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Moral Ambiguity in Literature and Film


November 24, 2021

Moral Ambiguity: a lack of certainty about whether something is right or wrong

Immoral: not conforming to accepted standards of morality. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, and doing ‘wrong’ anyway.


            In general, I find a morally ambiguous villain compelling, and far more interesting than an immoral one.

            In recent years, there has been an increase in morally ambiguous characters in literature and film. Some believe this will cause a blurring of morals in younger generations while others believe it provides a more realistic view of real life, villainy and immorality. There’s the idea that a sympathetic villain will encourage immoral behavior. However, I would argue that while some might cheer for the sympathetic villain, they ultimately lose in some respect. To keep stories interesting, there needs to be a depiction of consequences, some sort of opposition for immorality. After all, moral ambiguity is relatable. With morals that are black and white, there's often a sense of guilt for not being able to adhere to that image, and moral ambiguity reflects the real life insecurity of right and wrong. Watching or reading as characters struggle with situations that lack clear-cut answers allows us to work through our own moral dilemmas.

            Some believe that more and more people have lost their moral compass, which is dangerous in relation to morally ambiguous or immoral characters. If you’re unable to discern right from wrong, how will you understand the complex moral dilemmas shown?

            I think the anti-hero gives us hope, it shows us that anyone is capable of heroics. The same can be said for morally ambiguous villains, as it shows how easy it can be for an average person to become the "bad guy." Sympathetic villains, or villains we love, are understandable.  Though a character's actions are villainous, we can see their motives aren’t evil, but rather that they come from a sincere place. Some recent examples of sympathetic villains in films are Maleficent and Cruella. Examples of morally ambiguous characters in more adult films are Deadpool and Venom. 

          A problem I’ve run into is poorly written characters attempting to be sympathetic villains. If they don’t give them redeeming qualities, they are just a villain (and an unlikable one at that.) When you make a villain your main character, you have to make them relatable in some way, otherwise the reader or viewer won’t be able to connect at all. The reader or viewer should be able to understand the logic of the character's choices up to the point of their questionable behavior and think “I don’t agree with that but I can understand why they did it."

            There’s a plethora of books these days with sympathetic villains or morally ambiguous characters, it might be fun to step out of your comfort zone and check one out!


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