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katfireblade

How grey are your characters?

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This came up on Discord, and it got me curious....

There aren't any black-and-white people in the world. Murderers save puppies. Saints hate people of other religions. A good person also shoplifts. A bad person saves a child from a burning car. Much as black-and-white may make writing (and life) simpler, certainly the most fun characters, the most powerful and sympathetic ones come from personalities that have a lot of shades of grey.

So here's a chance to shamelessly geek out about your writing!

Keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story, even the worst of us, share your best flawed hero/ines and your worst villains who think they're working on the side of right.

  • Who is your most flawed hero/ine, and what are their flaws? How do they better suit a bad guy?
  • Why does your bad guy think he's working on the side of angels? What has he done or what habits does he have that are normally associated with a good guy?

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I do like the idea of bad guys who believe they're working on the side of angels. In many cases, however, it might be something they tell themselves for comfort even though their subconscious motives are more self-serving. It's like that "white man's burden" theme I've mentioned before in this forum. You may convince yourself that you're off to civilize the misguided savages by invading their countries, but deep down what you really want is a regular supply of coltan for your smartphones (and, if you're in a position of authority, a crew of loyal shareholders). Your claims to noble intentions could as easily be rationalization for behavior you know is wrong as they are sincere misbeliefs.

EDIT: The level of sincerity might depend on whether the bad guy is a leader or a follower. I'm going by intuition rather than psychological knowledge here, but I'd assume that a follower would be more likely to believe what they're doing is justified since they see themselves as following what their leader tells them is right. The leader instigating the whole conflict, on the other hand, would know what their true motives are and would probably withhold the relevant information from their followers. What they'd want to do is dupe their followers into fighting for their own gain (wealthy Southern elites in the US Civil War offering the psychological wage of whiteness to their gray-uniformed hordes would be a prime example of this).

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Its a mix of characters for me. I seem to default to fairly goody goody, but I'm branching out. I'm branching out. The characters from the Heist novel I'm outlining will be a lot more grey. Thieves, scammers, smugglers, all people who take from others, and take advantage of people more moral than them. The MC is a thief who wants to make a big name for himself, and is fairly conceited. His character arc is about learning to look beyond himself though, which doesn't make for a great villain.

As for a villain, the antagonist from my already-drafted novel thinks she is doing the right thing. She serves a blood god and is fiercely loyal to him. She thinks his quest for freedom of worship is just, and is willing to do anything to fulfill those aims, regardless of what the majority of the population wants. She's got some blindspots regarding her adopted daughter. She cares deeply for her (though she expresses that through controlling, unhealthy behaviour). So the traits that are typically associated with 'good' characters would be the loyalty and desire to be a good mother.

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I think an "ends justify the means" mentality works well for grey protagonists. You can sympathise with their goals while hating their methods. Depending on their severity, these characters could vary from heroes, to anti-heroes, to outright villains if their methods are vile enough. The more heroic versions of them can have a very Robin Hood vibe when their goals are to help others. While I love characters like this, I don't really have any. When writing, I tend to lean towards semi-Noblebright themeing. The closest I have is a noir-like PI who cheats, lies to, and sometimes even (temporarily) brainwashes people to get what she wants. I don't really write much with her, though. 

For a villain, even if they're completely despicable, giving them something good they care about gives them the layers you're talking about. A villain can try to kill the hero all they want, but if they go out of their way to keep children safe, there's gonna be some greyness there. 

@Penguinball I love the sound of a villain who tries her best to be an actually good mother. I feel like villainous parents never have that as a redeeming quality even if they are supposed to be sympathetic.

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@SecretRock I'm not sure how exactly it will play out, I think the mother character is a bit twisted. She thinks she is doing her best, and had a genuine desire to do well, but doesn't understand that her methods are abusive and emotionally manipulative. One potential ending is for the mother to betray her blood God at the end, to save her adopted daughter's life, but I am working through if that will work out thematically, I don't want to have her shitty behavior forgiven for one gesture of good will.

