What makes a character ‘morally grey’?
Morally grey characters. You either love them or you hate them. Whatever your opinion, it is no secret that these characters make some of the most interesting plot devices – after all, characters who see the world in shades of black and white can get boring.
So, what makes a morally grey character, well, grey? They are the villains with a point, the heroes who will cross the line, the ones who will make the difficult decisions. They’re the characters who stick around long after the last page is turned, the ones shrouded in controversy. It is not hard to see why, when some famous examples include Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows), Severus Snape (Harry Potter), and Lila Bard (Shades of Magic).
How do you go about writing morally grey characters that are sure to keep your readers buzzing? We’ve come up with five simple steps to help you on your quest.
A step by step guide for writing morally grey characters:
Make sure they have a reason
One of the main problems with morally grey characters is that they are grey for the sake of being grey. While this may get your story rolling – and provide an interesting obstacle for your hero – your character might not be entirely believable. To overcome this issue, you need to give them a reason to do what they do. For example, is your hero with a black heart not afraid to kill because he witnessed the murder of his entire family? Or does your self-sacrificing villain make the choices she does because of a corrupted society? Whatever it is, make sure you include it – there’s no limits when you’re dealing with shades of grey!
Don’t make them too mysterious
It’s a problem that’s easy to fall into when writing these types of characters. You want them to be mysterious and misunderstood, but – in doing so – you forget to flesh out the character. The easiest way around this is to give them a backstory – even if the readers only get this in little bits and pieces. The most important thing is to ensure that your character has substance, and that their presence has great impact.
Work on their flaws
This is the step where you can really start to have fun. It’s no secret that morally grey characters are flawed – it’s why we love them! But the way these flaws manifest in your character will make or break them. It can be tricky to get the balance right – you don’t want to go so far that they’re no longer redeemable, but you don’t want to tread too lightly either. For these reasons, it is important to acknowledge their flaws within the story. Have other characters react with horror to their actions, have them feel regret or remorse, just make sure these problematic actions aren’t just shrugged off or ignored. This will add depth to your story.
Let them make the hard decisions
One of the most interesting aspects of morally grey characters is that they’re the ones who are going to make the decisions that other characters might consider off limits. This has the potential to make a great impact on your readers and can also bring up questions regarding morality. So, don’t fear crossing lines or shocking readers – it’s what these characters are there for.
Give them a storyline
This step is specific to morally grey side characters – if your character is the protagonist, we’re pretty sure you have this base covered!
So, you’ve come up with this great character. They’ve got a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking backstory, the decisions they make are so wrong they’re right, and their reasoning is making the hero second guess themselves – but they’re not actually doing anything, they’re just kind of… there. While this isn’t necessarily detrimental to the overall plot, it feels like a waste of a fantastic character – and your readers aren’t going to take that quietly. This is where subplots are important. The overall plot should have a beginning, middle, and an end, complete with inciting incidents and conflict. Your subplots should follow a similar formula (even if they don’t wrap up neatly before the end of the book). So, make sure to give your morally grey character a subplot. They should face some sort of conflict that they need to overcome and that will have them second guessing their decisions. All in all, they should end in a different place from where they began (even if there are still a few loose threads).
Now that you’ve read our five steps, it’s time to put everything you’ve learnt into practice! There’s no better way to learn than actually doing – so, go grab that pen and paper and get to work. When outlining your character, use our steps as a checklist to make sure you’ve covered all your bases.
Feel free to share your creations with us! At InHouse Publishing, we just can’t get enough of those characters who are morally grey.