Perfect characters are boring.
That’s why I always wanted to know how to write morally gray characters. The duality of morally ambiguous characters makes them not only more interesting but more human. More real.
The key to making morally gray characters is duality—strong conflicting motivations that the reader understands but can’t always predict. This internal conflict shows in the character’s thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and choices.
Consider this your ultimate guide to gray characters.
What Are Morally Gray Characters?
The simple definition is that morally gray/grey characters are those who are not completely good or completely evil. It’s the characters who wobble in the “gray” area between hero and villain. Sure, on some level, all characters are morally gray.
Here, though, we will focus on a specific type of character.
Readers aren’t sure what to make of these ambiguous characters. They don’t know if the character will ultimately help the hero or hurt them—maybe both.
And that can make these characters supremely fascinating.
13 Tips For Writing Morally Gray Characters
Ok, let’s dive into the best tips for designing these gray characters. Keep in mind that each one of these tips often works in tandem with the rest of them.
As far as I know, there is no other website on the planet that gives you this much information on this topic. I wrote this to be your complete guide to crafting complex characters who vacillate between right and wrong.
1. Moral Counterweights
The biggest trait of morally gray characters is balance. They are part good, part evil. Some characters might be more likable or heroic, while other characters might be less likable and less heroic.
Typically, both the “good guys” the “bad guys” will display balance.
However, the heroes will show at least a little more goodness so that readers root for them. Even if the hero is an anti-hero, he or she must be “more good” than the villain. Yes, that means gray characters exist in moral relativism. What is “good” or “bad” in one story might be completely different in another.
What matters most is the comparison of characters in your story.
Every morally ambiguous character must strike a balance between good and evil. As the author, it’s your job to compare and contrast those balances through the ebb and flow of the narrative.
2. Heroic Traits
Since your grey characters need balance, then they must show some positive traits. All of your characters, including both the good girls and bad girls in your story, should demonstrate some level of goodness.
Here’s a list of heroic traits to help:
- Kindness to weaker beings (like children and animals)
- Protect others
- Inspire others
- Concern for others
- Socially aware
Now that you have this list, the next step is to assign certain traits to your characters. There are some best practices here that I want to share with you.
First, don’t give more than one or two characters the same kind of traits or the same expression of that trait. Let me explain. Let’s say that my hero is very charming. What kind of friend group is full of all charming people? Maybe a group of comedians or actors?
Other than a few exceptions, most groups of people consist of a mix of personality types with divergent traits.
To create realistic good people, don’t give your characters too many good traits. Mix up the positive traits between different characters and ensure that you give both the good guys and bad guys some heroic characteristics.
I also mentioned “trait expression.” What the heck is that?
You actually can give more than one character the same trait as long as they express the trait differently. For example, both the protagonist and antagonist in your story might be passionate and clever. Aka, the same positive traits.
However, they probably express those traits very differently in the story.
Your hero might passionately want to stop a sex trafficking ring. Your villain might want to expand that ring. If you really want ambiguity, you can give them both the same goal but different methods of achieving the goal. In this case, both the protagonist and antagonist want to stop the sex trafficking ring. That’s a good goal.
The difference is that your protagonist wants to bring the traffickers to legal justice without harming the kids, but the villain believes in acceptable loss of life as long as the ring is completely destroyed.
3. Villainous Traits
Just like with heroic traits, your morally gray antagonist and protagonist also need negative traits. Some people call these villain traits or even villainous traits.
The same general rules apply. Don’t give too many characters the same negative traits and vary how the trait is expressed in the story. It’s often a good idea to mirror the traits between your protagonist and antagonist. You can show two sides of the same trait—one from the hero and one from the villain.
Typically, the mirrored traits relate to the theme of the story.
Negative character trait list:
- Hurting weaker beings (like children or animals)
4. Understandable Motivation
Let’s talk about motivation. The best kind of motivation is understandable. Readers can relate to and might even support these motives.
The secret to motivation with morally gray characters is to give understandable motivation to both the good guys and bad guys in your story. Even your main antagonist should act based on motivation that makes sense. We may not agree with the motivation, but it passes the logic test.
Readers typically call BS on fictional people who act dumbly.
When choosing motivations for your grey characters, consider these questions:
- Would I do this?
