Morally Gray Heroes Vs. Heroes With Alternate Morality

Conan the Barbarian has long been a favorite character of mine, I’ve read the comics, seen all the movies, and read the original short stories by Robert E. Howard. I remember my first introduction to Conan in sixth grade in comic book form, I don’t remember how I got my hands on it but I must have read that comic two dozen times. At the time I think I enjoyed it mostly for the incredible variety of almost naked women which commonly grace the pages of the comic. I was twelve, filled with hormones, and couldn’t have told you the difference between a good story and a bad one if my life depended on it. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but I still love Conan, not for the pictures anymore, but for the characters and their stories.

Conan is often lauded as the original morally gray hero, he has been followed by a long line of morally gray heroes ranging from assassins to wizards who walk the line between good and evil (yes I’m talking about you Harry Dresden) to morally compromised starship captains. However I take issue with the original thesis that Conan was a morally gray hero at all. A morally gray hero is one who cannot see, or regularly steps over, the line between right and wrong. The church assassin who has taken his holy orders and visits the confessional to rid himself of sin after each mission is a morally gray hero. Harry Dresden, of Jim Butcher’s ‘The Dresden Files’, is a morally gray hero. He often flirts with dark powers in an attempt to do the right thing, he gathers up artifacts of magical wickedness and stores them ‘just in case’ rather than destroying them or turning them over to the proper authorities.

Conan on the other hand is impeccably moral, to his own understanding. While his morals do not reflect the standard of Judeo-Christian society he operates within a set cultural standard of right and wrong. Look at one of the early stories ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’, in this story we see Conan lured away into the wilderness by a vision of a lovely woman promising favors of an intimate nature, the Frost Giant’s Daughter of the story title. The daughter lures Conan into a trap set by her brothers, a game of sorts where she lures unsuspecting men in for them to slay and eat. Conan, being the barbarian hero that he is, kills her brothers and then promptly rapes the fae woman. This action is wrong from a Judeo-Christian perspective, however when we examine it from the perspective of Conan’s statements and actions throughout the stories we see that he understood this as entirely acceptable behavior.

The morality under which Conan operates considers the strongest to be in the right. He who is able to take something through strength has every right to do that, and indeed, we never see Conan react badly when beaten in a fair fight. He sees deception as the greatest evil, to lie or betray a fellow is worthy of death while cutting down a man who has wronged you is virtuous, no matter that he had no chance against you in the first place. Unlike most western writing, which would cast such a character as the villain, Robert E. Howard castes Conan as his hero and tells the stories from Conan’s perspective. We feel Conan’s outrage towards the cowardly city dwellers who rely on conniving to make their way in the world, his disgust at the weak wizards who trust in otherworldly powers. We see the world through Conan’s moral lens and understand his view of right and wrong.

Another excellent hero who operates on a completely foreign understanding of right and wrong is Captain Jack Sparrow from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Sparrow sees the world through the pirates code and acts accordingly, one of the only morally upright characters in the entire trilogy of movies Sparrow always measures his actions according to the code. The one scene that crystallizes his perspective on morality for the viewer shows Sparrow, Elizabeth Swan, and Will Turner rowing away from the Isla De Muerta after a major battle.

Previous to this scene we have seen a running sequence of gags where pirates act like pirates and everyone else gets mad at them. We hear the line ‘bloody pirates’ repeated several times by different characters, many of them pirates themselves. Three sides take part in the battle, the English navy, Sparrow’s crew of pirates, and Barbossa’s undead pirates. Each side curses the selfishness and unreliability of pirates as they steal and kill their way to freedom, even though all three sides are doing the exact same thing.

This sequence of events lays the groundwork for Sparrow to show his moral character. As they exit the cavern bay of Isla de Muetra Sparrow asks his companions, ‘Where is the Pearl?’ referring to his ship the Black Pearl. They respond by telling him that his crew took the Pearl and fled when they had the opportunity to escape. Unlike the repeated invective of ‘Bloody Pirates’ Sparrow responds with a nod and a sigh, then he says ‘They followed the code, did what was right by them. Can’t ask for more than that.’

Sparrow’s moral character is revealed in this one line as much as through the movie as a whole. While he might not operate on a moral compass which points in the same direction as Turner or Swan his character is of unwavering virtue. He measures everything through his understanding of right and wrong and does what he understands to be right. In this way Sparrow and Conan are extremely similar. Both have a core of unwavering virtue, though their virtues may not correspond with those of Judeo-Christian society.

Compare this with a character like Dresden or the characters of the TV show Heroes, who quite often question their actions or commit acts which they believe to be wrong, and we see the vast difference between the two. While both character types have their place in literature I have always enjoyed characters like Conan or Captain Jack more than truly amoral or immoral heroes. I find these characters to be more likable, more upright, and ultimately more useful than the morally gray heroes which are often favored in fiction today.

