Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s discussion. May for the Morally Grey is a month long theme I have for this blog, where I write articles, discuss pressing topics about the morally grey, review and analyze popular media with such characters, and publish some of my own work about this. Today, we have Astraeia Sun, a good friend of mine, and like me, a dedicated reader and writer that adores talking about these kinds of characters! Without further ado, let me introduce you to Astra!
Astra: Hi Riya! Thanks for having me! I’m really excited to be discussing this with you today, given that moral ambiguity has always been one of my favorite topics when it comes down to anything writing related!
Riya: I’m so glad to have you only the blog. I love having conversations with you, and I know a lot of our friends have benefited from our talks about morally ambiguous characters and other topics around that.
When it comes to morally ambiguous characters, is there a balance of good and bad that you like, or do you not believe in that concept at all?
Astra: Oh, that’s an excellent question, actually.
Firstly, in direct response to that, I personally believe that the spectrum for good and evil is very subjective and always changing, just as we are.
Yes, there are some universal concepts set in stone about what is considered “good” or “bad”, but everyone will have experienced those things differently—experiences that will have shaped their own moral codes, beliefs, and themselves as people.
That’s why I’d say when it comes to establishing a balance, I like to slip in slivers of humanity in even the most wicked of people. Moral ambiguity about characters should be written like they’re a question that is always asked, but never always answered, since human experiences are always subjective, as I mentioned.
And by having bad people do good things, for example, always keeps people on their toes.
Nonetheless, I do like it whenever authors try to make their readers understand why their morally ambiguous characters do the things that they do, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.
Riya: You make a really great point.
I believe in balance, but I also believe that the distinction between good and bad is a very hazy line. There are a couple things that are universally bad, but most things, most things can be contorted. When you’re put in the crooked minds of people who do things that we think of as conventionally bad, you are introduced to their mindset. What spurs them to do such horrible things?
I don’t think humans are born evil, not even close. I believe we are primed to do certain things by the environments and communities we are a part of. A great example is cults. We as a general society find them odd and their leaders evil, but when we are placed in their narrative, we begin to empathize with them. This is what happneed to me when I watched Waco.
A very interesting concept to me is an idea presented in the show Mindhunter. It follows Holden, an FBI agent who studies serial killers to understand the motivations behind their behavior. But as we follow his story as he tries to connect with these horrible people and pry information from them, we see something in him change. A distant judger becomes an empathetic person, almost a friend. They begin to see a semblance of logic in their ridiculous claims, and it really freaks Holden out. This has always interested me, and I have always seeked to understand these people/characters.
Is that something you found yourself curious about as well?
Astra: Oh absolutely!
I’ve always found the human mind fascinating, granted, that’s also partially due to my current studies in psychology, but ultimately I’ve always enjoyed the debate concerning the rationale and integrity behind human beliefs, actions, and intentions, mainly because of how much there is to truly discuss.
Especially if I personally can’t empathize with characters due to having such drastically different life experiences, I can sympathize with them the better creators craft psychological bridges for me to understand and connect with them emotionally.
I also actually quite liked your mention of “nature versus nurture.” argument above as well! Although the argument is considered a little outdated in current fields of psychology, I believe that that notion proves very useful when it comes down to character development and morality.
One example that comes to mind is the game Fire Emblem Three Houses, and to minimize spoilers, I’ll keep it brief. You have the choice to pick one character to follow at the very beginning of the game, and depending on how you choose, it shapes the whole plot of the storyline.
One character is the alleged ‘antagonist’, who creates the major conflict by declaring war on everyone else, but depending on who you pick, you see that particular character in a different light. If you pick the antagonist, then you get to see how their past traumas shaped their noble intentions to start war in the first place. If you pick the direct opposing force, then you see how their leader craves bloodshed due to their past traumas. But if you pick the middle man—who allegedly everyone always underlooks —you’d find that they’re the most secretive and cunning of the three, who uses the war to achieve their own ambitions.
The game is a very good example, in my opinion, of how choices tend to shape stances and beliefs, and how everyone is valid in their experiences, even if their actions and intentions can’t always be excused.
This actually brings a question to mind I’ve been meaning to ask you, Riya!
What is your stance on how trauma shapes morally ambiguous characters?
Riya: That game sounds so interesting! Honestly, that’s such a wonderful example of how perception changes everything. You may view the good guy in a good light if the story was told from their perspective, and vice versa.
To answer your questions, I think it is a thin line to tread. Of course, trauma motivates behavior, but not all people lash out because of trauma. Many people lose their loved ones to horrible causes, but they do not become murders or leaders of a new world order. I think that is important to distinguish because we do not as authors want to demonize a certain situation or condition that many people face because our villain has gained motivation for it.