- Does this make sense to me?
- Would the average person think and act this way?
- Is the motivation too simple?
- Is the motivation too complex?
- Is there an obvious choice here?
5. Strong Dual Motivation
Now that you have motivations for your character, let’s take the concept a bit deeper. Since we are crafting balanced characters, it’s important to give them strong motivation for the good and bad things they do in the story.
Both sides of our characters must spawn from logical motivations that make sense to the reader.
That’s one of the main reasons readers love ambiguous characters in the first place. Gray characters have good reasons to do good AND evil in the story. One side is not more motivated than the other. Therefore, it’s up to the characters to decide, moment-by-moment, what kind of person they will be in the story.
This tension creates loads of suspense because readers never quite know what the characters will choose.
6. Strong Personal Consequences
The most compelling morally gray characters suffer personally if they don’t choose either good or evil actions. Motivation gave us the WHY behind the character and may suggest possible rewards the character receives for certain actions.
The protagonist who shuts down the sex trafficking ring is motivated by justice and goodness. The reward is feeling good, doing good, and stopping bad things from happening to innocent children. All strong motivations and strong personal rewards.
In this case, the personal consequences for failure include regret and guilt over the abuse of innocent children. We could make it even more personal by having the hero’s own child kidnapped during the story.
Here is where it gets really interesting. One cool storytelling technique for grey characters is to give the character a severe personal consequence for both doing good and doing evil. So far we’ve mentioned the personal consequence for doing good—saving the children.
During the story, we could also say that the bad guys have kidnapped the hero’s daughter. If the protagonist tries to stop the traffickers, perhaps they will kill the child.
Now the hero has emotionally gripping consequences for stopping the traffickers (good) and for letting them go free (bad or evil).
There should be no easy choices in stories.
7. Strong Story Consequences
Another way you can leverage consequences is to add strong story consequences for doing good and for doing evil. Story consequences can be anything that affects the main plot or goal of the story.
Personal consequences focused on character consequences. Story consequences focus on a larger group of characters, a larger geographical location (like a city), and maybe the entire world. In our example, a possible story consequence is the children either get rescued or not.
Just like with personal consequences, it’s helpful to create the same level of story consequences for both sides of your grey characters.
This lends a meta balance to your story that layers everything in tension and suspense.
8. Difficult Decisions
As you might suspect, the combination of strong dual motivations and strong dual consequences creates storytelling magic. You might already see all the ways you can set up your characters to face difficult choices.
And difficult decisions is the crux of ambiguous morality in fiction.
The constant question in the reader’s mind becomes, What will this character do next? A character with a compelling balance of positive and negative traits, motivations, and consequences might do anything. That’s one of the main reasons morally grey characters work so wonderfully.
You want hard choices in your story. The harder the better.
Here are some examples hard choices:
- A parent has to choose which child to save.
- A man must choose to stop a bomb from killing a city or save his own family.
- A starving former priest must decide between stealing food or continuing to starve.
The hard choices rely on the specific plot, goals, and theme of your story. In my opinion, all story elements should interconnect to serve the overall reader experience.
9. Value System
Every morally grey character has a system of values, rules, or guidelines that they follow. Your protagonist probably has a more socially acceptable value system than your villain. Each value system will help shape the character’s unique blend of positive and negative traits.
The value system will also help determine the character’s choices.
A great example of a value system guiding a grey character is Dexter from the TV series, Dexter. He is a serial killer who follows a strict set of governing rules handed down by his deceased police-officer father. One of the most important rules is that he only kills other verified serial killers.
Give both your protagonist and antagonist a guiding value system demonstrated through thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and actions. Remember to make the value system ambiguous through conflicting (or seemingly conflicting) values.
For example, your antagonist might not kill bugs but will kill people who get in his or her way.
I like how stackexchange user Motosubatsu says it: “Even evil has standards.” He even shares a sample common gray character value you can play with—the end justifies the means.
10. Character POV
One way to help your reader relate to a character is to jump into their point of view (POV). In many novels, the author shows us the point of view of the antagonist so that we understand and relate to them.
When you go inside the character’s perspective, you get front-row seats to how they interpret the world, how they feel, what they want, what they fear, and how they make daily decisions. You can use POV to paint your most important main characters in understandable grey tones of ambiguity.
