Book Talk

A Ramble: Morally Black and White Characters and Plots

I am counting this as one of my posts for Bookending Spring!

I do think that a ramble is the best way to describe this post, for today I’m going to be capturing some of the thoughts that have been floating around my head and put them down here. I’m struggling to organize this neatly into sections, so it will be a bit over the place, but I hope it still makes some sense.

So, without further ado—

I think most readers will be familiar with the concept of morally gray characters. These are the ones who can’t be categorized as either morally black or white. They have probably done a few of the following during their lives: lied, cheated, stolen, hurt someone, killed, broken someone’s trust, backstabbed… you get the idea. BUT what makes them different from the unredeemable morally black person with a black hole for a heart who is evil just because, is that they either: have a reason for it and feel justified for their actions because they do it for a cause that they feel very strongly about, or have other good qualities beside their vices (which they often struggle with).

Throughout the years, I think there has been a push for and increase in morally gray characters. I myself am one of the ones who is always on the lookout for them, and a villain without a reason often leaves me feeling… disappointed, like something is missing.

Gray characters make us think. They blur the line between right and wrong, making us think about the beliefs we hold, and what makes an act excusable. Is it wrong to kill for revenge? Is it wrong to kill, cheat, and lie in order to bring your people from oppression? The people on the opposing side of you have their own reasons for doing what they did, they aren’t evil cackling villains, so is it right to do what you did even if you had a good cause? They had what they thought was a good cause too.

I love gray characters. However, I read something a while back in a post written by someone I follow. The man who wrote the post doesn’t run a book related blog, and the post wasn’t about morally gray or black or white characters either. Instead, he mentioned almost offhandedly how he wondered why some people liked morally complex books or weren’t as drawn to the villain vs superhero thing—because weren’t books for escaping from all that complexity? I wish I could quote directly what he said, but I went back to his blog and scrolled through his last posts, used the ctrl+f search function, and I… just couldn’t find it?

Still, what he wrote was somewhat along those lines, and it got me thinking. Why do we want to read about all these morally gray situations anyway? The answer to this may seem easy to answer at first, for I’ve touched on why I think some of us like them already. They make us think. They’re also more realistic.

But wait.

For many people, including me, we treat books as an escape from reality. So why do we want more reality and hard decisions? Yeah, I know, the morally gray situations in books aren’t exactly the same as what we encounter in real life, it is sort of different. It could be a made up setting. There could be magic. A different political system. But if you stop and think about what you’re reading, these books often have parallels to real life. At their core, they deal with and explore some of the same problems.

Yet we still like reading them? Isn’t that strange? Why do I like these books? Wouldn’t it be easier to escape to a place where the right and wrong is clear, as a reprieve from all the issues in our world?

Or maybe it’s not that strange and I’m just complicating everything, haha.

Instead of talking more about this though, I’m going to bring up another point. Is it really that bad to have a clear villain and hero in books? Are such books really boring? Or can they still offer something to the reader?

In fact, as I think about it, I feel like many of the books I read in middle grade had clearer lines drawn between the good and the bad. (That brings up another question: are MG books less morally complex? I think it may be too hard to generalize in this, but its been so long since I have read MG that I wonder about this. Did I just accidentally choose books that turned out to be like this?) I still enjoyed these books, and I don’t think it’s just because I didn’t know to recognize what the moral black and white and gray was properly.

Even with the villain clearly defined, it didn’t mean that the morally white protagonist couldn’t grow and develop as they journeyed to defeat the evil. They still had hurdles to overcome, and they still learned more about themselves, their inner strength, and usually along the way deepened ongoing relationships or created new ones. I think it’s also important to note here that by morally white characters, I don’t mean the Mary Sue type. Being morally white doesn’t mean being perfect at everything.

Therefore, I think it’s still possible for a good writer to make a compelling story even with those clear divides. The story will just focus on something different—instead of the right, wrong, and moral issues, it would focus on the character’s development along their journey to achieve the goal and defeat the villain.

In the end, I don’t think I have a specific point to make, but I hope I maybe got a few of you thinking or offered a new perspective. Tell me what you think!

Do you enjoy books with clear morally black and white characters? Why do you think morally complex books are still a great way to escape? Do you ever wish the world could be easily divided into right and wrong? If you read MG books or remember your experiences, do you remember them being more clear cut, or not?

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