Guest Essay: James L. Sutter: ‘The Gray Zone: Moral Ambiguity in Fantasy’


James L. Sutter is the author of Pathfinder Tales: Death’s Heretic, and the co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting, Golarion. In this guest essay, Sutter tackles the portrayal of morality and moral ambiguity in fantasy fiction.

The internet has been all abuzz recently with folks geeking out over George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series–or, more often, over HBO’s A Game of Thrones TV adaptation. Reading a lot of the reviews, it’s clear that the show’s reach has extended far beyond hardcore fantasy fans, and into a wider mainstream audience. While the show has a lot going for it–even beyond the healthy dose of graphic sex and violence–I think that a huge part of its appeal comes from the contrast between Martin’s brand of fantasy and that which came before it.

Take a look at The Lord of the Rings, unquestionably the most popular fantasy epic of all time, both in print and film. The vast majority of epic fantasy these days is drawn directly from Tolkien’s visions, or from the popular roleplaying games that blatantly incorporate his elves, dwarves, orcs, and so on. Yet as much as I love Tolkien and the world he produced, his story is almost fairy-tale simple. The Lord of the Rings is about good versus evil. His characters are interesting archetypes–decades later, folks are still playing haughty elves, blustery dwarves, grizzled rangers, and halfling thieves–but there’s very little question of who the heroes and villains are. Sauron is the epitome of mustache-twirling evil, a fantasy Snidely Whiplash. He wants to rule Middle-Earth, and that is a Bad Thing; therefore, the people opposing him must by default be the Good Guys.

Even those few Tolkien characters caught somewhere in the middle, such as Boromir and the soldiers of Minas Tirith, tend to be easily divided up: Boromir is a Good Guy who’s tempted but ultimately redeems himself, while his father is a Bad Guy for holding to his convictions. Never is there any real question whether either of them–men with long experience holding the line against the orc hordes, who are sworn to protect their people and carry the lives of thousands on their shoulders–might actually be right. Gandalf is a Good Guy, and he tapped the hobbits, so therefore, anyone who argues is Bad.

So, fine–Tolkien may have painted the lines of good and evil rather broadly. It’s a classic trope, and hardly one I can fault him for. Certainly it doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy every second spent reading or watching his stories.

The problem, however, is that Tolkien doesn’t stand alone. In the generations of fantasy since then, countless authors have taken the same tack, influenced by the generic pulp formula stating that good guys must be good, bad guys must be bad, and the hero must always win (and probably get the girl to boot). It’s a solid, easy road to take.

It’s also boring. By the time most of us are old enough to read, we’ve mastered the concept of good guys versus bad guys. It doesn’t mean we don’t still enjoy watching it, but taking such distinctions as a given removes a valuable part of the storytelling equation. If you know the good guys–or at least some of the good guys–are going to win, there’s no real tension.

Of course, the opposite is no fun at all. Maybe it’s occasionally worth reading a book or watching a film in which the bad guys win, but it’s an ultimately depressing endeavor. Some authors get mileage out of flipping things around and making the point-of-view character the villain, but it’s hard to root for an evil character beyond the prurient desire to watch them wreak havoc. So what’s an author to do?

One answer, as George R. R. Martin so marvelously shows us, is to remove the boundaries altogether and dive headfirst into the world of moral ambiguity. Few of his characters are unimpeachably good or irredeemably evil. Instead, they’re weak, or spoiled, or damaged, or lovestruck, or compromised by any one of a thousand other real-world problems. They’re too obsessed with honor, or not honorable enough. The protagonists alternate their shining victories with bitter vengeance and war crimes, while the antagonists are often funny, charming, and even sympathetic. It is, in short, a total mess.

Which is precisely why we like it. In making the world a mess, Martin has also made it that much more real–for certainly history has taught us that things rarely break down into clear-cut good and evil, especially where politics are concerned. His works are a cultural relativist field day, and over the course of even the first book many readers may find their allegiances shifting from what they originally expected. Combine this lack of moralistic signposts with the fact that Martin isn’t afraid to kill off main characters–another startingly realistic trait–and suddenly the whole thing feels much more immediate. The characters cease to be cardboard archetypes or representations, and become real.

This issue isn’t limited to fantasy, either. One of my favorite internet memes of all time is a black and white photo of a sad-looking stormtrooper sitting on a cheap motel bed with a beer, over a caption reading “I had friends on that Death Star.” I think the precise reason we laugh uncomfortably at this image is that we know, deep down, that it’s true. On a space station the size of a moon, there must have been thousands of thoroughly decent soldiers, mechanics, cooks, maids, doctors, and more, all just doing their job, probably waiting to finish their tours so they can get home to their families and friends. In pointing out that the Empire was made up of people, this simple image gag makes us question everything we’ve taken for granted. Suddenly the characters we’ve identified with–perhaps all our lives–are shown in a new light. Is the Rebellion a plucky underdog, or a terrorist cell? Is there a difference? The whole house of cards comes crashing down.

I’m not just throwing stones here. As an author myself, I understand how appealing it is to drop the relativism for a minute and let your hero righteously kick the living bejeezus out of somebody. Yet I think you can balance the two. In my own novel, Death’s Heretic, I start out with the main character, a swordsman named Salim, fighting a pack of undead ghouls in a church catacomb. Yet once he’s down to the last one, we get this scene:

The third ghoul was curled up in the back of the burial chamber, hunched over into a fetal position in order to pull itself as far as it could into an empty wall niche. It clutched its knees and moaned again as Salim advanced.

