Here’s a blog post Mike S sent me a few days ago: Moral alignment in literature
Interesting topic! The post starts like this:
What does morality mean in the context of a book? Is it better to have a heroic character whose morals remain firm, or an antihero who “does what it takes” even if it seems morally gray?
Of course, you’ll get wildly different answers based on who you ask. Some people consider objectively good characters to be a bit boring and think antiheroes are more relatable. Others think antiheroes are the product of a cynical viewpoint.
And I pause right there, because the fact is, I don’t think the contrast is between characters whose moral convictions remain firm over the course of the book versus “antiheroes” who are “morally grey.”
Morally grey does not equal an antihero. There are two kinds of antiheroes:
a) A villain who is also the protagonist of a novel; eg, Hannibal Lecter.
b) A protagonist who lacks typical heroic attributes in some other way.
Let me pause and rapidly think of some morally grey characters who are not antiheroes.
Nicholas Valiarde in The Death of the Necromancer. He is a criminal mastermind; he’s devoted a large part of his life to setting up an enemy to be executed for crimes the enemy did not commit. He’s a ruthless master of deception and disguise who kills quite a few people without much of a qualm. But he’s not an antihero.
Nicholas Valiarde is not an antihero in either sense. Obviously he isn’t the villain; the villain is the necromancer. Nicholas also does not lack typical heroic attributes, even though he’s morally gray. He is quick witted, resourceful, and willing to sacrifice his own goals to protect other people. We saw that when Madeline explained how she met Nicholas and we certainly saw it when Nicholas gave up his secret identity and chance at vengeance in order to rescue Ronsarde.
Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly. He’s a small-time criminal, he’s okay with shooting people who get in his way —
— he’s not very nice to Simon or Inara or for that matter practically anyone. He’s definitely morally gray. But he’s not an antihero. Again with the quick-witted and resourceful; again with the willingness to sacrifice his own needs in order to help other people. We saw that in The Train Job and lots of other times.
I’m sure there are a zillion other examples.
Hannibal Lecter, a vicious, sadistic serial killer whom the audience is supposed to sympathize and even root for in the movie “Hannibal.”
Jaime Lannister, a vicious, sadistic murderer whom the reader is supposed to sympathize with, somehow, in Game of Thrones. I understand the show toned down Jaime’s horrible character, but it’s perfectly clear if you read the books that GRRM is trying to get the reader to sympathize with Jaime long before the end of the series, even though he starts out trying to murder a child who saw him having sex with his sister.
Glokta in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, who is a professional torturer and completely willing to cut the hands off people he knows are innocent of any crime because he just doesn’t care. By the end of the trilogy, the reader is supposed to sympathize with Glokta, who has managed to do one or two not-completely-horrible things over the course of the story.
Those guys are antiheros.
Back to the original post:
Flat character arcs, in which the character maintains their beliefs and morals they had at the beginning of the story, do not necessarily mean boring.
This is true, but I expect the characters in question may have arc-shaped character arcs in some other way, even if they do not compromise their moral beliefs at any time during the story. Let me see. All right:
Cordelia Naismith maintains her basic moral principals without compromise all the way through her entire story, from front to back in the Vorkosigan novels. But she doesn’t have a flat character arc. In Shards of Honor she has the typical romance character arc, moving from a belief she will never find love through rejecting a chance for love to accepting love. In subsequent books, her character develops in other ways.
Maia in The Goblin Emperor has a flat character arc in terms of moral convictions, but a high-vaulting character arc in terms of personal growth in confidence and acceptance of responsibility.
Kit in From All False Doctrine is a lot like Cordelia — his arc is a romance arc, with absolutely steady moral convictions throughout.
Again, lots of examples.
The post winds up this way:
I’m in hopes that culture is veering back to an appreciation for morally strong characters again. Maybe people are just tired of edginess after Game of Thrones, or maybe people are looking for hope in a very chaotic world. In any case, culture needs some appreciation for black and white morality…because everyone is governed by morals, even if they don’t call them that.
I share that hope because I also prefer morally strong characters, but I’d maintain that Nicholas Valiarde is in fact a morally strong character in a non-black-and-white way.
Overall conclusion: morally gray should not be conflated with villainous or evil; edgy is not the same as trying to persuade the reader or viewer to root for horrible protagonists; and moral ambiguity does not make a character an antihero.
If you have a favorite morally black-and-white or a favorite morally ambiguous protagonist, do some name dropping in the comments!