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My greyest hero-type character (well, anti-hero) I'm still trying to figure out how to write. He is not a nice man, but his heart is on the side of good. Or, at least, on the side of his people.

As a child he watched his parents, the royal family, brutally tortured and killed, then was kidnapped to a far off land. This happened in part because of traitors from within the kingdom. His brother was set up as a puppet king who eventually rebelled and was murdered in a terrible way for his trouble, so they set our hero up as the next puppet king. At this point, wanting his kingdom secured and more than a little in the mind for revenge, he does the classic of inviting everyone for a lush royal dinner, killing most of them and keeping the rest as slave labor, then when the project he wanted completed was done, he hoisted the rest up on stakes a-la Vlad Dracul style. He also did this to any soldiers he captures in the battles for control of the country.

They have an extremely small country surrounded by very big powers who can whomp them into the dirt, and he's using this method of death as a terror campaign to scare the bigger countries away. It's working. I was always fascinated by that aspect of Vlad Dracul's reign, that he managed to fend off large powers and keep his country free through his actions, and thet everything he did might have been actually very carefully calculated, because he did actually succeed. He took back his country and kept it free. I wanted to write that.

Of course, my king also wound up marrying a five year old (to save her life plus it's politically beneficial) and has to eat human flesh to survive because he's part ghoul. So...maybe a few differences there.

I don't know who the villains are in this story yet because...yeah, how does one top that?

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As an author, most of my characters tend to some shade of gray but I must recognize that there are those who are truly evil. They exist in life and so they should exist in fiction. The man or woman next to you may not be able to act in a logical, rational, moral manner. They might be a sociopath, a psychopath, a malignant narcissist. These people are found everywhere — they might be in our government, they might be our nasty next door neighbor.

The thing is we should not be afraid to include them in our writing. Evil is real. It should be noted that many of these people do not see themselves as evil (though some do not recognize the concept) but feel justified in what they do. The narcissist can convince himself of the rightness of his actions. That makes him no less wrong, no less evil.

It is difficult, I think, for a ‘normal’ person to recognize this. It is hard to see it, often, in our daily lives, and it is hard for us to get into that alien mind set and write convincingly of it. I know I tend to shy away from that sort of thing. Trying to think like a psychopath is hard and actually succeeding at it is scary! Fortunately, most people are reasonably normal and their failings tend to be petty — they are thoroughly gray.

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As far as my own characters are concerned, I admit that they tend to plot towards the extremes of the morality spectrum. Individual protagonists may have flaws like a short fuse or an impulsive temperament that can get them into deeper trouble (those two flaws in particular being ones I find most relatable), but my antagonists often are truly evil. Often the latter are based on the types of people I find most loathsome in life (e.g. racists, sexists, greedy imperialists, or anyone who profits from others' suffering), so I have little inclination to portray them with any more sympathy than their real-life counterparts. There's something cathartic about giving the scum of society their overdue comeuppance in fiction.

That's not to say every antagonist I've ever written has been a clearcut villain. My recent short story Dribble Like Me (a draft of which you can read at the Worldsmyths library) has one character who becomes the lead antagonist for a moment, yet he has a change of heart towards the end once the person he cares about the most prompts him to it. I simply felt that particular form of resolution best fit the theme of the story, which is one about intercultural conflict and misunderstanding.

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13 hours ago, Sword of the Moon said:

As an author, most of my characters tend to some shade of gray but I must recognize that there are those who are truly evil. They exist in life and so they should exist in fiction. The man or woman next to you may not be able to act in a logical, rational, moral manner. They might be a sociopath, a psychopath, a malignant narcissist. These people are found everywhere — they might be in our government, they might be our nasty next door neighbor.

Though it's not part of the forum thread posted here, the Discord discussion that this came from brought up an amazingly good point.

There was an interview with an old hand in the movie industry, an actor, who was recalling various things about his career. The outtake I saw mentioned his discussion with a director. The director said he'd never seen someone do a convincing Hitler because people came at the role with the idea that the man was pure evil. But the thing is, in his own mind, Hitler was not evil. In fact, in his own mind, he was a hero, and was doing the right thing to save his country. To himself he was not a madman or a murderer, but a savior.

