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Author Topic: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?  (Read 3890 times)

Offline CryptofCthulhu

Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« on: January 13, 2016, 01:34:19 PM »
I have no problem with these types of characters, they usually prove far more interesting; however I seem to read endless blog articles and forum posts creating the impression that if your characters aren't multi-faceted and complex to the extreme that they are pretty much taking up space and little else.

It would be naive to the extreme to credit GRRM with introducing this trope, but with the influence of his books this topic has become commonplace, as well as the continued reference to "gray" characters. Everyone and their mothers seems to be shouting "Gray characters or no characters at all!". It's like a character whose prime motivation, or their end game, can't be understood if they are to be worth reading about.

Outside of children's stories, it seems pretty difficult to create truly one-dimensional characters. The lack of any back story seems to be the main culprit in keeping them seemingly devoid of complexity. It doesn't take much information to being to hypothesize what a character's motivations truly are.

I've had discussions with other writers who have gone to the point of becoming neurotic about how complex their character is, sometimes to extremes. They seem to think villains have to be absolutely deplorable to be interesting. What they end up with is a villain that is pretty much beyond redemption in the eyes of 99% of the readers. The same obsession with the anti-hero (I'd argue that the overwhelming majority of "heroes" in literature fit the bill of anti-hero) trope is present as well.

Making a character too "gray" can cause them to lose any defining qualities. They become ambiguous to the point where we are constantly asking ourselves "What exactly is this person working towards accomplishing?"

Just an observation of what I've come across frequently.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #1 on: January 13, 2016, 01:47:44 PM »
Stories are not reality.
I go back to the "purpose" of Fantasy (at least, my view): to entertain especially through creating a sense of wonder.

Some of the wonder can admiring the hero, and not just for sticking it out. Some of the wonder can be fascination with the choices that led the antagonist to their position.

I agree. I like having some choices in fantasy. Moral ambiguity should not be an absolute. (see what I did there?  ;))
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Offline Yora

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #2 on: January 13, 2016, 02:02:01 PM »
I think it's basically an elaborate way of saying "Perfect heroes make for boring stories". It's true, but not really a huge relevation or an complex issue.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline CryptofCthulhu

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #3 on: January 13, 2016, 02:06:31 PM »
Stories are not reality.
I go back to the "purpose" of Fantasy (at least, my view): to entertain especially through creating a sense of wonder.

Some of the wonder can admiring the hero, and not just for sticking it out. Some of the wonder can be fascination with the choices that led the antagonist to their position.

I agree. I like having some choices in fantasy. Moral ambiguity should not be an absolute. (see what I did there?  ;))

This is one of the problems I have with LOTR movie series Aragorn. They tried to completely change him from a guy who was ready to take the throne to a guy who was afraid of what might happen if he became king. On paper this might seem interesting, but it completely changes who he is.

In the books he's spent time in the wild to the point where he's tired of hiding out and is ready to kick ass and take names, starting his quest with the reforged sword instead of getting it towards the end when he finally decides he wants to be king. That left me to believe Peter Jackson didn't think Aragorn in the book had much depth. Even if what we are told in the book about him and his destiny may be somewhat limited, it's more than enough info. to understand his motivation and dispel the idea that he's just a generic hero battling evil.

Getting back to the original point, this is one of the reasons why I don't like a story having a ton of characters. For example, I read somewhere that the WOT series has over three thousand characters??? If you wanted to flesh out all of them to even the minimum amount needed to draw reader interest, I can't imagine the amount of material you would have to add to the story to accomplish this. It boggles the mind. I'm still going to give WOT a chance, regardless.
“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” ~ William S. Boroughs

Offline CryptofCthulhu

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #4 on: January 13, 2016, 02:08:26 PM »
I think it's basically an elaborate way of saying "Perfect heroes make for boring stories". It's true, but not really a huge relevation or an complex issue.

But are there really that many perfect heroes? Classic mythology for example is chalk full of heroes that make bad choices or are deceived by rather simple tricks.

“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” ~ William S. Boroughs

Offline Yora

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #5 on: January 13, 2016, 02:13:57 PM »
Patrick Rothfus talked about classic Greek heroes on some occasions and thinks they've become classics because of their flaws. It's quite likely that thousands of years ago some people made stories of perfect heroes, but they were just not interesting enough to remain remembered.

Which would be the same for books that are maybe just 20 or 30 years old. That we don't remember many examples only tells us that flawed heroes remain popular, but nothing about how many writers tried to write stories with perfect heroes.

And after all, any writing advice is aimed at people whose stories are not great and memorable yet.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #6 on: January 13, 2016, 02:27:10 PM »
I'm enjoying the current trend. It gave me Jorg.
They don't have to be morally messed up though. Take a look at Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive. He has his issues, he's still a complex character, but he's a good person. Sure, he faces dilemmas when trying to figure out the right thing to do, but that's what every character should face at some point. A decision that forces them to rethink their life.
So whether it's Kaladin from Stormlight, or Jorg from The Broken Empire, the important part is making sure the character I'm supposed to care about is human.

Offline ArhiX

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #7 on: January 13, 2016, 07:58:38 PM »
We might see it changing somewhere in the future - but to what? Maybe writing an interesting "white" character will be some kind of accomplishment just like creating a grey one is today. Or maybe we will jump to darker and darker side of the spectrum, where there is only evil vs evil, or no word for evil at all - just characters taking actions without any moral consequences for them at all. We have more than 50 shades of gray after all. Yes?
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #8 on: January 13, 2016, 08:36:42 PM »
Grey not gray for the win hehe

Don't all trope become overstated over time then it swings the other way again?
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #9 on: January 13, 2016, 08:41:27 PM »
The book I'm reading has the main baddie thinking he's the goodie... that's an interesting twist (although most of the people around him know he's the baddie).
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Offline Yora

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2016, 09:12:31 PM »
I have  strong aversion against shining knights, but I also wouldn't make any visible efforts to ensure my audience gets it that this character is gray. If you have to spell it out (figuratively speaking), you're overdoing it.

