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. 😉
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.