So often, stories follow a simple formula: good versus evil, us versus them, heroes versus villains. It follows the same rule that most author choices do: it doesn’t matter what you write, but how you write it. Quality writing comes from bold writing, but everything has to be written with an air of caution. If you’re going to give a character a noble trait, make sure to note it as noble. Likewise, if you’re going to give a character an evil trait, make sure to note it as evil.
With that said, most people in the world aren‘t a 0 or a 10, or even a 1 or 9. Writing gray characters are what make shows like Game of Thrones (except Season 8, but I don’t want to go down that road right now) and Umbrella Academy so successful.
A common route to take with gray characters is their confliction when making decisions. That doesn’t have to be true. They can just as easily be an antagonist who feel justified in their actions for sympathetic reasons. Or a hero who will sacrifice the few to save the many. To get to know the character better, think of those gut-wrenching questions like the trolley dilemma. Don’t be afraid to pull from their backstory (and they really should have one if your thought there was “what backstory?” to waver their decision in a different direction than the rest of their personality my convey.
There are generally two main categories of gray area characters. The lovable villain and the anti-hero. The lovable villain: who we know is bad but forgive them do to a few redeemable qualities. Think of characters like Loki or Darth Vader. Then, the anti-hero: who has no intention of being good but has some moralistic code that makes him/her rise to the occasion. Captain Jack Sparrow or Dexter Morgan.
I’ve always noticed two particular patterns when writing gray: characters that start together in the middle of the spectrum commonly end up in 2 opposing sides by the end; and, if characters seemingly start out one side of the spectrum at the beginning, they are pulled to the center by the thought.
If I had to sum up out to create the perfect gray area character, I would ask yourself these six questions:
What is their overall goal?
If higher on the scale, what is one thing that would make them cross the line?
If lower on the scale, where do they draw the line?
What is one thing unexpected about them?
What is their background?
Do they have any emotional wounds?