Such a BEAUTIFUL shade of grey! (or, favorite ambiguous characters)

Some people like their heroes like their milk and their villains like their coal: pure and white in the former case, pure and black in the latter. Me, I prefer a bit of ambiguity: characters of whom its much harder to say that they’re definitely good or definitely evil, characters with shades of grey in their motivations.

I don’t think I’m the only Doper holding that opinion. But I’d like some confirmation. Feel free to explain why you think a given character is ambiguous, and what makes that character work for you.

I’ll start with three:

  1. Bull Meachem from Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. (I have not seen the movie nor do I intend to, given my rule against watching adaptations based on books I love.) Bull’s a wifebeater, an abusive parent, a racist, and a serial turtle killer–but he’d kill anyone else who hurt his family, and he’d never abandon a friend, and if war broke out you’d want him on his side. He dies before his son can figure out whether he can forgive him for being such a son of a bitch; I haven’t figured it out either.

2.** Boromir** Yes, he betrayed his oath and tried to kill hte ringbearer. But he did it out of desperation, and for love of Gondor, and realized that he had done wrong and atoned for it with a horribly painful St. Sebastian imitation. He was Gondor’s greatest captain, I tell you.

3.Magneto (as written by Chris Claremont in the 90s). Yes, he’s trying to conquer the world on behalf of mutantkind. But spending your childhood as the guest of the Nazis can erode your trust in the kindness of strangers. He’s best when he realizes, deep down, that he’s a hop, skip, and a jump from becoming his own worst nightmare.

Anybody else?

Lex Luthor. Yes, I said it. He’s jealous of Superman and more than a little obsessed, but he really does have the best of intentions. He believes in every human’s potential to aspire to greatness, just as he himself did with his superior intellect, so he resents Superman for arriving on Earth with all these powers and abilities that he essentially got by happy accident (thanks to the yellow sun). He thinks Superman didn’t have to work hard for the power he possesses, and is therefore unworthy of it. While he has done less than savory things in the past, he’s also done some good in the world through Lexcorp and as former U.S. President, and I can totally get behind the ultimate bitter nerd taking it upon himself to stand up against the ultimate jock on general principle.

The Shade. A former supervillain who robbed and murdered around the world for over a century, he refuses to commit crimes in his beloved Opal City, and will always ally himself with its heroes to protect it from threats. After a while, he made the jump from villain to full-fledged antihero, but he still has no compunction against killing bad people in horrible ways. James Robinson turned the Shade from a generic “jobber” villain into one of the best characters in DC Comics.

Deadshot. Possibly the world’s greatest marksman, a mercenary and assassin who literally didn’t care about anyone, even himself. Floyd Lawton didn’t have a death wish, per se, but couldn’t care less if he lived or died. That is, until he found out he had a daughter. Then he took it upon himself to single-handedly clean up the crime-ridden neighborhood she and her mother lived in, and strived to be a good father to her. And for a guy who supposedly doesn’t care about anyone, he has proven more than once to be a team player, in the Suicide Squad (written by John Ostrander) and the Secret Six (written by Gail Simone).

I thought of Lex, particularly the Smallville version, who spent the first few years of the series fighting against the evil fate destiny had in store for him. More than a few fans I know feel that Smallville’s real–or at least really interesting–story is the tragedy of the Luthors. In my dream version of Superman, the two of them still miss their childhood friendship. They’re also bound together by their shared love of Lois; Lex isn’t quite willing to kill Clark because he knows it would crush her. (An idea that has been referenced in the comics.)

You named my two right off the bat. Erm…I’ll get back at ya,

Practically every character in the books by China Mieville, a fantastic author far too few people have heard of, is intensely morally ambiguous. Since I’m betting no-one will have a clue what I’m talking about if I mention them, however…

Batman: While I don’t agree with the “fully fledged pyscho” route that some (I’m looking at you, Mr. Miller) have tried to pull Batman down in recent years, I think Batman is at best when morally ambiguous (as in the sublime DKR, for example). Batman is, essentially, a paranoid borderline-sociopath, and he doesn’t even have the excuse for fighting crime that most of the JLA roster does: without powers, he is walking a dangerously thin line between getting himself and others killed and actually protecting Gotham. Plus, the astonishing self control he must keep himself under (just so he doesn’t snap and kill the Joker) makes him prone to occasional outbursts of near-homicidal mania.

Ozymandias: No spoiler, other than to say: would you do the same, if you had to? And the answer is almost always “yes”. A brilliant character.

Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. His past is at best murky–he was part of the Cardassian Obsidian Order (a sort of secret police agency) as former professional interrogator and possibly also as an assassin, and he professes to a hard pragmatism about doing whatever’s necessary to get the job done. He’s also an engagingly accomplished liar with multiple conflicting stories about his past and how he wound up on the DS9 station. And yet he helps the Federation good guys on several occasions for reasons of his own, and he has this sentimental streak that leads him to do some fairly non-pragmatic things for people he’s attached to… especially his father.

Nicolette on Big Love.

She’s an evil, manipulative bitch, for sure. She lies, lies, lies. She is never afraid to lean on the guilt button or the shame button or to just generally stir up shit in her quest to claw her way to dominance. She is a materialistic compulsive shopper, and has secretly accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt that the family will have to find a way to pay off.

