An exploration of the age-old literary phenomenon that is a morally grey character.
Since the beginning of time, readers across the world have been fascinated with literature questioning human morals and ethics. Throughout the decades, there has been a rise in a very particular type of moral questioning. Readers have been obsessively devouring literature centralising a male love interest with a ‘morally grey’ personality. So, what is it about this unyielding phenomenon that causes so much enthusiasm and captivation amongst readers? And is it healthy for us to constantly consume literature with such blurred divisions of what is right and wrong?
Firstly, what does a morally grey male protagonist look like? Well, in short, it’s the classic ‘bad boy’. Rebellious, mysterious, dangerous, and brooding. A delicious duplicity between charm and violence. A character with hidden demons, dark, ulterior motives, and astonishingly good looks. Think of Tahereh Mafi’s ‘Aaron Warner’, Sarah J Mass’ ‘Rhysand’ and Stephanie Meyers’ ‘Edward Cullen’. Not to mention all the boys from the ‘Twisted’ series and every male character from a Kresley Cole or Jolie Vines novel. A character who is not explicitly good or bad, and incredibly controversial in their opinions and decisions.
Authors have sold the seduction of moral ambiguity for years, and readers engulf these stories with fanatic intensity. The world is desperate for the eroticism surrounding this dark, rebellious figure, now incredibly common to young adult fiction.
Whether it be a rogue rebel (tattoos, piercings, motorbikes, and black eyes) or the suave businessman (smart, expensive suits, flashy cars, blackmail, and power), the sex appeal of the dangerous and unpredictable is constant. The adrenaline that comes with lusting after a character so sinful yet irresistible, is addictive. Take Christian Grey from E. L James’ viral trilogy ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. His name is literally an embodiment of moral ambiguity and uncertainty. Readers adore his character and the novel’s plot to an alarming extent. His character exemplifies wild duplicity and excitement of the unknown.
It is interesting though, where we distinguish this line between sexy and abhorrent. ‘Heathcliff’ from Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is an all-time classic example of a disrespectful, violent, controlling, and troubled male character. He’s controversial and malicious, the ultimate corrupt antagonist. Readers have had no issue condemning such beastly behaviour from a fictional male character. Yet, modern fiction such as Penelope Douglas’ ‘Credence’, does not receive the same type of criticism and outrage. In my opinion, ‘Credence’ is a grotesque example of misogyny and male ego preying upon female inexperience. The male characters are selfish, possessive, and domineering. But because the book depicts characters with a beautiful face, witty charm, and a tragic past, what seems abusive becomes dangerously attractive. Past tragedy and fatal flaws become an endearing element to a character.Readers begin to excuse unpleasant behaviour for the sake ofsinful eroticism and sexual extravagance.
So, is our society simply becoming numb to violence and demeaning attitudes? Are we more accepting of typical ‘red flag’ behaviour for the enjoyment of forbidden romance? Literature teetering on the border between misogyny and protectiveness is becoming more and more common. It calls into question whether this exposure is healthy for us, particularly young adults. Is this kind of literature simply glamourising abuse? And are we subliminally desensitising younger generations to male violence and control?
Or does literature simply allow us to delve into an unrealistic world of thrills and risk? Perhaps this is exactly what makes a morally grey character so immensely attractive. The appeal and desire for the unrealistic. Literature allows people to escape into a fantasy that ‘real life’ may never allow them to. It is probably safe to say that the vast majority of readers will never actually end up with a ruggish millionaire hiding dark secrets and violent tendencies. Yet reading about the ‘nice guys’ never seems to cause the same kind of hysteria. We yearn for the untouchable and forbidden. In my opinion, there is a lack of accountability that comes with reading such obscure and extreme literature. The further away from reality a novel becomes, the less likely we are to see it as a cause for concern in everyday life. Literature provides a separation between the world of intoxicating drama and the mundane existence. Readers dip in and out of it to experience different lifestyles and suppressed pleasure.
There is, however, another issue: the subtle encouragement of stereotypical ‘male’ behaviour. Often, the morally grey becomes intertwined with typical masculinity. Characters are quite often strong (both physically and mentally), brutish, stoic, and stubborn. True, it is unfair to group all literary works of moral ambiguity into this one category. Yet, it is common that the ‘maleness’ of a character is emphasised within literature to heighten sex appeal. The morally grey subtly suggests that dominance and assertion is linked to attraction. Can we therefore see this phenomenon as damaging or even belittling to our society?
Although like I already mentioned, it is unfair to assume that all morally grey literature favours the ‘strong man and innocent female’ trope. Gena Showalter’s ‘Alice in Zombieland’is one example of violence, courage, and sex appealembodied within both male and female characters.‘Cole Holland’ is a textbook image of the cutthroat, aggressive, and rebellious male. But the female protagonist ‘Ali Bell’ is also just as courageous and determined. Showalter pits the dynamics of two troubled, opinionated, and independent characters against one another to form a delightful unity of passion and power. Together, they are fearless and confident. Showalter manages to fulfil the desirability of the morally grey whilst still avoiding a relationship of dominance and submission.Another example of this is Xiran Jay Zhao’s ‘Iron Widow’. Here, the female lead is powerful, heartless, and fearless. She embodies all the characteristics of a stereotypical man, yet Zhao still maintains a great femininity within the story. The morally grey can be manipulated to fulfil empowering storylines that reverse gender roles and promoteequality, even through bloodshed, violence, and corruption.
There is a question here about acceptability. Authors are pushing boundaries and questioning what acceptable behaviour in society actually looks like.This is nothing new. Literature has always been a tool used for criticising, rejecting, and defying societal restrictions. Now, we are living in an age where we are fighting for attraction and sexuality to be surrounded with much less stigma.Literature is pushing the limits of the acceptable morally grey storyline ever closer to the cliff edge, teetering on the brink of descension into the condemnable and outrageous. Yet, the edge is now stretchingfurther and further out. What was previously considered to beinappropriate or a form of fetishism, is now being imagined through literature as a normal type of desire.Harley Laroux’s‘Souls Trilogy’ is a perfect expression of what was previously condemnable desire, whilst still maintaining feminist and empowering values. As a society, we are learning to accept visible sexuality as something to not be ashamed of.
Perhaps it is more realistic for us to imagine the world as full of morally grey human beings. No person is ever entirely good or bad. Our Earth is fallible, complicated, and never explicitly black or white. Perhaps this ambiguous literature is more realistic than the righteous, principled, and virtuous storylines.
In my opinion, it is almost undeniable that this phenomenon will never disappear. The infatuation with the unpredictability of the morally grey is a literary force. And one thing is certain, it is spellbinding, delectable, and irresistible.
Words: Ella Boxall