Do We Over-Simplify Morally Ambiguous Characters?

Over-Simplifying Morally Ambiguous Characters

Moral ambiguity is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for quite awhile now, but I’ve always struggled with how to phrase my thoughts. It’s too easy for this post to come off sounding condescending or dismissive of people’s thoughts on characters and for that reason, I’ve put off writing this for a long time, hoping that at some point I would come up with some magical idea on how to write this perfectly. Alas, that has not happened but I still want to write about this, so I’m giving it my best shot. πŸ˜‰

I love morally ambiguous characters. They do good things, they do bad things and, in the end, you’re just not quite sure how to categorize them. Does the good outweigh the bad? Or does the bad nullify the benefits of the good? I love these characters because they really make you think. At what point can we categorize people as “good” or “bad”? Can we even categorize them at all?

Something I’ve noticed over the past several years is that a lot of people tend to over-simplify morally ambiguous characters, almost completely ignoring one side so they can feel more confident in categorizing them into the other. I’m not immune to this either, as I’ve found myself doing the same thing plenty of times.

Two characters that often fall victim to this are from Harry Potter: Snape and Dumbledore. Neither one of them falls perfectly into either the “good” or “bad” category. Yet some of their actions are often ignored or downplayed so that people can categorize them. And it can go either way. Snape is possibly the most divisive HP character out there. A lot of people feel that he’s totally justified in being bitter and mean because, ultimately, he was trying to protect Harry to make up for his past mistakes. Others (myself included) feel that him secretly being “good” and helping to defeat Voldemort doesn’t negate the fact that he bullied his students, especially Harry who he treats terribly pretty much only because Harry reminds him that he got the woman he loved killed (and let’s face it: he treated her terribly too, throwing racial slurs at her). Dumbledore is often similarly characterized. A lot of people feel he’s a very kind, understanding, supportive, grandfather-like character who provides Harry with needed guidance. Others feel that he basically raised Harry for slaughter and didn’t do enough to protect him from the abuse of his aunt and uncle. Neither side tends to sufficiently recognize the other.

But I don’t think that minimizing either side does any good. Part of the reason why characters are so interesting is that they aren’t perfect. I think in acknowledging that even the best characters have done bad things and even the worst characters have done good things helps make them more human. After all, making them 100% good or bad often makes them feel unrealistic. Who can honestly say that they are 100% one way or the other?

This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t make judgments about which of the character’s actions are more important or say “well, X overshadows Y.” I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling as though Snape was a terrible character. And while I ultimately think Dumbledore is a good guy, I fully admit that he could’ve done more to protect Harry. (I mean, really, you couldn’t just keep the kid at Hogwarts to protect him from Voldemort? You’re the greatest wizard alive.) But I think it’s important to acknowledge that characters may not fit perfectly in these categories. In doing so, we can view them as more human.

What do you think? Do we over-simplify morally ambiguous characters?


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41 thoughts on “Do We Over-Simplify Morally Ambiguous Characters?

  1. I think we do it in an attempt to create order. We like to categorize people/characters in a certain way so as to keep our thoughts about them neatly stored in our minds.
    However, I don’t agree that we should. People, all people, are multi-faceted personalities, thus even the people we know really well will turn around and surprise us sometimes.

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  2. Awesome post. I feel like with book characters, we try to make them “black and white”. Either good or bad but not close to human. And I think we forget that sometimes these characters are human as well and they will do things in regards to what is going on in the story.

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  3. Oh, I love morally ambiguous characters. They’re some of my favorite characters. I love both Snape and Dumbledore (which tend to be unpopular opinions, but I’m always on the unpopular side lol), and, yeah, I like when my characters have different sides to them. They are supposed to model humans, after all. It’s sort of why I’ve never understood “I found her so unlikable!” because we don’t like all human beings in real life, and, most of the time, when people say that, the characters are making quite stupid, but realistic decisions in terms of how human beings would act. I certainly don’t have the brightest ideas. πŸ˜‚

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  4. Great post! I don’t think I’ll ever understand people completely ignoring how much of a shit bag Snape is. He’s literally the definition of those “nice guys” who think that just because they’re friends with a girl means that they’re good to go with a relationship. And then he spends the rest of his life bitter. In my book he’s not morally ambiguous, just a tosser. However Dumbledore is definitely morally ambiguous, he’s a good guy but goes about fixing things in very weird ways, like why couldn’t he just outright tell Harry things instead of secretly plotting.

    Morally ambiguous characters are so much more realistic than “good guys” because we all make good and bad decisions and there needs to be more in books!

