Shades Of Grey: Iron Man On Moral Ambiguity

I’m being poked. “Pepper, I told you not…” My helmet is forcibly removed. It’s Thor, and suddenly I realise why I’m being treated in such an undignified manner. My heart sinks, and I let slip an expletive that probably wouldn’t get through the swear filters JARVIS has been secretly adding to my suit’s microphone.

where do you think i've been for 3 hoursWhat do you mean, forget? Of course I didn’t forget.

It’s my turn to post. And there I was, looking forward to a nice relaxing evening working on one of my suits. An old one, actually: it needs some fine-tuning, but I reckon it’s pretty close to operational. No doubt when I get closer, I’ll figure out what it was that made it break in the first place.

So. Morally ambiguous characters. My favourite.

I was afraid that I might be stepping on Loki’s toes here, but I’ve seen his post on villains (got there before you, ner ner ner), so I think I’m safe. Not that I’m scared of Loki. But you know. It pays to be careful.

Morally ambiguous characters are fascinating, whether they’re villains that are too easy to sympathise with, or protagonists who keep stepping over the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Your readers are left wondering who they’re meant to support, and questioning their own moral values. This is particularly the case when a protagonist they loved turns to the dark side and starts killing people.

One of my favourite examples of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. At the beginning of Game Of Thrones, you’re probably rooting for the Starks. Because let’s face it. Anyone called Stark is bound to be awesome. And you’re also pretty sure that the Lannisters are the bad guys, because of the whole incest-and-throwing-small-kids-off-towers thing.

By book four? It’s not looking quite so black-and-white. Hell, it’s even possible to feel sorry for Joffrey at times, if you’re trying, but it’s probably not worth the effort.

ASoIaF illustrates two important ideas: characters who start out innocent and ‘good’ but through circumstances are driven down an increasingly ‘dark’ path until their actions are of questionable morality (e.g. Arya Stark), and characters who start out fairly despicable but because of the journey they take, reach a point where they’ve got pretty substantial redeeming features (e.g. Jaime Lannister).

i'm alarmed with how okay with this you are

So how do you do this?

I was recently working on a narrative where the protagonist was a contract killer, and she killed people pretty emotionlessly from a young age. Not gonna lie, I took tips from Natasha, but don’t tell her I said that. While I was writing, I had to keep thinking: “What’s going to make readers like this character?” You know, apart from the fact that I wrote her, so she’s awesome. I needed my readers to care about a character who, by all objective measures, was a pretty awful person.

Making readers like a bad guy

Give your character a sympathetic feature

Maybe they kill people, but hey, they love small fluffy animals and they spend a lot of time looking after children. It’s hard to write them off as evil, but at the same time, how can you call them good? Bam, moral ambiguity.

Make them worthy of respect

Okay, so they slept with their sister and killed a bunch of people, but they’re also loyal, honourable, and willing to rescue people they care about. It kind of makes them hard to hate.

Make them suffer

Oh man. This one’s fun. See, you can have the most awful character, but you put them through hell and your readers will start caring about them because “Nobody deserves that kind of treatment, you cruel author of evilness!” This one can also provide the trigger for your character to grow as a person.

But then you’ve got to think about how to do the opposite. A hero who always does the right thing is boring, and it also makes it harder to root for the villain. To create true moral ambiguity, it’s got to be on both sides. A heroic villain. A villainous hero. (My alter-ego write about this, actually.)

Making readers doubt a good guy

Let them make the wrong choices

A hero who never acts on impulse, selfishness or downright stupidity is way too nice. Give me a hero who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that gets a lot of people hurt and/or killed and forces everyone to re-evaluate how they feel about the characters. Selfishness is a good way of making your heroes less clear-cut.


Make them abandon their principles

You’ve got a character with a strong moral backbone who believes in doing right by his fellow man? Yeah, right. Put him in a situation where it’s do-or-die and see how tightly he clings to those morals. A clue: not very.

Show the consequences of what they do

Saving a city from destruction is only a great idea when it hasn’t been half smashed up and its entire population dead because the hero didn’t do enough to rescue people before taking on the enemy. People are almost always going to suffer, often as a result of people who thought they were acting for the greater good. The greater good is usually only greater for the people who weren’t there at the time. Dwell on that, and your readers will start wondering who the real hero is.

Play your good guys and bad guys off each other, with the failures of the good guys being picked up by the bad guys. Superhero all ready to run over a kitten in an attempt to save the world; villain picks it up and moves it out of the way. Make them work with and against each other. Don’t give all your good qualities to the hero, and don’t give all the flaws to the villain. (You may want to read my post on character flaws. Hey, have the one about antagonists while you’re here. You’re welcome.)

And eventually, it should be kinda hard to tell which is which. Those are my favourites.

So stop writing black and white stories, and give me something where the lines in the sand are smudged and overtrodden: where it gets really interesting.

arrive with crowds

-- Iron Man

Thor? Thor, you can stop poking me now.


  1. Game of Thrones is such a perfect example--and I love the pain you go through.

    Love me this post.

    1. "I love the pain you go through." You know, that's the kind of thing that makes people think you're a psychopath. You might wanna keep an eye on that. ;)


    2. By "you," she really meant "I," which makes her more of a masochist. They're usually harmless - and, also, entertaining characters.

  2. I have a conspiracy theory to propose... Lego Chima is actually a sanitized, kids' version rip-off of Game of Thrones! *gasps from the crowd*
    Now I have to figure out how to do this with my most recent hero... it's not coming out much early in the book. He's supposed to have a rather black sense of humor, and he's a little bit of an anti-hero, but he still has the strong moral compass and I don't know what he should do so the halo is kind of tarnished. (Later in the book, it's not such a problem. The villainess has a son and the hero kidnaps him. >:-D)