The other day, I was listening to a podcast called Writing Excuses and the topic of this discussion was “Your Character’s Moral Pendulum.” In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Howard Taylor, Brad Beauliu and Jaym Gates discuss whether they preferred reading (and writing) about characters with a clear moral pendulum, or whether characters who swing back and forth are more interesting. For me, I’m not sure which I prefer, but both are compelling reasons to read. Each serves a different purpose.
In the case of clear moral compasses, I’ve noticed these characters follow more traditional character arcs. For example, Harry Potter is the hero; Darth Vader is the villain; Gandalf is the mentor. These characters, of course, exemplify The Heroic Journey more fully and famously than any other stories. There’s a clear villain and hero. Good triumphs over evil and they all live happily ever after. There is something comforting and familiar about the good guys winning and the bad guys receiving their dues. It helps us keep faith that the world is a good place and that, although it may take a while sometimes, all the wrongs will be made right.
But in the case of characters half in and out of the shadows, the story is a little more complex. Draco Malfoy is one of the characters that come to my mind. Malfoy is the first antagonist Harry meets and I automatically didn’t like him. He was everything Harry wasn’t, knew it and flaunted it. Kids can be jerks, even and sometimes especially at the age of 11. But in the 6th book, we see Malfoy’s descent into desperation and depression. We see him hesitate to kill Dumbledore and we see that he might be a jerk sometimes, but he still is capable of being a good person. To me, he’s a much more interesting character to study than Harry solely because of that. In fact, Narcissa Malfoy is much more complex than Harry and Malfoy put together.
One of the reasons I like morally ambiguous characters so much is they seem so much more realistic. Back to Harry Potter, I identify much more with Narcissa Malfoy than I do with Harry, and definitely more with Han Solo than I do with Princess Leia (whether Han Solo is a hero or not still remains a mystery). To me, a character who’s morally ambiguous doesn’t always do or say what I would say or do. But a morally ambiguous character is more like anyone else in this world than heroes or villains. Because chances are, there’s a little of both in us all.
All this is just my opinion though, what do you guys think? Which characters do you prefer to read/write about?