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    • I completely agree with you about Snape, haha. I personally don’t think his “good” actions make up for the rest of his actions or personality at all, but I know a lot of people think he do so that’s why I tend to view him as a morally ambiguous character. But yeah Dumbledore was really frustrating because he expected Harry to always make these big decisions and trusted that everything would work out in the end because of it but… wouldn’t tell Harry what was actually going on?
      Totally agree with you – morally ambiguous characters are so much more fun to read about and so much more realistic, too.

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      • One of my friends at work who isn’t the brightest realised on a rewatch that dumbledore had basically set Harry up to die and asked me whether she was making that up and I was just like “yup it’s fucked” and her mind was completely blown

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      • Hahahaha I mean… that is pretty much what he does. I really want to reread the series and see how knowing the ending affects my interpretation of the earlier books. Because I have a feeling there’s a lot of stuff intertwined in there that I’d be shaking my head at.

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  5. People tend to do this a lot, in my experience, not even just with characters who arguably have both good and bad character flaws. I was actually thinking of writing a post somewhat touching on this topic, that people love to categorize and have definitive answers, even if that means leaving out nuance.

    I’ve taught literature classes and composition classes (which focus on writing about things that aren’t literature), so I see it a lot in essays. Part of it may be that people are taught to write essays with a *firm* argument and don’t want to seem wishy-washy. (I know I had a problem with that beginning college, and had to figure out the difference between explaining nuance and sounding uncertain about my argument.) But people will very, very often write a thesis that’s “Snape is a hero” or “Snape is a villain” and not “Snape contributes to the Order of the Phoenix, but not always for clearly moral reasons, so he’s more of an asset than a hero.” Or whatever. You get it for non-literature essays, too: “Standardized tests like the SAT are unfair so we should get rid of them” or “The SAT is a great way to decide who gets into college because it tests academic skill” and not “There are pros and cons to tests like the SAT,so colleges should consider them in admissions, but only under these specific guidelines.”

    Granted, some essay prompts lead students to do this. The SAT prompts are a good example: “Famous Person X once said ‘Y.’ Write an essay explaining why you agree or disagree.” People don’t often say “I agree but only under certain conditions because it’s faster and easier to write a black and white answer. But, yes, people will often ignore information that’s staring them in the fact that contradicts their argument because it’s overwhelming to deal with. I’ve had students come up and tell them they noticed something in the text that contradicted their thesis, or they interviewed someone for a research paper but the person “didn’t say what I wanted them to say,” so they were just purposely going to ignore the contradictory evidence instead of using it to nuance the argument.

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    • Yesss, it’s so important to acknowledge ALL the information you have rather than just picking out what you want to that supports your view. I’ve noticed this a lot in academic writing too when I used to have to do a lot of peer review stuff. People often don’t want to admit that their original view(s) could be wrong or could be more nuanced than they’re presenting them and therefore just don’t acknowledge all the different parts of a topic, character, etc.

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      • Yes! I never did a lot of peer review as a student, so I had no idea what other people were doing with their writing. I kind of wish I had, in hindsight. But I think that in a lot of cases I would have assumed they were just bad readers and didn’t see the information that was conflicting with their argument. So it’s been really interesting as an instructor to hear, at least from some students, “Oh, yeah, I noticed that, but it disagreed with my argument so I ignored it.” I may need to develop a strategy of asking more leading questions in these cases in the vein of “Why do you think that’s a good idea? How do you think readers will view your argument if they notice this information? Etc.” I know sometimes with academic writing that it’s a time constraint thing–not every paper is important to every student, and why put in the hours nuancing the argument? But I think it’s a good thing to practice in general.

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      • I know personally I was always taught to only include information in support of my argument up until maybe my junior or senior year of high school. I really wish I had been encouraged to address potential counter-arguments and/or to include all relevant information (and show why it does or doesn’t affect your argument) in my papers earlier because it really makes your argument stronger rather than taking away from it, at least in my opinion.

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  6. This is suuuch an amazing post Kourtni and I think you wrote it eloquently πŸ™‚ I personally love morally ambiguous characters simply because they’re more interesting. They have so much depth into their personality and it’s realistic, because in real life good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Maybe not as extreme Snape or Dumbledore, but to some extent. I agree that Snape is the perfect example! I don’t believe he’s a good guy because he’s done *a lot* of bad, cruel things. Not only to Harry but also to the other students, especially Neville </3 I also prefer morally ambiguous characters over an all good characters because those kind of characters are naive and frankly, not realistic, especially for adults hahah I think VE Schwab writes a lot of amazing morally gray characters! πŸ˜€

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  7. Great job with this post Kourtni! I feel like this is a common habit with both real life people and book characters because it makes them easier to think about when they’re in a box.

