Fiction often portrays characters as Black or White. This is especially true for early cinema and literature, where heroes were perfectly good knights on a mission to vanquish absolute wicked dragons and save the heroine from the beast’s clutches. With time, as cinema and literature have evolved, there has been an influx of morally grey characters – the anti-heroes. There’s something about such fictional personas that speaks to the general audience. The morally ambiguous character trope is now a multifaceted stereotype that is more accurate to reality than fiction, even if they do terrible things for a noble purpose or one they mistakenly believe to be good.
I started writing this article after I had a debate with one of my acquaintances regarding a very eminent character – Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. The said person believed that Snape reads like the caricature of abusive male protagonists who are eventually not only forgiven but also celebrated because they did the right thing in the end, no matter for what reasons, no matter how late into the game; and you are supposed to like them because they have a sob story.
My argument against this notion was, that Snape was a broken person. He was someone who wouldn’t miss life and whom life wouldn’t miss. He was despised. He knew he never mattered to anyone and that’s what made him guarded. He only had himself to look out for him, which made him set up walls around him, turning him bitter and rude. Situations make a person, and how Snape found himself to be as a grown-up was a culmination of a long chain of events that led up to the moment in which he developed his sense of morality. The fact that his character was not only forgiven but also celebrated brings faith in the power of redemption.
Earlier, fictional words were divided into morally White and morally Black characters. With the evolution of both cinema and literature, we started seeing relatable reflections in our favorite stories when morally grey characters were introduced. The anti-heroes, who operate on the thin line between what’s traditionally good and bad started intriguing the general audience. While we may not concur with the choices of these ethically conflicted characters, we are, in many cases, offered the chance to grasp their hidden motives through their sob stories. It is this element that appeals to the audience as they can relate more with the characters now. Their choices, which earlier appeared to be wrong, suddenly become admirable or at least understandable. They leave the rigid outline of black and white and enter a grey area, showcasing their psychological complexities and making them appear more realistic.
In fact, let’s have a look at some of the very prominent morally grey characters who are thoroughly loved and admired by the audience –
- The Batman from the Dark Knight Trilogy: We might see Batman as a hero, especially due to his strict moral code and refusal to kill offenders, but that doesn’t change the fact that this Gotham City’s Dark Knight aces in breaking laws and we simply dismiss his actions because ultimately, it’s for the right cause.
- Tony Stark from The Avengers: Remember Wanda Maximoff and Pietro Maximoff, as in The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver? It was a bomb manufactured by Stark Industries that killed their parents. Despite being several shades of grey as a character, Tony Stark aka Iron Man continues to be the beloved hero that he is.
- Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones: Tyrion Lannister is one of the most beloved characters in both the books and the TV show because he’s funny, and his unapologetically confessional wit often acts as an excuse for the killing and horrendous things that he does.
- Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter saga: If Draco Malfoy was pure evil, he would have killed Dumbledore without a second thought. But he was frightened and worried, and ultimately couldn’t do it. Draco is morally grey because of his doubts. He makes one wrong decision after another and his doubts start piling up, and eventually, they help him progress toward the right path.
- Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries: Who is a better example of a morally grey character than Damon Salvatore? When he first appears in the series, he is the most hated character. But gradually as the seasons progress, the villain actually turns out to be the hero. Not only Elena but also the audience falls in love with the perfect modern-day embodiment of an anti-hero.
It’s simple to predict a character’s potential course of behaviour in any given circumstance when they are motivated by moral goodness. You essentially know that the worst this hero will ever do is struggle with the urge of stepping out of line. On the other hand, morally dubious personalities will undoubtedly surprise you. They have more richly-developed personalities that challenge our ethical narratives.
In conclusion, it is the aim, the motive that distinguishes a villain from someone who is morally grey. Investigating the motivations behind a character’s behaviour showcases their morals. We all make mistakes and have reasons for doing or not doing things. People are frequently drawn to morally grey personalities because they identify with their flaws and traits.
Laura Friday says “I think, with all humans, the duality of human nature is such a common theme throughout the history of stories and nobody is wholly good or wholly evil and as much as we strive to be good we just sometimes can’t help ourselves. We’re naturally creatures of short-term orientation and instant gratification and as much as we want to make the right choice all the time, we don’t always think about long-term consequences.”
Characters can develop significantly during the course of a movie or television show, and their internal moral conflict is what makes them human and appealing. If you have been evil, it doesn’t mean you have to stay evil. After all, we are humans, each learning to be more of Heaven’s than of Hell’s.
Mariam Tuba is a student pursuing Psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Anzal Khan
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.
beautiful words. no wonder, it’s mariam they’ve come from!
Awesome article!! There so much clearity and new way of looking at the anti heroes!!☺️
So if we’re to connect the theory or should I say ideology of morally grey characters from fiction to reality then is it really right to say that the saying that ‘everyone’ deserves a second chance no matter who they’re or what they’ve done in their past?