The appeal of morally grey anti-heroes is easy to understand – characters with flaws – real flaws, big flaws, flaws that sometimes cause them to do awful things – are realer than characters who always act morally all of the time. After all, most real people make mistakes, and sometimes we even make big ones. We might not, most of us anyhow, be as flawed as Tony Soprano, or Arya in A Song of Ice and Fire, but we struggle too. so naturally, we want to read about characters who also struggle, not perfect heroes to whom everything comes easily. Creating characters who sometimes cross the line into amorality, or even immorality, while also making sure those same characters elicit the reader’s sympathy is no easy task either, and astute readers know it, and will applaud the story that makes them feel for someone they should hate. However, characters who act without any regard whatsoever for others, or any sort of awareness of the consequences of their actions, are hard to get behind. As readers, we enjoy seeing characters struggle, but we do not enjoy seeing assholes get a free pass. Writing these types of characters takes a delicate hand, because it is easy to go too far in creating a character whose actions are simply unredeemable, or, alternately, to try too hard to find sympathetic motivations for character behavior. Below are a few common errors that writers make that make the motivations behind characters’ bad behavior feel instead more like excuses.
The Tragic Childhood
Creating sympathy in morally grey characters is not necessarily simply a matter of giving them a childhood trauma – an abusive mother, an absent father – particularly if the morally grey character mistreats those closest to them. While trauma is terrible, it does not excuse abusive behavior, not ever. We see this particularly often in the young adult market, in which a “bad-boy” love interest treats the object of his affection terribly and yet, when a tragic backstory is revealed, all is forgiven by the love interest, and the expectation is that the reader will forgive this character too. After all, haven’t they suffered? In reality, we don’t usually care why people treat us terribly, what we care about is whether they recognize their behavior as wrong and take steps to correct it. Knowing about the character’s tragic past is important because the character cannot heal if they don’t acknowledge the root of their actions, it is important for the reader because it adds depth to a character, just as any backstory does. However, other characters (and the readers) are under no obligation to forgive a character for poor behavior because of this tragic backstory. Beware of using a sad story to fish for sympathy when your character has not yet done any of the hard work towards redemption. Keep in mind too, plenty of people have tragic and traumatic childhoods and yet do not grow into abusive adults and teenagers, so a traumatic childhood alone isn’t going to get your character off the hook.
I Did it All for You!
We’ve all read this story: Our anti-hero, let’s call him Bob, has done some pretty bad things, despicable things even, but, as we learn more about Bob’s story, it turns out that the bad things he did were really done because he was trying to protect Kevin, the man he loves. Bob feels bad about said actions, but he really had no choice, see? He was only doing what he had to do. He may have taken agency away from Kevin, he may have killed innocents, he may have betrayed trust – but it was all done to protect Kevin, and what’s more, Kevin better appreciate it. Of all of the copout excuses for morally grey behavior, this one is probably my least favorite because it creates a great false dichotomy between choosing the moral path, and keeping others safe, which is rarely realistic. On top of that, it is incredibly manipulative – Kevin can’t really reject Bob now, can he, not after Bob has given up his very morality for Kevin’s sake? It paints sacrificing one’s morality as the ultimate act of love, which it isn’t. Ultimate acts of love treat our loved ones as equals and partners, and do not require us to make terrible decisions on their behalf. Furthermore, often, when we sacrifice our morality we are doing it for much more selfish reasons, so ask yourself some questions. Did your character really do it all for someone else, or did your character gain anything personally from their actions? Were there really no other options? If Bob had discussed the situation Kevin beforehand, what would Kevin have said? If you can’t answer these questions, perhaps you need to rethink your character’s motivation.
