How to (Realistically) Write the Morally Gray Character Arc

Back in June of 2019, I wrote a post called How to (Realistically) Write the Selfish Character Arc. It was the first real post that I published on this blog, and three years later, it remains my most popular post with 1,834 views (in case you were curious).

I had no idea that this post would blow up.

I had no idea that this post would become the #1 search result for those who type “How to write a selfish character” into Google.

I’ve thought about continuing this “How to (Realistically) Write the [X] Character Arc” for a long time. In fact, this post has sat in my drafts for probably about a year. I even teased this post on Twitter…multiple times. But I never actually wrote it.

Until now.

I’m still not sure if this will become a series, but for now, consider this my thank you for reading, commenting, liking, and continuing to support that very first blog post. Your support means the world to me, and I’m so thankful for each and every person who visits our little corner of the Internet.

I want to preface this post with a disclaimer that you may disagree with my opinions on morally gray characters. Everyone has their own preferences about them, and that’s what makes them so multifaceted and unique among each writer. This post is meant to give you ideas about how to write them, and hopefully encourages you to think about morally gray characters in a new (or different) way. When it comes time to write your own morally gray characters, however, you need to do what works for your story and makes the most sense for your characters.

What is a morally gray character?

According to the Urban Dictionary (because we’re very scientific around here), a morally gray character is someone “who does too much bad to be a good character, yet too much good to be a bad character.” In essence, these are the characters who float in the gray area between good and bad (thus, the name). Some popular morally gray characters include Severus Snape from Harry Potter, Tony Stark from The Avengers, Boromir from Lord of the Rings, and Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows.

What makes a morally gray character interesting?

The first point is what I believe fascinates us the most about morally gray characters: Their moral ambiguity. In my opinion, no person is 100% good or 100% bad (except for Jesus who was 100% good because He was also fully God, but I digress). Even the worst people in society were once innocent; they, too, were once only children who had childish desires. So, how does this translate to making an interesting morally gray character? Blur the lines between what makes your character good and bad. Make the reader unsure where exactly the character falls on the spectrum of good and bad decisions. You want every decision to make sense for the character, but you also want a level of unpredictability because that will allow them to have more range when it comes to showing their moral ambiguity.

The second point I want to make is that your morally gray character should make gray decisions based on something more than just a sob story. If your character is morally gray, there’s a reason why (and it’s probably hiding in their backstory). Let them show you why they are the way that they are, and stay true to that story. There are lots of tragic events you could put into their backstory to explain why they do what they do, but the most effective ones have to be honest and true to the character. You should be able to explain why that event in their past reshaped their entire worldview and changed everything for them. If you can’t, it may be time to have another chat with your character.

The third and final point is that some of the best morally gray characters make bad decisions for “good” reasons. This is purely a personal preference and is based solely on my eternal love of this type of character motivation. However, I think it’s a point worth discussing because if a character does what they think is right, even if it’s wrong, it adds a whole new level of complexity to them. We want to root for them, but we can’t because we know that what they are doing is wrong. So, have fun with your morally gray characters. Give them reasons why they think they are doing the right thing while they are really doing the bad thing (it’ll heighten the tension in the story, while also causing your readers to scream and cry in angst).

*Spoiler Alert*

The remainder of this post includes massive spoilers for The Maze Runner film trilogy and season one of Shadow and Bone. If you haven’t watched these stories in their entirety, I highly recommend watching them and then reading the rest of this post.

Character Study #1

Teresa Agnes from The Maze Runner film trilogy is one of my all-time favorite morally gray characters because she is a prime example of the character who does the wrong thing for the right reasons. What Teresa wants more than anything is to find a cure for the Flare, a plague that turns people into zombie-like creatures. This desire stems from the moment in her backstory when her mother killed herself because the Flare had taken over her mind. However, Teresa’s moral ambiguity comes into play when she betrays her friends and turns them in to W.C.K.D., which puts their lives in jeopardy. This decision haunts Teresa through the final movie, especially when Thomas confronts her about her betrayal. He asks her if she regrets what she did to them, and she says that she did what she thought was right.

What makes Teresa’s character arc so impactful to me is her conviction. She truly believes that turning her friends into W.C.K.D. is the only way to find a cure. She knows that Thomas is special, that he could be the key to everything. So, while it was the ultimate betrayal, her actions make sense for who she is and what she wants. Furthermore, Teresa is later offered a chance to try and make things right, and she takes it.

While this is not the focal point of this post, I think it’s worth mentioning that morally gray characters should always have a chance to redeem themselves. They don’t have to take it, but I think they should always face that choice because their decision to that opportunity will ultimately cement the direction that their arc will take: If a morally gray character is offered a chance at redemption and they take it, they can transform into a “good” character who still has flaws, but is no longer bound to the worldview that shaped their ambiguous morality.

On the other side of this arc, however, is what quickly morphs into a negative character arc (which Abbie explains in-depth in this video). If a morally gray character is offered redemption and rejects it, they are embracing their skewed moral compass, and setting the stage for their dark, and tragic end.

Character Study #2

General Kirigan from season one of Shadow and Bone is probably my second favorite morally gray character. Like Teresa, he does the wrong thing, but I’m not so sure that he believes it’s the right thing. In fact, I would argue that he doesn’t really care if it’s right or wrong. All he cares about is getting justice for the Grisha, and he will do anything to reach it, like expanding the Fold. Having lost his lover to the people who destroy the Grisha, General Kirigan’s intentions are understandable, but that alone does not make his actions right.

His chance at redemption arises when Alina Starkhov pushes back against his plan. He could choose to forgo his dark intentions at revenge, but he doesn’t. Instead, General Kirigan stands against the one that, I believe, he loves to achieve his goal. It is this decision that drives him to the negative character arc, and, I assume, a tragic end.

Let’s Talk!

What’s your favorite thing about morally gray characters? Do you like Teresa or General Kirigan’s arc better? Which tip did you find the most helpful? Let’s talk about all the morally gray characters in the comment section below!

One thought on “How to (Realistically) Write the Morally Gray Character Arc

  1. *randomly wanders into your blog*

    I really like morally gray characters and wind up writing a lot of them — but I sometimes become so attached to the villanous ones, I want to try and save them rather than just having them meet an untimely end.

    General Kirigan is a really excellent villain, because his motivations are all understandable, but that doesn’t make them right. And it helps that Ben Barnes is extremely gorgeous while doing it. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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