writing morally gray characters
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we all love a good morally gray character, from kaz brekker to helene aquila. but there are things that make them stand out and make the reader genuinely root for them, as well as ways to make them more realistic, that can really help when writing a morally gray character.
disclaimer: i’m not a professional, just a student who writes for fun, and anything written here is based on my personal experience and opinion. you should always do your own research as well, and i am open to respectful discourse!
give them boundaries
one of the most important aspects of any morally ambiguous character is that they aren't entirely unhinged. it's unlikely a character will be willing to murder someone they love, or that they would betray someone unless they are getting something in return. any character has their limits. the goal of your plot is to push them beyond that limit, break them, and force them to stitch themselves back together.
give them a moral compass
many people misunderstand "morally gray" and confuse it for "does whatever the hell they like". possibly because one of the first lines in six of crows is "kaz brekker didn't need a reason" and kaz is bookstagram's favourite example of a morally gray protagonist. but actually, everything that kaz does through the novels only proves that he always has reasons. for absolutely everything that he does.
the difference is that it's not for the Greater Good and Evil.
morally gray characters are often selfish, but will have their own idea of what is considered right and what is considered wrong. for example, helene aquila thinks that it is wrong to disobey one's country. that doesn't mean she thinks it's right to murder, it's just what is done. so she doesn't question it.
make them justify their own actions
any morally gray character should be sympathetic, and this is achieved by having them justify their actions.
<six of crows spoilers ahead> if we saw kaz rip out someone's eyeball or drop someone out of a lighthouse window into a harbour without context, we'd probably think of him as completely unhinged /hyp. but the reader justifies his actions in their mind because kaz's narration justifies the action to himself: he is getting vengeance for inej. <six of crows spoilers end>
essentially, the character's narration should justify their own actions. they murdered someone? it was for revenge. they stole something? they've been starving for weeks. they lost their temper? the blow-up is the culmination of decades of internalised anger. make sure that the reader sympathises with your character by justifying their actions.
don't make them dark haired and brooding
okay okay yes i am a simp for dark-haired morally gray white boys but you know what? sometimes it'd be refreshing to see someone else be morally gray!
give me a morally ambiguous black girl or mother figure or indian character. the world has enough kaz brekkers and severin montagnet-alaires and cardan greenbriars (although i will say that i love all three of them from the bottom of my heart)
but helene aquila was a very pleasant change from all of them!
show them being Good
there is a difference between "morally gray character" and "villain whose actions are justified by the fandom" *cough* the darkling *cough* and it's really important to show that a morally gray character can be objectively good - or at least have pure intentions
for example, jude duarte murders people - Bad. but then in the next chapter, she'll go and have a picnic with her sister or try to save a human girl trapped into slavery - Good.
a morally gray character is not a character who gets a redemption arc, but rather a character whose actions blur the line between good and evil. their character development will not necessarily be going from bad to good, but going from unhinged to self-aware or from revenge-driven to loving.
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Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
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— reassurance starters
“ i feel safe with you. i always have. “
“ are you okay with this? ”
“ i trust you. you've got good values. “
“ thank you for your patience. “
“ can i kiss you? ”
“ i won't tell a soul. i promise. “
“ i appreciate you for you. “
“ you are so smart. the world is lucky to have you. “
“ you don't mind if i kiss you, do you? “
“ it's okay, you know. it's only if you want to. “
“ i want you to kiss me. “
“ i would pretty much trust you with my life. “
“ are you okay with being touched? “
“ if you're uncomfortable, you can tell me. “
“ if there's anything you don't want to do, you don't have to. “
“ you deserve the whole world. “
“ do you want me to talk to them for you? “
“ are you sure about this? “
“ it's okay if you say no. “
“ it's up to you. “
“ i'll always support you. “
“ you'll always have me. “
“ we don't have to do this if you're not ready. “
“ you belong to me, with me, under me. consensually, of course. “
“ do you want me to kiss you? “
“ can i hug you? “
“ i like kissing you. “
“ you're really cute, you know. “
“ you're adorable. god i love you. “
“ you and me, we make a pretty good team. “
“ you're worth everything. “
“ i've never loved anyone the way i love you. “
“ you promise this is okay? “
“ are you okay with me kissing you? ”
“ you can always talk to me. always. “
“ i'm here for you. “
“ do you trust me? “ “ yes. “
“ i like spending time with you. it's nice. ”
“ you make me happy. really happy. “
“ it's pretty nice, this thing we've got going on. “
“ you don't need to worry. you're safe. “
“ i got you. “
“ i'm not going anywhere. “
“ call me, even if it's the middle of the night. “
“ are you okay with this? “
“ i'm extremely okay with this. “
“ you know that i love you, right? “
“ whenever you're ready, i'll be there. “
“ if you're not ready, we can wait. “
“ take your time. i'll wait for you. “
“ don't think for even a second that you have to prove something to me. i love you just the way you are. “
“ everything's gonna be okay. “
“ you're not alone. “
“ are you busy? can i talk to you for a moment? “
“ you have me. you'll always have me. “
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Setting Goals for Your Characters
Not sure how to properly ask this but how do I write a fight scene between two characters who are both trained but might have different skill sets, while anyone still might get out alive that it could factor in?
