Dos and Don’ts of Creating Subversive Characters // Mini-Rant & Discussion Post about Morally Grey Characters

Characters who aren’t quite villains but it’s hard to tell the difference.  Morally grey. Makes you question everything you actually thought about the characters.

Sometimes they end up being the hero. i.e. Kaz Brekker

Other times, everyone forgives them after they’ve been totally terrible. And maybe they didn’t do anything remarkably heroic? Always frustrating to me.

Great stories have contrasting characters. It’s part of great writing. Surprising readers, making the story suspenseful. But I think, we have some problems with writing morally grey characters. Overused ideas. Unhealthy relationships. Bad ideas.

I thinks some of these tropes can be salvaged. Maybe. We’ll see. Also, I have some ideas for using different styles and creating better morally grey characters.

Tragic Backstory

Everyone has a story. And sometimes people’s stories are really, truly horrific.
But I also think this idea is overused. Sometimes, readers are asked to forgive really HORRIBLE characters just because of a tragedy.

Does Snape really get away with being a gigantic bully because of his tragic backstory with Lily?

Maybe it can work once in a great while, but I think this idea is way overused. So personally, if I’m creating a morally grey character, I’m probably not going to employ this idea.

Also, how does this even work in real life? How often do we just shrug away bullies because they had a hard childhood.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in grace. People shouldn’t be punished forever because of mistakes. People can change, and our characters can mature and grow.

But to just get a free pass because of a hard time? That’s not right. First, show me you want to change before asking me to forget all the bad stuff you’ve done. Don’t just use your hard past as an excuse.

Because, we all suffer. Some, more than others. That’s not an excuse to do whatever you want. We all have to choose to do what is right despite the trials we face. 

One good example of well used tragic backstory is A Tale of Two Cities. 

Sydney is a terrible kind of guy. He drinks and wastes his life and isn’t very nice to other people. He never talks about his pretty rough childhood and doesn’t expect to get a pass for it.

We aren’t asked to forgive Sydney (& love him forever) because of his horrible past. Nope, we’re asked to love Sydney because of his choices. His choice to save Darnay and love Lucie and be unselfish. His choices are what makes me completely adore him forever.

You could say I really loved this classic

Broken Emotions

I do understand this type of issue. As a kid, I was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. That’s complicated words for broken emotions. I just didn’t react to anything and was basically isolated from my own feelings.
But this isn’t normal. And if you’re going to write emotionally dead characters, they’re better be a really, really good reason. (because I kind of know this type of pain just doesn’t happen)

Also, broken emotions aren’t easily fixed. It’s not something that heals overnight because of true love.
Most of the times you can’t emotionally connect to people because you don’t trust anyone.

I get really, really annoyed with the heartless assassin. This epic badass is randomly killing people and feeling no pain whatsoever. If that happened in real life, we’d be calling this character a sociopathic serial killer.

Instead, we’re asked to accept them as broken characters. Tragic heroes..Oh, and they just need a romantic relationship to see how broken they are.


I’m going to be personal about this topic. I remember the inability to feel, to cry. The absolute frustration of knowing you should care, but not caring. I talked to counselors, explained it to countless people in my life. The same words.

“It’s like there’s a wall around my heart and I can’t get any of the bricks to move”

That wasn’t a problem romance could magically solve. And I wasn’t heartless. Or entirely emotionless. I was unable to open my heart, unable to feel what I wanted to feel.

Recovering your emotions takes trust. Incredible patient and loving friendships.

I  want to see this kind of emotional trauma represented in books. I do not want to read more of cheap ways authors employ brokenness to create hard characters. It feels like the real trauma people experience is being exploited as a cheap character trick?

A messy beautiful example of this is Monty in the Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

Monty is emotional but he doesn’t want to deal with his emotions. He suspends them, hides them away under this veil of sarcasm and flippancy. As you read, you learn why Monty doesn’t want to feel. How desperately he doesn’t want to be hurt.

Monty is terrified of feeling because of horrifying abuse. But his emotions aren’t dead.  He has to learn to trust and be open with himself and others. I loved this journey to trust.

Fixing the bad guy

Oh boy, I kind of get up in arms about this idea. That you can “fix a bad character.”

Especially if said bad character is a manipulative or abusive jerk. You can’t just step in and fix someone, voila!  They need help. But it isn’t right to sacrifice your emotional health to save some random guy.

