Writing a morally grey character can be especially challenging for any storyteller. It's a hard trick to land when you're trying to create a balance between 'good' and 'bad' without leaning too far into one or the other.
Pretty much every character in my horror novella 'When We Entered That House' fits on the morally grey spectrum and I've gotten a few people asking for tips on how to create such characters.
So, I thought I'd share them as morally grey characters are not only great fun to write and read, but the majority of these tips could also be good for writing complex antagonists and protagonists as well.
I've also added a little worksheet you can copy and fill out at the bottom of the post if you'd like to experiment or use it to create your own morally grey character.
Give them a strong 'why?'
People (in real life and in stories) will act in accordance with their own set of morals and what they believe to be 'right'. They will also have a clear motivation to push them towards their goals. These are both very important aspects to not only creating characters but to also create a character that is morally grey.
99% of the time, people act the way they do because they believe they are in the right. Even most antagonists believe they're not 'evil', just justified or otherwise within their rights to commit horrible deeds. However, their actions and outlook must be tied to their 'why?'.
Why are they acting that way? Why do they think it is okay for them to act that way?
This 'why' can be shown through their backstories, as our experiences shape us into who we are and how we view the world. This is a key feature as to why a character might be morally grey. It may also help the reader understand them and even relate to them.
For example, a character (who is meant to be morally grey) might have grown up as an orphan on the streets and had to rely on themselves in order to survive. So, it's understandable if that character is selfish, distrustful and willing to push others down to get ahead. Even if they don't always do 'the right thing', a reader can understand the character's viewpoint, even if they disagree.
This example also leads us into the next point...
Give them prominent flaws but also prominent good features.
The whole concept of a morally grey character is that they have prominent good and bad traits. So, if you lean too hard on the negative traits or vice versa, they're not really morally grey anymore.
I've seen it many times where a writer has attempted to create a morally grey character but has just made a jerk with no redeeming or balancing features or a somewhat perfect hero with a few quirks. There's nothing wrong with these characters! It's just that they're not exactly morally grey.
Balance is key! Even if the morally grey character is 75% a jerk and 25% okay. As always, there must also be a strong 'why' behind what makes the character behave in good ways, as well as bad.
Using the example from before: The orphan urchin character may value someone who keeps their word since they have trouble trusting people due to their upbringing. Hence, if proven to be honest and upfront, they may be slightly more considerate towards characters they trust.
They might also have sympathy for fellow orphans who are also struggling to survive, even if they don't help them since they believe 'everyone should be able to fend for themselves.'
Have them grow (even if it's just a little bit)
Character growth is a crucial aspect of storytelling as it adds impact to the narrative. If a character goes through a horrible event and learns nothing, or is not affected by it in the incident in any way, how is the reader supposed to feel like there was actual hardship?
Morally grey characters are not an exception from this. Although they don't have to go from morally grey to a perfect angel or an outright merciless villain (although that can be done as well and it's so fun to read about), it is still important that a character experiences some kind of growth or change throughout the story as a result of what's happened throuhghouyt the plot.
Using the morally grey example from before, the orphan urchin character may start to open up to the 'morally good' character if said character shows understanding and empathy for their situation. They can still act selfishly and see the world through their own lens, but they may expand their worldview and understand that it is safe to trust people as the story goes on. OR alternatively, if the urchin is betrayed once again, they may become even more unforgiving and distrustful.
Conflict is key!
Conflict is the bread and butter of any good story, from whether or not the dragon will be slayed or if the parents will make it in time for their kid's graduation ceremony.
Moments of conflict are when your character's personalities and motives shine through (as it does in real life), hence it is always extra exciting when a morally grey character is thrown in as it not only gives an extra layer of tension, but it shows them off as the complex character they are.
For example, the selfish urchin character from before is faced with either achieving their ultimate goal (maybe getting revenge on someone who took advantage of them while they were homeless) or saving the helpless hero that they've spent the whole story bonding with.
This is one of the many reasons why morally grey characters are so compelling, since this scene will be a gripping and impactful for the story regardless of the outcome. However, if you were to put the hero's goodie-two-shoes best buddy in the same position, it would be obvious to the reader what is about to happen next. The only conflict would whether or not the BFF is physically able to save the hero. This would be good too, but arguably not as tense as the example of the morally grey character.
MINI CHARACTER WORKSHEET
To finish up, here is a simple, brief worksheet you can use to help construct a morally grey character, as well as any type of character in general. I might make a more in-depth character worksheet in the future on this blog as well :)
BRIEF SUMMARY OF THEIR BACKGROUND:
WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPACTFUL EVENT OF THEIR LIFE AND HOW DID IT AFFECT THEM?:
WHAT DO THEY VALUE?:
WHAT DO THEY DISLIKE?:
HOW STUBBORN ARE THEY IN THEIR BELIEFS?:
psst! wanna read a horror story with a tone of morally grey characters?
WHEN WE ENTERED THAT HOUSE is a coming-of-age horror novella released from OFF LIMITS PRESS.
It follows best friends Zoe and Elle share a secret. Every day after school, they sneak into the ominous woods surrounding their small town. The isolation of the remote wilderness shelters them from the chaos at home, but it also brings dangers of its own.
Something wicked watches the girls from a rotting Victorian mansion. Zoe and Elle will soon discover the mansion’s decaying walls hide centuries-old secrets and a family whose bloodline is stained with violence and insanity.
In order to escape, the girls’ friendship and inner strength will be tested. The house’s clutches are strong, and both friends will be caught in a struggle they may not be able to win.