Why are we as a species so profoundly interested in characters that aren’t clear cut good guys? I know for a fact that I am… so much so that clear cut good guys actually bore me. To clarify if you are unsure, grey characters are those that are inherently neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. To be a grey character means that they do bad things as well as good, the severity of the actions vary from book to book (film to film etc.), in the same way that there are multiple shades of the colour grey.
I may have to rant & rave a little here as it’s a topic that is close to my heart & I feel very passionately about. I’m not here to tell you that my opinion is the right opinion, if you don’t agree that’s fine by me. If you fancy discussing it in the comments below, I’d love that as long as it stays civil! Now obviously as I stated above there are different levels of grey, but for this article I’ll be focusing on the darker grey characters, as the less grey they are the more people will associate them with ‘good’ & we’re here to talk about ambiguity! People are not clear cut in life so it makes sense that characters should reflect that within novels.
If a teenager finds a bag of stolen money that could easily get rid of any & all family debt – don’t you think he’d consider keeping it, even if it’s just for a moment, before giving it to the police; & if he did keep it, is that so bad? I’m sure most, if not all of us can understand the motivations behind that action, furthermore I’m sure a lot of us would do it as well. Many of us can appreciate the need for money in order to live, it’s never going to be clear cut that the only right thing to do is to give the money back.
If someone takes children away from their mother & hurts them, & she manages to find them – don’t you think she’s justified in killing the person who took her kids? I certainly do. Even if you come to the decision that it’s not right, it’s enough to make you pause isn’t it. Morally grey characters challenge the reader to question their own moral compass. To put themselves in that situation & think about what they would do if it were them.
I took to the internet for some other writers opinions on the topic of grey characters, & there was lots of interesting discussion, with a general consensus that grey characters seem to be the way entertainment industries are heading!
According to Nathan Roets, ‘more and more people are recognising that Clear Cut Good Guys & Clear Cut Bad Guys are a false notion, a cheap trope perpetuated by the unimaginative. At times, it can be a useful trope for establishing an atmosphere of escapism, but very rarely so – & it almost never works in the written medium. The Grey Character, infused with moral ambiguity, is far more realistic. Readers are able to relate to them better because they’re not infallible – they deal with the same struggles, internal as much as external, as we do. It’s those internal struggles that drive the story more than any external event. It’s the way one’s characters grapple with the duality of human existence that invests the reader in the story.
A more philosophical take on the matter would also have to include the fact that more & more people are letting go of Bronze Age ideals that suggest we live in a state of dichotomy, where ‘good’ is ‘clearly good’ & ‘bad’ is ‘clearly bad’. As a society at large, we’re moving forward by realising that the world isn’t divided between ‘good & bad’, but driven by the more loosely defined notions of ‘order & chaos’, which are so intermingled that it’s often difficult to determine where one ends & the other begins. No one thinks of themselves as the villain, after all. If you think about even the most obviously villain-like characters in history – the Hitlers and Stalins of the world – they all believed they were the heroes of their own stories. In the same way, none of the most hero-like characters in history – the Mother Teresas and Nelson Mandelas of the world – were in fact very heroic.
Which is why, more & more readers are eschewing traditional ideas of villains vs heroes in favour of the more realistic notion of protagonists vs antagonists. We recognise more clearly that we most often only see the antagonist as an antagonist because we interact with them through the protagonist’s point of view – that if the tables were turned, we could just as easily be seeing the antagonist as the protagonist & vice versa.’
Ultimately, the ‘clear cut good guy’ (or gal) gets boring real quick. You know from the start whether they’re going to turn left or right. They’ll always do ‘what’s right’ no matter the personal cost – that cost sometimes meaning that other people end up dead simply because the ‘good guy’ won’t save their love as it risks the rest of the world. Grey characters are not only more entertaining because they feel more real to us, but it makes them unpredictable, & when you finally get to that moment where they decide to do ‘what’s right’ it’s oh so much more satisfying, or even shocking!
When the grey character ends up on the darker end of the spectrum heading into bad guy territory, they often actually end up being my favourite characters – why? who doesn’t love a baddie! The ‘good guy’ trope seems to be a cliche of the past where creatives wanted to present an almost perfect character for audiences to admire & wish to be like. Now, I believe, we know better. What we want are characters that we can relate too. Where we can read a book or watch a TV show & see something of ourselves in a character; & with there being so many different shades of grey to write… there’s bound to be a grey character for everyone out there!