What is a morally grey protagonist?
A morally grey protagonist is someone who acts as the driving character of a story but isn’t necessarily a morally upright person. This can mean stories from the perspective of villains, but it also means protagonists that aren’t traditional in their moral systems. A morally grey protagonist is more okay with “crime” and “sin,” and is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal throughout their story. This protagonist might be working for the greater good, but does so in an objectively “wrong” way. This could also cover a protagonist with less than decent motivations who works for selfish reasons but still contributes some good to the world.
Why are they interesting?
A selfish protagonist or one who has bad motives is interesting because it breaks the mold of the expected POV protagonist. A lot of readers expect to like the protagonist and in fact there are plenty of books that are criticized specifically because the protagonist is a bad person or unlikable. A morally grey protagonist may be likable, but often will have any number of issues in their way of thinking that the reader may not agree with. We expect a certain amount of virtue out of the average protagonist, so an author presenting a protagonist with little to no virtue is a new and interesting way of looking at whatever story the author is telling. It’s another way of breaking up the pattern of the expected and showcasing good writing.
It can also be wholly interesting from a reader’s perspective to encounter this more unique type of lead character. A lot of books spend time establishing why the protagonist is a good person or otherwise better than the antagonist of the story. It can make for a new reading experience to encounter an unapologetically grey character.
Is it important to feature character growth?
A little bit of this depends on the story the author wants to tell, and a little bit of this depends on the readers/audience. Some readers and key audiences are absolutely looking for redemption arcs, growth stories, and stories of moral strength. Alternately, there are stories that can absolutely be told with a protagonist that doesn’t have strong moral fiber. It can be incredibly interesting to have a long stretched out growth arc that takes a horrible person as a protagonist that eventually grows up. It can also be interesting to read a story of a never redeemed morally grey protagonist whose motivations remain the same throughout. If the story is meant to turn things on their head and show an unreliable narrator, or explore events from a villain’s perspective, growth isn’t necessary at all.
When does moral grey-ness go too far?
There are times when the decisions and mistakes of a morally grey protagonist are interesting, and there are times when they’re harmful and traumatic. Not every villain, not every morally questionable person, and not every controversial stance needs both sides to be examined. There are actions, mindsets, and beliefs that are actively harmful in this world. An interesting morally grey protagonist may oppose a known evil institution, but have a new approach to tearing it down. However, a character that approves of evil things for evil’s sake, or genuinely believes a harmful stereotype or bias is accurate is dangerous. For as many intelligent readers there are that can read from the perspective of an irredeemable character and understand they are wrong, there will also be those that believe the same way. There will be readers who hold up these works as proof that their harmful biases are widely held and based in truth.
There is a lot of discussion, as always, going on about where the biases of the author are included in the text. An author that wants to examine biases but not promote them must then be careful if examining from the viewpoint of a protagonist. Making someone with real, harmful beliefs sympathetic is dangerous and sends signals to marginalized people that they aren’t safe as well as signaling to awful people that they are.
I am personally a fan of the occasional morally grey protagonist. I’ve enjoyed writing and reading them, and I think there are some super interesting directions that a book can take when featuring such a protagonist. That being said, I do not condone the use of “devil’s advocate” thinking when it comes to genuinely harmful biases. An example of this is racism. I find it unacceptable to present the views of a racist without clear condemnation of those views. A character who actively harms others with major biases is not interesting and is not morally grey. It absolutely has to be made clear if writing from that perspective that the writing is done with condemnation in mind.