Why Your Characters Should Be “Gray”

The iconic imprint of good and evil lodges deep in all our minds. The Wild West shootout between a blond, clean-shaven sheriff in a white hat and a scruffy sidewinder in a black hat. A caped superhero foiling the world domination plans of some maniacal villain. A handsome and patriotic spy who overcomes the foreign foe. It’s not like that anymore.

Our good guys are not always so good and our bad guys aren’t always so bad. A good writer keeps this in mind. It makes the protagonist and his antagonist seem more real as well as more interesting.

Giving Your Protagonist Flaws

In my novel Prince, Charlie is a main character full of flaws and even unattractive behavior. He chews tobacco, which is not merely an incidental vice. Hestarted chewing at his high school graduation with his best friend who died soon after. His tobacco use is really a homage to the friend, even though it is disgusting.

Charlie craves a good relationship with his father, Philip, but bad mouths Philip to anyone who will listen to him, even to the point of annoyance. And even though he skipped college, he is a smart well-read young man. At a dinner party, Charlie has decided to use his self-education to make fun of the host. It begins as mild amusement and simple entertainment.  Eventually, it annoys everyone and the dinner party breaks up. Charlie can be a jerk.

But he is the good guy. Most of his bad traits stem from some selfishness, a bigger issue he must overcome to turn out all right in the end. He does, even laying down his tobacco as he leaves at the end.

Making Your Antagonist Sympathetic

Charlie may have picked up his selfishness from his father, because Philip is indeed a selfish businessman who doesn’t care who he steps on to make a buck. And just as you are ready to hate him, the third part of the book begins with him sitting at his desk at home at dawn, having not slept all night. He mutters that his new bride doesn’t love him and that she never will.

His human sorrow touches the reader and you forget you’re not supposed to like him. He even accuses her of cheating on him later in the day because of his frustrations regarding her. Add to this that his first wife left him and his mother died delivering him, and readers understand Philip has clearly never known the deep love of a woman. That makes him more sympathetic.

Philip also has a problem with his own father, and these daddy issues are his undoing by the end of the story. He is a lonely man. Even those near to him are separated from him by something. His best fiend, a senator, uses him. His most trusted employee is a sycophant. His loyal servant abandons him. His board of directors ignores him.

And yet he is the bad guy. Instead of overcoming his selfishness, he is overcome by it. By the end, he is a bitter man, out to destroy anyone not on his side, including Charlie.

The reader can clearly see who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist, but they are not wearing white and black hats. Their characters have been grayed. This makes for better reading, as well as for more challenging writing.

Tell me your opinion: How have you “grayed” your protagonist and antagonist?

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About Neal Abbott | @NealAbbott

Along with the recently released novel Bloodhound, Neal Abbott is the author of three non-fiction books: The Gatsby Reader, Think Like a Writer, and My Plans for World Domination. Neal has also authored four novels Siciliana, Drover, Prince, and Pietas. These will be launched throughout the rest of the year. He is the content editor for the creative writing blog A Word Fitly Spoken.


  1. That’s the best description I’ve ever read of a ‘gray’ character. Every other time, I’ve turned away in disgust because the person who tell me my characters should be gray tells me that in being gray neither of them is really good or really bad at all. They tell me that a change in perspectives (such as writing from the antagonist’s point of view) will show that he isn’t really bad after all. However, you’ve voiced what I have often thought but not completely formulated. Thank you!

  2. I tend to disagree. As a reader, I have a very hard time identifying with anyone with a very flawed character. Admittedly, this has changed, I think, since I’ve grown older. As a more mature person, I tend to dislike putting myself in the shoes of characters who seem less mature than I. In fact, there is such a strong tendency in currently published literature to create vastly flawed characters that I have retreated mostly into the literature of the past where I can enjoy reading about characters who are truly good people. John Carter, for instance, doesn’t really have ANY flaws, but I devoured A Princess of Mars recently. It was a highly enjoyable read and I liked his character.

    So, I guess what I am saying is that your method works, I am sure, for a lot of readers, but not for all. It doesn’t work for me.

  3. I think there really is a fashion at the moment for deeply flawed characters, and it goes beyond humanising them into mythologising them all over again from another perspective. Take House, MD. A rude, drug-addicted narcissist who verbally abuses everybody around him, breaks every ethical code that isn’t his own, and happens to be a good doctor. A very good doctor, to the point that somehow he maintains employment and friends (sort of) in spite of his numerous failings. He’s just that good, and becomes a sort of super hero whose greatest power is that he functions at a high level and remains the good guy no matter how many bad guy traits he might actually have.

