What Is a Morally Grey Character and How Can I Write One?

Is it just me, or do morally grey characters represent the very fabric of human nature?

You know, most of us want to be better people and do good things, but now and then we sprinkle a bit of hypocrisy on our “morals.”

The duality of grey characters makes them more interesting than most non-human protagonists, who are usually bland.

As simple as the definition of a morally gray character may be, morality can be a subjective concept. Because of societal differences, we have different understandings and definitions of morals.

So, what is a morally grey character? And why do we love morally gray characters?

Read on to find out.

what is a morally grey character and how can i write one

What is a Morally Grey Character?

A morally grey (gray) character is a character whose morals are ambiguous—they’re neither 100% good nor 100% evil.

That explanation alone is enough to tell you that not everyone loves morally gray characters.

But we do.

Morally grey characters oscillate between being the good guy and a villain, thereby roaming in the gray area of human morals.

Didn’t I describe a “normal human?”

batman is considered a morally gray character
Batman is considered a morally gray character.

If you look at the explanation, then we can also say that almost every human being is morally gray.

However, in fiction, we tend to focus on making our main characters perfect beings, with their morals well defined and perfectly upright.

One thing I like about morally ambiguous characters is that they keep readers guessing what their next move will be because of the ambiguity of their morals.

They might kill someone and save a cat. They might kill parents and spare their kids. All just to kill everyone to save the earth.

You never know!

Why Do People Love Morally Gray Characters?

I think I already gave a hint to this. When people look at morally gray characters, they often see a reflection of themselves.

They see someone with flaws and a need to change the world, just like them. “Nobody’s perfect.” How many times has this been said? Maybe a septillion times?

Just like the morally grey characters, everybody makes mistakes, and we sometimes commit these errors in our quest to do good things.

In general, these are some of the reasons we love morally gray characters:

1. They’re human

Look, I’m not saying that all the other characters don’t have human characteristics or aren’t realistic.

But… the other characters are usually one-dimensional in terms of their morals, and that isn’t realistic enough.

Plus, if all characters were like that, fiction would generally be boring.

2. They Stretch the Lines Between Right and Wrong

black shoes at the crossroad right or wrong
Black shoes at the crossroad – right or wrong.

Humans are imaginative creatures; they’re beings that endlessly question things and have a thirst for learning.

We first learn things and then start to have our own opinions based on our knowledge and perceptions.

However, there are opposing worldviews. Writers who come up with these morally Gray characters explore these opposing views and try to make the character represent both good and bad traits.

They usually have a good reason for being bad.

As readers/audience, we are often conflicted about bipolar morals. Strangely, it is these internal conflicts that pull us towards morally grey characters.

Morally gray characters drive us to rethink right and wrong. For example, Thanos had a good motive, but the way he went about it didn’t seem right. Nonetheless, most of us agree with him.

The eco-terrorist in us would not think twice about doing what Thanos did.

3. They are Unpredictable

It’s hard to guess what a morally grey character is going to do next. Will they give in to their dark side or will they let the little light in them shine?

You can anticipate when they will cross the line.

You know that they are not purely good or purely evil, so you don’t know what they will be in a particular situation.

Nobody expects a villain to be good—unless they are Megamind—but it’s also boring to have a wholly evil villain.

If the villain’s only motivation is evil itself, they become very predictable because everyone expects them to be wicked.

The same thing applies to a hero. Only Jesus’ story is the only one where the hero is purely good, and the story turns out to be fun.

Otherwise, stories with purely holy characters seem too boring and unbelievable.

Tips for Writing a Morally Grey Character

When you are writing a morally grey character, there are things about them you need to focus on, sort of cover all your bases.

Here are some of the tips for writing morally grey characters:

tips for writing a morally grey character

Give them a Motive

The character has to have a reason for being morally grey; otherwise, they are just going to be like all the other boring ones.

It is unwise to think that because many of your readers love morally grey characters, everything you throw at them will work.

There has to be a reason for their moral disposition and hence their actions. This reason—if believable—makes the morally grey character more believable.

Put them between a rock and a hard place

One of the most important things in a morally grey character’s arc is making difficult decisions.

These are the types of decisions that an average Joe would have a tough time making; decisions that would make any sane man throw up.

We usually have diverse audiences and such difficult decisions will also attract them in different ways.

Some will want to see what—between light and darkness—the character will choose while others will want to entertain their dark fantasies.

Give them a storyline

You came up with a morally grey character, you gave him a motive and you think the character is complete.

No!

They have to come to life, and subplots will help you add dimensions to the character.

A complete subplot needs a beginning, middle, and end. Plus, you should throw in a couple of inciting incidents and conflicts.

It’s even better if your morally grey character is the protagonist because you’re going to need subplots anyway.

