' clairefy: Frenemies; No Need to Like, but Ought to Learn

Frenemies; No Need to Like, but Ought to Learn

1.27.2016


Self-published author C. Joybell C. asserts that:

 “There is some kind of a sweet innocence in being human- in not having to be just happy or just sad- in the nature of being able to be both broken and whole, at the same time”. 

In other words, flaws and successes characterize people, as opposed to just successes. Many protagonist-centered fiction stories today tend to highlight the bright side in all; and, as eager readers, we root for our favorite champions to save the day.

Typically, our chosen heroes and heroines are clearly fighting for good. Their perfect actions and decisions rarely have evil outcomes, inspiring bookworms to make the ‘right’ choices. While I do consider it important to feature role models in fiction stories to inspire and lead, I also find it crucial to highlight gray characters—those who don’t achieve or choose the correct cause on the first go, but somehow make an impact on readers and the characters around them.

You know who I’m talking about. Our Snapes, Adelinas, Victors, and Elis, who hatch plans with mixed intentions that result in a range of outcomes for themselves and the other characters. Readers, including myself, cannot classify these characters as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as easily as many of our beloved protagonists and antagonists. Instead, they force us to think and ponder their actions, thoughts, and feelings—the qualities that make them human.

Bibliophiles loyal to their favorite series can spend hours upon hours arguing these qualities to describe a character as their most liked or disliked. For instance, Severus Snape, a character in J. K. Rowling’s famous Harry Potter series, is a figure constantly debated; in fact, his personality and actions recently came under question when many bookworms asked Rowling why she chose to name Harry’s children after the potions master. Snape, like other gray characters, is not one easily molded into a good or bad character. His actions, including bullying and saving the day, contradict each other. Readers of the series will realize my implications specific to Snape (trying to avoid spoilers here), but on a larger scale, characters possessing traits flawed and noble are often the most human and genuine.

We humans are a diverse, versatile group, and cannot be defined by a single set of words. Thus, of course, gray characters are also diverse, and appear in different shapes and sizes. When I think of gray characters, though, here are a few traits that come to mind:

  • Gray characters are not always initially identifiable. Often, they may seem one-note until later actions reveal their true characteristics. For example, I perceived Victor in V. E. Schwab’s Vicious as an ‘ideal’ protagonist until I realized his actions were not consistently ‘good’ or justifiable.
  • Gray characters make plenty of mistakes. Later, these mistakes drive their decisions, either for better or for worse. I feel like this is a given, but it is important to recognize that it is these mistakes that make them lessons. Consider that Eli, also from Schwab’s Vicious, seems the obvious and evil antagonist, but it is his beliefs and early mistake to deny others’ beliefs that shape his villainous attitude.
  • Gray characters can be unlikeable. At times, it can be easy to dislike these personalities, whose flaws pale in comparison to the noble protagonist’s. For instance, Adelina in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites is not a character I can say I “liked”, although I found her interesting.

As I write, readers worldwide debate how redeemable, loveable, and hate-worthy characters like Snape are. 

(Personally, I agree with Rowling; we cannot classify Snape as specifically good or bad, and that is what makes him human.) 

But I digress. 

Frankly, I think it is healthy for such debate to ensue. These gray characters, just as they themselves did in their stories, are making fans consider the differences between right and wrong, and weigh those choices with their consequences. The characters, through their mistakes, teach us good and bad. Hopefully, these lessons will help us readers choose the greater, nobler, correct option when choices present themselves.

I feel that it is just as important for books to feature gray characters as it is to showcase the great heroes and heroines. (I believe it is possible for a character to be both the protagonist and a gray character, though.) Even though it is crucial for readers to experience adventures and trials and tribulations alongside a trusty partner who will surely make the right decisions, I think it is equally crucial to include characters who, just like us, struggle to make realistic decisions in our daily lives. We need characters who, like us, must consider both sides of a conflict to make an informed decision, and characters who, like us, don’t always make the right choice the first time around, but are receptive and can learn from their mistakes.

How do you feel about gray characters?

21 comments :

  1. OMG, you thought Victor was an ideal protagonist? I guess he did seem that way at first, but I always knew it was a supervillain. That is a fun contrast, now that I think of it. And you're right! The fun thing about gray characters is that we can argue about them. That we can hate them or love to hate them or love them or anything in between. We have to be careful and be aware of any problematic faves, but they can be our faves nonetheless!

    PS: I see you're currently reading A Darker Shade of Magic, and I thought I might let you know there will be an #ADSOMreadalong, starting 1 February -- you don't necessarily have to match the pace of the readalong, but there will be Twitter chats coming soon and it would be fabulous if you joined us! :D

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    1. Thanks for letting me know about the #ADSOMreadalong, I'll look into it!