So the question is, which do you want to write, which do you understand better, and which does your story need more, a character with a firm and unwavering grasp on a very different version of morality or a character who regularly steps over the line of morality into the darkness?


10 thoughts on “Morally Gray Heroes Vs. Heroes With Alternate Morality

  1. I think the character/hero who crosses the line is more understandable and more relatable, but at times slightly more boring (although not always). The ones with the alternate morality provide new perspective and interest, esp. if parts of the character’s moral code are laid out. I think we see both of these trends more and more in movies such as The Italian Job, Ocean’s 11/12/13, 21 and more when the heroes we are drawn to are and cheering for are still breaking the law.

  2. To some degree I would say yes we do. Especially in the Ocean’s movies, the characters all operate off of a distinct moral code and, in each of the movies, that code is threatened by an adversary. To a lesser extent in the Italian job, mo…stly because, while the relationship between the characters is strong, the moral conflict in the movie is based more upon that relationship than upon the character’s morality. I 21 I would argue that you have a group of morally gray heroes, there are even a couple of scenes where they attempt to justify their actions to themselves. They are taught a code of operation but none of the characters actually accepts it as a moral code of right and wrong.

  3. I think you make an important distinction here- I’ve always felt that it makes for a very interesting character when you find that they act on different principles than your own, and you have to figure out exactly what those are. It may appear at first that the character simply doesn’t hold to (or not particularly strongly to) any moral system at all, but after you have become familiar enough with the person, patterns emerge that suggest otherwise. This can be overdone, of course- when the “gray” hero is simply against every social institution (“fight the power” and all that) or their moral system differs only in such a way as to highlight a politically incorrect attitude (I don’t listen to girls because…they’re girls!), the character has become predictable. I find that the most enjoyable use of alternate morality is when it lends to an unpredictable personality, that is until you get to know (and love/hate) them, as in the case of Jack Sparrow.

  4. I agree Erik. I think the most important thing to remember in writing someone who follows a different moral system is that you, as the author, need to have a complete understanding of their moral system so that they can be both consistent and deep. Real people do not hold to moral systems that consist of ‘Girls are bad’ past the age of 10 or 11 unless they are mentally deficient or markedly insane. I’m sure we can all remember how people had cuddies when we were in fifth grade…remember…now remember how you grew out of that and realized that ‘oh, hey, girls can be fun’.
    Moral systems are complex, sometimes to the point of being irrational (I hold forward cuss words as an example of this. I still haven’t had anyone explain sufficiently why the S word is a horrible thing while crap or poop is completely acceptable). If you are going to write a character with an alternate morality (which I’m going to be talking about in my next post) you need to understand that morality and all of its little oddities. That is what was so wonderful about Conan, seeing his morality clash with more modern sensibilities…and then crush them like fly paper.

  5. Kudos on making this distinction, it’s something that not enough people take the time to consider. Thought I’d pitch in that, if you want a (pop-culture) example of the two being set against each other, to really get a feel for the contrast between “gray morals” and “alternate morals,” the TV show “Supernatural” is a good choice: you have Sam (of gray morality), who ascribes to contemporary beliefs but often finds himself compromising those beliefs to do what he feels is right, and his brother Dean, who was raised into his (“alternate”) morality by their father–he doesn’t think twice about a lot of things Sam finds questionable, and yet finds a lot of Sam’s moral landmarks completely alien. Just my two cents.

  6. That’s a very good point Katie and I hadn’t even thought of the example, thanks for bringing it up. You’re right, although I would add the caveat that Sam tends more and more towards doing morally gray and straight-up immoral things not necessarily because he feels they are right (which would alleviate the moral issue to a large degree) but because he believes they are necessary.

    Deep Space Nine had some great examples of this in the later seasons as well. Captain…I think his name was Sisko (or Commander Sisko maybe…been a long time since I watched the show obviously) makes a number of decisions during the war with the Kardassians which he obviously finds morally reprehensible but absolutely necessary at the same time.

    I love another quote from Star Trek, from Captain Picard I think, talking to Riker he says ‘Sometimes the right thing isn’t the correct thing’ talking about making command decisions.

    Obviously I personally disagree with this point of view but I love the way it shows the entirety of Picard’s character in a single scene, he strives to do the right thing but is often willing to cross the line in order to do the expedient thing, he is often more soldier than explorer or diplomat and that scene really makes that clear.

    In Star Wars, on the other hand, you have Obi-Wan Kenobi who is naturally a diplomat who is at times forced into combat. He stands in contrast to Picard because his response would be that the right thing is ALWAYS the correct thing but rarely the easy thing.

