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The Gray Areas Of Fiction

Once upon a time, stories enjoyed a simpler existence. Literature from centuries past dwelled in the bucolic—if overly idealistic—fields of clear moral standards, objectivity regarding what was right and wrong, and clearly drawn lines between the hero and the villain. […]
| Jan 19, 2016 | 15 comments |

knight and princessOnce upon a time, stories enjoyed a simpler existence. Literature from centuries past dwelled in the bucolic—if overly idealistic—fields of clear moral standards, objectivity regarding what was right and wrong, and clearly drawn lines between the hero and the villain.

The divide between good and evil was obvious—a line separating light and dark. I’m not saying this was true across the board. Anytime you have rules, you find exceptions to those rules, but in terms of majority, the tales who laid out a black-and-white world had the upper hand.

Entertainment—books and movies being my primary focus—has taken a different shape and hue. Whereas once the black-and-white stories abounded, they’ve dwindled in number and popularity. Not cast aside, but rather blended, obscured, so that what has emerged in popular entertainment is a wide swath of gray.

The modern mindset, shaped by worldviews such as relativism, demands a less clear-cut view of the world than simplistic stories of the knight in radiant armor battling the black-cloaked villain.

Two examples illustrate this trend.

  1. Antiheroes

Batman. Green Arrow. Han Solo.

The casting department for modern stories is churning out antiheroes faster than Marvel is releasing new movies. Taking a mini-sidetrack for a moment, antihero is a tricky label. For the purposes here, I’m using the terms in the sense of flawed heroes. Dark Knights. Characters with a healthy mix of admirable and questionable qualities.

I present Batman as Exhibit A in this gallery. A quick look at his attributes reveals a fascinating dichotomy. On the good side:

  • Noble motives
  • Loyalty
  • Strength

And on the bad:

  • Pride
  • Deception
  • Brutality

In the case of Batman, an even clearer departure from the virtuous hero is apparent in a visual sense. Batman is truly a dark knight, who lurks in the shadows and wears, compared to the noble knight in polished armor riding a white steed.

  1. Blurred morals

Where is the line between right and wrong? Is there, as some stories would have us believe, a sharp distinction, casting everyone into either one camp or the other? Or does there exist a middle ground, where the black and white bleed together, where anti-heroes lurk in the shadows, symbols of virtue yet more flawed than we care to admit?

One manifestation of a gray morality that pops up regularly is the question of the ends justifying the means.

  • Was Batman right to kill people outside the restraints of the law, when the law itself was corrupt?
  • Was it wrong for Stark to create Ultron, knowing the potential risks?
  • Should the rebels have killed the soldiers of the Capital without mercy if it meant winning?
  • Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

In a sense, I enjoy such probing questions because they stimulate my brain and cause me to contemplate things I normally wouldn’t. I sit there wondering, “If I was on one of the ferries the Joker had rigged to blow, which way would I vote?”

Borrowing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. jargon, “Could I make the tough call?” Whatever that call happened to be?

Moral conundrums add conflict, intrigue, and, but are such gray areas necessary? Do they cross the line into unsafe territory?

A Gray Landscape

foggy roadReturning to the untainted knight image, my biggest beef with such a stereotype, and of stories in general that paint the world in such unambiguous terms, is the way they avoid the reality of life.

Thanks to sin, imperfections mar every jot and tittle of life, a stain not only on the world around us, but on our hearts. In a way, antiheroes provide a familiar foundation, characters to whom we can relate because if we’re honest, we’re more like them than the ne’er-do-wrong heroes.

Not an excuse to go around bashing heads or swearing because, “hey, that’s just who I am,” but neither a conscience-binding burden of perfectly emulating the flawless role-model character.

Do modern stories overstep the bounds of portraying these gray areas in an attempt to paint a realistic picture of the world, confusing good for evil and evil for good? Yes, but not always. And the presence of a “hero” who engages in an unsavory activity—Sherlock and his addiction to morphine, for example—doesn’t mean we should denounce the story as a piece of dangerous garbage and run for our the sake of our spiritual lives.

Discernment is necessary when dealing with any form of entertainment, but not to the point of creating legalistic boundaries. If I were to only watch movies or read books I agreed with and that aligned with my worldview, the list would be as short and boring as Bilbo’s beard.

Engaging entertainment isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The gray areas are no exception. Read and watch, think, consider, question, evaluate.

Take away lessons from the good, understand and identify the bad.

Let such stories sharpen your mind, challenge your thinking, and present a clearer understanding of what you believe and why.

