Character Morals: The Black, White, and Gray
At heart, books are defined by the decisions of their characters. That’s why it is essential that characters have a clear moral code. What are your characters willing to do if the circumstances call for it? What will they never do even if their life is at stake? What is their main priority? Even if your characters don’t know, you as a writer should know what their limits are.
The three main categories of characters:
These are the characters that always try to help others and the world, whether by choice or obligation. Always true to their word and morals, they are the epitome of goodness. Deep down, they believe all antagonists can turn and everyone is good at heart, a quality which can result in the hero’s downfall. With endless courage and selflessness, these characters can make readers fall in love.
However, when all the main characters in a book are pure heroes, it can be unbelievable, especially for readers in a world where most people are out for themselves. It is important to give heroes a motive other than do good. Do they want to protect their loved ones? Will they get a prize in return for saving the world?
These are the characters that do everything out of spite. They kill mercilessly and torture children without remorse. They are loyal to nobody save for themselves, and their followers remain loyal out of fear. Villains cannot be redeemed. Greed—whether for money, power, or something else—is the typical motivation of villains.
Pure evil antagonists don’t show the reader the other side of the story. Nothing should justify a villain’s actions, but it is important to explain why they are greedy. Are they doing what has been done to them? Showing what the villain’s motivation is allows the reader to better understand the conflict.
MORALLY GRAY CHARACTERS
For those of you reading this in a part of the world that speaks a different type of English, I did not spell gray wrong, I just spelled it the American way. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about morally gray characters. These are the characters in between heroes and villains. They may use the ends to justify the means, have questionable motives, or constantly switch sides. They might do bad things with good motives or good things with bad motives.
There are so many shades of gray, so these characters can vary the most in personality and motives. For readers (and writers), morally gray characters are unpredictable, which makes them all the more interesting. Importantly, these characters tend to have a moral code. Will they only kill if attacked first? Do they pay attention to numbers—will they always choose to save a hundred people over ten?
Characters can move between categories. In fact, some of the best stories focus on heroes making questionable decisions and villains seeking redemption. If you want your character’s morals to change over the course of your book, you have to explain why. Remember, people change slowly and it takes a lot to change someone’s morals. You should show the character’s thought process. How did an event change them? What are they going to do about it? Do they know their morals are changing? Learn more about creating relatable characters here.
My favorite characters to read or write are the morally gray, and most of my characters tend to fall in this spectrum. What type of characters do you like best? Let me know in the comments!