And, like him or hate him, we couldn't be who we are today without him. His actions set off a chain reaction that is directly responsible for everything from our current technology to redefining many of our ideas on morality.

Plus, he couldn't be who he was without us. He cribbed heavily from common eugenics ideas of the time period, especially ones the USA practiced back then, and continued to practice even after the end of WWII. In fact, we were still doing them into the late 1970s, and we weren't the only industrialized, was actually a part of WWII, and should-have-known-better country doing such things. And there are still cries for it even now (putting gays in concentration camps, killing all the Muslims, Australia and it's solution to the refugees on their shores, Brexit as a reaction to the influx of minorities and Muslims, etc.).

There's no black-and-white here. Hitler did good things, some of them, yes, deliberately, while we continue to support extremely evil ideas that should have died with the man, and even accept these toxic notions unquestioningly into our societies and cultures. Every time someone says "all blacks are criminals" or "all Asians are smart," or even jokes about "all blonde women are stupid"...yeah, that idea that someone's looks or race can predict what kind of person they are? Those ideas we fight, we embrace, and we even joke about? Those are all based in the debunked science of eugenics.

You can also look at Vlad Dracul for another example. To the world outside his country he was a monster, but within his country he's revered as a hero. Why? Because he used terror tactics and psychological warfare to keep at bay two large world powers who wanted to conquer his teeeeeeny tiny country. And he managed it. To this day they never submitted to anyone's rule or became absorbed by the larger powers surrounding them, despite being outmanned, outgunned, and outclassed. He kept his people free. He was respected, feared, and even loved in his own time because of many improvements he made, including, it is said, pretty much eradicating crime. He probably wasn't the most mentally stable savior (understandably so), but for generations of people, millions of lives, he was the best and only one they had.

And that's the problem with the idea of pure evil--it rarely is. To the Iraqi child who just lost her father to a US soldier, he is the embodiment of evil. To the soldier who's life he saved by killing a man from the opposing side, he's a hero. And the sad fact is, both of them are right.

13 hours ago, Sword of the Moon said:

It is difficult, I think, for a ‘normal’ person to recognize this. It is hard to see it, often, in our daily lives, and it is hard for us to get into that alien mind set and write convincingly of it. I know I tend to shy away from that sort of thing. Trying to think like a psychopath is hard and actually succeeding at it is scary!

I must not be normal then, because I find this amazingly easy.

Even if their reasoning doesn't make much sense on a level of pure logic, they do use reasoning. They often chase what feels good, whatever that is. Manson loved controlling his followers, as did Jim Jones. Serial killers often do it for sexual thrills. Narcissists' first care is making themselves seem wonderful--they get off on the feel-good accolades and the prizes it brings. Genocide is done for power, control, and wealth. Inferior products and polluting factories are done for profit and the power that goes with wealth. Dictators love power, wealth, and control--and sex, because with power comes other types of conquest. The same could be said of any other scenario where power is involved. Even rapists gets their thrills from the control they have over the other person.

All evil tends to come down to acting on animal instincts. Everything is about food, power and mates--and keep in mind, food is what we need to survive, that's "security" in the wild. Strip away everything from health care to our homes, and you'll find we don't need any of it to live, just to live well. But food is a must, so any mention of food here can also be considered "security," the security you'll live to see another day. Power brings food (security), territory, and mates. Wealth brings food (security), territory, and mates. Control comes from one form of power or another, and while it may not always bring food (security), territory, and mates together, it often touches on at least one of the three.

Examples?

Serial killers often have "hunting grounds" (territory) and do it for the sexual thrills (faux "mates"). Sociopaths use their charm and ability to blend to get...you guessed it, territory, food, and mates via power and control. Narcissists are generally after the same thing as sociopaths. Cult leaders carve out communes (territories), live off the wealth of their followers (food & power), and engage in sexual congress with their flock (mates). Pedophiles, like rapists, get sexual highs from their domination of their victims as much as the sex itself (power, control, faux "mates," and they also often hunt in "safe territories").