But when you see her family, you can see how she got to be the way she is. Considering the freak-show upbringing she was subjected to, she’s actually fairly sane. The compulsive shopping is an almost natural reaction to leaving the compound and suddenly being part of a consumer culture. The fact that she’s terrified that Bill will throw her out on the street to some degree explains her manipulative and secretive behaviour—she is worried about her kids’ and her own survival. And when she uses her Evil Powers to defend the family, it’s truly a sight to behold. She is a bit cool and distant, but it’s clear that she truly loves Bill and Barb and Margene, and the kids. And the way that she rolls up her sleeves and fixes anything that’s broken in anyone’s house is inordinately endearing.

Are you retarded? He’s the goddamn Batman!

Lord Vetinari. Runs Ankh-Morpork like a Swiss watch, from which everyone benefits - but prepared to keep all opposing factions permanently at each other’s throats to keep them from destabilising the city, even if this means people get killed, and will let people kill themselves through their own stupidity (Going Postal, last chapter) without being even slightly perturbed.

Tarl Cabot. Cheerfully enslaves any woman who looks at him in a funny way - but puts his life on the line time and time again to save anything from a city to the entire world.

Grrr. You leave Batman alone.

William Makepeace Thackeray was a master of creating ambiguous characters who were capable of alternately doing Very Good Things and Very Bad Things. I like to read him as a bit of a relief from Dickens, whose characters were usually all white or all black.

Vanity Fair:

Becky Sharp, a relentless, selfish social climber who was also clever, good-humored, and talented.

Rawdon Crawley, a sometimes brutal dufus who nevertheless honestly loved Becky and his son.

Pitt Crawley, a pompous, self-absorbed country wannabe clergyman, who also restored the good name of his estate and helped his poor tenants.


Colonel Pendennis, a selfish, worldly, ambitious social climber who also helped his nephew avoid a stupid disastrous marriage and helped a poor woman shake off a merciless loan shark (his former valet).

Mother Pendennis, a loving, supportive selfless mom who also was so sexually jealous about her son that she treated her son’s saviour girlfriend like trash because she assumed the two may have had sex.

The list goes on and on, showing Thackeray’s deep understanding of the duality of the human character. Love that guy!

Andrew Vachss’s mysteries have several of these characters: The main guy Burke (who uses evil to fight the ultimate evil, child molesters), Max the Silent (who can’t hear, talk, and is a martial arts expert and has no conscience) and Mole (who figures his superior intellect justifies what he does to the rest of the idiots on the planet).

In that vein, Sam Vimes. With a slightly different mentality, Sam would have made an excellent criminal - but wouldn’t be Sam Vimes. I really enjoyed Night Watch, wherein he is [del]allowed[/del] required to be a bastard to fight bigger bastards.

Most of Pratchett’s characters are human. (I.e. neither angels nor demons.) Seems to be the one main point he comes back to time again.)

(Call me crazy, but I’ve always wondered if Pratchett has plans on finishing off Vetinari and having Sam be the next Patrician, if only for a short reign.)

Hank Scorpio, The Simpsons. Sure, he’s a meglomaniacal super villain bent on world domination…and the best damned boss any henchmen could want. The medical plan alone is worth getting shot at by Bond types.

Elric of Melnibone: Born and raised a crown prince among a sadistic, cruel, self-centered race of near-humans that have grown complacent in their long-standing worldwide militaristic and economic supremity, he bears the burden of his upbringing and its inevitable clash with his burgeoning conscience.

He destroys evil nations for selfish gain. He seeks personal oblivion and so survives to leave naught but destruction and death in his wake. He slays the deserving by the score with his cursed runesword, and lays waste to his friends and loved ones with energy stolen from the lifestuff of his enemies. He eventually destroys the corrupted world and its disruptive gods out of rage at being personally inconvenienced, but it all ultimately serves the greater good of maintaining the Cosmic Balance.

Zodak from Masters of the Universe.

He was pictured with Skeletors minions but his subtitle was “Cosmic Enforcer” while the rest of them had things like “Evil Henchman” “Evil Underwater Warlord”.

It’s a little early to tell yet, but I think **Severus Snape ** falls into this category. We still don’t know if he’s good, evil, or working both sides of the fence for his own ends–but regardless, until the question is resolved he’s a delightfully gray character.

Destro and The Baroness .

They are the perfect Evil couple, and madly in love with each other. Completely mutually devoted. Each willing to sacrifice themselves to save their partner. And Destro has a strictly adhered-to code of honor. The Baroness’ courage & intelligence are amazing.

I’ve got a lot of the romantic in me, so I find myself hoping things work out well for them.

And then, I realize that they’re trying to take over the World as International Supervillains.

Hannibal Lecter, of course- he’s a coldblooded killer but he’s suave, charming, funny and unless he needs to make a getaway only kills the rude, and what’s wrong with that?
Al Swearengen from Deadwood- he can plot the murder of a child but also deliver the kindest killing in the show’s history (the reverend) and brings Jewel out west to protect her, and those oral-sex-soliloquies are worth watching the show for in and of themselves (a pity they can’t show it an Emmy shows). He’s my favorite character on the show, way more interesting than silver-spooned Mama’s boy J.R. ever was.

Mister from The Color Purple- if you’ve only seen the movie you may not know the degree to which he redeems himself, but he ends up absolutely likeable. (He was based on Walker’s grandfather who in letters to Danny Glover she stated was a monster who essentially destroyed his wife and horrified his children, but she also added it was vital Glover understand if he was to portray the character well “I absolutely adored my grandfather”, because by the time she was born and he was older he had mellowed and become sincerely repentant, and Glover did an incredible job of showing that.)

The Hound in A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s harsh and violent when he needs to be and followssome pretty evil orders, but he seems to take no pleasure in violence.

My guess is that he’s still alive, and the Abbott was lying, (for what reason I’m not sure), and somehow he’s going to be involved in the battle against the Others