In my past two articles I’ve written about two groups of readers I’ve seen debating one another: the “black and white team”, who enjoy stories where noble heroes defeat loathsome villains in a world of clearly defined morality, and the “grey camp”, who want their fiction to challenge them to think about the world and see situations from different points of view. As writers, we may enjoy both types of story or we may prefer one over the other. I feel there’s a market for both types of tale, or there wouldn’t be so many debates over which type of story is “better”. Just as it’s hardly fair to say that science fiction is “better” than fantasy or horror is “better” than romance because different genres attract different readers, what matters most is how well the writer succeeds in giving the reader what she is looking for in a story.
A successful “black and white team” story will fulfill the reader’s expectations of a grand battle between good and evil. Writing a “grey camp” story can be challenging for the writer because it pushes her outside the traditional heroic narrative. If a “black and white team” story runs the risk of entering cliché territory, where a Perfect Hero faces off against a Cartoon Villain for an inevitable victory, a “grey camp” story can devolve into a situation where neither side seems preferable to the other, leaving the reader confused. Or, the protagonist can be so unpleasant that readers don’t want to follow him on his adventures.
A “grey camp” story demands that the writer be able to see the world through his characters’ eyes—both the protagonists and the antagonists. Both sides need to have a coherent worldview in which the behaviours that put them into conflict are logical extensions of their beliefs, goals, and historical experiences. Both sides will have flaws, and both sides will have positive traits. But in a world of such grey morality, how can the reader choose who to cheer for?
One way of making an anti-hero appealing is to make his enemies even worse; but this technique alone will not guarantee that readers will want to follow him through the story. It’s best if the anti-hero has at least one admirable trait. If he is a clever thief, the reader will enjoy watching him outsmart the police. If he is a gangster who overthrows his abusive father for control of their criminal empire, the reader will admire his courage and tenacity. If he is an enemy spy who falls in love with the woman he seduces, readers will hope that their love can survive the revelation of his true identity. There is a certain appeal to some audiences to read about characters who do things that would be terrible in real life, but can entertain in fiction, taking the reader to an aspect of the world far different from her own.
In other examples, the creator has chosen a main character that has only a vague similarity with the reader: for example, a human fighting aliens. Only as the story progresses do readers come to see that the “enemy” has a legitimate point of view. Some may choose to remain on the “side” of the protagonist, while others might find themselves cheering for the “antagonist”. Reader’s loyalties may come to lie with certain characters, but not necessarily with their causes. The ambiguous worldview—what is good? What is evil?—lays open the possibility of characters doing unpredictable things, unfettered by many of the constraints of the traditional narrative.
Grey protagonists, done well, can be interesting and challenging because they do things that a traditional “hero” wouldn’t do. They often find themselves in circumstances where they have to make a choice between two difficult options. It is left to the reader to decide whether their behaviour is justified given the circumstances. That decision in turn will be affected by the beliefs and life experiences of the reader.
Some readers will prefer the traditional heroic narrative, where it is easier to decide who to cheer for, where they may not be forced to examine their own beliefs and worldview. Others will seek out a story that exposes them to alternative points of view and challenges them to think. Both types of fiction have pitfalls for the writer: how to keep the traditional narrative fresh and interesting? How to guide readers through a world where morality is in flux? Rather than debate which type of story is “better”, writers should challenge themselves to create a tale that will deliver a satisfying story for their reader.