Lord Viren, the main antagonist of The Dragon Prince

(image from

When we left off on Friday, we were talking about the differences among extreme, realistic, and ambiguous characters. As a refresher, each type of morality results from a different combination of these three factors:

  • The number of good choices versus bad choices the character makes

  • The magnitude of each choice

  • How the character feels about each choice

Extreme characters tend to make (almost) all good or (almost) all bad choices and feel little conflict about any of them, so the magnitude of each choice doesn't matter as much. Realistic characters tend to stick to either good or bad in their major choices but might deviate in smaller choices, and they're likely to feel conflicted about many of these situations.

Ambiguous characters require a much more delicate balance among the three elements to keep it unclear where these characters' moral allegiances lie. Thus, ambiguous characters are really easy to mess up and push into the extreme or realistic categories. One of the most common ways this happens is that a writer tries to send mixed signals through a character's minor choices while having all the character's major choices follow the same alignment. (I'll give an example in a moment.)

The problem with this approach is that major choices, naturally, are the more powerful force in shaping the audience's perception of a character. They show who the character really is when it matters most and when they have nothing to hide behind. Consequently, it's really hard for minor choices to alter whatever opinions the audience forms based on the character's major choices. Just like flowers and an apology can't make up for a partner's abuse, Sarah's surprising her husband and children with their favorite pizza (minor good choice) won't make the audience overlook her ruthless humiliation of a colleague (major bad choice #1) or her blackmailing a client into accepting an unfair deal (major bad choice #2). And if Sarah also insults a homeless man on the street (minor bad choice), that simply reinforces the audience's existing negative perceptions of her. 

I think this mixed-minor-signals-but-consistent-major-signals thing is what happened with Lord Viren in The Dragon Prince. *Warning: spoilers ahead.* I've probably missed a few things, but I created these charts to show all the decisions of significance that we see Viren make in the series (roughly in order of appearance):

Now, math isn't my best subject, but by the numbers, that looks like a fairly even good-bad split in Viren's minor choices. His major choices, however, lean so far bad that they practically tip the scale over. Suddenly my perceptions of him make a lot more sense! (And it really makes me wonder how the writers could have ever thought Viren would come across as ambiguous.)

So when writing characters in the gray area, try making lists like these. If the balance is lopsided for either major or minor choices (or both), you might need to make some changes.

And if you want some help getting that balance right, check out my book-coaching or editing packages.

Write on,


P.S. Missed part 1? You can read it here.