Two things come to mind. First, it’s unlikely that you’re writing from both character’s perspectives simultaneously. Second, not every fight is going to be to the death.
When you’re writing a scene, it’s important to have clear goals for the participants. Violence is a way your characters attempt to exert their will on the world around them, it doesn’t simply occur for its own sake. (This isn’t a moral judgement; just that if your violence lacks motivation, it will come across as hollow. There are ways to leverage this, but, that’s a more complicated topic.) If you have two characters who want each other dead, then chances are someone’s not walking away. However, if you have characters with different goals, then any combat that occurs will be at cross purposes.
You don’t necessarily need to explain those goals to your audience. In fact, by default, your characters are unlikely to know their foe’s goals. That’s the biggest consideration in the other part of this question.
Your characters aren’t part of a psychic gestalt. They don’t automatically know what the other people around them are thinking, feeling, or planning. Even with an omniscient narrator, your characters won’t know their foes thoughts and plans, though the audience may be. With a limited narrator, you’re going to be writing the scene from the perspective of one of your characters, and, again, they won’t know what their foe is planning.
When both of your characters have the same background, it can provide an edge against one another. They’ve had the same training, and they’ll have learned the same strategies, tactics, and techniques. This means they have some ability to predict the other’s actions. They’ll be in a better position to predict their foe’s goals, and how what they’ll do to realize them.
If your characters have different backgrounds and skillsets, they won’t have that advantage; that’s the difference. They’ll have to guess at their foe’s methods, based on the information they have. They’re less likely to know what their foe wants, and they won’t know how their foe will go about achieving their goals.
So, how do you write two characters with different backgrounds in conflict? By remembering that they’re different people, and don’t know what the other person was trained to do.
This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.
Setting Goals for Your Characters was originally published on How to Fight Write.
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Writing tip of the day #4: on smut
The sexiest, feeliest (and therefore the most enjoyable to read) smut is about the thoughts and the emotions behind the actions, not the actions in isolation. Every time something notable happens, the reader needs to know the action, but wants to hear about the effect of it; the shivers a caress elicits, the gasp a thrust forces out, the bitten off moan that fingers entice - that's the shit that makes people feel something.
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Remember that it's okay if you have an idea for a story that you have to keep on the backburner because it's really important to you to get it right and you just don't have the skills yet. Work on other stories, develop those skills. The story idea will still be there when you're ready to take it on.
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If you can’t find the motivation for writing your novel, think about the end result. Close your eyes and imagine holding your book in your hand. Feel the texture of the cover, smell the scent of fresh paper, visualize your book, and include as many details as you can. Now realize that in order to make this vision a reality you have to take action. You have to write that book sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. You don’t have to rush, just make a commitment that you will find time to work on it.
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Soooooooo im a major fic hopper ;-; i soon as i have an idea i make a new book find a cover add tags write an outline etc etc but then i get bored within the next 2 days. whats more annoying is the fact i really wanna finish and publish a full book. Any tips :(
Love Planning, Struggling with Writing
To some degree, this is an issue of making the choice to stick with something. You have control of yourself and what you do, and you have the ability to focus on one thing if that's what you choose to do. When I'm trying to focus on one WIP and I get a new, unrelated idea, what I like to do is write it down in a pretty notebook. (I also jot it down in a document on my laptop so I have it in two places.) Once the idea is down, I push it out of my mind and focus my attention back on my WIP.
Also, in your case, I would strongly recommend against choosing a cover at the beginning, before the story is even written. Seasoned writers who know they can finish a story from an outline can get away with that, but if you're struggling to finish first drafts, this isn't something you should be doing. It's the equivalent of eating dessert first. It's super fun and delicious, but most people don't want to eat pan-seared halibut, steamed broccoli, and wild rice ten minutes after consuming a giant slab of four-layer Black Forest gateau. All it does is spoil your appetite, and choosing a cover before the story is written can do the same thing. It can spoil your motivation to actually write the story because having a cover makes your mind feel like the story is done.