Don’t misunderstand — addiction can be compelling, and a great many books, shows, and films have tackled the subject and done it well. Addiction can, in itself, be a way to show your character’s struggles to do the right thing, and addiction can certainly make people act in amoral and immoral ways. Addiction is also hard to overcome, and can wreak havoc on a person’s life, and can be a source of great personal tragedy. What addiction is not, however, is an excuse to treat others poorly. If you want to write a character with addiction, and still maintain sympathy for this character, it is imperative that this character not get a free pass due to their struggles. This is mostly addressed through how other characters react to your character struggling with addiction, but it can also be addressed by the addicted character too. Does the character feel remorse when their actions harm others? Does the character want to change? Does the character try to change, but ultimately fails? A character with an addiction who has no interest in changing can make for a great tragic character, but that character is also going to cause a world of hurt for their loved ones, so how do the characters react to this? Does your addicted character care about the people they hurt? If they know their actions cause hurt to others and they simply don’t care and do it anyway, it will be very hard for your reader to muster any sympathy for them. Further, beware of perpetuating damaging ideas that the loved ones of a person suffering from addiction somehow are responsible for saving that person, or even that someone else can, in fact, save someone from addiction.
Similar to addiction, mental illness is a realistic situation that can add nuance to characters. People with mental illnesses exist in the world, and they also deserve representation. However, even people with mental illnesses do not want to see those illnesses treated as catch-all excuses for hurting others. My husband, for example, struggles with depression. Sometimes his depression causes him to say hurtful things, but he has never asked me to accept him saying hurtful things to him just because he suffers from depression. When his depression has caused him to say hurtful things, he acknowledges it, and apologizes. I may forgive him, but I don’t give him a free pass, instead, I ask him to work on himself and try harder next time not to be hurtful. Because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding mental illness, it is a topic that needs to be handled particularly carefully, and should never be used simply as a plot device. And remember, mentally ill people can still be jerks. Have your other characters call them out on their jerkiness if they deserve it. Don’t send the message that just because someone is mentally ill that the people around them have to put up with all manner of abusive behavior. Your other characters can be understanding, and they might even be more tolerant than they would be with a non-mentally ill person, but they should have their limits too. And if your character is just too involved and cannot see how the mentally ill character is crossing the line, introduce another character who can. And remember, you can also write mentally ill characters who are not abusive too. In fact, “madness” as a motivation for immoral acts is more than a bit overdone.
While revenge is a valid motivation for a character, beware that readers generally have a limited tolerance for the extent to which they will accept revenge as an excuse for a character’s amoral or immoral behavior. Generally, watching a character wallow in misery due to some past wrong done to them is not particularly interesting unless the character is on a path towards acceptance, if not forgiveness. Revenge can work in the short term, but in the long term, a character that holds onto revenge, particularly if that revenge is directed anywhere other than at the people who directly caused your character harm, your reader is going to lose sympathy. Personally, next to “I did it all for you,” revenge is one of my least favorite character motivators simply because it is so unsustainable. How long can you hold a grudge? Let’s say you can hold a grudge pretty long — can you hold it for years? Decades? And how many of us go from relatively well-adjusted people to single-minded revenge driven killers just because of one tragedy? Lots of people experience loss without turning to revenge, so what is it about your character that makes him choose this particular path? Personally, I like to think about the afterwards. Let’s say your character gets revenge, what next? Do they live life on the straight and narrow? Do they feel guilty because they’ve perpetuated a vicious cycle? These are the more interesting questions to ask of a revenge-motivated character. But keep in mind — revenge generally isn’t a good look for anyone. While we might feel sad for a character whose husband and child were slaughtered, that sympathy is going to be fairly limited if your character never shows any growth.
A final word of advice: don’t be afraid to write a character that is simply a human being struggling to always do the right thing. We don’t always need a fancy backstory or a convoluted reason for the character’s actions. Even people with relatively “normal” childhoods, or pasts without any obvious traumas can still make mistakes and act in amoral or even immoral ways. While you can explain actions in a number of ways, sympathy comes, above all else, from making sure your characters themselves understand the nature of their actions. Make sure your characters recognize their own faults, and struggle with them, struggle to make the right choices, or struggle to somehow right past wrongs. Characters who don’t recognize their own faults aren’t morally grey, they’re just assholes, no matter how many excuses they make.
Next week I will discuss how far a character can go before they lose all reader support. Are there any lines a character simply cannot cross if the author wants that character to remain sympathetic?