  7. Yes, thank you for correcting me on that; “what is necessary” is what I had meant to say, regarding Sam’s actions–after all, if he really believed his actions were “right,” he’d be slipping into an alternate morality. Dur.

    Benjamin Sisko was both a commander and a captain, so you were right either way. And for the record, I loved Deep Space Nine all around–not least for the fact that it had the best *character* writing of all the Star Treks. There was real development and evolution there, moreso than I found with any other of the series. But I digress.

    I like the contrast you set up between Jean-Luc Picard and Obi-Wan Kenobi (on a side note, I assume you were referring to the Old Ben of the original trilogy, and not the young Obi-Wan of the prequels?), though I have to contend that their respective moralities have just as much to do with their *roles* as their ideologies; Picard, as a military commander, has the weight of a thousand lives resting on his conscience at all times, and has learned over time that he must sometimes sacrifice himself in order to safeguard those lives–moral compromise is nothing compared to the loss of life on his watch. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, is the guardian, or caretaker. The life he’s been forced into demands that he lead by example, that his students see him as infallible–compromising himself in his student’s eye would only teach that student to do the same; he doesn’t have the luxury Picard has, to even be able to make that choice.

    That said, of course, both characters are portrayed as being fairly well-acclimated to their roles, and so the line between obligation and ideology begin to blur–though, I do personally believe that it has more to do with the former than the latter, at least in these particular cases.

  8. DS9 did have really good character growth across the board, though I hated the first few seasons of it, the last few are some of the best Star Trek ever made…ever…for all of time and existence…that’s right I said it :).
    As for Obi-Wan, I’m mostly referring to the character development you see in the EU Star Wars material. In the books and comics written from the beginning of the Clone Wars through his death you get an incredible image of Obi-wan as a reluctant general, a skilled swordsman who would rather negotiate than fight. He hates taking life, no matter whose life it might be, but he understands when it is necessary and when it is not.
    The other thing I’ll mention is that, at the beginning of the series, Picard is supposed to be a consumate scientist and not a military man at all. In fact Riker and Worf are supposed to be the ‘military’ minds on the ship. However through the course of the series Picard’s character morphs into a soldier and warrior, I use morph because it’s not entirely natural character growth, more altering the character’s background and personality to suit the desires of the audience.
    You are correct that Picard has more freedom than Obi-wan because he is not viewed as a religious figure, though he is a role-model (especially to Wesley), however he also does not face the same kinds of situations that Obi-wan does, especially when faced with Anakin. My favorite thing about Obi-wan is that he faces pain, betrayal, and the deaths of hundreds of men that he cares deeply for and continues to be a moral figurehead…moreso that he BELIEVABLY continues to be a moral figurehead. Throughout the EU material you see his pain, his grief, his anger and yet he never falls into darkness. Honestly he has become my favorite character in the entirety of Star Wars material.

  9. Some might argue that he’s being Mary Sued, there. I’m not one of them, I’m just saying. Actually, I don’t think I’ve read any EU since…the second Thrawn series? Wow, that was a while ago, I should probably catch up! Still, since I’m so out of the loop on it, I’ll reserve any (presumptive) opinions I might have. What I will say, though, is:

    Picard was supposed to be a role model for Wesley? Really? He’s a *terrible* role model! Oh, sure, he might look handsome in that uniform *now,* but you just *know* he’s the kind of guy that, when he retires (for real; not in those alternate-future time-travel episodes), he’ll be the type to sit on his front porch with a bottle of whiskey, hollering at “them damned whippersnappers,” and unable to let go of his glorious past. In fact, now that I think about it: despite the (rare) moral dilemma he faces (or rather, acknowledges), he seems almost to find a kind of sociopathic glee in the so-called “adventure” of it all. Is that the kind of man a boy should look up to? I’m beginning to see why you favor Obi-Wan.

  10. Yeah, while I like Picard as a character, he really is kind of a moral basketcase. But go back and watch the show, Wesley idolizes Picard, just about everything he does revolves around ‘proving himself’ to Picard. It goes back and forth between hero-worship and this weird almost cultic follower complex. Picard goes back and forth between treating Wesley like a twerpy kid and trying to mold him into a miniature view of himself. Riker intervenes every now and then because the man has half of a moral compass but still…it gets pretty ridiculous.
    Compare this to Obi-wan and…well…yeah. Anyway, I think the best…most clear and crystalized example and execution of Obi-wan’s charater is in the novel ‘The Cestus Deception’. Of course you have a lot of different writers so you have many different ideas of who Obi-wan is and many different levels of writing ability, but ‘Cestus Deception’ manages to bring them all together into one cohesive character very well.

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