Fantasy used to be full of clear-cut good guys and unambiguous bad guys—the pure-hearted farm boy destined to save the world, versus the Big Evil who wants to destroy the world because he’s just so darned evil. But for the most part, that simplistic narrative is a thing of the past. Fantasy these days is full of complex characters: good guys who make terrible choices, bad guys who are actually the heroes when you see things from their perspective, and characters who fall all along the spectrum in between.
Morally grey characters are one of my favorite aspects of fantasy—that’s why In the Shadow of the Gods is filled with them. I can connect to a flawed hero or a sympathetic villain much more easily than I can connect to the aforementioned Farm Boy of Destiny. Here are some of fantasy’s biggest names in ambiguous morals, as well as some lesser-known characters that have just as much to answer for as the big names.
Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin)
Possibly the most famous morally grey character in fantasy, Tyrion Lannister really isn’t a nice person…and yet, you can’t help but root for him. He’s self-serving, sure, but usually he tries to do the right thing. It’s not his fault that the right thing usually backfires and paints him in a much darker light. He’s just misunderstood, you see…
Baru Cormorant (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson)
Seth Dickinson’s stunning debut is full of twists, and is much more exciting than a book about an accountant has any right to be. The titular Baru Cormorant is indeed a traitor—but to whom? By turns, she betrays her homeland and her adopted home, her family and her friends, and—ultimately—herself. Baru has no qualms about playing every angle, about sacrificing others for the greater good, and she fully embraces the “change something from within” mentality. But we’re left wondering how much of Baru is left, and how much is the various people she has to pretend to be.
Logen Ninefingers (The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie)
Another of the best-known morally grey characters, Logen Ninefingers is made up of contradictions: a philosophical barbarian, a trained killer who wants to escape violence, a man who wants to be better than his past but revels in his reputation. That’s not even touching on his berserker personality The Bloody-Nine, a cold-blooded and gleeful killer that may or may not be some sort of demonic possession. There’s a lot to like about Logen, and plenty to hate, too, and it’s hard to argue that Logen is anything but one of the most well-rounded morally grey characters.
Valen (The Lighthouse Duet, by Carol Berg)
Is there anything more fascinating than a drug-addicted mage? Valen, a black sheep if there ever was one, has spent his whole life fleeing his family and his responsibilities, and is at arguably the lowest point in a life full of low points. The first few chapters alone see him abandoning a friend, lying to monks for protection, and succumbing yet again to his drug addiction, but the slow discovery of Valen’s backstory make his less savory actions almost understandable.
Tanaros Blacksword (The Sundering, by Jacqueline Carey)
In what is essentially a deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, the bad guys take center stage—and we quickly learn they’re really not that bad after all. Headed by Tanaros Blacksword, the followers of Satoris (not-Sauron) have lived through a centuries-long smear campaign and have never wavered in their firm conviction that they’re in the right. It’s very much a case of everyone being the hero in their own story, leaving readers with the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of wholeheartedly rooting for the bad guys.
Jorg Ancrath (The Broken Empire, by Mark Lawrence)
Sitting at the darkest end of the spectrum, Jorg is a character you can’t help but like even as you’re repulsed by him. He’s done some truly reprehensible things without a trace of guilt, and most of the good things he’s done are things he’s stumbled into sideways. Even if someone does the right thing the wrong way, though, they’ve still done the right thing—and that’s what makes Jorg such a fascinating read. When he does fall into doing the right thing, he’ll usually be the first to tell you how it was ultimately self-serving and still doesn’t make him a good person, but it always rings a bit untrue: you can tell Jorg is lying to himself as much as he is to us.
Locke Lamora (The Gentleman Bastard, by Scott Lynch)
If anyone could beat Jorg in a battle of cheerful hedonism, it’s Locke Lamora. A thief who’s much too clever for his own good, Locke spends most of his life stealing, scheming, and scamming simply for the fun of it. He’s a self-serving bastard (it’s all in the title, after all), but he has so much fun being himself that you can’t help but love him. The entire world is a game to Locke, and it’s a game he intends to win.
Brandin (Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay)
Even for a man who erases an entire culture because of a grudge, Brandin is one of the more sympathetic characters here. His grief is understandable, even if his reaction isn’t, and the narrative allows us to see him from multiple angles: from the men fighting a perceived tyrant (who occasionally do monstrous things themselves, all in the name of the greater good), to the would-be assassin who fell in love with Brandin against all odds. Brandin sits very comfortably on that line between black and white—a character you want to hate for what he’s done, until you learn that he’s really not such a bad guy and develop a grudging like of him.
Lord Ballister Blackheart (Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson)
Nimona is full of morally grey characters, from the sulky shape-shifting titular character to the Officially Designated Hero™ Goldenloin. But the most compelling character is Lord Ballister Blackheart, a former hero-in-training who’s literally had the role of villain thrust upon him because of an old misfortune. Ballister is a villain with a strict code of conduct, but that code is tested frequently, as is his role. Ultimately, Nimona explores what it means to be a hero, and how heroism isn’t always what it look like.
In the Shadow of the Gods is available June 21.