Moral Grayness in Fantasy

This is a trend in fantasy and personally, I love it. I love when fantasy is used in a way that the world isn’t black and white and that people aren’t black and white. No one is entirely good or bad. Fantasy does sometimes have a tendency to become preachy: “These are the good guys who save the world, ultimate power is bad.” and the like. Allowing for moral grayness can help create really compelling fantasy.

But what is moral grayness? How do you do it well?

Let’s get into it.

Morality is complex, subjective, and ever changing.

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll be using “morality” to mean determining what is “right” and what is “wrong”.

Morality is never usually so simple as “this is right, this wrong.” Now there are some things in the world/society/whatever that considered pretty much across the board to be morally right/wrong, and there’s a reason for that. But there are some things that aren’t and we’ll use political views as an example.

People differ so much on political views and policy, all over the spectrum. The thing is, people who differ are often not objectively good or bad people. What is right and wrong to any one person depends on background, experience, knowledge, and so on. It’s completely subjective.

The way morality is formed changes so much. In the history of Western culture, women were considered immoral at fundamental levels for centuries, and husbands were encouraged to beat their wives to keep them “in line”. Non-white people were considered less human. (I’m not saying these issues are solved in the modern day, I’m looking even further back.) Public executions were considered entertainment not too long ago.

What is right and what is wrong changes with time. Things that would horrify us now are things that our ancestors understood as commonplace.

In your world, you need to develop the moral system. Why do people think the way they do? What has changed over time? How deep and complex does it go? It should go from royalty all the way down to lowly peasants. It will depend on the characters’ experiences, backgrounds, and history of the world.

Define the moral system in your world.

And don’t make it reflect our modern one. If you write a world where everyone on the protagonist’s side is “right” and everyone else is “bad”, then there’s no room for complexity. Now, you can write the protagonist and pals thinking they’re right, but I’ll come to that in another point. If you write these characters with modern-western morals, then I might call bullshit (depending on the execution).

For example, if your protagonist grew up in a world where public executions were normal, even entertaining, I’m going to have a hard time believing they don’t feel the same way as the rest of the populace. If they do hate public executions in a world where this is normal, tell the reader why. If violence and death is common in your world, and your character is horrified (or reacts how someone from the modern day would) then you need to give that a very good and clear reason.

Different people and groups will have different morals. Do the religious groups have different views than the scholars? Do warriors have different views than the mages? And so on.

You need to hammer out what is good and what is wrong, who believes what and why, and then kick it all in the teeth (I’ll get to this later.)

Different characters will disagree, but may not be good or bad people.

I have very good friends whom I care for deeply and we agree on almost nothing politically (we do agree on some things, though). If I didn’t know them so personally, I might think that they were dumb, wrong, or not “good” people because their our differ in a lot of respects and they would probably think the same of me. The thing is, they aren’t bad people. I know them and care for them.

At times, it’s forced me to change the way I see values, especially in regards to politics. I haven’t changed my personal convictions, but it does force me to say “Maybe we want similar things, but have different ways of going about it.” and understanding that these differences don’t necessarily have to divide us as friends.

Your characters should be similar. This forces your characters to see other sides of the arguments and to see something from another person’s view. Otherwise, your characters will be pretty much cardboard cutouts. The conflict isn’t just “I hate you because we don’t agree on this thing” it’s “How the hell can we work together to solve this problem when we differ so much?”

Your characters think they’re right, but “good” choices can turn out bad.

Think about your own values and convictions. You probably see them as “right” and that’s fine, that’s normal. In the same way, your characters should think their view of the world is the right one, their morals are right, their morals are the good ones.

The key to giving this more complexity is to give unintended consequences to characters who make decisions according to their values in this way.

Ned Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire decided to tell one of the villains in the story of his plan to reveal her secret. He told her this because he wanted to give her and her children a chance to escape. He did it to be merciful. Instead, all he did was give her time to retaliate and it led to his downfall. Ned Stark did what he believed to be morally right, and instead screwed up.

In The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (video game), there’s a choice you have to make in the game. You can either kill the spirit that’s terrorizing the villagers (the spirit has been imprisoned), or you can free it. One decision means you have to kill the spirit that’s trapped (wrongfully or otherwise) or as a result of being nice and freeing it, the spirit goes out for revenge and an entire village gets slaughtered. The game is full of decisions like this.

Force your characters to make choices they think that are right, and then force them to realize that it may not have been the “right” choice, even if they were trying to do the right thing. Your characters can think they’re right, until they are forced to realize that they aren’t. This is growth, this is how characters change, this is what leads them to moral grayness.