    I love House, don’t get me wrong, and he’s far from the only overly-flawed super character around. Since characters like him, Jack Bauer, Dexter and Walter White (yes, this is all TV, but I do feel TV is somewhat informing this trend right now) have become so popular, it seems a little bandwagon jumping is inevitable and now shades of grey grow ever darker. Yet it’s starting to swing around to the point where these flawed characters are just as inhuman and difficult to relate to as a regular superhero.

    What concerns me is that going too far in the other direction may miss exactly why grey characters became so popular in the first place – that in reality, it is difficult to ascertain at a glance who is good and who is bad. Is a politician that aims to feed the hungry against the wishes of a system that has forgotten them, yet kills and blackmails political rivals to maintain his position good or bad? Probably depends how hungry you are. As readers grow more sophisticated, and more cynical of a morally ambiguous world, I think we’ll continue to see grey characters maintain their prominence. I just hope more writers remember that not every character has to be 99% monster and 1% magnificent to count.

  4. Thanks for sharing with us today, Neal!

  5. Appreciated Neal’s post. As much as most of us would like to wear white hats, reality dismisses it. Likewise, while our adversaries may appear as bad as they come, it’s only because of our personal bias.
    Most readers expect or demand realistic scenarios. I see that as a benefit of the gray character model.
    Just my 2 cents 🙂

  6. I think this is a great post, and an important story concept. It is vital that our heroes as well as villains function like real people. Otherwise, readers could not identify. Yet I also believe it is equally if not more important to maintain definition in their evilness or righteousness. After all, the protagonist would not seem very heroic if he/she were known to constantly make bad decisions. It is a delicate balance.

  7. “Good” and “Bad”” or “evil” is all relative and subjective. What makes a “Bad” guy “bad? Does the character do bad things? What if that character does bad things but has good reasons. For instance in my book the vampire bounty hunters hunt and kill vampires because they have no jobs and their family’s are starving. They are desperate for money and will do anything to get it.

    My father told me when I was a child that there is no such thing as good guys and bad guys. Nobody is all bad, or all good. Sometimes good people can do very bad things. The “good guys” in my books are the vampire victims. They capture and torture the people that hunt them.

  8. I have made my protagonist grey by making him a drug dealer. He’s a drug dealer who is only doing it so he can raise money to treat his sisters cancer. On the flip side, the rival gang leader is an absolute prick to his enemies, however he’s also a gardening lover boy. The experiment is showing how their temp alliance is very very fragile indeed.

  9. Is it to admit that I first thought the title was referring to gray hair?

    Personally, I prefer tossing a character flaw or two onto my protagonist. Makes it easier for me (who’s never been the “perfect kid” in the family) to relate to my OWN character, and make him/her believable.. 😉

  10. If I understand this post correctly, Mr Abbott is saying that the main difference between a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’ is where they end up, rather than where they begin – how they respond to the things that the story throws at them, and how they develop as a result.

    There’s probably a lot of truth in that; but I have to say that, as a reader, I find it hard to keep reading if the central protagonist is completely horrible at the beginning. Especially if they’re deliberately unkind. I don’t like stories where you have to struggle to find something about the character to root for.

    That said, I do absolutely agree that it’s important for our characters to be human and believable. The ‘good guys’ should have weaknesses, and the ‘bad guys’ should at least be the way they are for a reason (as Mr Abbott shows above). We just have to be careful to get the balance right. 🙂

  11. I kind of like how Warhammer40K and Starcradt does it.8D

  12. For me this falls under ‘shades of gray’, you have to hit the right balance.
    Thought provoking blog.

  13. I agree that characters should be believable, but writers are messengers and so they should be very careful about how they present these characters. A lot of current TV and book characters are “edgy” or even jerks to make it look cool, and you can see that emulated in society where people engage in verbal put-down all the time. The Bible was honest about the characters it presented–but it was also clear when they were sinning and when they were doing right. Remember that the heroes you write about, like it or not, are role models. Give readers something to aspire to become.

  14. @Any Poole – I have to disagree to an extent. The bible is not entirely consistent about who is sinning and what actually is a sin. This is the book that tells slaves to obey their masters, after all, and endorses conquering heroes raping the virgin children of their enemies while dashing babies’ heads against rocks.

    I think that in the broader sense people (especially adults) don’t look to fictional characters for guidance in how to act. They look to them for escape and catharsis. We don’t watch an episode of House and think “I should develop a drug addiction and be aggressively disagreeable with everybody around me”, we think “ah, look at that guy, mouthing off at his boss and getting away with it. That was fun, wish I could do it, but obviously I’d get fired.”

    I guess I just don’t see readers aspiring to actually become the characters they enjoy reading about. Do people actually want to be Bilbo Baggins? Do they aspire to be just like Arthur Dent? And I think it’s selling the average reader very short to suggest they would want to become a drug dealer because they read about one in a book.

  15. Exactly, sometimes its just as healthy to write a character thats an example of how not to be.


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