There has been a trend, as of late, to call all sorts of characters “morally gray”. There are great examples of morally gray characters such as Mare Barrow of the Red Queen series, Ia Cocha of Ignite the Stars, or Kaz Brekker of the Six of Crows duology. Yet, on the flipside, we have companies like Blizzard trying to claim that characters such as Sylvanas of World of Warcraft is morally gray. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like a badass, but I have trouble believing she has any morals at all.
While morally gray can fall upon a spectrum, Kaz Brekker being on the dark end of that spectrum, I firmly believe that there is a line that must be drawn between morally grey and just plain evil. The reader must see the reasoning behind these actions and see the possible good that could come from them, even if the reader doesn’t agree. It’s even better if the reader can’t agree.
Having this kind of weight behind their actions gives justification to a morally grey character, IE there are some morals behind what they’re doing. It takes away this sadist streak that we most often associate with villains.
Morally Gray Aspects
A morally gray character will see the end goal as worth the price of their actions. Perhaps they don’t enjoy their actions, they could even be repulsed by them. The point is that the character feels the need to push beyond the confines of societal norms to achieve a goal that they believe to be beneficial to someone. This driving need strikes empathy within the reader that will be needed to keep the reader interested in a character whose actions could repel them.
Morally grey could also swing in the opposite direction. A protagonist could empathize with a villainous character. When the protagonist recognizes the evil things done by the villain and either agrees or finds it in them to overlook those deeds in favor of an emotional response (such as affection), then the reader is forced to question the protagonist. The protagonist’s morals become skewed in that moment. It’s clear that the protagonist still sees the actions as bad and the goal as good, but that moment of soul searching between a hero and a villain shakes the usually clear boundaries drawn between the two.
Sometimes, a morally gray character believes that their soul has been dirtied and adding another necessary evil is the price they are willing to pay to keep another from suffering. This is an endearing aspect of the morally gray character. It often frames someone or something as important to them, important enough to risk their life and/or soul. That kind of affection can lead toward creep villain if you aren’t careful to leverage it with clear understanding of human boundaries. That is to say that the morally gray character can love someone, but not obsess over them (unless they’re faerie prince Cardan, in which we will cut a bit of slack because Jude will kick his ass so hard.)
This is an aspect that we see in Kaz Brekker that humanizes him. Of course, he wants revenge. He has lived through a lot. Yet, he also loves his crew and will go to great lengths to give them what he thinks they need. Especially his Wraith, Inej.
Another way to highlight the morals of a character is to hand them an dual-sided issue. One solution could seem good, but fail long term, while the other could seem bad at first, yet help long term. Just because something seems good now, doesn’t mean that it will be great in the long run. Kind of like my late night run to Wendy’s (and by run, I mean drive). Whereas, a daily workout seems awful and evil, but can help my health in the long run. Sometimes, a character will have the chance to villainize themselves in order to reach a long term goal. This might leave them with a bad reputation that can surprise many later when their true nature is revealed.
The best thing about a morally grey character is they know what they’re doing is bad and they struggle with the emotional fallout of it. It is up to you whether or not the character stands by their actions in the end. They could repent and see the horror for what it is, or they could hold tight to their convictions. They could also fall somewhere in between.
They Key is in the Morals
The key to showcasing the morally grey side of your characters is to put them in high stakes positions. Make your characters furious, make them scared, take from them what means the most. It’s this kind of blow that often pushes people to justify actions they might have once considered out of bounds.
Because nothing in life is black and white, fiction can reflect that gray area. There is no exact character framework that you need to use to create a morally gray character. They can fall on a spectrum from all the wrong things for the right reasons to all the right things for the wrong reasons.