For example, grief: how we handle grief is how it impacts us later in life. Many people lose someone they love, healthily grieve, and emerge as a wonderful person who does positive things that relate to their trauma. Others do not. For example, a show I recently watched called Never Have I Ever follows a girl named Devi as she navigates her trauma of losing her father to a sudden heart attack and getting psychosomatic paralysis after it. Devi never copes with her grief well, so it leads her to chase a boy she barely knows, make him her world, abandon her friends, and overall be an unlikable person. Devi’s trauma subconsciously motivates her behavior even if she does not realize it.
Everyone is subconsciously motivated by trauma and things that happen in our life. Like you said, it’s all about choice, and that’s a distinction I think writers need to make. You can decide to react positively, or you can choose to filter suppressed emotions into dangerous habits.
Choice and free-will is such a massive part of the human experience. We make wrong choices every single day, and for some people, wrong choice after wrong choice leads to the antagonists we see them as.
On the topic of trauma, there is also a point to be made about the extremity of acts trauma may justify.
In your opinion, are there unjustifiable acts of malice that you cannot forgive? If so, what are they?
Astra: All of what you’ve said is very true, and that show you’ve mentioned–alongside Mindhunter–are definitely things I’d want to check out sometime! They’d definitely be eye-opening shows to watch, to say the least.
Granted, I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, which is why when it comes to seeing people make bad decisions, I attempt to rationalize their mindsets and potential reasons for committing their bad deeds in the first place before judging them. Therefore, if I see people showcase true remorse for their previous actions and attempt to better themselves instead of using it as a way to lash out at others, then I believe they are deserving of forgiveness.
However, I personally have two lines that once crossed, I find inexcusable: sexual assault and paedophilia. Both have relations towards one another, but one does exist without another. This is mainly due to how I see both as a violation so deeply personal, that the psychological wounds they are so scarring to those who have experienced it take indefinite times to recover from.
Paedophilia in particular–given that historically speaking in many civilizations, this practise was normalized–has the same consequences, but sooner due to how people are targeted and even groomed to believe that such violation and manipulation of themselves is normal, which I strongly don’t believe in. And while I know many children of today aren’t sheltered from the act of such physical intimacy themselves, I believe they should at least be taught that consent should be the bare minimum, and that they shouldn’t accept anything less.
Any sort of assault, abuse, or mistreatment is wrong, or course, and I’m not invalidating any other sort of sources of trauma, because everyone’s personal experience of pain is just as valid as another person. But there’s always just been something about those two acts of malice that have rubbed me wrongly more so than others, and my heart goes out to every person who has experienced this. A violation of someone’s humanity and sense of security in themselves on such a micro level, ultimately, is something I will not stand by.
Riya: I agree with you 100%. Such acts when committed deliberately and with malice are pretty polarizing things to me. I would like to share an episode of Black Mirror which really shook me because of what it did.
It is called Shut Up and Dance (spoilers): Basically, this boy, a teenager, is pictured on the screen. He gets a virus and a nameless hacker is brought to the screen. We do not know what this hacker is, but they threaten to release some sensitive information to everyone this boy knows. We do not know what this information is, nor why this boy cares about it so much. We can only imagine that it is nudes or something. We follow this guy as he does things for the hacker, like steal money, bike dozens of miles, fight a man, and many other things. He is terrified, and we unknowingly sympathize with him. But as the tasks become more demanding, we wonder why he is willing to do criminal things to keep this information from leaking.
Then, (SPOILER), the police show up, and we think that it is because of the man he killed for the task, but turns out, it is something else. In the very last moments of this episode, we hear a couple words from his mother over the phone. “They’re only children. How could you?!”
That still has a profound impact on me to this day. How could I root for a pedophile without even knowing he is one? How could they contort the story? How could I sympathize with him? How are writers able to tell stories from an unforgivable perspective? How can they make you feel so bad?
Watching all of those varying shows has taught me one very important thing: perspective means everything. A great writer can frame any story in a way that has the reader in their hands. Do they want you to like a horrible person? Perspective. Why is this person thinking this way? What motivates them? Why are they doing these things? How do they feel about it? What is their moral compass? What will they do to accomplish their goals?
And most importantly, what do they have to lose?
