Insights of the Writes II: Morally Grey Characters

Hi everyone!! Welcome back to the second post of my new blog series, Insights of the Writes. This is a blog series that will be running for the entire month of February, tackling various writing-related topics. In my last post, we discussed prologues, talking about why they are criticized and why they are lauded, and diving into the anatomy of a good prologue with The Gilded Wolves as our case study!! 

And, as I said before, I will personally delve into 4 topics within the subjects of Story Style, Character, World, and Plot during this series, and featuring YOUR suggested topics and questions (click here to access the form). Since we can now check Story Style off our list, it’s time for CHARACTER. More specifically, MORALLY GREY CHARACTERS.

What is their appeal? What exactly differentiates them from villains and heroes? What even is a morally grey character? (Hint: Unfortunately, stabby girls who like wielding knives and wearing crowns doesn’t suffice as a literary definition 🙃)

Let’s dive in!

For several years now, more and more books, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, have been featuring and centering around morally grey characters. Done right, they usually garner acclaim and many readers’ devotion. But what about the morally grey character is so compelling? (Especially because…well…did I mention how stabby they can get?) 

Well, morally grey characters are characters who abide by their own moral code. Unlike the hero, they rarely display nobility or selflessness, but unlike the villain, they know their limits. Morally grey characters push themselves to achieve their goals, typically resorting to unethical means, but it is their foundationally pure motivation and sympathetic backstory that keeps us invested in them.

So, Eleanor…what does this mean in a bullet point breakdown? 

So glad you asked! 😀 Based on my readings and observations, a morally grey character will generally have the following:

  • a moral code that they create for themselves and abide by, without need for society’s validation
  • a motivation that drives them and usually stems from a pivotal moment in their backstory
  • redeeming qualities that are fighting to succeed but villainous characteristics that try to prevail

Does this sound like the perfect recipe for heaps and heaps of internal conflict? You bet it does!

We really like watching characters suffer and sweat and bleed and get back up, don’t we? 🙂

For today’s morally grey example, I decided to go with Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko was one of my favorites 🙂 just saying. I especially liked him in Season 2, where he was teetering between good and evil (he literally went through a metamorphosis), and his character felt very developed! I think Zuko is a perfect example of a morally grey character who has been accepted readily by audiences, and it’s not just because he’s a grumpy character who is secretly a cinnamon roll (sort of) inside. 

Let’s get into it! (Spoilers for A:TLA ahead, but I do encourage you to read the case study even if you want to watch A:TLA later)

  • a moral code that they create for themselves and abide by, without need for society’s validation

In Season 1, Zuko is bent on capturing the Avatar (Aang) to regain his honor, and spends most of his time on a ship ordering the crew around and training with fire. While his uncle Iroh (another one of the kindest cinnamon rolls out there) is constantly trying to ease his temper and slow him down, Zuko is prone to fiery outbursts and demands that things be done his way. It isn’t until we are halfway through the season that we learn why he is so fixated on capturing Aang. 

Zuko’s moral code is that he is willing to go to the extremes to capture Aang, from chasing him across the oceans to frightening civilians. He doesn’t care what his mutinous crew members think, and rarely listens to Iroh (at first), thus completing this first bullet point of criteria. 

  • a motivation that drives them and usually stems from a pivotal moment in their backstory

Zuko’s determination to regain his honor stems from his refusal to duel his father in front of all the nobles after speaking out in a meeting to defend a group of new, innocent, eager soldiers. His loyalty and goodness was warped into a sign of weakness and resulted in his utter humiliation and basically exile.

(“You were my crown // Now I’m in exile seein’ you out” anyone? Swiftie reference!). 

Throughout Season 1, and extending into Season 2, we see Zuko’s bitterness and humiliation and desire to “redeem himself” in the form of chasing the Avatar across the world, with no thought for what the Avatar means to so many innocent civilians. (But don’t worry, he eventually learns :D)

  • redeeming qualities that are fighting to succeed but villainous characteristics that try to prevail

In Season 2, Zuko goes through a literal metamorphosis as he tries to figure himself out. Forced into hiding with Iroh, the two wander through the Earth Kingdom, and Zuko learns more about how the war has affected the innocent and the young. Still walled off and guarded, Zuko does manage to reveal flashes of goodness, when he tries his best to be happy for Iroh when he opens his tea shop (the Jasmine Dragon, woo hoo!) and to rest his impulses to chase signs of the Avatar in an effort to become a better person…then his sister came and things got crazy, but we definitely saw Zuko trying to be good in Season 2! I’m not sure I was the biggest fan of how Season 3 showed Zuko’s redemption, because Season 2 had such a nice subtlety to it, but it was all good in the end 😀

At the end of Season 2, after Zuko has gone to considerable lengths to become a better person, all his efforts are thrown away when he is offered what he has truly wanted all this time—glory and honor in the form of capturing the Avatar. BUT he is haunted by this decision in Season 3, especially when his uncle is captured, and shows genuine disappointment in Zuko (tears!!) for turning away from the light. This was an excellent show of the light and dark in Zuko battling to reign supreme—and in the end, light won. But watching his struggle to achieve this true redemption was so rewarding.

Hopefully I did well at showing how Zuko fulfills the three bullet points of morally grey character criteria! I encourage you to try applying this criteria to your favorite morally grey characters on your own—I feel confident in saying that I believe you’ll find it will work for almost all such characters!! 

And…congratulations, you made it to the end!! I hope you enjoyed the second post of Insights of the Writes, I enjoyed writing it 😀 

There’s still time to ask your own writing-related questions for a chance to see the answers in my future posts of the blog series! Simply fill out the form here.

Talk to me in the comments below! What did you think of this post? Anything else you want to add? Any questions at all you might have? I’d love to know!!

7 Comments

  1. Zuko is my favourite ATLA character ever and I love the show so much! All the points you stared here about Zuko’s journey are so on point and so true!! I loved watching his redemption art – THE redemption arc of all time, might I say?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yay another Zuko fan!! I’m so glad you liked the points I made!! His redemption arc was simply amazing and has brought out the inner redemption enthusiast in me for sure!! Thank you so much for reading Jan!!

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  2. Something I’d like to throw in is the thought that many characters become morally grey by doing wrong things to get a righteous out come. For instance, Anakin from Star Wars can be used as an example. Because of his love for his mother, he avenges her in her death…yet later feels deep remorse for it. Then later, he is haunted by the nightmare of Padme (his wife) dying in childbirth and wants to do something about it. In the search for a way, he is presented with one…but to obtain the power to heal someone as he wishes, he must break a few rules of his creed as a Jedi. So, he bends the rules, at this point, only seeking to save Padme and other hurting people (like he was unable to, his mother.). But the feelings his defiance gives him is freeing…and he then is tempted too greatly by the forces of the dark side. Thus, he goes from a morally grey character, to the villian.
    Great discussion, Eleanor!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this detailed insight Millay! I agree, there are several characters who start out pure and innocent, but when they are brought down by grief and tragedy, it can really incline them towards the dark side. So while they may think they are doing the wrong things for the right reason, they end up doing the wrong things for the wrong reason…due to their pain and heartbreak.

      Liked by 1 person

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