    However, I feel like by talking about all of them (not just the exceptionally good/bad parts) we get a much better feel for their personalities and why the author made them so confusing in their novels

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  8. I think we should consider every character morally ambiguous, and if we can put them in one category or another, they are not a full, round, realistic, person. Humans are, by nature, morally ambiguous. We do bad, we do good. We should practice not trying to put anyone, fictional or real, into a “good” or “bad” box.

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  9. I see this oversimplification all the time and it’s probably one of the things that annoys me the most. People seem to dislike complexity because it’s harder to deal with, so they decide to order things into neat little boxes. But you can definitely talk about a character without having to choose a side or “prove” that they are “good” or “bad.” In fact, ignoring complexity is just bad literary analysis.

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    • Totally agree with you, Krysta! It (obviously) annoys me too. I think people do it to try to make sense of characters, but ultimately, by over-simplifying them, they’re not truly understanding the characters, but rather are cherry-picking certain aspects of the character that fit a certain view. Personally I think it’s a lot more interesting to read about a character who has done good and bad things and trying to understand the different motivations rather than ignoring one side of the character and getting an overly simplistic, unrealistic view of someone.

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      • I think that many people may recognize the complexities of characters, but when they write they feel that a “good” argument “proves” something. And to make that easier they ignore evidence that wouldn’t support their argument. I think it’s really an issue of people rethinking what an argument is and how to write, less so that they aren’t recognizing the characters aren’t black-and-white.

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  10. I definitely agree with you. I never realized how easily as people we like to put characters in boxes but at the same time we always want them to be realistic. Honestly, to be realistic aka human, all characters should me morally ambiguous because that’s how humans really are. I think since we’re so used to heroes and villains, we tend to want to put those boundaries when we’re reading. I do that myself a lot so I need to work on seeing both sides to every character I’m reading and if they’re 100% something, questioning why that is and why it shouldn’t be.

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  11. This is a really interesting discussion, Kourtni! Until now I don’t think I ever actually thought about how easy it is to want (or see) a character to be just good or evil, even if truthfully they fit more into a gray area. Some of my favorite characters blur the line between good and bad. I love morally ambiguous characters for the realistic struggle they present. There’s just something so much more interesting about a flawed character who doesn’t fit the mold of a hero or a villain. Kaz from Six of Crows comes to mind when I think about this and he’s one character who was definitely morally ambiguous and I loved that about him. But I do find myself trying to categorize characters sometimes. I’m not even sure why. The only reason I can think of is that sometimes I fall prey to the idea of wanting a character to just be the hero or villain. Which is ultimately unrealistic and can be boring. And I think your examples of Snape and Dumbledore are great! Both of them are such flawed characters. In the beginning I definitely saw one side as bad and then one as good but over time when the lines blurred I stopped seeing it that way. I think it’s one of my favorite things when an author can create a character who doesn’t fit into a box. Anyway, I’m probably rambling by now but this is a fantastic discussion lol. πŸ˜πŸ’•

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  12. I totally agree with what you said about Snape and Dumbledore. I mean, Snape has treated Harry very badly over the years (It becomes even more evident in the books bc the movies don’t touch on it as much) because of what happened with Lily and his love for her. I think it doesn’t give them the right to place his rage or abusive behaviour onto his students or Harry. With Dumbledore leaving Harry to deal with the situation in Order Of The Phoenix is something that caused a lot of trouble for Harry but I think Dumbledore was trying to help him. That’s not to say it was the right decision but he thought it was for the best. However, none of the two are better than the other, but the big difference is that, Dumbledore has always supported Harry and gave him advice. Snape has done everything in his power to make Harry’s life a little more miserable as punishment. So, I would definitely say if I had to choose I’d choose Dumbledore any day.

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    • I totally agree. I think even though Dumbledore’s decisions weren’t always the best, I do think he was trying to do what he thought was best. Whereas I feel like Snape was just mad because Lily didn’t love him and then he accidentally got her killed πŸ˜› Dumbledore is definitely a better (as in “good” not necessarily better written) character, in my opinion.

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  13. First off I’m sorry for these long comments! πŸ˜€ I do think we often forget or overlook the flaws of a character because we’re so focused on the story and the progression of it. It’s easy to lose sight of that. It happens to me all the time, where I read a book and I don’t realize the bad sides of the characters in it. But I think that they aren’t perfect is what makes them relatable? Bc for me it resonates so well with real life, the idea that people think or expect others to be perfect, when none of us is nor will we ever be? But that’s okay because we’re human and we make mistakes, it’s just that it’s important to learn and hear out others.

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    • Don’t apologize, haha! I love getting comments πŸ™‚
      I absolutely think characters being imperfect makes them a lot more relatable. No one is perfect so if a character is, it just doesn’t seem realistic. I think as readers, we should acknowledge those imperfections rather than try to downplay their importance by defending the character as a “good” character. Just because they’re good doesn’t mean they’re flawless.

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