I think these questions are very vital when creating any character, not just morally ambiguous characters, and is something I want to highlight during May for the Morally Grey. As writers, such details push a story from average to excellence. The stories that trap me in this illusion of goodness, make me root for the bad guy, are the stories that stay with me for a very long time. The good guys are forgettable to me, but the bad guys, and how you react to them, not only expose the story, but they expose you.
Astra: I agree with you completely on that. That twist in that episode of Black Mirror would have been extremely jarring for me as well, had I watched it.
There’s a quote from a post I read somewhere that I feel echoes your words on connecting readers to more wicked characters well; it comments on how the most terrifying villains are essentially the ones that you see yourself in, and are thereby the most human.
I believe each and everyone one of us are all dealing with our own inner darkness, but unlike the villains and/or antagonists or even our beloved morally ambiguous characters, we have never experienced the push they had in their lives in order to truly do what they had to in order to make us fear and/or love them so.
But that doesn’t mean we haven’t considered it, deep down, to make bad choices after considering succumbing to some of our own darkness. What if our world was different, and more like theirs? What if we didn’t have anyone stopping us? What if we had powers?
There are countless possibilities and answers to consider there; why we aren’t like them, but could be like them, under alternating circumstances. Skilled storytellers (and that goes beyond writing) are able to take these ‘what-ifs’ we are limited in experiencing and breathe them life into the form of their own characters and stories, to connect our hearts and minds to theirs over the course of the stories we experience alongside the perspectives we are given. And that is one of the many beauties of writing.
Hearing your previous questions about character development–which I wholeheartedly agree with–brings to mind another question I’ve wanted to ask you. Your current project, OSAS, based on what I’ve seen and heard from your own mentions about it, seems to handle moral ambiguity pretty well. So I’d like to ask you this:
How and when did you first learn about the concept of moral ambiguity, and what makes you resonate so strongly with it?
Riya: That’s an amazing question! As a reader, I have always been drawn to the characters that don’t only make good decisions. I’ve always been interested in the villians and the anti-heros. Why are they this way? What made them this way? And as I read more, I started to wish that characters would stop being so morally righteous all of the sudden. I wanted to see someone who really understood desperation and the need to survive, because a lot of times these MCs chose the unrealistic option because it’s supposed to make them the good guys. Aren’t there just some times where you want the MC to become the queen of the evil empire instead of joining the rebel group? There are so many times where I just want them to follow their deepest selfish desires. When faced with decisions, I love to see more representation of what it means to survive.
Of Suns and Spirits really delves into the idea of survival. At the end of the day, the MCs will have to kill people and each other to get their goal. I raise the stakes. They all have things to lose, so their morals get lost in the very human need to survive. They often do bad things for good reasons and are faced with the consequences. I show their mental processes as they make decisions, then let the consequences unravel and torment them after. I do this because I find it so much more representative of the human population. Being righteous, unfortunately, is often a privileged thing. Many people would do pretty bad things to protect the people and things they love.
My tips for writing these characters: give them a reason. Why? What do they have to lose? Why should the reader empathize and root for them? Everyone makes a choice for a reason, whatever that reason is. I think bad villains or antagonists that have no personality other than having a backstory. People typically do things because of a pressing threat on their life or the lives of those they love. Typically, trauma isn’t enough to push people over the edge, but when trauma resurfaces, the worst parts of humanity emerge. We are a species that is incredibly hostile and protective, which is why I believe that as long as the struggle for dominance exists, so will war.
Speaking of war, I’ve heard this amazing argument about the nature of war, and at the base of it, we humans love war. We may hate what it produces, but the bright explosion, the disciple, the rigor, that is all very beautiful to the human eye. Many soldiers of the Viet war came back saying “war was both the most beautiful and most ugly thing I’ve seen.”
Do you think humans are naturally inclined to war and other survivalist mechanisms? If so, how do you think we as writers could use that when telling a story?
Astra: I’m really loving all these thought-provoking questions! And can I say, the tips you’ve mentioned will definitely be helpful for anyone looking to add that extra layer of humanity when they’re building characters from scratch.
But in response to your question, I’d have to agree to a certain extent. From an objective stance, I believe that humans are ultimately beings of evolution, and in some circumstances, war is only an option for evolution to occur–but, in some situations, the most “effective” one. We’ve had civilizations rise and fall like the tides due to many rulers’ desires for expansion, whether it be for the betterment of their citizens’ lives or for the preservation of their own glory and legacies.
And that’s just talking about wars in an external environment. The internal wars, borne of psychological needs and wants and desires, are quieter but also just as deadly as their external counterparts, for they too scar people–leaving wounds in the mind instead of one’s skin. These sorts of wars are far more commonplace–seen in politics, social dynamics, etc–and while they can bleed into your actions and words that are seen in an external environment, people won’t know the extent of the battles you go through inside your head. And we would do all sorts of things (the importance of choices, as such, being highlighted here!) in order to survive them, since we are beings of survival, since we’ve lasted so long because of it.