Work on their flaws

I think this is quite obvious but I still have to mention it just in case. We all know that morally grey characters are flawed in some way, so that has to be one of the focus areas.

However, just because they need to have flaws doesn’t mean you can just come up with anything. When you work on the flaws you have achieved the balance right.

We talked about the morally Grey characters doing off-limit things, well, that’s for them not you.

You must also make sure that the despicable actions are also despicable to other characters in the story; otherwise, it’s a creepy story that no one will want to read.

Don’t Overdo It

Sometimes, in the quest to please their readers, writers overthink things and insanely go beyond.

You might want to add some mythical or mysterious touches to the character. It’s totally fine, but just make sure that you don’t make them too mysterious, bizarre, or cryptic.

You will lose your readers! Surely.

You should rather focus on making the character multidimensional (adding depth to your character).

You can flesh out your morally grey character by giving them a back story and using real-life experiences to add to their persona.

Is It Wrong to Love Morally Grey Characters?

severus snape is one of the most loved morally grey characters
Severus Snape is one of the most loved morally grey characters. (Image credit: “Snape DH4” by Snape’s True Love on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Is it?

Well, they are characters who do unspeakable things and are capable of top-notch evil to achieve something they perceive to be good.

So, I think some people would feel some guilt. However, good writers know how to come up with a relatable back story or reason for the character’s being grey.

Most morally grey characters have a traumatic past or have seen life-changing events. When you understand this backstory or motive, you kind of feel for them. In some books or movies, morally grey characters are convinced to do right by acts of love.

But then, they do a lot of bad things in between, things any person in their right mind would not agree with.

For example, killing kids. It doesn’t matter what pushes a morally grey character to do such evil, it is unacceptable.

Oh, wait! It might be acceptable if they have turned into vampires or are 100-year-old evil creatures.

In that case, it’s a slaughterhouse!!!!

Anyways, back to the point. I do not believe that it’s wrong to love a morally grey character, but if you love everything they do, including those unfathomable things, then there might be something wrong with you.

Take, for example, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, the bodyguard of Prince Joffrey Baratheon. He did a lot of bad things, but in the end, he protected Arya. I liked him for taking the kid under his wing, not for the other things he did.

So, although we love to see both sides of a morally grey character, I think we love them more for the good they do than the bad.

5 Morally Gray Characters from Movies

1. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series

The moral ambiguity of Severus Snape

We all know he hated Harry (because of his hate for James) and was always looking for any opportunity to get Harry into trouble.

But why was Severus Snape grey? Because he loved Lily Potter? Not really.

He tried to do his best for Harry more than once. Among other “good deeds,” he anonymously sent his Patronus to the Forest of Dean so that Harry would see it and follow it to the sword of Gryffindor and gave memories to Hardy before he (Snape) died.

2. Sandor The hound Clegane from A Song of Ice & Fire

You don’t expect someone whose sobriquet is The Hound to be a good egg from the beginning, do you?

So, expectably, Sandor does some things you might not agree with, but we know there’s some good in him.

He killed Mycah, told Queen Cersei about Sansa’s period, and did other things to appease his king.

3. Walter White from Breaking Bad

Walter Hartwell White, aka Heisenberg, has a good motive for manufacturing chemically pure crystal methamphetamine.

He wants to provide for his wife, Skyler, their son, and their infant daughter. He has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and wants to provide for his family when he is dead.

I think this motive makes him relatable. However, when he takes over the drug market, the morally grey character arc comes full circle.

4. Sang-woo from Squid Game

At first, I thought Sang-woo was a straight arrow.

Turns out that the guy wanted to participate in the game because he committed fraud. The more the series went on, the more of a douche he turned out to be.

But, in retrospect, he was just doing what most of us would have done if we were in his shoes. Of course, we could argue that some of the things (i.e., betraying Ali) were off-limits, but you never know your limits until you are pushed.

5. Tyrion Lannister

an action figure of tyrion lannister standing beside a cactus plant
An action figure of Tyrion Lannister standing beside a cactus plant.

Tyrion was one of my favorite characters in Game of Thrones.

Yes, he was the little misunderstood guy in his family and wanted them all gone. And… he is always looking to exploit people and situations.

However, he had a good heart, trusted people who didn’t really deserve his trust and wanted to be on the good side.

Final Words on Morally Grey Characters

I love morally grey characters, not just because they are dark, but because they’re complex too.

And they are humans, just like me. Just like most of us, really.

Morally gray characters are neither purely evil nor purely good. These characters can be the MC, the villain, or as small as a side character.

The one thing people love about morally grey characters is that they can keep the reader/audience guessing what they are about to do.

You can almost expect a different reaction every time they are in a new situation. Plus, having seen lots of them, I believe they have the most compelling character arcs. 

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.