For starters, I want to clarify the differences between a bad boy and a morally ambiguous character. Bad boys have had many sexual partners. They often don’t give a crap what other people think, and they don’t like to follow rules or laws. While many morally ambiguous characters are bad boys, not all bad boys are morally ambiguous. Although, both tend to wear black and/or leather outfits. Guyliner can also be involved.
Morally ambiguous characters (MACs) are mind changers. They can’t decide whether they want to be good or bad. It depends on what they’re trying to achieve “in the moment” rather than making decisions based on a set of morals that they already possess. VERY often, a girl is involved in their decision making process.
Now, just so we’re all on the same page—let’s look at some examples of MACs. Take a look at these beauties:
Let’s talk briefly about what makes them morally ambiguous. First, we have our two vampire boys from different shows: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Damon from The Vampire Diaries. Were they real, they’d be considered serial killers. But they both end up making better choices for the sake of a girl. Not tough to see the moral ambiguity there.
Then we have Guy of Gisborne from BBC’s Robin Hood. He’s a bad dude. Oppresses the people under his care, kills innocents, etc. He also starts to change for the girl.
Next, there’s Loki from Thor: The Dark World. I reference this movie specifically because this is the one where he starts to become morally ambiguous. This is the movie where we start to question his character. Previously, Loki had tried to take over the world in Avengers, which resulted in the deaths of lots of people. But in Thor 2, he starts to help his brother once his mother dies—but at the end of the movie, we have no idea whose side Loki’s on.
And last, but certainly not least, we have Hook from Once Upon a Time. Throughout the show, Hook is not afraid to work with the bad guys to get what he wants, regardless of the consequences. He puts his needs (which start out as being revenge on Rumple) before everyone else’s. And he, too, changes for the girl.
Now let’s talk about four reasons why these characters work so well in stories.
- Character Development.
MACs have SO FAR to go. They often start out on one side of the bad/good scale and then go clear to the other side after an inciting event. Then they start to fluctuate on the scale. As readers and viewers, we like to watch characters grow. Character growth comes from internal conflict, which drives a story sometimes even better than external conflict. You can root for a character who you want to see change. Will Loki ever become a good guy and help out the Avengers? We’re dying to know what he’ll do next. We’re so invested in him as a character because we want to see him reach his full potential. To see what he can do when he puts all his energy into helping the cause. (Or, on the other side, to see just how bad he can get. And what he’s willing to do to prove a point.) The point is that we can easily become invested in MACs because there’s so far for them to grow. They can’t always sit on the fence. In the end, they will be good or bad. And we want to see where they’ll end up.
- Romantic Tension.
Guy and Marian, Buffy and Spike, Damon and Elena, Hook and Emma. (Loki is the only one of my examples not to have a girl involved, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before Marvel jumps at that opportunity. They’d be fools not to with all of Tom Hiddleston’s fan girls.) Those of us who enjoy romance in our stories love to see the guy get the girl. We like to see a guy change for a girl. We like to see the bad guys do good things for the girl. It makes the girl special because she is the only thing in the world that can motivate the MAC to be good. I think girls love this fantasy of a guy who will change for them. I believe we call it the Beauty and the Beast Complex. Whatever you call it, it’s powerful.
MACs do have some good qualities. More often than not, they’re funny. Loki, Spike, hook, and Damon are all funny. Everyone loves to laugh. So even if characters do bad things, yet have good qualities that we can admire, we’ll overlook the bad ones. Humor isn’t the only good quality they can possess, but it is certainly one of the most powerful, I think. All MACs, and bad guys in general, should have at least one good quality. Nobody is all bad. We’re fascinated by things like murderers who have pet kittens that they adore. It’s bizarre. It makes you question who they are and what motivates them because we seem to think at times that good and bad can’t exist together. In the story world, they always should.
- They stand out from everyone else
They’re just so interesting. They’re unpredictable. You have to be invested in them because you’re dying to know what choices they’ll make. Readers don’t like stories that they can predict. Even in stories where we want a happy ending, we don’t want to be able to predict how we get to the happy ending. The “bad guys” in a show steal all the attention once they become morally ambiguous. Thor may be the god of thunder, but Loki is the god of tumblr. Delena has way more fangirls than Stelena. Once Spike realizes he has the hots for Buffy, does anyone else in the show even seem as remotely interesting? No. Joss Whedon even ends up making him one of the main characters. Because he’s so darn interesting. And *spoiler* for my example for Guy if you haven’t seen the series—BBC ended up killing off Maid Marian because her dynamic with Guy was so much more interesting than the one she had with Robin. Guy was a more interesting character. Everyone rooted for Guy. No one wanted her to get with Robin. MACs steal all the thunder.
I wish we saw more MACs in the novel realm. All my examples are from movies and TV shows because I had a harder time coming up with ones in books. I noticed that the MACs tended to already be reformed by the time the story starts. But I would LOVE to see more of them in YA. In fact, after I finish the book I’m working on now, I will have one of my next male leads be a MAC. Should be fun.
In the comments below, tell us about some of your favorite MACs that weren’t mentioned here.