But these wars are something we all need to survive. We battle ourselves everyday, after all, and to echo my previous sentiments, our own inner darkness. Which is why, I personally believe that writers could use this as a way to better establish their characters, and flesh them out to be more realistic.
Humans (and even your entirely non human characters, for you fantasy/sci-fi loving folk) are beings of change. Beings of want. They will always want something, and that want, depending on how you decide to handle it, will ultimately shape that character’s journey in your story. And that want, depending on how strong, will be the very thing that motivates your characters to survive, despite what the world (or you, as the wonderfully wicked author tormenting your darlings) throws their way.
To use a brief example, I’ll mention my own WIP, TWOTI, but keep it brief. The title of the story itself is named after one of the MCs, Wyetta, who was raised to believe in righteousness as the superior choice, and that she was privileged to have powers that could change the world. She was taught to believe in a cause greater than herself, essentially. She does not initially believe in her own self worth despite this, nor in the pursuit of her own wants, until she is presented with a choice that can either result in the betterment of the people she is meant to serve, or allow her to obtain her own private desires.
And because of stuff she’s learned along the way–and how deep down, she craves her own sense of control–despite everything she’s learned in her past, she chooses to be selfish instead of righteous. Thus begins a series of events that serve as consequences of her actions, and they’re not too pretty, but also tie into the other POVs of the story, that even has an impact thousands of years later, in one instance.
So I’d also tell writers to not be afraid of letting their MCs or characters make mistakes because of their wants, because of impulses and desires and temptations. Don’t be afraid to make their self-centeredness, ambitions, or dreams a motivation for them to survive and declare war on their environment to achieve these goals.
Those are what make them human.
I feel like a lot of the times writers make their characters to be ‘ultimately’ good because they want their characters to be liked–which, of course, is understandable, but debatable in terms of its actual necessity sometimes–due to how personal they are, and that an attack on a character is, inadvertently, an attack on the writer themselves.
Nonetheless, I do feel like we need to see more characters that aren’t afraid of being selfish that fall into the morally ambiguous category, and not just because I lean towards them myself.
Do you have any personal favorite morally ambiguous characters, from authors, stories, or even of your own creation?
Riya: Yes! I love the whole squad from La Casa De Papel (Money Heist), The Elite, Victor from V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, the Darkling, Maven Calore, and many many more. These people are def not heros, but they’re also not villains. They’re just slightly screwed up. What about you?
Astra: Oh, V.E Schwab is an absolute queen of moral ambiguity, so I’d absolutely agree with you on that front, with Victor (and Eli!) being great examples of morally ambiguous characters. Furthermore, Adelina from the Young Elites series is a memorable example for me, personally, as well as the antagonist and ‘middle man’ schemer from the game I mentioned above, Fire Emblem Three Houses. Oh, and of course, Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows, another iconic character we all know and love, but I’ll stop there or else my list will be endless, haha.
What I like about the above characters are varying things, however, but one thing that stands out to me is their perseverance in the face of adversary, and their willingness to get things done, all with perfect silent sinisterness and blood spilled on their hands.
Admittedly, the middle-man character, is usually seen in the franchise as being the most lighthearted of the three characters you get to pick, as he’s not as dark as the other two (which puts him a little out of place with my personal favorites here at first glance) based on first impressions, but I’d argue and say that he’s also morally ambiguous because he’s perfected the projection of being “the good guy” despite having certain villainous traits. It also doesn’t help that he’s much darker in the Japanese version of the game in comparison to the English adaptation, which is what I played.
Nonetheless, I’ve had such an amazing time discussing all of these nuances to moral ambiguity with you! Thank you again for having me, Riya! I know you’re going to do amazing things this month with this as your topic.
Riya: Thank you so much for coming on the blog and talking about these super important topics with me! I had a blast. We could talk all day if you let us, but I’m sure that the great things we talked about will be useful for at least one author out there trying to find their way through the swamp of the morally grey.
Go follow Astra on instagram @astrawrites, where she posts writing advice, character games, and is the most supportive person on the platform. She’s the sweetest person I know (even though we talk about pretty dark things).
If you found this blog post helpful, make sure to like it and comment any thoughts or questions you have on this topic. Last but not least, follow it if you want more updates for when I post new content for May for the Morally Grey.
Thanks for reading!