Shades of Gray

A lot of fiction is easily defineable between good and evil. The good guys are good, and the bad guys bad. It’s clear for the most part, how things will play out in the end. And, there’s nothing wrong with this. Lots of great stories fall into this clear dichotomy. For me, however, I like it when things aren’t so clear. Now, I don’t mean that you don’t know who the good guys and bad guys are, for the most part at least, but that if you put them on a sliding scale between sweet and sociopath, they are not so far apart some of the time. I like it when characters have to do bad things to try and achieve good ends, or they have morally ambiguous pasts that are always threatening to catch up to them. There’s some great conflict to be had in these murky waters.

It can be a fine line, though. You are always a step away from alienating your reader and losing sympathy for your hero/heroine. As a reader, I like it when I have to question my sympathies toward the main characters, wondering if I will continue to like them, but then having them achieve some kind of redemption in the end. This can be difficult in a series when the character’s growth from bad to good takes place over the course of more than one book. The key for me as both a writer and reader, is to make sure there is some kernel of truth and likeability about the character that makes me want to cheer for them no matter what questionable actions may take place. I want to be thinking, “Come on, you can do it!” throughout the course of the story, while all the time wincing at what happens with the character.

Reading and writing in the world of gray is both challenging and fun. I like when I am forced to consider just what exactly is good and bad, and where that line is that things shouldn’t cross. Will the character step over the line? Is that really where the line should be? In the end, it all has to be believeable within the context of the story. If the actions and decisions made by the characters don’t break me out of the story, it’s all good in the end.

What do you think? How are you with characters who constantly traverse that fine line between right/wrong, bad and good?

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3 responses to “Shades of Gray

  1. i’ve written a few stories like that and they are some of my favorites. It’s exciting to see them walk the line, wondering which way they’ll end up. There are not many stories out there that are written from the villains POV either, and the few i’ve read i find fascinating. Of course, villain, hero, or antihero they do have to have a few redeeming qualites.

  2. I really like this post, and I totally agree with you. I grew up reading Anne Rice and that is one of the things I love about her writing. Every character has this mix of great potential and heart, yet natures that drive them in opposite directions. I love that in characters. They have the choice of good or evil no matter who they are or what circumstances they are in. They can let the bad choices of their past rule and define them or they can rise above them. Characters like that feel more ‘real’ to me.
    Thanks for another great post!

  3. I used to write fiction. Perhaps I couldn’t figure out how to traverse that fine line. But writers/books, that know how, I lick up and fill up.

    Memoir writing I’ve taken to and all I need to worry about is being honest; I needn’t worry about the balance of good and evil.

    Wonderful Post, thank you.

    Sheila Cull