Outside of that, you may also want to do some trouble shooting. Review the relevant posts on my Plot & Story Structure post master list to make sure your outlines are on the right track. You might also take a spin through my Motivation post master list to look at other motivation spoilers and find ways to fix them.
I hope that helps! ♥
Have a writing question? My inbox is always open!
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Why Blogging is Important for Writers
Why Blogging is Important for Writers
Are blogs like legwarmers that are trendy and fashionable, popular in the ’80s and back in style again?
Or are they like the necessary boots and thick socks that are the staple of any wardrobe in a climate with seasons?
With more than 150 million blogs in existence, it seems like everyone should be blogging from writers to business owners to anyone who wants to get their writing to readers,…
View On WordPress
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It's painful to cut a scene or a section you've spent time writing. It's far more painful to keep trying to make it work when it just doesn't. Kill your darlings! 🔪✍️
Edited to add: and keep a dump file, where you storehouse the deleted material you might want to use. Sometimes it's longer than the story itself!
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Have you finished a story? Are you now at a loss for how to proceed? Are you looking for some step-by-step guidance on how to actually edit your work? This is the guide for you!
This 20-page guide includes:
An explanation of the different types of editing
A handy flow-chart for what order to focus on issues
Practical steps for identifying and fixing structural problems
Resources for learning grammar and style
Like all of my guides, it’s available in pay-what-you-want format on Gumroad: https://tlbodine.gumroad.com/l/jkLpr
Reblog to save a writer’s sanity!
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A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.
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you're still a writer, even if:
you don't write every day
your books aren't published
you haven't finished your first draft
your stories don't get a lot of interaction
you keep creating new stories instead of finishing them
you aren't as good or skilled at writing as other people might be
you struggle to come up with new ideas
you abandon stories when you get bored of them
you don't want your books to be published
you take long breaks between writing sessions
you only write for fun
you doubt your ability as a writer
you don't create original stories and write fanfiction
you don't know all there is to writing techniques and writing rules
Writing is about writing. It's not a competition of who can reach what first. You still hold value as a writer, regardless of what your progress or process looks like. You set your own goals, and it's okay to only do this for fun.
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Demystifying the “rules” of writing (as promised)
First off, many writing rules are worded like absolute commandments, as though to write well, one must adhere to the letter. Either that, or they are simplified into bumper sticker format. Usually both. Many are also taken out of context, and some rules may contradict other rules, making it impossible to follow all of them. And here's the kicker: most of them are optional, once you learn the ropes.
That’s not to say the rules are not valuable--think of them as training wheels and general guidelines for what usually works. I can’t cover every “rule,” or piece of common writing advice here, so this is just a few quick thoughts about the generalities of how to approach writing “rules” and advice.
Here's an example of misunderstood advice: "Avoid adjectives and adverbs." What it actually means is don't overuse them, and get rid of any unnecessary ones.
Many times, adverbs and adjectives are superfluous. “He ran quickly.” “She smiled happily.” “They frowned sadly.” All of those modifiers are already implied by the verb, so what purpose do they serve? None.
Now if someone smiles sadly, or runs slowly, that might be worth using an adverb. I could write an entire essay on modifiers alone, but you get the idea.
Sometimes the experts are just plain wrong (I've seen one best-selling author claim that writing cannot be taught--and he is laughably, provably wrong), or misstate what they are trying to say.
James Gunn (the science fiction author, not the movie guy) wrote in one of his books on writing that authors should “avoid dialogue.” I cornered him about it at a party after we’d both had a few drinks, and he laughed and said, “Yeah, unfortunately, I wrote that. What I meant was to avoid pointless dialogue.”
“Show, don’t tell.” This one gets thrown around a lot, and it is generally good advice. Again, though, there are times when telling a little frees you up to show a lot. I could write a paragraph showing my protagonist waking up angry for no good reason, and it might serve the story well. But if I have a 4,000 word limit, I might be better off simply stating, “Throckmorton woke up angry. He had no idea why he was angry, but he was seething,” then get on with the meat of my story.
It goes on and on; writing rules and advice are often geared to beginners to help them develop good habits, but they're not absolutes. Hell, a lot of writing advice is geared towards guiding writers towards whatever literary conventions are currently fashionable.