“Please,” it whined. Coming from the twisted form, the voice was shockingly human. It strained to shape the words with its grotesquely overlong tongue. “Please don’t kill. I’ll go. No more hunting. No more brothers. Just graves. Please.”

In its fear, the ghoul came closest to resembling the man it had once been. Had the creature’s previous incarnation made a similar plea, as farmer to ghoul? Salim said nothing, but the ghoul nodded anyway. Chin to knee, it curled tighter and closed its eyes.

“Hungry,” it whispered. From behind bruised-black eyelids, a tear welled and slid down the creature’s face. “So hungry.”

This time Salim did respond.

“I understand,” he said.

Then, with both hands, he lifted his sword and brought it down.

Have we totally turned around the situation and made the protagonist question his morality? Not really. Yet by adding a humanizing element to the monster, painting it as a victim itself, we add a level of depth that makes the world feel more real, and keeps the villain–in this case, a zombie-like monstrosity that eats corpses and turns living people into similar monsters–from being just another faceless enemy. We’ve all played too many video games to still be excited about mowing down wave after wave of identical opponents–adding some moral ambiguity to the question forces us to think more, and to look at the whole story in new ways.

As with anything, moral ambiguity can be overdone. The character who spends all his time brooding never makes us thrill with action, or feel our own surge of righteous anger. Yet without consequences, tough choices, and flawed characters, your story runs the risk of feeling trite and purely escapist.

As George R. R. Martin has shown, the age of readers asking merely how the protagonists win is over. The new question is: should the protagonist win? And if so, why?

  • The one with the most to lose should win – or try to win. And in some cases, in the best stories, both sides have plenty to lose or gain. Then the question becomes, who wins what? And at what cost? Sometimes a win isn’t something we’d consider a gain, and just to mess things up a bit, sometimes losing the main goal is the best thing that ever happened to your character!

  • Go back a little further in time, to 1926, and read Hope Mirrlees Lud-in-the-Mist. Lots of moral ambiguity there. Or Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow. There’s good and evil there, and even Hell, but no one is totally one thing or another and there’s still a matter of free will.

    Humanizing the ghoul was a nice touch, by the way. I just watched Solomon Kane which has an absolutely wonderful segment with ghouls in a crypt, but a far less nuanced treatment of the undead.

  • Denver

    The reservation I have is that moral ambiguity is becoming the norm and, in many cases, is taught as the “right” way to think and act. It’s this ambiguity that I think leads to many of the ills in our world today. We are constantly battered by mainstream media to not judge one another, which to an extent is right, but to not judge and to decide what is right or wrong or good and evil is not the same thing. As adults we are charged with teaching children these fundamental concepts, but are constantly thwarted by tv, books, magazines etc. that want to show moral unambiguity is an old concept, that to be good or evil requires one to judge another unfairly. In the recent New Jedi Order series There is a complete shift in the tone of the Star Wars story. The books clearly portray the Jedi as struggling with whether they are doing the right thing and struggling with perceived gray areas. These are the protectors of the LIGHT side, that are opposed to the DARK side! The very fact they ARE should tell them they are right. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m tired of good guys that think they wrong because they are judging the bad guys. And I’m tired of being told that there is no good or bad. I miss Jedi vs. Sith, light vs. dark, good vs. evil. And I fear what happens to our children when there is no more good and evil or,more importantly, right and wrong.

  • Very interesting post. I like the usage of moral ambiguity in fantasy, it makes the whole thing more complex and enjoyable. But by the same token, if the work goes in the other direction and becomes too bleak, the narrative becomes depressing.

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  • I respectfully disagree that moral ambiguity is the best way. I think the current nihilism in our world and lack of morality we see playing out in so many ways has to do with people losing a sense of right from wrong. People love to hurl stones at decisions made in the White House about war or people protesting gay marriage or various things. But if we truly want people to respect each other that’s morality. If we want people to value life, that’s morality. If we want people to live in peace and give each other room, there’s morals involved. And by not demonstrating such things more in our entertainment mediums, we are teaching whole generations that it’s a free for all of morality and the way the world turns out is may the strongest win no matter what they stand for. Is that really the world we want to live in? Not me. Which is why I do have good v. evil and have clear sides in my storytelling. I don’t write my heroes as flawless. No, they are human. All humans are flawed. They struggle with temptation and weakness, bad decisions, etc. but at the same time, since the stakes in my space operas and fantasies are evil forces vs. good, I do want the good guys to win and I do portray a right vs. a wrong. I think there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, it’s a responsibility for anyone who wants a better world. Moral abiguity is not a trend I want to see continuing to grow and dominate. It’s contributing to nihilism, malaise and problems. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it’s not encouraging people to believe you can change the world or in a hopeful future. Complex stories, great. Gray areas, great. Characters who walk lines. Great. But let the good guys win. Let there be a right from wrong, I say. We’ll all be better for it.

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  • Kurt Zachary

    I agree with Denver and Bryan Thomas Schmidt that the inundation of moral relativism is providing the wrong message to young and impressionable minds. While everyone has some struggles to do what is right, and exact morals may vary, the wosr possible scenario is a world where people have given up on moral codes altogether.

  • I found myself divided over this–both wanting to agree that fantasy can be a ground upon which to argue for more ethical society and to say that I really don’t need my every book to lecture me about how to behave or to simplify morality to a particular set of precepts that I must accept. Ambiguity can allow for the reader to make decisions rather than the author (and many fantasies that have strong but outdated moral viewpoints are also difficult to read and enjoy).

    But…I like the idea that we can win through to a brighter tomorrow, even if it nullifies some of the beauty of the works created today.

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