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The Pros and Cons of Morally Ambiguous Characters

By Charles Moffat

One of my favourite characters I wrote about from the time when I was a teenager was a cutthroat named Pothax (pronounced "Poe-thaks", not to be confused with Pot-hacks or Poth-ax).

Ignoring the fan confusion about how to pronounce his name, Pothax is interesting because at the beginning he starts off as a Morally Ambiguous Character.


Moral Ambiguity is when a character or situation lacks clarity regarding whether the character(s) or the situation they are in is morally good or evil, often the result of the author being deliberately unclear about whether a character is good or evil.

SPOILER ALERT, IGNORE THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN'T ACTUALLY READ THE LAST HARRY POTTER BOOK.

So for example Severus Snape from the Harry Potter franchise is a Morally Ambiguous Character because for the longest time he appears to evil or selfish, and yet he has sided with Dumbledore and Harry Potter against the main villain Voldemort and acted as a spy for the goodies vs the baddies. It isn't until close to the end of the final book that it is revealed what Snape's true feelings and intentions were, so for 6.9 books he stays Morally Ambiguous and then upon his death we the readers finally learn why he was a spy and where his loyalties lay.

Spies in books often fall into morally ambiguous roles.

As do Assassins.

James Bond is a highly celebrated spy and assassin, and he is frequently morally ambiguous - largely due to a lack of back story until recent decades when new writers have started giving him more back story about his parents, his dead wife, etc.

And in Pothax's case, a cutthroat who becomes an assassin (sorry, no spoiler alert here) and later switches sides (again, sorry), his morals are questionable at best.

But that is just in the Paladin Assassin book. A book which is really about morality in many ways, as the name suggests.

By the second book Ice War and later the third book King Culprit the morals of this cutthroat character change over time. His goals become much more about friends and family. He goes from killing people for money to caring about other people over his own life.

It is a long transformation of his character from moral ambiguity to family man, and it takes three books to do it. (If it happened in just one book it would be rather unbelievable in my opinion.)

I should note that Pothax is just a supporting character in The Crimson Companions Trilogy. He isn't even a main character. He is an interesting supporting character, but he is not a main character. There are many other characters within the trilogy with varying degrees of moral ambiguity. Assassins, members of organized crime, corrupt leaders, leaders who have allied themselves with criminals because they are desperate.

Pros of Morally Ambiguous Characters

  • You can focus more on the action, less on character development. This makes the character(s) more exciting.
  • When you later focus on character development, the character benefits from having undergone a transformation.

Cons of of Morally Ambiguous Characters

  • Criticism from people who dislike Morally Ambiguous Characters, because they don't understand the point of characters who have little or no morals, or they are easily confused by characters whose morals are unclear or confusing. In other words, they are missing the point about morality. That is the point. The author is telling a story about morality using characters who either lack morals or have unclear morals.
  • It is also possible the author isn't actually telling a morality story. They might simply be telling a story about an action character, possibly one motivated by vengeance. The vengeance fueled action hero is a staple of Hollywood and pulp fiction, so this is normal.

In other news I recently changed the pricing of the Crimson Companions Trilogy of books. I wrote the books back in 1995-1996 and at some point I want to go back and update them to make a Second Edition version. (The links here are all for the First Edition / Classic Edition version.)

  1. Paladin Assassin is now $2.99.
  2. Ice War is now $5.99.
  3. King Culprit is now $5.99.

Or you can buy all 3 in The Crimson Companions Trilogy for $9.99.

Exact price may vary by country or region. So for example if you are in Canada you may get a better deal by purchasing via Amazon.ca as opposed to Amazon.com.

If you shop on Kobo you may also find a better or worse price there. I may at some point eventually remove the books from Kobo so if you are a fan of Kobo it is recommended you buy now before I make the books Amazon Exclusive.



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