Morally grey characters walk the fine line between good and evil
By Ella Rodrigues and McKenna Seegmiller
In a world where our actions are placed in carefully crafted boxes of good and evil, there lies a special kind of character. Carefully balanced in between the spaces is someone who is morally grey. A morally grey character walks the thin line between hero and villain, and questions societal norms and their own morality through their actions and environment.
Laura Friday, Summit Shasta’s English 9 teacher, defines morally grey characters as someone who, “isn’t necessarily 50% evil 50% good. I think that they are any combination of both. Like, selfish and not great decision makers, not necessarily great leaders, but sometimes display characteristics of trying to do what’s best for their community or trying to be trying to make better choices.”
She continues, “I think there’s a lot of growth happening with these sorts of characters and the author tends to make that very obvious and calls attention to the flaw early in the story and often the whole story is centered on the character trying to learn some important lesson or overcome some personal setback.”
Morally grey characters aren’t necessarily strictly good or evil. Their motivations are never purely black or white.
We asked Jade Lim, one of the Co-Presidents of Shasta’s book club, about the differences between a villain and a morally grey character. Her response was simple: “A villain is someone who is purely, just purely evil. They’re probably selfish, in a way, with no good intentions. Whereas a morally gray character understands their flaws.”
In sum, the difference between a villain and a morally grey character is the intention. This reasoning can be seen in many different forms in psychology. According to “Killing and Letting Someone Die” written by Lawrence and Charlotte Becker, “some philosophers believe that letting die is not as bad as killing because of the difference in the intentions that accompany the two kinds of action. Someone who kills typically intends to bring about death; whereas someone who merely lets die usually has a different intention.”
Questioning the intentions behind a character’s actions can reveal the morality of the character. We all make mistakes and we all have motivations for the things we do, or don’t do.
People are often drawn to morally grey characters because they see themselves in their flaws and characteristics. Ms. Friday continues, “I think, like, all humans that duality of human nature is such a common theme throughout the history of stories and nobody is wholly good or wholly evil and as much as we strive to be good we just sometimes can’t help ourselves. We’re naturally creatures of short term orientation and instant gratification and as much as we want to make the right choice all the time, we don’t always think about long term consequences.”
“So, it is inspiring to watch a perfect character on screen or read about that perfect character. I’m left feeling motivated and I certainly aspire to be more like them, but I think it’s also empowering to watch someone make more incremental steps towards being better, because that’s the trajectory, like that’s more of a trajectory that I can relate to.”
Noe Moffat, the other Co-President of Shasta’s book club, gave some insight on her favorite morally grey character: Rowan Damisch from the “Arc of the Scythe” trilogy. In this novel, scythes are responsible for controlling the population of people as they are immortal and cannot die naturally. “At the beginning of the series, Rowan is a somewhat bitter kid who is indifferent towards the world,” Noe explains. “He doesn’t care much for what happens to him and around him. As the story progresses, Rowan is put under a lot of stress and is forced into a situation that requires him to bend his morals. He eventually wants to ‘save’ the scythedom and he does that by killing scythes that he considers ‘bad.’”
Characters can go through a lot of growth throughout the cycle of a film or movie, and their internal struggle with their morals is what makes them relatable characters. Jade continues, giving her reasoning as to why these characters are the way that they are: “I think it’s the fact that they’re not perfect. In fictional stories and movies and all that, we know that we see a lot of perfection, we always wish that we could be that person. I think it’s really interesting to see that their life isn’t perfect, it’s just like ours. And honestly, the way that they handle conflicts can really influence the way I think about how I handle things.”
Noe elaborates, saying that these characters might be tempted to give up and give in, when they really should continue fighting for their cause: “I feel like people are drawn to them because they act as escapes from our daily lives where we are expected to choose the good thing.” Noe continues, explaining that they are an escape because, “these characters can choose the wrong thing and still turn out okay in the end.”
Ms. Friday best summarized by stating, “a story is driven by a character’s growth over time and the theme tends to lie in that character learning some important lesson. There is nothing for them to learn if there is no area of growth. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the text is beyond just inspiring me to be better than I am. But I love morally grey characters. I think we can learn a lot from them.”
Featured Image (top of the post): Eric Killmonger (Black Panther), Severus Snape (Harry Potter Series) and Kylo Ren (Star Wars) are all well-known morally grey characters. (Photo Credit: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., Disney)