In the last couple weeks, the Writing Community on Twitter has been talking about ‘morally grey’ villains a lot. Villains that aren’t mustache-twirling, top-hatted gentleman tying damsels in distress to railroad tracks.

And now that I’ve got your attention (apologies for the click-baity title) I’m gonna delve into this issue and explain some problems with many writers’ conception of what makes a villain morally grey.

What I’ve noticed is that many writers will say a villain requires two things to be morally grey: a tragic backstory and a belief that his actions are justified.

Sounds reasonable, right? If the villain feels wronged by the people he’s attacking and his life hasn’t been an easy one, he can’t be labeled as pure evil can he?

I think you know where I’m going with this…

If that’s all it takes to be a morally grey villain, the German dictator Adolf Hitler was also morally grey. As a child, Adolf was abused by his father and became traumatized when his younger brother died of measles, sinking into deep depression that he never truly overcame. He then fought in The Great War, lost many friends, and witnessed the humiliation of his country. Doing what he did later as the dictator of Nazi Germany, he truly believed he was justified.

So was Adolf Hitler morally grey?

No of course not!!!

It doesn’t matter that he believed he was in the right and that his childhood was traumatic. These conditions are not sufficient to create a morally grey villain.

Likewise, giving your villain a few kind, normal habits doesn’t make him morally grey. The aforementioned dictator was a huge dog lover and was known in fact to be very gracious and kind to his secretaries. Does that make him any less evil?

I won’t get into my personal take on morally grey villains, as that’s up to subjective tastes. But I hate to think writers are creating evil villains while trying to portray them as merely misguided souls. That’s troubling. The above characteristics, the tragic backstory, the self-righteousness, and the kind habits, are part of what makes a grey-area villain, but they are not sufficient.

If your villain is doing evil acts, he’s still evil no matter how many sick puppies he’s adopted and cared for.

An example of a morally grey villain is Iron Man and Black Panther in Avengers: Civil War. Here you have normally heroic men blinded by grief who end up fighting their own friends and trying to murder the innocent Winter Soldier. Their tragic backstory doesn’t make them morally grey, there’s a whole host of issues going on, and in the end they don’t actually do anything truly evil.

What do you think makes a morally grey villain? Let me know in the comments!

Published by Peter Martuneac

Marine, Boilermaker, husband and father. I'm here to share my thoughts on all things political or philosophical.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting discussion. It’s similar to a debate I was recently having about the changes to Dungeons and Dragons. Twits on social media have been screaming for a couple years now that portrayals of Orcs and Dark Elves as inherently evil was racist stereotyping. Isn’t it wonderful that all the meaningful social issues in the world have been resolved and people can snipe at THAT? Anyway, WotC has bowed to pressure and is revamping how ALL races in the game are portrayed.

    My long winded point being that I have no issue with morally grey villains as characters, but legitimately horrible villains exist in real life and should in stories also. Despite what new agers think, we can’t wish and pretend away people like Hitler or Ted Bundy. Even Hitler had a tragic backstory and twisted rationalizations for his actions BTW.

    Getting to your actual question though… The grey villain still has some sense of right or wrong. There are lines they won’t cross and they can be reasoned with to a degree. Your typical evil villain on the other hand is only going to do the right thing if it somehow benefits them and will likely betray that effort at the first sign it benefits them to do so. Magneto is a grey villain while Hitler is just evil.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a pretty good line of thinking, regarding Magneto. I think I would still label him as “evil” personally, though that’s getting into the subjective side of things (and I admit to not being very highly informed on X-Men things).

      And to your former point, yes it’s supremely frustrating when these issues creep into fantasy. The entire point of fantasy is to escape the real world, not drag your pet causes into it and project them onto characters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly on the Elves and Orcs. 🙂

        I’m cutting Magneto a little slack because he’s worked with the X-Men on multiple occasions and has shown there are lines he won’t cross, but yes, he’s a darker shade of grey.

        Liked by 1 person

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