Character Development: Write Gray Characters

Photo credit: DieselDemon on Flickr
When I first began writing, I wrote characters who were black and white—good and evil—with little
in-between. My antagonists were entirely villainous with few, if any, redeemable qualities. My protagonists were the essence of good and had little to be ashamed of.

I had this thinking, I suppose, of pure good against pure evil, but what I didn’t realize is that people are rarely completely black or white—our morals and our understanding of what is good and what is bad come in shades of gray.

I discovered over the course of several manuscripts that I really enjoy writing characters who struggle against that darker side of themselves—whether it’s addiction, rage, a thirst for revenge, or something else. Characters who make terrible mistakes with dire consequences and have to face and accept the side of themselves that they so desperately want to bury.

Characters who aren’t white or black, but somewhere in between.

When I say “write gray characters” I don’t mean characters who are apathetic, or boring, or plain—I mean antagonists who feel justified in their actions, and protagonists who make bad decisions and say and do things they didn’t mean. I mean write characters who are dynamic, who struggle to make decisions, who aren’t always sure if they’re doing the right thing, or what the right thing really is.

Because the truth is, no one is 100% evil or 100% good. So why should our characters be any different?

Think back to your favorite characters—are they entirely black or white, or are they gray?  

Twitter-sized bites: 
Are your characters black, white or gray? (Click to tweet)
Do you write gray characters? Here's why you should. (Click to tweet)

14 comments:

Laura Rueckert said...

I agree that you need to understand the bad guy's motivation, make them mutli-dimensional. I don't ever write purely evil characters. But, to be honest, sometimes, I wonder if I err on the opposite side by making my villians too understandable. And maybe my protagonists too good also.

Ava Jae said...

Protagonists who are too good is a common problem, although I find it interesting that you worry about making your antagonist too understandable. I can't say I've ever come across that issue, but I would think that beta readers and CPs should be able to help you figure out if that's the case.

Hildred Billings said...

Not gonna lie, I thought that said "Write GAY characters" at first =P And I was thinking "Well, okay...I've got that down..."

But yes I agree with you. I love gray characters, no matter what I write. It's the characters who are bad guys because they feel their way is the best for the world and its people that I love the most. And heroes with some unredeeming qualities aren't bad either. Not only are they more interesting to read, but to write as well!

Ava Jae said...

Ha ha ha. You know, the thought did run through my head that it looked a little similar...


And I agree completely about gray characters being more fun to write--there's just something really special about writing complicated, struggling characters.

Jeremy Feijten said...

Gray characters are brilliant (you made me learn a new English word, by the way. I always thought I had to spell "grey", but apparently there's nothing wrong with gray). Apart from the fact that they're more realistic, they are also more interesting for the story, both from writer's and reader's POV. These characters can make surprising actions and give a new twist to the story. Remember Narcissa Malfoy :-)

Although (now that we're on the subject of Harry Potter), I do think that a character as Voldemort works best as pure evil. I wouldn't suit him to be understandable or forgiving.

Jeremy Feijten said...

Gray characters are brilliant (you made me learn a new English word, by the way. I always thought I had to spell "grey", but apparently there's nothing wrong with gray).
Apart from the fact that they're more realistic, they are also more
interesting for the story, both from writer's and reader's POV. These characters can make surprising actions and give a new twist to the story. Remember Narcissa Malfoy :-)

Although (now that we're on the subject of Harry Potter), I do think that a character as Voldemort works best as pure evil. I wouldn't suit him to be understandable or forgiving.

Ava Jae said...

Oooo, Narcissa Malfoy is a fantastic example! You're completely right about being able to use gray characters for unexpected twists. As for Voldemort, I wouldn't really consider him gray either (maybe SUPER DARK gray?) but we do get a sense of his motivations and what made him into the super evil wizard he becomes, so he's not evil just for the sake of being evil, either.


As for the gray/grey thing, it is an example of US vs. UK spelling. Americans spell "gray" and the British (and others who use English spelling) spell "grey." Both are correct. :)

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