Falling from innocence and abandoning ideals.

Here’s what often happens in fantasy: Innocent character joins with a faction they think is right until they see the members of this faction doing terrible things (murder, torture, rape, etc.) Innocent character is horrified and realizes these are the “bad” people and immediately runs off to join the “good” people.

Problem is, innocent character never learns about the other side. The “bad” side is just objectively wrong and needs to be stopped.

Instead, give the character reasons to stay with this faction. He’s/She’s spent time with these people, he/she knows them personally, had time to hear them out, maybe they are nice and good to him/her. Have your character justify it to themselves. Even if they are horrified about it, don’t make them just run off to the other side, abandon all their previous beliefs in an instant, and “see the light”. Make them have to solve this problem differently. They have to figure out what to do next.

Don’t force them just to abandon their ideals and everything they loved for some epiphany. Ideals are hard to give up this way. Instead try having them having to keep justifying it over and over. If your character does abandon ideals and convictions they once held dear, give it a good reason.

Kick morality in the teeth.

This kind of goes with earlier points, but here I go.

Once you’ve set up what is right/wrong in your world, and who believes what, kick it in teeth. By this I mean, showing how good intentions go wrong, how it’s not so simple, how it’s much more difficult than “doing what is right”. Set up this whole system and then smash it with a hammer and make it personal to your characters.

Maybe everything they put their faith in is a lie. Maybe the “bad” guys actually make sense and are trying to do something good. Maybe violence is the only way for your character to get what they want.

Everyone has a price.

I’m sure most people like to think that they would always do what’s right. When I’m writing fictional characters I always try to keep in mind that my characters are capable of anything.

If your protagonist was offered ultimate power or their heart’s desire in exchange for going against their morals, I have a hard time believing they wouldn’t seriously consider it.

You need to consider how far your characters will go for their goals and morals. Would they die for their cause (not just say, I mean actually do it)? Would they commit other horrors for their cause? Would they abandon it if the right offer came at the right time?

They don’t have to actually take the offers or die, but knowing how far they are willing to go will help you characterize them better.

The greater good.

If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll remember the Vulcan phrase “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” As a result of this belief, Spock sacrifices himself to save the entire crew of the Enterprise.

The greater good is a common topic in fiction and for good reason, it’s interesting. It also goes hand in hand with the lesser/greater evils.

In The Witcher series, Geralt (the protagonist) has a compelling line where he says: “Evil is evil…Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I’m not a pious hermit. I haven’t done only good in my life. But if I’m to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.” (Source)

The thing is, in that same short story, he does choose between a greater and lesser evil. His hand is forced and he is forced to pick a side. It’s also said: “…in the shadows, lurks True Evil. True Evil, Geralt, is something you can barely imagine, even if you believe nothing can still surprise you. And sometimes True Evil seizes you by the throat and demands that you choose between it and another, slightly lesser, Evil.” (Source)

This a really great example of how boundaries are blurred between what’s right and what’s wrong, good vs. evil.

Force your characters into these choices. Force their hands and test their convictions. Put them through the wringer. Let them surprise you and run with it.

Don’t angst them too much.

Your characters can angst about a not-so-good deed they did, but if they do it too much, they’re going to become annoying. Whether they like it or not, they have to learn to accept it or their decision making needs to change based on their reaction to that deed.

Your character also isn’t going to be in the middle of fleeing for their life and angst about a choice they made 5 chapters earlier.

Gray is a mixture of black and white.

To make your readers really sympathize with your character while they do bad things, they’re going to still have to be human. Your morally gray character should break rules and do things that are in world considered bad or won’t be well received, but they still need to believe in stuff, love people/things, have feelings, and so on.

They need reasons, so give them good reasons. Make them natural products of their world and choices, but also balance them out. Gray is black and white, good and bad. So give them both.

Flaws are helpful.

I’ve talked about flaws before, but it’s really important here. Your characters’ “bad” choices should reflect their flaws. A naive character will trust the bad guy and give them information. An easily tempted by power/money character is going to seriously consider an offer of being rich and powerful. A character who favors neutrality isn’t going to pick a side unless they’re forced to. A character who would do anything for their loved ones is going to choose their loved ones over an entire group of other people.

So in making gray characters, use your characters’ flaws and other qualities to guide you in how and why they make the choices they do. Turn the “good” qualities on their head (honor, loyalty, and so on) and make them into bad ones.

Parting words.

The moral grayness trend is cool and create compelling characters and plots. Be sure to do it for the right reasons. Humanize your characters, balance them out. Change them and force their hands. Force them into decisions no one should have to make.


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