. No one is one hundred percent good or bad. Sure, we have people who’ll be more of one, but not many people will be one or the other. So with morally grey characters, you see people who aren’t all good or bad, they have their own motivations. The lines may be blurred, but they aren’t evil.
Don't cross the line
When you write these characters, there’s a line you don’t want to cross. The line can either be to the “good” or “evil” side. Yes, they may have blurted a few lines, but your reader should know that they won’t cross the most important one. Did they kill someone to protect a loved one? That’s morally grey. Did they murder a group of innocent people because they were standing in their way? It depends on what their goal is. But did they end up murdering an entire village? I don’t know about you, but that’s a little shady.
Your morally grey character is not a villain. Do not cross the line and make them one. Consider the villain of your story and your morally grey character. What sets them apart? Is it their motivations or how they go about getting what they want. If you can’t find a difference, you’re writing a villain and your reader may not be rooting for your character.
What are their motives?
I mentioned in my post on creating villains they should all have motives. This isn’t strictly true. Sometimes your villain isn’t fully human. Your morally grey character is human.
Your morally grey character may do a few suspicious things but there should be a reason behind it. This reason doesn’t always have to be noble, mind you, but it can be. They can simply want to secure a wonderful future for themselves or they can do it to save a family member or a good friend. Their motive probably shouldn’t be saving the world, it definitely can’t be but make sure they have a more selfish one behind it.
Keep in mind that wanting something for themselves isn’t a bad thing. Different people think different things when you say “morally grey” but let them do things for themselves. They aren’t your hero’s. Let them do things for themselves and maybe be a little shady for themselves too.
Like all characters, your morally grey ones need a solid backstory. Every person is the way they are because of their backstory. This doesn’t always have to be something that happens when they are five years old. It could be something that happened a few years ago. This also depends on how old they are.
Your morally grey characters probably have a few twisted misbeliefs or world views. And this comes from somewhere… their backstory. Backstory in no ways justifies everything your character does. There are varying degrees even in morally grey characters, but I would shy away from using backstory as a crutch.
Now, when I say backstory, it doesn’t always have to someone else’s fault. Their “tragic past” can result from something they did. Especially for morally grey characters I think backstory is very important. It explains why they are like this, but it doesn’t justify them or shift the blame. Make it clear that they still decided to be who they are. What happened isn’t an excuse for whatever they do (I cannot stress this point enough)
Don’t worry about making them likeable
I believe that no matter what character you are creating, likeability isn’t that important. Your character is probably extremely messed up, your reader probably won’t “like” them. If likeability is a priority, your reader probably wouldn’t have picked up your book. The thing I love about morally grey characters is they just feel more human and relatable. I mean yes, them killing many people is not relatable, but their thought process doesn’t fight into your standard good and evil. These characters are actually very interesting to look at. A lot of times we see characters struggling and chopping with them in well, let’s just say not the best ways. But I honestly find it interesting when a character hurts someone else once in a while.
Whatever it is, if you want to write morally grey characters, stop trying to make them likable. Stop trying to slip in redeemable qualities in the narrative. If you find the need to remind your reader repeatedly that your character isn’t completely bad and that they are still likeable. If you find the need to say “yes they killed someone, but it was only because of XYZ incident that happened in their past” then you need to work on it. I’m not saying that there can’t be a reason for their actions, but you shouldn’t have to tell your reader that they aren’t bad people. Try to show your reader all of this, and in that case you don’t appear desperate.
In closing, don’t worry about likeability. That really isn’t the point of morally grey characters.
Flaws and weaknesses
Morally grey characters are as interesting as they are because they are so multidimensional and layered. In the last point I spent 269 words talking about why you shouldn’t focus too much on making your morally grey characters likeable. Now, I am going to spend a few hundred words talking about why you need to give them flaws and weaknesses.
People love reading morally grey characters as much as they do because they are relatable and more human. And I don’t know about you but reading about someone perfect and with too much powerful is boring to everyone. Your morally grey character may have messed up world views and they may do a few shady things, they aren’t invincible. Let them have weaknesses and flaws. The flaw's part fits in to the last point.
Morally grey characters aren’t always sympathetic, but if you want your reader to not judge your character and instead understand why they do the things they do, give them flaws. Too powerful characters who do twisted things are NOT relatable or sympathetic. They’ll probably just receive judgement from your readers.
When you create flaws in them, will link them to their backstories. It doesn’t have to be linked to one big incident, but it usually does.
That’s all I have for this post, but before I really finish up remember that if you want to write morally grey characters, do it. Don’t worry about your reader and overdo it hoping they perceive your characters in the “right way” let their actions speak for themselves.
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