Hi everyone! I hope you’re doing well and staying warm! Personally I’ve been enjoying doing just that a little too much, so I’m belated in sitting down and writing this little essay, which I’ve been stewing on it for quite some time. But yes, here it is! My thoughts on morally gray characters. I actually tweeted a short version of this some time ago, but I wanted to explore it further.
Disclaimer: the title is partially sarcastic and partially genuine.
I started musing a lot on morally gray characters in books over the past few weeks because I occasionally see a post on the internet that says something along the lines of “we need more morally gray characters!!” And you know what? That’s totally valid. We do, indeed, need more morally gray characters. However, as much as I love the concept, I have to admit that the idea of having more male morally gray characters hardly intrigues me anymore. If I get more morally gray characters, I want them to be female characters, and not simply because woo badass women and all that. It’s because I’ve noticed that the motivations and themes behind morally gray characters are fundamentally different for male and female characters, each following a similar pattern of their own. And I’m going to delve into this to establish how morally gray male characters are hardly groundbreaking while morally gray female characters are much more impactful than we realize.
First of all, what do we mean when we say “morally gray character?” The idea is that the character is less worried about doing what’s right by others and they make it clear that they will use any means necessary to achieve their goals. Their goal in itself is not righteous or moral one either, but the character has a very valid reason for pursuing it. The difference between male and female characters in this regard is the context of their goal and why they’re driven to being morally gray.
What I’ve come to notice is that morally gray male characters are fueled by a bastardized form of justice. Morally gray male protagonists’ goals more often than not revolve around avenging themselves, a chance to get back at someone who has wronged them before, or avenge someone who was close to them. It’s revenge disguised as justice because they still contribute to the higher main plot, though usually only because it’s a means to an end for their own personal justice.
For example, Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Yeah okay, the entire cast are crew of criminals on a heist, but what makes Kaz morally gray is his scheming nature and how he is shown to act without much mercy or empathy for others as the protagonist. And his true goal the entire time was to get even with the guy who screwed over him and his brother. He uses the heists as a method to plan out his own personal justice.
Let’s slide a little further down the spectrum and look at Cardan from The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (because I know a lot of people put him in the morally gray category). He’s cruel to others because of the cruelty inflicted upon him. His entire character is built upon the notion that he does onto others what was done upon him because it makes him feel powerful rather than powerless. And because he is a protagonist who is written such that most people end up supporting him, this is an example of a selfish sort of justice. While his actions do cause us some discomfort we still side with him because we are given reason to believe he deserves to avenge himself.
In fact, I argue that most male protagonists, particularly in prominent YA books, are already morally gray. The typical broody YA hero almost always seems to have a goal aside from the main plot to right some wrong that was done upon him. And while he may be on the side of righteous goal in the overarching plot, he almost never hesitates to do whatever it takes to achieve his own personal goal–and then he goes rogue and some part of the plot is spent trying to get him back in line and all that.
Whereas morally gray female characters arguably always operate under the theme of liberation. Female characters are very commonly written as the caring, sympathetic ones who are constantly worried about the bigger picture. They take care of the other protagonists. They worry for their family. They fight and always want to do right by the people they love. So when female characters are morally gray, they are relieved from the duties of having to care for everyone and everything, instead getting the chance to focus on themselves. On top of that, their goal and motivations are almost always fueled by the need to escape a gendered violence inflicted upon them and prove themselves more capable than people see them to be.
Adelina from The Young Elites by Marie Lu fights because of how she suffers from belonging to a group of people looked down upon society, but her rage and cruelty come from the abuse and neglect from her father, who also saw to marry her off for monetary gains. Nahri from The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty acts in her own interest because she is a woman trying to prove herself in medicine and is used as a pawn by a king who won’t even let her go outside for 5 seconds on her own. Marcella from Vengeful by V.E. Schwab becomes an antiheroine because she spent her life trying to shape herself into the perfect woman to appease her husband, only to find out he’s been cheating on her for years.
While morally gray male characters fight for some semblance of personal justice, morally gray female characters fight to be free of constraints and violence that are unique to women. And this is why morally gray female characters are much more groundbreaking than morally gray male characters.
Men are already socialized in our society to believe that they can act morally ambiguously and still get away with things because it’s very easy to make us believe their actions were justified. (Or just overlook them because of inherent societal biases.) See, the theme of justice or revenge isn’t in itself gendered, so it’s very easy to convince larger audiences that men acting against societal morals for the sake of personal justice is valid. There is nothing revolutionary about us seeing men break the rules and have the world sympathize with them.
However, morally gray female characters force us to acknowledge violence of the patriarchy and systemic injustice. Women today are socialized to be the empathetic and kind ones, the ones to always think of other people, the one to always apologize for their existence, particularly if it hinders a man. The defining trait of a morally gray female character is freeing herself from the constraints placed around her life by men. Their rage is justified on a systemic level, and this is harder to sell to larger audiences because it’s uncomfortable for many people to realize just how bad it is for women. It’s easier to claim she just went crazy or hysterical, or that she’s annoying and stupid and not logical at all, and she’s being incredibly selfish which is really so stuck up of her.
I’m not saying morally gray male characters suck and people should stop writing them. Never. I may be writing this essay, but I love them. What I am saying is that we don’t really need to ask for more of them because, frankly, there’s nothing special about them. They’re everywhere AND fit into what we already accept about men as a society. They sell personal justice while morally gray female characters are a reaction to systemic injustice.
You know what we could use more of though? Male characters who are the caretakers. Male characters who take up the position of doing right by everyone, who are the moral compass of the main cast and devoid of some personal revenge goal. Male characters who worry more than they get angry. Male characters who put others before themselves. THAT’s revolutionary.
Okay, rant over. Thanks for reading! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!! It’s a discussion I always love having.