What’s your opinion on the “gray” trend in modern entertainment?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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I’m glad to see this “gray” trend because I’m happy about the underlying general movement towards realism. Creators nowadays are trying to portray realistic characters and situations, rather than trying to present models of good or bad like you find more often in earlier entertainment. Because of how these creators view the world, this desire for realism often manifests itself in antiheroes, morally tricky situations, and other “gray” elements. But ultimately I think the underlying trend is not “grayness” but realism.

George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson famously have different approaches to narrative in their fantasy novels – Martin is well known for his “gritty” stories full of ruthlessness, evil, violence, &c (though I can’t really speak for them since I haven’t read any of his work), while Sanderson consistently writes characters that are good at heart even if he puts them in difficult situations where they make morally questionable choices. But I think they are both realistic writers at heart. Sanderson just sees the world differently and has a different idea of what’s realistic than what Martin does. Sanderson thinks people are intrinsically good, thus when he tries to write realistically he writes good character. Martin, I think, sees human nature differently and thus writes differently when he wants to be realistic.

However, like I said, I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire or any other works of Martin’s, while I have read Sanderson extensively and know his personality and worldview pretty well. I would be interested to hear about this connection between realism and grayness from others who can make more informed comparisons.

E. Stephen Burnett

I just tested the new comments system by upvoting your comment. 🙂

From what I’ve read, Sanderson easily > Martin. Sanderson may be a Mormon, but that Christianity-fanfiction faith still maintains some of the original respect for a world that was created good and corrupted by sin (for a time). By contrast, Martin’s apparent indulgent nihilism is grating, and I find it amusing and also irritating when people try to defend this as somehow “realistic” or even as closely aligned with a biblical view of reality.

I like to quote C.S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape on how demons like to redefine “reality” so that they, of course, can redefine actual reality as escapism:

The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.

Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.

Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.

— quoted in Screwtape on Redefining ‘Realism’


Oh, I agree; I think Sanderson’s worldview is far closer to reality than what I’ve seen of Martin’s. (Though there are certainly elements of Sanderson’s that I disagree with – for instance, the overemphasis on human power and agency in his stories.) My main point is that both authors are _trying_ to be realistic. They may not succeed, but they are trying. Thus, even though their works are quite different, both authors ultimately believe that realism is a primary goal in fiction. Many earlier authors had different goals.

BTW, love the Screwtape quote!


I enjoy fiction of both major varieties you’ve identified here. I don’t mind “real” characters and stories, but I don’t expect every character and story to be “real.” Fiction is useful as both 1) a way of exploring and processing the world we all have to deal with, and 2) a way of visualizing the world as it could be. The former may enhance understanding, but the latter is what offers hope and motivation to excel. If we devote all our intellectual energy to realism and none to aspiration, I think we’ve lost something.
While I don’t believe that consuming media that features morally gray hero characters is sinful, I would hate it if the proliferation of anti-heroes gave people the impression that actual paragons of goodness are non-existent, impossible, or unnecessary.

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

It’s like you’re taunting me to post a research paper-length post on the history of simplistic moralism vs complexity in literature.
In any case, I just want to remind people that “modern” in this case stretches back to the early 20th century, so if anybody posts a “kids these days” sort of comment, I’m going to wonder which rock you’ve been under for the extent of your life, because ain’t nobody here been alive in the Victorian age.
But why does Christian culture cling so hard to the lingering shadows of Victorianism? I’m thinking about someone who authored a post a month or so ago, Frank Somebody, about the decline of the culture and yadda-yadda. What is it about Victorian culture that is supposed to be the apex of cultural-ness?

E. Stephen Burnett

Of note: That was Frank Turk, and he was not arguing for a return to a particular culture. Instead he argued (correctly, I believe) that the “good art must show sex scenes to be Good Art” is all stuff and nonsense, failing even secular expectations for Good Art. In that piece, the defense of biblical standards and holiness for Christ’s people was actually secondary.

Reference: Sex Scenes Clash with the Art of Jessica Jones

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

Yeah, that’s the one, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a secondary point when his primary point is “no nudity (ugh kids these days).” He doesn’t talk about how nudity might be used skillfully in a visual medium, just [insert cultural prudery inherited from the Victorians]. He even helpfully points to the late 19th century as the time when things started going to pot, which pinpoints the supposed cultural high-watermark as the Victorian culture.
But it’s just a specific of a larger trend I’ve noticed from the Grumpy Old White Man Internet, which my dad forwards to me on occasion. But why the Victorians?