A few thoughts on morally gray character POV:
- The first-person POV is more intimate than the third-person POV.
- Show them making morally good and morally bad choices.
- Depending on how you want the readers to view the character, show them making more good or more bad choices.
11. Continuum of Darkness
We’ve hinted at this idea more than once in this article. There are levels and degrees of grayness. Some characters come across as more good and others seem “more evil.” Most characters exist somewhere in the middle. In other words, probably no character is all good or all bad.
The question is, “Where is your character on the continuum?” and “How does that compare with other characters in the story?”
For your protagonist (and maybe your antagonist), you probably want to surround them with characters closer to the “evil” side of the continuum. At the very least, you might want to compare the morality of the protagonist with the morality of the antagonist.
Thinking in terms of a continuum can help you see the matrix of morality in your story.
Every character fits somewhere on the continuum. But you probably want to avoid too many characters bunched toward either end of the continuum.
12. Active Morality
Active morality means that the character proactively makes choices that are either morally good or morally evil. There is also “passive morality” where a hero might let a bad guy die by not saving them. In general, protagonists might be more “passively evil” and actively good.
An antagonist (or character closer to the “evil” side of the continuum) is likely more actively evil and passively good.
This also brings up the concept of reluctance. Your protagonist will likely show more reluctance or resistance to performing morally questionable or morally evil actions. Your antagonist might struggle with performing morally good actions, like sparing a subodinate’s life.
13. Anchor Points
I saved this tip for last because it’s one of the most important.
Just because you know a character is morally grey doesn’t mean your readers will agree. How do you prime readers to accept your judgment of a character?
An anchor point (in our context) is an important moment of characterization. The most critical anchor point is when you first introduce your character in the story. This introduction “anchors” the character in your reader’s mind.
So how you introduce your character matters. I suggest that you introduce your character in the way you want the reader to view them for the rest of the story.
If you want the reader to see your character as more of a “good guy or girl,” then introduce your character with positive traits, positive motivations, and positive actions. Do the opposite for your antagonist. The exception can be “surprise” antagonists that you reveal later in your story.
You can also include a side character or two who is not, at least at first, clearly good or evil.
Morally Ambiguous Characters List
The following is a short list of morally grey character examples:
- Jamie Lannister from Fire and Ice
- Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series
- King Kong in King Kong
- Joe Goldberg from You
- Kaz from Six of Crows
- Both Salvatore brothers in The Vampire Diaries
- Artemis in Artemis Fowl
- Nico from Percy Jackson
- Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring
- Glen Cook in The Black Company
- King Holland Vosijk from A Darker Shade of Magic
- Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire
- Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby
- Almost everyone in The Wire
Common Mistakes When Writing Morally Gray Characters
There are some common mistakes writers make when creating ambiguous characters. This is a shortlist of the most common and problematic mistakes. You could also call them morally grey character conventions.
- Unbelievably good/evil characters.
- Characters who are evil for no reason (other than because you want them to be evil).
- Unsympathetic protagonists (typically that are too evil for readers to support).
- No clear antagonist.
- Writing every morally grey character as a brooding loner with a questionable backstory. There are many shades of morality.
- Falling into lazy tropes such as dressing evil characters in dark or black clothing.
- Not properly motivating both sides (good and bad) of characters.
- Telling readers the character is morally grey without showing it in the story through character words and actions.
- Developing a tragic backstory to “prove” that the character is morally ambiguous instead of showing it in the current timeline of the story.
- Forcing “gray morality” into your story or into certain scenes where the choice is more logical or the “grayness” doesn’t add to the reader’s experience.
- Permitting inconsistent character actions in the story on the basis of vague morality.
- Believing that being morally grey automatically makes a character interesting.
Final Thoughts on How To Write Morally Gray Characters
Thank you for reading this article. I look forward to reading your awesome stories filled with conflicted, unpredictable, morally gray characters.
For more articles on writing great stories, check out:
- 21 Ways to Write a Complex Villain [Ultimate Badass Guide]
- Deleted Scenes: 5 Clever Uses of Deleted Story Scenes
- Can you write a scary story in 150 words? (7 Scary Good Shortcuts)
- How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [7 Crazy Effective Ways]
Also, check out my list of recommended tools for turning writing into a full-time income.