Psychopaths are the only wild card, and can be thought of as the "rabid dogs" of human societies, but even then it comes down to the same three basics, just coming at it backwards. Like that shooter who gunned down a college and left a manifesto about how he was getting back at the girls who wouldn't sleep with him (perceived lack of mates). Columbine may have occurred because of school bullying (trying to take back a loss of perceived power in what would have been part of their home territory). Those assholes who run down Muslims in the streets then screech they're doing it for America are trying to take back what they perceive as their land (territory & food), protect their families and homes (territory, food, and mates), and are willing to kill to keep the mainstream culture, values, and morals they grew up with alive and untainted (power & control).

Psychopaths don't seek to acquire survival basics, they seek to get revenge/cause chaos because of what they feel they don't have or are in danger of losing.

But it's still all food (security), territory, and mates.

We really aren't much more than animals.

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The "they may be an absolutely horrible and irredeemable person, but they like dogs!" approach is one of the things that irks me about "grey" morality in fiction. It's just token traits tacked onto a character as if that gives them greater moral depth, rather than being a one-note trait that might come up all of once in the story or contradict the character's actions. If an evil villain is shown to like and protect dogs, but then blows up a city where there was certainly plenty of dogs, then clearly they didn't think twice about all of the dogs there, did they? Likewise, trying to stick "bad" traits on good people also comes across as forced—a "good person" doesn't shoplift, because they'd care about whom they're stealing from.

Most of my stories involve good people trying to stop bad things from happening, such bad things usually carried out by bad people. The protagonists might be flawed in various ways, but ultimately are making the conscious choice to protect the innocent and make the world a better place. The villains who are truly villainous might think they're doing the right thing, might have done good things for others or cared about other people, but ultimately their evil actions are done for terrible reasons and nothing changes that.

Not that characters who are in-between don't exist in my stories. My current story-in-first draft has an antagonist who believes they are working for humankind's benefit, who takes active steps to mitigate the chaos and prevent innocent death from their actions. The protagonist allies herself with said antagonist because her own life has led her to agree with the antagonist's perspective on humankind, and because she sees the antagonist achieving their ambition as something that'll give her the happy family she's always wanted. And it has a supporting character who believes in being friendly and positive to everyone, in trying to be the best person she can be and encouraging the same in others, who tries to convince the protagonist to turn away from the antagonist and stop their plans.

Good people exist. Bad people exist. And those who are in-between exist. I'd rather not create a false equivalency among those groups of people, just because someone who strives to do good may have the occasional slip or someone who intends to commit an atrocity was nice to their child in the past.

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16 hours ago, Sword of the Moon said:

As an author, most of my characters tend to some shade of gray but I must recognize that there are those who are truly evil. They exist in life and so they should exist in fiction. The man or woman next to you may not be able to act in a logical, rational, moral manner. They might be a sociopath, a psychopath, a malignant narcissist. These people are found everywhere — they might be in our government, they might be our nasty next door neighbor.

The thing is we should not be afraid to include them in our writing. Evil is real. It should be noted that many of these people do not see themselves as evil (though some do not recognize the concept) but feel justified in what they do. The narcissist can convince himself of the rightness of his actions. That makes him no less wrong, no less evil.

While I agree that grey characters aren't always the type of villain you want, I do want to point out that psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists aren't inherently evil people. Based on their lack of ability to empathise and the egos of narcissists and psychopaths, they are more likely to do bad things but they're even more likely to lead normal lives. The majority of psychopaths become bankers or CEOs. They're also very good as firefighters and surgeons. Just writing an evil villain off as a psychopath doesn't actually do enough to cover why they're doing what they are doing.

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I don't write morally grey protagonists. I just... I don't feel like literature needs them as much as they need people who are trying to do the right thing, who are trying to protect the vulnerable, who are trying to stand against darkness. 

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