Moral Ambiguity in Fiction
by MW Cook
Real life in ambiguous. You’d rather it not be, but it is. In every action we become someone’s hero and another’s villain. We try to do the best and sometimes we pull off real, pure actions. But usually the human race bounces back and forth between good, evil and something squishy in between.
So I sometimes get wearied when I read most stories with very clear-cut villains and heros. The world is full of Boromirs and Gollums; not Saurons and Aragorns. And our stories are meant to be elevated life, not idealized life. And all our good stories must be true, even if they never happened. So our villains must have good and our heroes must be tainted.
These stories force us to think and bring us face-to-face with difficult questions and uncertainties. We are forced to think when Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke tries to choose a side in the war between the humans and the forest gods. We are forced to think when Michael Corelone takes his father’s place as godfather of a criminal organization. We are forced to think when we see Jaime the Kingslayer waffle between hero and villain.
I understand most people don’t share my love for this kind of ambiguity in stories. They find it frustrating and ill-satisfing. We like our lessons easy. We like it when the world is easy to judge. We like to tell our kids that good and evil are very clear and good people and evil people are just as clear.
But life isn’t like that. And even the greatest of Books shows that, doesn’t it? King David the murderer is called a hero. Lot is called righteous, though he tried to convince a mob to rape his daughters. Moses murdered and was a saviour. And I still can’t figure out if Joab was billed as a hero or a villain.
Life is complex; good, true stories reflect that complexity. Yes, there are some wild-eyed heroes devoted to nothing but the higher good. Yes, there are some black-hearted villains, consumed with hate and greed. But only a few. There are no armies of black-hearted soldiers. There are no legions of light-blessed paladins. Most of us are a mix and that tells me that most of our stories should be mixed.
Very well spoken. I definitely agree. Life is ambiguous and that should be reflected in stories. The best told ones usually have all their characters in varying shades of grey. No one can be pure good or resolutely evil, it doesn’t happen. There are people who appear those things but once you dig deep enough into who they are you will see the uncertain grey. I also believe it is harder to write ambiguous characters because often we become attached. We want our hero to be good, we can’t imagine them doing bad things. We don’t want people to empathize with our villains because they did such horrible things. Great writing definitely plays on these scales of grey and that’s where the most true, honest and interesting characters emerge from.
I love your insight on the difficulty of creating ambiguous characters!