Trope Talk: Morally Gray Characters & Antiheroes

Despite my track record of starting series for this blog and then barely keeping up with them, I’ve decided to start a new one. In this new series, I’m discussing the basis of every story: tropes. A trope, for anyone unfamiliar, is a commonly used theme or device in literature, film, and television. This includes things like relationship dynamics, character archetypes, and stock settings. In essence, the hate-to-love trope, the lost queen trope, and the forest-as-a-character trope.

For this series, I’m not always going to focus on the same aspects of a trope. Sometimes I’ll talk about why I like a trope and others I’ll talk about commonly misunderstood tropes. Today I’m doing both.

My favorite types of characters are morally gray characters and antiheroes. Often these go hand-in-hand, but a character can be morally gray without being an antihero. Essentially, to be an antihero, the character has to be the protagonist. Any character can be morally gray. So, all antiheros are morally gray, but not all morally gray characters are antiheros.

One thing I’ve noticed is that people often mislabel characters are morally gray when they are, in fact, not. In order to be considered morally gray, there has to be a little bit of good and bad involved in each major decision the character makes. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing something wrong for the right reason or vice versa, but it can. It’s something that’s not quite right, but not quite wrong.

This is what excludes protagonists whose main goal is to kill the villain. If the villain is causing oppression and terror and this is how to free the oppressed, the choice to kill the villain does not make the character morally gray. Take, for example, Nyx Triskelion from Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. She is raised from childhood to marry the demon king of Arcadia in order to kill him and free her people from his reign of terror. However, she soon discovers she would be dooming her kingdom if she were to succeed. Add to that a whirlwind romance, and you have yourself the whole story.

I mention Nyx because I’ve seen her referred to a few times as a morally gray character. However, she is not morally gray. Her goal is to end the villain who has been terrorizing her kingdom. She ultimately fails because of discoveries she makes that prove doing so would actually cause more destruction. This is textbook YA heroine. She doesn’t choose not to kill him for selfish reasons, but for noble ones. Thus, how can she be called morally gray?

Moral ambiguity is supposed to make you think. It should make you question what you believe to be right and wrong. It should make you consider what you would do in the same situation. A character simply having flaws or experiencing “negative” emotions doesn’t make them morally gray. It’s the decisions they make that make them such. They are neither noble nor villainous— they reside somewhere in between.

A good example of a morally gray character would be Alosa Kalligan from Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller. She is a pirate who gets intentionally captured by another pirate crew so she can steal their treasure map. Stealing is, of course, wrong. Stealing from pirates? That’s a little more complicated. Pirates are known for violence and theft, for raping and pillaging. So is stealing from them really that bad? And what about when it’s a pirate stealing from another pirate? Do you see how complex it gets when a character is genuinely morally gray? There’s no right answer here. It’s all just difficult and messy.

Antiheros are a more specific morally gray animal. The main thing that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill morally gray character is that they have something specific to fight against. A perfect example of this is Deadpool. Given my limited experience with his comic book arcs, I will be speaking solely about the 2016 movie. Wade Wilson spends the film hunting down Ajax, the man responsible for turning him into Deadpool through torture and artificial mutation. In hunting down Ajax, Deadpool prevents him from continuing his terrible experiments on anyone else. However, Deadpool’s main goal is vengeance. He blames Ajax for ruining his life and relationship. In taking him out, he gets his revenge. This kind of selfishness that also benefits mankind is a staple of the antihero.

Why do I love these kinds of characters? Because they’re complex and harder to predict. The black-and-white fight between good and evil gets stale. Morally gray characters and antiheros allow for fresh stories with grittier arcs. It’s not for everyone, but it’s everything to me.

3 thoughts on “Trope Talk: Morally Gray Characters & Antiheroes

  1. You writing about gray morality gives me life. It is also one of my favorite tropes (probably my favorite) and to see people throwing it around and stripping it of its complexity… it gets on my nerves.


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