Not saying it’s always guys who need saved. But, I do think we tend to see this most often with guys and girls trying to fix selfish characters. We shouldn’t show characters staying in unhealthy relationships just to fix anyone. That’s not healthy and it’s a very dangerous message to send readers.

All this to say, love is powerful. It can be healing. But it shouldn’t be manipulated and controlled, forced into unhealthy relationships for selfish reasons.
Too often, victims are bullied into complying with unhealthy relationships because they may be the only chance the abuser has. But if you start abusing someone, you’ve lost all chances. Sorry. Until abusers show genuine change, it’s not safe to stick around abusers. (Also, this gets into the sticky subject, can abusers really change?)

Anyway, my main point is, keep your characters safe! Don’t present unhealthy relationships as great ideas. Even if presented in a morally grey light, reading about these relationships  can harm readers.

An example of edgy characters and messy relationships is Will and Tessa in The Infernal Devices.

infernal devices

Tessa is drawn to Will. Will is a manipulative jerk. (but also adorable. but only later) 
Anyway, at the end of the first books, Tessa realizes she needs to stay away from Will. Smart! He’s just going to hurt her if she sticks around. She feels pity for him, but knows she can’t save him. YESSSS. Write more like this….

Will also doesn’t want to hurt Tessa. He seeks help – but not from her. Magnus is basically the Shadowhunter version of a therapist. If you’re hurting, be like Will. Get help to stop being a manipulative jerk. Then go fall in love.

Now that I’ve kind of ranted about writing edgy characters & messy situations, I have some ideas about really great ways to write morally grey characters. Would I really be a writer if I didn’t have ideas? 

Multiple Perspectives 

This is something I’m playing around with my current WIP & several readers have really liked it so far. *happy squeal*

^These penguins just make me happy. I needed an excuse to include them in today’s post. 🙂 ^

So what exactly am I talking about? Well, let me explain.
You have a morally grey character. And at least two povs narrating the story. Both of them view this character differently. One thinks he’s pretty much pure evil, the other character understands and maybe empathizes?
Anyway, now the readers see both sides of the coin. The bias against and for this character. 

Because truthfully, we can judge people pretty quickly. most of the time, we don’t know the backstory of everyone around us. And if they act like a jerk, we might just assume they are a jerk, without ever digging deeper.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like spending time with people that are mean. I might actually avoid these people.
So, if I’m narrative this person’s story, I might be really biased. That’s when you want two narrators. One who thinks this character is TERRIBLE. And another narrator who thinks differently.

And the fun part is, the readers don’t know who is right! HAHAHA. I may be having a bit too much fun with this idea.

Overcoming Characters

It feels like a ton of books are all about abusive, manipulative characters becoming lovable, tragic heroes. Maybe these kind of characters are very represented?

What I would love to see more of are characters who went through trauma and abuse & are learning to deal with life. They aren’t abusive or manipulate. Maybe average?

Sometimes they can be annoying. They don’t really trust other people. “normal” things can make them panic. Life is a constant struggle of finding yourself & growing past crippling memories.

But that’s not the stuff other people see. These characters can be flippant, outrageously hyper, or super friendly. Sometimes they can be surly, really quiet, or lonely. Everyone around them doesn’t see the daily struggle to wake up and keep going.

A strange tug-of-war between trusting people & being yourself. Even trusting yourself and no second guessing everything you do.

These kind of stories don’t have straight cut villains. They aren’t easy to write. Maybe, they’ll be hard to read. But I think they are important to tell. These are the kind of morally grey characters I want to read about. 

An example for this is Wallace in Eliza and Her Monsters

I adore Wallace! He’s so hurt & broken & learning to trust again. Wallace is selectively mute & a football player? That feels like it shouldn’t go together? But it does!
He also feels deeply and somewhat hides his feelings. Reading about him, you aren’t quite sure what he’s up to? Eliza doesn’t know whether to trust him?

I just love how his character was written and how deeply hurting characters were given such a beautiful story. Just one reason why Eliza and Her Monsters is one of my favorites.

lets chat

Do you get annoyed with morally grey characters? How would you write them differently? Should all morally grey characters be redeemed? Are all characters redeemable? 

What kind of morally grey characters do you want to see written? Who are your favorite morally grey characters? 


Drop some knowledge!

%d bloggers like this: