Writing Morally Complex Characters

I’ve found that writing morally complex characters boils down to simultaneously setting them up to fail and succeed.

At some juncture in the story, even a “good” character should seem just as likely to make the wrong choice as the right one! Strong characters are described in layers so that by the time they reach a decision point, readers legitimately wonder what this character will decide and why.

A Few Classic Examples

To illustrate, here are some complex characters who struggled with a moral decision:

  • Will Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo choose revenge or not? Dumas gives his protagonist plenty of justifications for revenge, to which even the most benevolent of readers can relate.
Super Old Cover for Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo

Super Old Cover for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Wikipedia

  • What will Marlow choose as a result of being exposed to a megalomaniac like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness?
  • In Little Women, will Alcott’s Jo March decide it’s best to chase her dreams or become more content with day to day life?

Characters Are Only As Good As They Are Illustrative

Characters who are too good may end up being no good at all to your readers! Characters don’t even have to be likable or admirable to be interesting or valuable.

“I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars

I don’t tend to feel inspired by those characters an author is trying to pass off as just fundamentally and naturally amazing.

For a book to be of much use to me, I want the injustices articulated. I want the character all tangled up and tripping over emotional and cognitive responses. I want the vicissitudes of weighing a difficult decision explored. I want the moral issue itself investigated beyond just the obvious, be that through internal dialogue, conversations, or plot. I want to feel the character’s failures in my gut so I can better share the successes, or vice versa.

This Goes for Female Characters, Too. Obviously!

Or maybe I should write that ‘Obviously?’ because while things are getting better in this regard, some writers continue to produce a propensity of idealized, one-dimensional female characters.

How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

The idea that female characters are innately good rather than having to make conscious effort to be so is societal programming and blindness, in my opinion.

On a personal level, whenever a well-intentioned man says something to this effect, it gives me the impression they are really seeking exemption from developing said virtue themselves. Bleh! This sentiment also implies that it requires less effort for a woman to choose moral goodness than it does for a man. Nope. It takes tons of effort, at least in my experience! Any character who is written with a moral dilemma tends to feel more realistic to me.

More Reasons to Explore Moral Gray Area

I’ll even go so far as to say that delving into topics of moral ambiguity is not just okay, but noble. Here’s why:

  • Fiction is a place to think and decide without having to bear the harsh, real-life consequences.
  • Human darkness is in you and me and all our readers anyway. By describing it you’re calling it out to be examined and named, rather than left to fester, shapeless and unchallenged.
  • It’s more fun! It’s entertaining and being entertaining is a valuable service to your fellow humans. It’s relieving.
  • Your higher power writes that way. Probably. I feel like mine does. The Bible? Not exactly G-rated.

My style is still never going to be as gritty as some writers’ but I have felt my writing open up when I’ve decided to be more realistic about how my characters manifest a spectrum of human foibles, manifestations of fears, cruel intentions, and deleterious motivations.

But what do you think about all this? Please add your two cents! I always benefit from it.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Morally Complex Characters

  1. Good people are all alike, bad people are bad in their own unique ways. 😉 I always feel like the potential to make a wrong choice is at the heart of an engaging story, because otherwise, who cares? It’s like the old James Bond problem… We all KNOW he’s going to be fine at the end, so they have to find some other way of making us wonder what’s going to happen. For me, that’s usually unsuccessful. It can get really annoying to have a character make stupid decisions and bring all their own problems on themselves, but at the same time, if a character makes nothing but good decisions the plot will probably be too predictable and the character will probably be wholly unremarkable. It’s not that bad decisions make them interesting, it’s that interesting people bad decisions.

    • I agree. I don’t even mind if they always make right decisions, but I want to see the process of them getting there. If they don’t have to at least consider making a bad decision, it just doesn’t ring true to me. I like your clarification that bad decisions don’t automatically make people interesting. It made me think, it’s probably why they made that bad decision that’s interesting. It’s being able to see where they were coming from. Loved your James Bond point. That’s where I like to see him lose something along the way, something new so that even if I know how it’s going to end I can still be dazzled by how.

  2. If you are aiming for any kind of realism in your writing than it is understanding that good people make bad choices, and sometimes smart people do stupid things. By putting that ambiguity in there you keep the characters from growing too stale or worse… predictable.

    Great post!

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