The Overuse of Morally Grey Characters in YA

by - 11:48 PM

*cracks knuckles* last week I flirted with angering the conservatives, and now I'm pissing off the liberals. Let's do this.

Hi, my name is Ellie, and I am a curmudgeon. The latest thing I am feeling curmudgeony about: morally grey characters in young adult fiction.

I would like to take this moment to emphasize something about the title of my post. It is "The OVERuse of Morally Grey Characters in YA," not "The USE of Morally Grey Characters in YA." I love morally grey characters, and I think we need them. I think we need them because even if we don't agree with them, they so often reflect what the real world is like. And it's impossible to change the world without first understanding it.

But I do think they've been overused in the past few years. It feels like all the YA coming out of late -- particularly fantasy -- has morally grey characters. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I do think there's something forced.

It seems like today, authors are shoehorning in morally grey characters left and right because it is the Thing To Do. It's the trend; those are books that sell. Also, so many of our favorite books (Six of Crows and Vicious are a couple that come to mind right away) contain morally grey characters, and who doesn't read their favorite novels and wish they could write that? I know I certainly do. This reminds me of when The Hunger Games was a hit and everyone started pumping out dystopian as fast as they could. Some of those other dystopians, particularly ones that came earlier, were good. But as time went on, an increasing number of them weren't. They just couldn't be innovative and exciting because they were too busy trying to be The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other best-sellers.

Maybe it's just me, but I've been noticing a trend that way with morally grey characters in YA. I certainly don't think the trope will crash and burn anytime soon, but it's become pervasive enough I've lost love for it. It seems like so many of the morally grey books nowadays are morally grey because it's cool and trendy, not because that would be the best way to tell the story. It's gotten to the point where I feel like moral greyness is just another item on the checklist for typical angsty YA fantasy (right behind diversity for brownie points and titles containing 2+ of the following words: salt, blood, bone, fire, flame, burn, wind, blade, etc.). It actually turns me off of a story if the first thing someone tells me is that it has morally grey characters. It's such a common thing at this point; it's no longer unique. And if that's the coolest thing about your book? I'm not sure I'm interested.

tl;dr I feel like I'm seeing more and more morally grey characters who exist for the sake of existing and not because it makes a better story, and I'm tired of it. There are still some fresh, clever, funny takes on this trope, but their numbers aren't increasing nearly as quickly as the bad eggs. Please stop shoehorning in morally grey characters because it's trendy and/or you wish you were the one who wrote Six of Crows. Thank you.

Let's chat! What do you think of morally grey characters in YA? Are you a fan or not? For my reasons or different ones? Have you made any similar observations? Who are your favorite and least favorite morally grey characters? Comment below, and have a fabulous day <3

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  1. Ugh, in general I have a major thing against doing anything for the sake of a trend. Anytime the good of the storytelling is compromised for any reason I will become angry. And morally grey characters are no exception.
    By all means, I agree that morally grey characters are interesting and needed. But YES, only use them when the story wants it- not because of a trend.
    I get that trends sell. I wish it was not thus, but it is. People get crazy over a good book and want more like it (I do the same thing), and publishers pick up on that and use it to their advantage. Sometimes I lament about this. The quality of storytelling is sacrificed to fit the marketable mold, and IT MAKES ME SO SAD. For me, story is Supreme Ruler. I know the world can't always work that way. But I wish it could.
    But anyway. Now I'm just ranting.
    This is a great post! And not just because I agree with practically everything you said. ;)

  2. Personally, I can't get enough morally gray characters. I have noticed that the boundaries for how morally gray a character is have changed--it seemed like characters were painted as in between morals, but then the gritty, tough choices were done by another character to keep the other one "not so bad." Recently I've read a few books (Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer is the one that quickly comes to mind) where the MCs have done awful, awful things because they had to...and I thought that was great.

    I'd like to see more books with antagonistic characters. They believe they're the heroes and I find that fascinating.

    1. I'd love a book where we think we're inside the hero's head all along, then we get close to the end and realize they're actually the villain. That would be so cool. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Yeah I think this happens with all character types. They become trendy and then overused.

    Nabila | Hot Town Cool Girl

  4. To be honest, I haven't read a lot of YA recently. So, maybe I'm not quite so aware of the overuse of morally grey characters. As for myself, I have morally grey characters but that's because all of us are morally grey. Not one of us is perfect. But at the same time I can totally see how morally grey characters can be written poorly. Great Post, by the way!

    1. Thanks! I agree with your assessment that all of us have flaws and grey areas in our morality. Especially when you take into consideration that how we view our morality might be different than how other people do.

  5. Great reflection! I totally agree with you. While I really enjoy reading well-written morally gray characters, I think that some writers forget that it's OKAY for characters to pick sides sometimes. Having a mix of morally gray characters and characters who (supposedly) pledge allegiance to what is portrayed as good or evil brings interesting levels of conflict and personal struggle to a story. In my opinion, a great story shows the evolution of a character's view of the world and themselves--sometimes morally gray characters can feel a bit stagnate.


    1. I agree! Those levels of conflict are what make morally grey characters interesting to me. If everyone in the book is morally grey in the exact same way and never changes, it's so less exciting. And that trope kind of loses its fun and meaning. At least, for me.


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