If the protagonists has a well thought out flaw, the whole thing pretty much takes care of itself. If the protagonists wants to do only the good thing and thinks he only does the good thing, but makes some bad decisions and gets into trouble because of his flaw, it's still going to be much more interesting and enjoyable than a caricature that can never do wrong.
When a character does something that makes you groan and ask "why did he does this?" it can either mean bad writing. But if, based on the characters previous behavior, you also know that this is exactly what he would do, then there are good odds for it becoming a good story with a fun protagonist.

Right now I am reading Desert of Souls and Asim is kind of a bit of a flat character. But it's still a lot of fun because any time his companion Dabir establishes some kind of order in the chaos, Asim is like "Okay, problem solved, everything under control. Let's punish the criminals and then go home". That's what he does. That's what he always does. And in the process completely wrecking the clever scheme that Dabir just started to find the hidden masterminds and uncover the bigger mysteries. Asim really is a good man. He's not cruel, he's not vengeful, he's not violent, and he always means well. He is also not stupid and does perform many heroic deeds that save the day. But he never thinks ahead more than three minutes and never really thinks of the bigger picture. He helps a lot, but with him along it's always two steps forward and one step back.
He doesn't need any moral ambiguity to be a character who doesn't always do the right thing or always wins. He just has a simple, completely amoral flaw which is completely sufficient to not be an insufferable beacon of righteousness.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline AshKB

Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2016, 09:33:20 PM »
An oversaturation of unpleasant, morally bankrupt characters is a large reason why I went running off into the Romance genre. While for other mental health/escapism reasons, I need Romance's safety, the fact that this is the only genre where I can actually find decent characters - not perfect, just DECENT - who aren't narratively punished for it is a big, big reason why I'm enjoying it so much.

Decent characters who aren't perfect, who do sometimes compromise their morals, who are still the heroic protagonists...

Yeah, those I miss. A lot. Although I think they are starting to make a comeback? I went around a few months ago and found some lists of recs for non-grimdark-ish books, although I haven't had a chance to actually read the one I bought (poor The Copper Promise, just sitting there on my shelf :-(   )

Fantasy's never had a great handle on villains and antagonists, which still strikes me as a juvenile streak running through the genre. Yes, there can be an antagonist who isn't a bad person, there can be a villain who does awful things who also isn't a complete monster enjoying rape and senseless killing for their amusement - so, more of a greying up of the traditional 'black' side of things would actually be interesting.
« Last Edit: January 13, 2016, 09:38:09 PM by AshKB »
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2016, 09:44:44 PM »
I love my villains gray, and I love it when they think they are the hero (no matter how awful they may be) so moral ambiguity is not a trope, for me, so long as its done right (IMO). An antagonist who is evil "just to be evil" doesn't work for me. To quote Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight Returns...

"You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain".

Villains who see themselves as doing the wrong things for the right reasons are my thing (example - I'd go for Kingpin over Killgrave).

As far as heroes, I enjoy heroes that are both lawful good and more chaotic, though I also endorse a strong string of pragmatism. For me, pragmatism is a BIG selling point, and a great reason to make a character gray. For example - given the Joker's penchant for escaping and killing dozens of people each time, I wish someone (even if it's not Batman) would kill him. If you've established an antagonist will indiscriminately kill people, cannot be redeemed, and cannot be contained, SOMEONE needs to kill them.

That's one of my biggest problems with Batman, which I've brought up before. He doesn't kill, even when killing one person (like the Joker) will almost certainly save countless others - though to be fair, this is also a result of writing a world where the Joker can NEVER be imprisoned (seriously, you sent him to Arkham again?). I understand that's the core of the Batman character - not killing - and I'm not saying he should change, but I am saying that makes Batman less appealing to me, because his refusal to kill the Joker is a big part of why people continue to fall victim to his new schemes each time he (inevitably escapes).

So, I'd say my best instances of moral ambiguity are pragmatic. When a hero does something "wrong" because, in their mental calculus, the good outweighs the bad. What works even better is that is the PERFECT slippery slope for my favorite antagonists to slide on down.

Offline JMack

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2016, 09:54:28 PM »
That's a really useful post to think about.
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Offline Mr.J

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Re: Moral ambiguity becoming an overstated trope?
« Reply #14 on: January 13, 2016, 10:20:15 PM »
Just to throw my nerd hat into the ring here regarding the Bat-Man, I've never considered his refusal to kill the Joker about his no kill rule.

Sure that's part of it, and that's his thing, but the real reason he doesn't kill the Joker is that if he does he loses and the Joker wins. He becomes no better than Joker, and for a man who is already sensitive about his background as a multi-billionaire he has to feel as if he is better than the rest.

Also, I don't think it's an overstated trope, as its definitely a good thing to have complexity in characters, because you know what? People are complex, humans are multi-layered, there is no one ever in the whole of existence who is just one thing, we need that understanding and analytical form of characterisation. It makes better, more interesting and more believable and human stories in the long run.

The part where it seems cliched is how its being presented and portrayed, that gritty morally grey hero thing is not the only meaning and definition of a moral complex character, but its generally what is aimed for.

I could write more but I think people tend not to read the very longer posts. ;)