Your thoughts on gray characters?

I'm a member of quite a few writing forums, and one thing I see on almost all of them is people going crazy for "gray characters." Apparently people think they're a sign of progressiveness in modern day fantasy. Personally, I don't agree. While I do agree that no hero should be 100% good and no villain should be 100% bad, there are still ways to make them three dimensional and still clearly align them with either the good or bad side. What irks me is that people seem to think "gray morality" actually means being a villain in everything but title, and anything less makes your character a Mary Sue. Gray morality antiheroes are fine in and of themselves, but I definitely don't think the market needs to shift to incorporate them in everything. I dunno, maybe it's because I'm actually a fan of good ol' fashioned good vs. evil. Anyway, what are your thoughts on the subject?

I personally like both. Gray morality is for me more realistic, and more akin to real people's morals, for no-one is ever perfect and any-one who says he is, is lying. This realism makes it popular among writers to give there work more realism, for it is an easy way to make their characters feel more like real people.

But realism isn't the sole goal and some-times isn't desirable. Everybody sees, or wants to, themselves as a Knight in Shining Armour, and books that give them that are good. Reality is dull, depressing and despicable sometimes, and these books help them escape, and balance out all the realistic books, because too much of anything is bad.

Thus if the market shifts and is over saturated with gray realistic books, it will be a horrible loss. The shining armour books, must be there if only so that we can just feel happy once in a while.

Anyway those are my thoughts upon the subject

If people are calling "grey" characters "progressive", that just tells me they need to read more, and perhaps outside of their comfort zone.

I mean, Gilgamesh was a bit of a dick.

I agree with both of you. I like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Gentlemen Bastards as much as the next guy, but those satisfy a different way than a more traditional fantasy novel like, say, Wheel of Time or Mistborn.

I kept reading this as "gay." Apparently my eyes are capable of making a Freudian slip.

Anyway, I suppose my fantasy protagonist was, ahem, a lil gray, haha. But honestly I don't read much contemporary fantasy -- I just tend to write people who are very troubled.


@Billy Higgins Peery But GILGAMESH was a king, with endless wealth!

I can take them in small doses. Those kind of stories are something I reach for when I feel I can use something a bit different. Though, I can get that sort of thing from contemporary literary fiction novels and I actually prefer it. I wouldn't want all my fantasy novels to be like that. I would probably stop reading and writing fantasy if everything around me was consisted of nothing more than gray characters. I don't see how it as sign of progressiveness. It's just another kind of fantasy fiction and there are a lot. In other communities when I see people who talk as if everything in fantasy is about a white-knight character and how there needs to be more gray moral character, 9 times out of 10 they've not read wide at all and some don't want to.

@Billy: You know what? When I noticed that you'd responded to this, my first thought was, "I wonder if Billy misread 'gray' as 'gay'?" I was then amused to find that you had.

The thing is, it's actually fairly probable that you would. People don't examine words letter by letter. They recognize the shape of the word. That's why ALL CAPS is hard to read. The words are shaped like blocks. It's also why sentences and signs can be vastly more amusing on first look than when you really read them for real.

@All: And with regards to the actual topic at hand... I generally take the "put the right character in the right story" approach. Some settings and plots only work with characters with "gray" morality. This is also true in reverse. Some plots simply won't. Similarly, if you've got a group of characters, a character with gray morality will make both the more moral characters and the "gray" character stand out better. Plus it will add tension and conflict.

Also, those characters can be a lot of fun in a group of more heroic individuals. Han Solo, for example, is one of the more interesting characters in the original Star Wars trilogy because he was more of an anti-hero at first. One of my own characters (who doesn't really grasp morality) is a fan favorite (Lee, for those who are familiar with my story).

I'm personally into having the antagonist as a "gray" character, because really, "muahahaha, I'm going to take over the world and kill everyone because I'm an asshole" is a really crappy motivation for any character.

For the protagonist, I generally prefer characters who are on the good side. It may not be realistic, but I don't read fantasy because I want everything to be realistic. I think a lot of readers like reading about a flawed-but-essentially-good protagonist. The flaws allow them to identify with the character, and the good essential nature makes them not feel uncomfortable with identifying with that character. Honestly, we could probably all find something in common with selfish bastard characters, but do we really want to?

@unice5656 I disagree that "muahahaha, I'm going to take over the world and kill everyone because I'm an asshole" is that crappy off a motivation, I mean thats pretty much Psycho Gecko(The web serial character)'s motivation(If you replace asshole with psychopath) and no-one could accuse him of being a dull chracter.

And also (personal opinion)readers also don't always want to read about good characters. Sometimes when the world is tough and your day was bad, and you just want to lash out and hit the universe, then reading about a character who does exactly that can offer a kinda catharsis.

You know, I can't actually think of any books I've read that haven't involved at least some morally ambiguous characters.

All my own characters tend to be shades of grey because I intentionally avoid good-and-evil stuff. But then I'm more interested in exploring characters than I am in epic quests to defeat dark lords.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, not in the context of fantasy fiction, but recent television and film depictions of comic book fantasies. Traditionally, superheroes are seen as "white knights" in the culture, up against evil villains. But that cultural stereotype isn't quite true. Superman and Batman and Captain America were actually quite violent in the late 30s through the 40s. It wasn't until the Comics Code era that heroes started to be "white," before that there was a lot of gray. And the 70s really brought it back, and again in the 90s following Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns in the late 80s. I think the pendulum swings.

It is really kind of quaint that filmmakers lately seem to think "grey" and "grim and gritty" are "modern" when Wolverine and the Punisher were created in the 70s and still define that style. Deadpool is postmodern - breaking the fourth wall, meta aware, but he was created in the 90s. None of this is new, it's just a different medium. The culture lags behind the sources.

I'm really enjoying Daredevil and Jessica Jones on Netflix because they have grey moral complexity AND the struggle to become heroic instead of just killing for the sake of "realism". The JJ villain even says "Evil? That's so reductive." Grey morality becomes sludge - the great thing about Marvel movies and their Netflix shows is that real heroes emerge out of the grey sludge with some optimistic, heroic and positive character development.

DC lately seems to think grey is enough, and it really isn't. Contrast is needed.

I agree with those who said variety is good for stories when it comes to morality or motivations for characters.

I've noticed that the YA genre is the place where simple characters really shine. Younger readers seem to like these types of characters too. I mean, who didn't enjoy the Redwall series as a kid? On the flip side, I distinctly remember moving from simple fantasy like the Shanarra series etc to literature that wasn't paint-by-numbers, good vs. evil.

I will never forget when I was a preteen reading "Dragonheart" and how deeply bothered I was that the heroine was actually raped. My experiences in literature before that moment was that the good guys always got saved at the last minute. The fact that in "Dragonheart", the "good guys" still had really crappy things happen to them and the bad guys actually had tangible power affected me deeply. I mean, I obviously remember that scene to this day.

At the time, as a young person, I didn't entirely enjoy the tangible feeling of losing my innocence.

However, as an adult, I relate more to "grey" characters now. That is not to say that I don't enjoy characters who are pure of spirit or even mustache twirling villains at times - they have their place too. But real people are usually not so simple. Realistic characters are generally complex as well.

I attribute the rise of "grey" characters in modern literature the same way I do with writers doing more research for like... realistic sword fights and medieval baking techniques. The more realistic the canvas of a writer's world building is, the more the fantastical elements *pop* and the less burden on suspension of disbelief there will be for readers.

I don't necessarily like those villains, as you mentioned, that are pretty much villains in name only. I like the quote "A villain is just a victim whose story hasn't been told," but it doesn't mean that they're the good guys. Villains can be sympathetic and still be horrible people who are wrong. I've wondered if some of it isn't so much a symptom of progress so much as an attempt to excuse a lack of it, personally. Like people who excuse the racist old grandpa because he comes from a different time, or who wants to say "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion" when you try to convince them the Earth isn't flat.

And anyone who thinks that complete assholes are too unrealistic to have as villains should pay more attention to reality. It's not really that a villain sits around, twiddling his thumbs, and thinks "How am I going to be evil today?" It's just that their most important priorities don't always align with things that are seen as good and they pursue those priorities. Like the legend of Vlad the Impaler asserting order over his country enough to the extent that he could leave a gold cup in the middle of a town square overnight and no one would steal it. Just be careful not to trip over all the impaled bodies.

Heroes, too. Sam Vimes, the renowned city watchman from Discworld, is very much a conflicted character. An alcoholic, stubborn man who refuses to eat healthy, believes in a healthy amount of police brutality when it's called for, thinks that an innocent person walking down the wrong alley counts more as suicide than homicide, and who has to watch himself in case he gets out of line and takes too many shortcuts. It's the fact that he has those flaws and acts heroically that makes him a hero, not just some designation that happened to be put onto the character.

It's a lot better than the heroes who do horrible things but it's just glossed over because they're supposed to be the hero. One story I don't like, a character basically wanted to return a certain setting to its status quo, nevermind the fact that it meant putting million of people back under the rule of various dictators.

Big difference between that sort of character and this:

I like a bit of everything, myself. I do stories with outright "I'm going to be a hero because that's what good people do when they got real power!" to "dumb kid fumbling through life" to "I'm doing this job because it pays" to "I think of myself as the good guy, but my morals are ones normal people don't agree with" to "I'm a monster, and I fucking LOVE it" to all kinds of other things.

Personally, I think any note gets bland when that's all you play. It's when you get a blend that the real symphony that is the world we live in starts to be heard in fiction.

And yes, sometimes that includes the "unrealistically" good and bad. Because, let's be honest, the real world will always exceed humanity's limited imagination.

But no "pure" good or "pure" evil characters. Because I don't even know what that would look like.

I think pure evil looks something like Elizabeth Bathory.

I'm sure there's something not-evil about her. Not saying I know what it is, but statistically there's gotta be something. Or at least some Freudian reason she was so messed up.

@GeneralRincewind @PsychoGecko

I'm not saying that it's not realistic for a character to be a complete asshole, but it's completely unrealistic for them to see themselves that way and actually have that as their motivation for action.

People always reframe things to see themselves in a positive light. They might revel in exerting power over others by hurting them, they might consider others stupid and naive while betraying them, they might tell themselves they deserve whatever they want and anybody who gets in the way deserves to get hurt.

@unice5656 And my counter-example is again Psycho Gecko, the character. He's an unrepentent psychopath who murders people for fun. And he knows it and revels in it, yet you cannot say he is a totally unrealistic character.

I went with sexual sadist serial killer who thinks that the main character is destined to kill her... and that it's "romantic"... as my "unapologetic monster" archetype.

And I didn't exactly mind Silence of the Lambs' interpretation of psychopaths, either. Just... ignore the rest of the series... eeesh...