It’s probably one of the most popular tropes in fantasy and one of my favorites for several reasons that I will explain below. But first, who are the morally gray characters? They can be the hero, the villain, or even a side character (in which case they should probably get a spin-off series), and here’s why I love them:
- The bad boy appeal. They’re always portrayed as confident, a quality we all want to master. They know what they want, and they will stop at nothing from accomplishing their goal. They are selfish and ruthless in ways we can’t afford to be in real life, so we get to take a walk on the dark side minus the consequences. Living vicariously through their eyes, you can explore a darker side of yourself.
- They’re unpredictable, and we love to be surprised. A good character with an established moral compass will always do the right thing (read it as the socially acceptable thing), thus being predictable. A morally gray character is not without a moral code (otherwise, they would be straight evil, not gray), but they make their own rules instead of blindly following the law. It is the freedom of choice that makes their lawlessness so damn appealing. They challenge your sense of right and wrong.
- There’s no one size fits all with the morally gray (because there are so many shades, right?). Morally ambiguous characters come on a spectrum to please all readers. It can be subtle, like a really good person forced into a difficult situation where they have to break the law to save the day. Or it can be bold, like the ruthless antihero whose methods are extreme and is not afraid to take risks, but he still fights for a good cause. And then there’s a particular shade of gray for the bad guy who has a flexible moral code, is capable of great cruelty against those who oppose him, but will do anything for the one who loves.
- Morally gray characters are complex and relatable. As long as they’re gray, it means they’re flawed but redeemable, and we love a good redemption arc. These characters have the best inner struggles, usually a dry sense of humor, and have great banter.
- We want to fix them. Morally gray characters weren’t born this way, they are the result of their past experiences, usually some form of abuse, trauma, loss, betrayal. That is why it’s so satisfying to see their redemption arc, to see them rise above their pain and do the right thing, in the end.
Bellow I picked 5 books featuring morally gray characters (that aren’t necessarily the main character) that I think you might enjoy (in no particular order).
In a future world ruled by warring mega-corporations, cyborg Nephilim believed she was fighting a righteous cause.
As a powerful, cybernetically enhanced elite soldier her job is to do all the dirty work for the mega-corporation she belongs to. She and her elite cyborg squad are deployed on the most dangerous missions – to protect Olympias from threats outside and inside at any cost.
One day, a malfunction in her implants separates her from the all-controlling grid. For the first time in her life, Nephilim is free.
She learns that everything she has believed in all her life is a lie and decides to defend her newfound freedom.
But Metatron, the leader of her unit, has very special plans for her future and won’t let her get away.
Soon, Nephilim finds herself hunted by the killer squads she once belonged to. She’s the best of them but will her skills be enough to survive?
Blade Runner meets John Wick with a badass female lead!
Sookie Stackhouse is just a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Bon Temps, Louisiana. She’s quiet, doesn’t get out much, and tends to mind her own business—except when it comes to her “disability.” Sookie can read minds. And that doesn’t make her too dateable. Then along comes Bill Compton. He’s tall, dark, handsome—and Sookie can’t hear a word he’s thinking. He’s exactly the type of guy she’s been waiting for all her life…
But Bill has a disability of his own: he’s a vampire with a bad reputation. And when a string of murders hits Bon Temps—along with a gang of truly nasty bloodsuckers looking for Bill—Sookie starts to wonder if having a vampire for a boyfriend is such a bright idea.
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.
Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction – if they don’t kill each other first.
Soldier. Summoner. Saint. Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold—a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed.
Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite—and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift.
As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation.
Welcome to Ravka . . . a world of science and superstition where nothing is what it seems.
Chosen from birth to usher in a new era, Poppy’s life has never been her own. The life of the Maiden is solitary. Never to be touched. Never to be looked upon. Never to be spoken to. Never to experience pleasure. Waiting for the day of her Ascension, she would rather be with the guards, fighting back the evil that took her family, than preparing to be found worthy by the gods. But the choice has never been hers.
The entire kingdom’s future rests on Poppy’s shoulders, something she’s not even quite sure she wants for herself. Because a Maiden has a heart. And a soul. And longing. And when Hawke, a golden-eyed guard honor bound to ensure her Ascension, enters her life, destiny and duty become tangled with desire and need. He incites her anger, makes her question everything she believes in, and tempts her with the forbidden.
Forsaken by the gods and feared by mortals, a fallen kingdom is rising once more, determined to take back what they believe is theirs through violence and vengeance. And as the shadow of those cursed draws closer, the line between what is forbidden and what is right becomes blurred. Poppy is not only on the verge of losing her heart and being found unworthy by the gods, but also her life when every blood-soaked thread that holds her world together begins to unravel.