The real and only rule is this:
Write in a way that serves the story and gets the emotional reaction you're seeking. Learning the rules and practicing them is valuable, as is learning how other authors have approached things, because that gives you the practice and experience to understand how to get the effect you’re looking for.
For example, if you're trying to create a feeling of dread in your readers, learning how some established authors do it can help you add that tool to your own writing toolbox, tweak it to your liking, and incorporate it into your own style.
Copy the greats! Most famous painters started by copying the masters who came before. Every great martial artist started by copying their teachers. Almost every great musician has a list of influences and songs they learned to play note for note on the way to developing their own way of doing things. Ray Bradbury started out copying writers he admired, then took from each one what worked for his own particular style.
Learn the rules, learn how masters of the craft do things, then when you break the rules or fly in the face of established convention, understand why you’re doing so.
(This is pretty much just unedited stream of consciousness rambling, but I hope it helps someone.)
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friends to lovers never had a bad track. “scared i’ll ruin what we have” SLAPS. “friendship cuddles while secretly dying inside” BANGER. “teasing each other and holding eye contact for a little too long” KILLS ME. and don’t even get me STARTED on “screaming i love you in the middle of a heated argument.”
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Words to describe facial expressions
Agonized: as if in pain or tormented
Alluring: attractive, in the sense of arousing desire
Appealing: attractive, in the sense of encouraging goodwill and/or interest
Black: angry or sad, or hostile
Blinking: surprise, or lack of concern
Blithe: carefree, lighthearted, or heedlessly indifferent
Brooding: anxious and gloomy
Bug eyed: frightened or surprised
Chagrined: humiliated or disappointed
Cheeky: cocky, insolent
Choleric: hot-tempered, irate
Darkly: with depressed or malevolent feelings
Deadpan: expressionless, to conceal emotion or heighten humor
Despondent: depressed or discouraged
Doleful: sad or afflicted
Dour: stern or obstinate
Dreamy: distracted by daydreaming or fantasizing
Ecstatic: delighted or entranced
Faint: cowardly, weak, or barely perceptible
Fixed: concentrated or immobile
Gazing: staring intently
Glancing: staring briefly as if curious but evasive
Glazed: expressionless due to fatigue or confusion
Grim: fatalistic or pessimistic
Grave: serious, expressing emotion due to loss or sadness
Haunted: frightened, worried, or guilty
Hopeless: depressed by a lack of encouragement or optimism
Hostile: aggressively angry, intimidating, or resistant
Hunted: tense as if worried about pursuit
Jeering: insulting or mocking
Languid: lazy or weak
Leering: sexually suggestive
Mischievous: annoyingly or maliciously playful
Pained: affected with discomfort or pain
Peering: with curiosity or suspicion
Pleading: seeking apology or assistance
Quizzical: questioning or confused
Radiant: bright, happy
Sanguine: bloodthirsty, confident
Vacant: blank or stupid looking
Wan: pale, sickly
Wary: cautious or cunning
Wide eyed: frightened or surprised
Wrathful: indignant or vengeful
Wry: twisted or crooked to express cleverness or a dark or ironic feeling
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Hello~~ thank you for helping us writers 💕 I was wondering if you have any tips on motions/actions like turning one's head etc (example: *character* turned her head to the side in an attempt to hide her rose tinted cheeks) i find that I use that kind of motion a alot in my story. The word 'turning' gets really overused and I was wondering if there are other alternatives to how it can be written? Thank you so much!
Struggling with Action Descriptions
There are two things to consider when you find yourself overusing verbs like turned/turning:
1) Check for Overuse - More than likely, you have too many instances where your character is turning their face or body in another direction. Look at each occurrence and consider the emotion you're trying to convey. In your example, you're trying to convey embarrassment by having the character turn to hide their blushing cheeks, but there are other external cues to indicate embarrassment other than blushing and hiding one's cheeks. For example, grimacing or wincing, fidgeting, covering one's face with hands, slumping shoulders or sliding down in one's chair, hiding face behind something.
Also, look to see if you have too many moments where a person is conveying that emotion. If you have 7 scenes where your character is embarrassed, it might be worth asking whether all 7 of those moments accomplish something unique. If not, you might look into cutting all but a few of them.
2) Look for Synonyms - Sometimes you just need to find another word that means the same thing. For example, you could say, "She pivoted to the side to hide her face," or "She looked away, attempting to hide her face."
I hope that helps! ♥
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i just think that unhinged female characters with a little blood on their face and wrath in their eyes is pretty neat, that's all
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