The Beauty of the Grey Character...
After my latest blog Entertainment for Entertainment's Sake, I wish to delve into the other side of the argument and discuss the concept of one of my favorite aspects of writing: the grey character.
Thanos from Avengers: Infinity Wars is appropriate for this particular piece because in my opinion he is a great example of a grey character. Of course I will only be referring to the character in the films, as the comic book Thanos had much different motives and executions.
So what exactly am I talking about when I say 'grey character?' What makes a character grey? I mean, Thanos is actually purple, so what the hell am I saying? Well, what I mean by a grey character is that they aren't black and white in regard to their writing/development, they are more something in between, like all of us. A grey character can be a protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, neutral, etc., they can be anything, but what makes them grey is mashup of their core values, principles, motivations, implementations and actions.
Back to Thanos. There will be spoilers here for the movie that everyone on the planet has seen, so be warned. In Infinity Wars, Thanos wipes out half the universe's population with a simple snap. We're talking mass genocide amongst all species. Now upon first hearing that, one may think Thanos is an evil, sadistic bastard to do such a thing. But that would ignore all the context leading up to why he would do such a thing. And that's where the 'grey' aspect of his character comes in.
One has to look at his motives to understand why he would make that infamous snap. And in the film, he does it in order to save everyone. He has seen firsthand what happens when populations get out of control: it destroys societies, civilizations, and eventually worlds. His entire goal is to prevent that. But in order to, he has to commit a horrendous act. Now we see that this decision isn't simply black and white.
We can delve further into his character and look at his more intimate actions. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when he is left with an ultimatum by Red Skull. In order to retrieve the Soul Stone, Thanos must sacrifice something he loves. The audience would expect him to not succeed in this, because after all, how can a being so destructive and 'evil' truly love anything? Well, turns out he loves his adopted daughter, Gamora, one whom he raised and protected throughout her life. At the end of the day, he got the Soul Stone, but at such a great cost that it caused him to break down in tears. What kind of evil villain would cry over a death? A grey one, that's who. In order to achieve what he believes to be a rightful cause, he must make a great sacrifice. And ending the life of a loved one, well, there really is no greater sacrifice, is there? Not even sacrificing yourself holds up to that decision. This action showed that Thanos is far more complex as a character than first let on.
One last example from Thanos is that he is not happy doing what he's doing. He doesn't take any enjoyment in ending all these lives, he simply doesn't see any other alternative. And given his argument throughout the film, the audience often ends up questioning their own beliefs and starts thinking, "Ya know? He's got a point." This is great writing for a grey character. One that makes you question your own ideas of what is generally considered right and wrong. One that makes you think outside of your own perceptions. And we are seeing it more and more in recent works, albeit generally not as well done as Thanos, but people still try.
You have characters like Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones for instance. Here is an evil, cold-hearted villain that is ruthless and cunning in her actions. She kills people off left and right, has some raped, burns others alive, all to further her power and maintain control over King's Landing. But what are her main motivations really? Her children. She has an undying love for her children, no matter how evil and horrible they may be (bad parenting in my opinion heh). She's fairly dark grey, but grey nonetheless. There are even moments when the audience may sympathize with her (before the travesty that was season 8 anyways).
There's also the character of Roy Batty who is the main antagonist of Blade Runner. The entire film he kills people and is propped up as this destructive force that must be stopped at all costs, but why? Because he was basically a class of abused slaves. And at the end, he proves that he's not a monster by saving Deckard and giving the infamous 'Tears in Rain' monologue. Dude just wanted to live along with his people.
The beauty of grey characters is that they are far more relatable. Everyone is a grey character when it comes down to it. You can be the nicest, sweetest, most charitable person on the planet, but the moment that jerk cuts you off in traffic and flips you the bird, your darker side comes out and the psychopathic fantasies ensue. You could be an absolute evil piece of filth, but may have a deep love for your family or community. Hell, even Hitler was known to have an unabashed love for dogs.
We're not black and white. No one is. We are all various shades of grey. So when we see characters in our entertainment with those traits we can sympathize with them and understand their point of view a bit better, which makes for a more entertaining experience in my opinion.
That said, it has to be done well. There needs to be proper buildup and development of said characters in order to make the grey aspect believable. This is often a problem in modern media as many of the supposed grey characters feel forced and disingenuous. They don't give the characters time to be fleshed out, instead vomiting their life experiences on the audience within a matter of minutes by mundane exposition rather than allowing the characters to show the audience their grey side. I've been guilty of this in some of my writing and it's something I try to improve on each and every day.
So as an audience member, embrace the grey character, but do it with open eyes and a critical perspective so the writers don't get lazy. As a writer, be sure to give your grey characters the respect they deserve and build them up slowly and surely, giving them a strong foundation to grow on. Grey characters are a great tool in a good story, but like all tools, they must be maintained and used properly.