Morally Grey But Still Likable?

Writing morally grey characters readers will love.

The large majority of the characters in The Warlord’s Contract are morally grey in one way or another, with one in particular being rather manipulative, and I’ve found that the same basic principles and tricks apply to them all, no matter which negative “asshole” attributes they exhibit.

1. Why do they do what they do?

Readers will forgive most morally gray actions if they feel the character has a good reason for it. This reason can be anything number of things, often compounded. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The character’s goal is worth the sins they commit in the process.
  • Their past has conditioned them to do what they do.
  • They believe that they (or someone else) will suffer if they don’t.
  • They believe everyone else is already doing the same and they’re evening the playing field.
  • They believe their actions will benefit others in the long run.
  • They’re convinced they’ll be hurt if they don’t do it.

The reason(s) you character has do doing what they do should also make sense within the context of the story itself. Thematically, it should match or mirror other cause and effect situations you’re presenting, and it should fit (and often intertwine) with the character’s backstory and personality.

2. What do they think of their own actions?

Make it clear to the reader what your character thinks of their own actions. An ignorant character’s actions might be dismissed if the reader understands they don’t (yet) realize they’re doing something harmful. A character who already knows their actions are less-then-moral can be sympathized with if they regret them and wish they could change.

Above all, it’s good to show the character has the potential to grow throughout the story. If you give the reader hope that the character is going to try to be a better person at some point, you’ll also give them a reason to stick around, and offer them something to root for while they do.

3. Break down their walls.

All characters will bend when you put them under too much pressure, and they’ll show a side of them which doesn’t normally come out. As a general rule of thumb, you want to push all your characters through these situations, but it’s especially beneficial for morally grey characters. Show what your character acts like when they’re:

  • Furious.
  • Incredibly vulnerable.
  • Forced to protect someone they love (physically or emotionally.)
  • Proven wrong about something.
  • Fail drastically when they thought they’d succeed.
  • Given something (a present, love, etc) they never thought they’d receive.

In which of these situations does your character’s morally grey trait take over their actions? In which of these situations is that trait dropped entirely, revealing who the character is beneath their usual actions?

4. Give them someone to trust.

This can be someone they already knew prior to the start of the story, or someone they grow to trust over the course of the book or series. This person should be (or become) a person the morally gray character can interact with in ways beyond their usual morally grey actions.

5. Balance everything out.

If you’re trying not to write an asshole, but simply a human being who’s not quite in the light, then try to balance out their actions as best you can. Show their morally grey attributes in all major areas of their life, but them them places or people they feel genuinely safe in/with, and let them exhibit good qualities when appropriate.

6. Contrast them. 

It’s always good to have foil-like characters for your main characters. (They don’t necessarily have to be complete foils, but they should contrast something specific in the morally grey character.) The chances are, if you’re writing enough distinct, fleshed out characters, one might form naturally anyways. Take advantage of these foils to:

  • Highlight the negative attributes of the morally grey character’s morally grey trait. (E.g. A foil who isn’t manipulative has far more people in their life who sincerely trust them.)
  • Show the negative attributes that come from having the opposite character trait. (E.g. A foil who isn’t manipulative can’t convince stubborn people to do the right thing because they believe too strongly in letting people make their own decisions even when those decisions are harmful.)

You could also do this for positive character traits if you’d like.

7. To everyone, an opinion. 

A reader is much more likely to enjoy a morally grey character, even if they’re an asshole, so long as the other characters within the story recognize the morally grey character is walking along the edge of the Dark Side. Let your other characters poke at and argue over the actions of the morally grey character whenever appropriate.

Remember though, there are two ways to frame this as a writer:

(a) Give the reader a clear sense of right and wrong. This is seen most commonly in stories for young people, (middle grades, as well as often young adult books), as well as in regards to things which should not be debatable in real life, (e.g. Racism is bad and a reader should have no doubt that the author is against it, no matter what the characters believe.)

(b) Let the reader make up their own mind about what’s right and wrong. This can be difficult to do but it’s often very rewarding because it allows the reader to interact with the book in a new way and often forces them to consider what they personally believe about certain situations where there are no ‘right’ choices. Note that it has nothing to do with what your pov character believes, and everything to do with how the subject is presented. More explanation would require a lengthy discussion which I will link to if I every write up.  

8. When in doubt, get feedback.

Your biggest aid is always your critique partners and beta readers. Even if you do your absolute best in writing a likable morally grey character, you might still fail in certain areas, and you’ll likely need other people to help you pick those areas out. There’s no shame in rewriting. Nothing is perfect the first time.

And at the end of the day though, readers will think what they want.

You won’t change everyone’s mind. Some people associate certain actions with specific feeling or attributes and you, a single writer behind a page, can’t alter that. But that’s okay. No matter what sort of well-written characters you create, you’ll always get a few readers who just plain don’t enjoy them. In the same way though, you’ll find readers who adore your character enough to make up for it!

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