      Yes! Initially, in the first couple of chapters, I was ready to see Eli as the obvious villain and Victor as the obvious hero, but I quickly realized that both were more developed that I assumed. And I'm glad for that!

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  2. I love gray characters! Because they're quite rare in YA, I think they make a story so much more interesting. Like in Vicious - Victor and Eli totally made the book for me, because they were so complex and unpredictable. I like arguing over characters, too! Gray characters make really interesting conversations because everyone has a different interpretation. I really want to read The Young Elites because I've heard the protagonist is a little bit evil, haha! :D

    Awesome discussion, Claire - thanks for sharing your views on this one! ♥
    Denise | The Bibliolater

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    1. Me too, Denise! The protagonist in The Young Elites is a bit evil-- like with Victor, I saw her on the "good" side at first. I slowly realized she is not completely "good" although she does fight on the protagonists' side for a while. Towards the end of the book, her loyalties waver, so I need to read the sequel and see which side she leans more to!

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  3. Gray characters are special. I like how they are so unclassifiable, and they could surprise you at any time, just like Snape did at the end of Harry Potter. However, on the other hand, they can be a little bit bleak and uninteresting at times.

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    1. I agree! For me personally, I am usually more enticed by gray characters than others, because I am constantly questioning their motives and actions.

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  4. I really like grey characters! Grey characters add depth to novels for me, and they are the most reflective of what it means to be human. I learn more about myself, life and stuff in general when I read about grey characters. Like you said, Claire, they make fans consider what is right and wrong, and help readers to just be better people ^_^ Interesting post, Claire - really enjoyed reading it!

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    1. Thanks Geraldine! I think their actions teach us many lessons. Readers can learn so much from picking up a book!

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  5. THIS POST IS AMAZING! (Just as the other posts). I think too that Snape's actions is what makes him human, and I love him :) <3

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    1. Thanks Maha! Personally, I can't say I love the guy (it's hard to forgive Snape for 6-ish years of bullying), but I do recognize his heroic actions at the end of the Harry Potter series and don't view him as completely villainous (like Umbridge or Voldemort).

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  6. Claire, I love how you still talk about and love Harry Potter as much as I do. Alas, you know the actor who played our beloved yet despised Snape passed away recently. You and I had several discussions about what Snape did for Harry all through the series. On a personal note, just want you to know how proud I am of you and to have been lucky enough to have been your teacher! Mrs. Fitz loves you!

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    1. Thank you! I heard about Alan Rickman's passing, unfortunately. He portrayed Snape amazingly. And yes! My love for Harry Potter, which originated even in elementary school, is still with me now:)

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  7. Let me just first say that I will mostly [always] appreciate morally complex villains over any do-gooder protagonist because they often have the freedom to thrive in this grey area you speak of. It's "too easy" for leads to fulfil their quest to dethrone the villain. This is fiction, yes, but being unsettled and experiencing the phases of skepticism and questioning is the hallmark of characters (and ultimately books) that not only move you to evaluate things in a state of necessary discomfort but also push you towards realms that aren't avenues you'd normally consider in the day to day heroism of the 9-to-5 (which is what fiction is set out to achieve anyways).

    I love how you wove Vicious into this discussion, as I've only heard praises for Vicious; which I will read probably soon since I'm on a Schwab high after ADSOM and AGOS. Plus, I love the characters pitched to me so far.

    Oh gosh, I hope most of this word vomit made sense.

    Cheers,
    Joey via. thoughts and afterthoughts

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    1. Haha, it's not problem. I agree. It is so easy to dismiss a character as one "trait", especially if it's a villain-- giving them a backstory often makes me more empathetic to them, but it's so much more convenient to view them as evil and always evil. I suppose this is the humanizing aspect of gray characters, though, and my reaction to them.

      Vicious is the only Schwab book I've read so far, but I really want to read ADSOM with the release of AGOS around the corner!

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  8. Hi Claire!
    Well, I've just discovered your blog and I subscribed without really even reading any of your posts! Your design is completely BEAUTIFUL. I just can't tell you how happy it makes me feel. Thank you!
    ~Sydney

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  9. Oh, and I am very envious of your photography ;)

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  10. I LOVE gray characters. Some of my favorites besides the ones you've listed are Kaz from Six of Crows. He's definitely morally gray but I loved him. He's broken, angry but fantastic. Also, I love Magnus from Falling Kingdoms. So many times I went back and forth on whether I liked him and he made questionable choices. This is a great post, something I've thought about but never wrote about. LOVE IT!

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    1. Ooh, I didn't even think of Kaz! I read Six of Crows not that long ago (maybe a month and a half at most...?) and I absolutely loved it. The crew in general is not comprised of do-gooders; all of the team has committed some crime(s) and have a reason for why they are where they are (and they're pulling a heist, of course).

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