Tamra Wilson
Tamra Wilson

I just watched the 1980’s Beauty and the Beast TV show (some episodes written by George R.R. Martin) and was surprised by the hero, Vincent. In this series, the beast, Vincent, can sense when beauty, Assistant DA Catherine is in danger and immediately runs to her rescue. A very old-style heroic thing to do, he also loves poetry and chivalry, so in all a very old fashioned fellow, but on at least three occasions he kills to defend himself and Catherine. Now these are bad dudes, who have hurt, threatened to hurt, or killed people in the past, so was he right to kill them? Some would say, they killed so their lives were forfeit to the law, so yes, but does that make it OK? That was the real problem I had with the show.

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

It might be a point of conflict for a lawyer, who is invested in an organized system of due process and not in the vigilante system. But that doesn’t mean the writers handled it well.


Much of our entertainment today is “unrealistic”, if you are talking about plot lines and such. Police dramas are notorious for this. I mean, what forensic examiner runs around with the detectives and helps to solve cases like Temp Brennan does on Bones? How many police agencies can get DNA and other forensic results a mere hours later than when they requested them? So there is unrealism in terms of plot, because to show how things actually work would be boring, wouldn’t it? Well, not necessarily, I do find that there are shows that portray a more realistic aspect of police work, especially in ones coming from the BBC. And I think these types of shows tend to be more “realistic” character-wise as well. I mean give me Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect over Temp Brennan any day! Personally, I like a more realistic take on characters. I do agree, however, that this can go too far in the wrong direction. I think GRR Martin errs on this, as does, for example, the Gotham series. I think the latest Batman movies tend to skirt too far into that wrong direction as well. I don’t want to read/watch something that makes me depressed because everything is just so bleak. But that’s my opinion. Plenty of people must disagree with me, if the ratings are anything to go by!


This is such an important topic to write about, and I’m glad you did.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that the Bible does both with its characters. It calls David a “man after [God’s] own heart,” but passages like the account with Bathsheba show us that he certainly had some dirt under his fingernails. The same to be said of Abraham, who is honored as an example of faith in passages like Hebrews 11, and yet he even demonstrated weak faith sometimes (i.e. when he had a child by Hagar).

Perhaps the proper balance, then, is to make your protagonist heroic; someone worth emulating, but also beset with weaknesses. Not just minor ones, but real struggles. This will be even more effective in inspiring your audiences to strive for your ideals, because they will feel like a normal person like them can achieve them.


Autumn Grayson
Autumn Grayson

There are a lot of antihero characters that I never really saw as gray.  With Han Solo, for instance, we start off with a char that is selfish, but learns to value more than money and his friend Chewie.  That makes it feel like the author is trying to make a point that being self serving is a bad thing and that we will be much better off if we care about others.  That doesn’t sound morally gray to me.  I kind of see antiheroes as people that often start off as problematic but learn and grow throughout the story, so often enough I think their character shows us that we can be better in spite of our flaws.

In general, though, I think it is good to have a bit of ‘gray’ in a story as long as the whole story is not trying to prove something like morals don’t matter.  Like you said, gray aspects make us think.  I know it helps me think through what choices I can make, as well as potential consequences, that way I can hopefully make the right choices rather than ‘gray’ ones.  

One thing that gets me sometimes, though, is that people sometimes talk about gray things, but they use them to say things like ‘there’s no such thing as right and wrong’, and try to prove their point through unrealistic scenarios.  Such scenarios have their place sometimes, but they remind me of a scene in Fate Zero where the Holy Grail is trying to trick the main character, an assassin named Kiritsugu.  The Grail was trying to tell Kiritsugu that he always killed the few to save the many, and even painted it as if it was necessary for Kiritsugu to kill ALL of the few in order to accomplish his goals.  So the Grail showed him a scenario where the last of humanity’s survivors were split onto two boats, one with 500 people, and one with 400.  Both boats started sinking at the same time, and the Grail asked which boat Kiritsugu would try to save.  Kiritsugu said the one with 500 people.  And the Grail said ‘What if the people in the boat of 400 tried to stop you?’ and showed Kiritsugu killing everyone on the boat of 400 so that he could go save the group of 500.

Thinking about the scenario, I realized that although there was some truth to what the Grail was saying, it was still spouting off a lot of nonsense in order to achieve its wretched goals.  Kiritsugu is such a skilled assassin that he would not have had to hunt down and kill all the 400 in order to escape them.  In fact, he may not have had to kill anyone at all.

Like you said, we have to use discernment when we watch shows that way we don’t get sucked into the nonsense that sometimes surrounds gray areas.