Morality, and Shades of Grey (Leo Cosh) 2


Morality, and shades of grey


No not those shades of grey.


That little gem will be mocked by cultured members of the future for Aeons…

What I mean by ‘shades of grey’ is, no matter what the genre, many audiences love (or love to hate) amoral characters; particularly if the story’s plot or world involves a conspiracy.
Sometimes characters can be so unreadable we just have to sit and enjoy the ride, or they could  so charming, daring or eccentric that they just keep us wanting more of them. In my opinion, the most entertaining amoral characters can be summarised into two Archetypes: a lovable rogue or a sympathetic villain.

This can of course be a mixture of the two (and anything in between) but my ideal character for the first archetype would definitely be this guy:







Despite being born a Lannister (probably the most hated family in Westeros), Tyrion’s actions as an outcast -besting his opponents through a combination of Machiavellian strategy and cutting wit – have made him one of the most interesting ‘players’ in the conspiracy of Game of Thrones. An antithesis to the honour bound (somewhat naive) Starks, and wonderful foil to his psychopathic nephew. However, despite being self-centred and self-serving he does have a small (pardon the pun) sense of justice. Twisted by his own experiences of betrayal and isolation, Tyrion is able to use his experiences to read people; as well as razor sharp common sense.


In fact, this lovely image summarises a lot of how Tyrion’s outlook relates to plot in this gigantic web of trickery and conflict.



This is, of course (as always) open to opinion. As far as recent events go (in the books at least) we see him shifting towards ‘‘Good”-especially since he becomes much more sympathetic to the plights of those around him.

Now, to counter the lovable rogue, what about its opposite? What could make a sympathetic villain? Occasionally they are a flawed Anti-hero, former protagonist, reluctant villain, or they are the main antagonist(s) whose true motives are finally revealed in a dramatic denouement. Through viewing their origins the audience may be able to even sympathise with them no matter how nihilistic, bloodthirsty, or heartlessly they pursued their perceived wants by using any and all tools at their disposal.


I’d say the best candidates for this archetype come from Japan:


The infamous Homunculi of FullMetal Alchemist, led by their leader known as ‘Father’, plot to gain revenge and prove their superiority over humanity by destroying society as we know it through subterfuge and wanton mayhem.

The Homunculi are named after the seven deadly sins, (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, Wrath, Envy and Pride) their namesakes being the most prominent trait of their personalities. Why or even how could these mass murderers be sympathised with? Simple- their purpose.

Although they consider themselves the next evolutionary step, the Homunculi are nothing but artificial tools fuelled by resentment and rage. We discover this as the origins of the Homunculi are revealed. Certain members of the group, merely follow the will of ‘their father’ with no independence of mind, or indeed any of the little hypocrisies that make humans ‘human’ – the Homunculi are merely shells.  So (at least in my opinion) we, as an audience, have a capability to empathise with an antagonist after we discover their true feelings.

My favourite example in Fullmetal is the last (futile) attempt at creating conflict by a homunculus, who afterwards is driven by one pitiful epiphany to their demise. This drew a rather personal reaction from me: regardless of my hatred of the character’s former actions, I was almost in floods of tears due to single act of a character’s realisation of their own inner loathing.

This effect of (partially) redeeming a villain in their final moments is a very rare talent indeed.

As far as amoral characters go Fullmetal is a particularly unique example, in that the series has a large extended cast, who for the most part are rather unknown, and the only people whose lives we get a real insight into (initially at least) are the Elric Brothers. We only learn of the rest of FMA cast’s true motives as the story and tension increases.

For a final contrast, look at a Song of Ice and Fire, we as an audience, will never truly be able to read a character’s actions, or their future allegiances. Combine this with George R.R. Martin’s wonderfully annoying habit of leaving no character’s life span unaffected, and we get a rather intriguing set up.

So, what do you think? Do we need more neutral story worlds? Where no one should be trusted? or is ‘Black and White’ Storytelling just a better model?



Any questions? Follow me on Twitter @rev_samurai


2 thoughts on “Morality, and Shades of Grey (Leo Cosh)

  • Colin Smith

    For me it is neither black and white nor is it that no one can, or should, be trusted. What interests me is the characters’ motivation and showing that from the perspective of the characters, even apparently immoral acts are necessary in order to achieve a perceived greater good and that sometimes an act of apparent kindness may have unfortunate consequences.
    Perhaps for some fantasy readers this will prove too close to the messy compromises of real life to satisfy their desire for escapism, but I relish the opportunity it gives me to create psychologically complex characters and show them struggling with recognisably real human dilemmas even when the exact circumstances may be somewhat rich and strange.

Comments are closed.