• Candice Bellows, The Story Engineer


A few weeks ago, I finally watched a show that my siblings have been talking about for a while: The Dragon Prince. I really liked it and was happy to find out that Netflix has ordered four more seasons. 

As I often do, when I ran out of episodes, I started trawling the internet for more information about the show. In the process, I found out that the show's creators had intended for Lord Viren to be a morally ambiguous character. That raised an eyebrow for me because, as I expressed it to my brother "Z," "There's nothing ambiguous about [Viren]. He's evil." "Z" agreed.

Clearly, whatever the writers had tried to do with Viren hadn't worked, at least for "Z" and me. And that shows us some important points about writing gray characters, antiheroes, or whatever you want to call those characters who aren't clearly good or evil.

As I see it, there are three types of character morality (which I'll get to in a minute), and each type requires a different interplay of three key factors:

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

  • The magnitude of each choice (e.g., punching someone in anger vs. killing an innocent person, holding a door for someone vs. donating bone marrow to a stranger)

  • How the character feels about each choice

Extreme characters, such as Emperor Palpatine or Fire Lord Ozai, occupy the ends of the moral spectrum because they make either (almost) all bad choices or (almost) all good choices. (The latter is rare, as "too-perfect" characters drive audiences crazy with their lack of realism.) Consequently, the magnitude of each decision doesn't matter much, especially because extreme characters rarely feel conflicted about their choices. In fact, extreme evil characters often revel in their villainy. The main difficulty in writing an extreme character is to avoid making them so over-the-top that the audience can't take them seriously.

A realistic character, such as Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, leans strongly toward either good or evil and makes most of their choices accordingly. However, unlike an extreme character, a realistic character's flaws/weaknesses sometimes lead them to make small deviations from their overall good/bad alignment. For example, a generally good character might pick on an unpopular classmate to fit in, or a generally evil character might stick to a code of honor even when it inconveniences them. These situations often cause at least a little conflict within the character. In decisions of greater magnitude, a realistic character frequently struggles but usually ends up sticking to their overall alignment. On the other hand, they might at least temporarily squash their doubts if they believe the proposed deviation is "for the greater good" or will help them achieve some larger goal. We see these kinds of struggles as Frodo begins to succumb to the Ring's corruption or during Luke's various battles with Darth Vader.

The balancing act is trickiest when we write ambiguous characters, such as Walter White or Rameses from The Prince of Egypt. This difficulty, I suspect, is why we don't see nearly as many ambiguous characters as we do extreme or realistic characters. Our brains don't deal well with ambiguity, meaning lots of meant-to-be-ambiguous characters end up sliding into one of the other categories. We have to delicately weigh both the numbers and the magnitudes of an ambiguous character's good and bad choices to keep the audience guessing about where the character truly stands. 

Since this post is getting a bit long, I'll stop here for today. In the next post, I'll share some common mistakes authors make with ambiguous characters and how we can avoid doing the same things.

Write on,


P.S. I'm working on adding book marketing to my services. What kinds of things do you currently do to market your books? Let me know in the comments!

P.P.S. You can read part 2 of this series here. (Yes, the URLs are a bit confusing. Wix was being a pill when I was putting these posts together.)

(Thanks to Gift Habeshaw for sharing their work on Unsplash.)