A little ramble on morality and, ultimately, how to write a three-dimensional character.
One thing that pops up again and again is the clumsy handling of characterisation and morality. In many cases, clumsy characterisation = clumsy morality.
How to fail at grey morality:
- Present the character as "morally grey" because they do good things, yet they also do bad things.
- Make the character good but give them one moral flaw. Eg. Sadism.
- Make the character bad but give them one good trait. Eg. Loves puppies.
- Not realise that the point of grey morality is to step away from presenting actions as inherently good or evil.
- Flatten the antagonists so the grey protagonist by contrast remains the good guy.
I could argue that black and white morality is, in itself, immoral. Shouldn't we empathise with others rather than scapegoating them as nothing but their vices? Shouldn't we give the accused a chance to speak?
A soldier is both a hero and a villain, depending on which side of the gun barrel you're standing. We are all driven, in our kindness, selfishness, and everything in between, by mechanisms more complex than "right" or "wrong". Writing grey morality isn't about mixing black and white paint on the character profile. It's about exploring their depths.
Why a character does good things is as important as why they do bad things. Don't use their morality system as the explanation for their actions. Instead, explain the reasoning behind their morality system.
I lower the gun. He's only a child.That's taking it for granted that we're cross-universally agreed that killing children is evil, just because, and leaving it at that.
I lower the gun. That's somebody's son. I think of Jamie, barrelling through the door with his drenched hair and muddy shorts, and half the football field on the carpet. I'd lose it if I lost him.
I lower the gun. I'm a bastard at best, but the brat deserves to grow up. You know? Drink, drive, kiss a girl. Maybe I'll kill him when he's older.
I lower the gun. If someone hadn't done the same for me, all those years ago, I wouldn't even be here.
I lower the gun. Mama said I shouldn't kill children.
In these examples the character makes the same decision, but for very different reasons.
Exploring these reasons makes a character three-dimensional. It gives them depth, emotion, and most importantly, identity. It sets them apart from the thousands of gun-lowering protagonists you find out there.
It's worth mentioning that undeadcrabstick once told me about a writer who, prior to experiencing the loss of his father, lived a fairly sheltered life and saw morality in black and white. He recounts that he reconsidered his view afterwards. So perhaps the secret to grey morality is simply getting hurt, and realising that life isn't as easy as good and bad.