When Harold Hill sang his way into River City, Iowa, in the musical The Music Man he showed himself to be a con man. He believed he was a liar, and he tried to keep that information from the townspeople. Now, as it turns out (spoiler alert!), Harold was a liar and a con man, but he also was a dreamer and a believer, but he couldn’t really admit it to himself. It’s so easy to ignore the way Harold has manipulated people when we see him get trapped by love and notice that other people’s lives have been enhanced by their belief in Harold’s dreams.
This complicated personality makes for what is known in the lit biz as a morally ambiguous character. What is odd in this case is that morally ambiguous characters typically make good tragedies, not musical comedies. But Meredith Wilson, the writer and composer of the musical, knew what he was doing. He knew we (audience members and humans) could relate to someone who was bad but also good. We’re all a mix of good and bad, after all, although we like to think we lean way more to the good than to the bad.
The most famous morally ambiguous character is probably a creation of Shakespeare: Hamlet. Do you have a favorite morally ambiguous character from book or movie?
Have you had people like this in your own life? People who bring you joy, at least occasionally, but also bring you a lot of grief by their actions or inactions? Or someone who does something bad, like commit a crime, but in general is big-hearted?
If this person is a coworker or casual friend, it is one thing. But if he/she/they is a family member, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. How much “bad” can we overlook in order not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”? If you deal with an addict, for example, you might be used to feeling conflicted about your loved one.
If you’re a writer, how do you create one of these complicated beings? How do you show terrible behavior and yet create an appealing character?
This is a subject that touches me personally for the memoir I’ve been working on for a looooong time, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.
Lemme know what you think about this subject, pretty please!
Perry update: gosh, he’s cute. Have I said that before? He’s been out for a few hours at a time each day now. He gets along fine with the other cats because he is so good-natured, although obnoxious. He just wants to play with them, and although they absolutely do not want to play (although Kana might want to and hasn’t admitted it yet) with him, they realize he has good intentions.
Sloopy Anne update: First let me say that Tiger doesn’t get along with Sloopy Anne unless they are in the kitchen. Tiger has slept with the gardener and me for years, with the door closed so nobody bothers her/us. Sloopy Anne can’t stand the bedroom door shut at night and will wait in there hiding hours ahead of time so she doesn’t get shut out. Lately, Sloopy Anne has been in the bedroom, under the bed or on the floor, each night . She then advanced to jumping on the bed while we’re asleep. Tiger retreats to the top of my head and Sloopy Anne at the foot of the bed. If it stayed like that I would be fine with it, but why did I think she had a Machiavellian plan to take over the bed and kick Tiger out of it for good? Well, night before last I woke up at 6AM to a cat fight. Sloopy Anne was angry and attacking Tiger! It was some kind of argument over the litter box, but Sloopy Anne was definitely on the attack. A morally ambiguous cat?! Now I have to get that door shut while she’s eating dinner to keep Sloopy Anne out at night!
My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the hurricane(S). And those we lost 16 years ago today on 911.
45 responses to “A Morally Ambiguous (Feline) Character”
This is a really interesting post, Luanne. I have always loved “The Music Man.”
You might find my blog post
“Is it okay to associate with disreputable people?”
to be of interest, since it seems to hit upon similar themes.
I have known such people all my life, many of them loveable rogues whom it’s hard to hate.
Doesn’t the church teach us that no one is beyond redemption?
I’m a former copyeditor. I believe it should be con man.
I think the classic example of a morally ambiguous person in literature and in Shakespeare’s plays is Falstaff, not Hamlet. Hamlet is paralyzed by uncertainty. I don’t see him as being morally ambiguous.
Hamlet is a murderer, and yet he is a hero, so he is the best example IMHO, if only because of Hamlet being such a well-known character and play.
I’m so disappointed about conman not being a legal spelling. I hesitated over the word, and I liked it so much I refused to look it up. Of course, after you wrote this, I had to fix it (sadly). hahaha I’ll check out your post!
A morally ambiguous character once cheated me badly and taught me a lesson in listening to my instincts
I’m so sorry, Derrick! I bet you wish you could have gone back in time and listened to those instincts to begin with!
Too true 🙂
It depends on the ambiguity. Some things I can tolerate and some I can’t. We are having a bed struggle ourselves but so far it’s been peaceful. Mollie has slept on the bed since she came 13 years ago. Of and on Jake or Morgan or Hazel would join her but not often and not for the whole night. Now I find Gracie sleeping on my legs in the middle of the night and Mollie gone. I don’t think there is a chase as I would hear it but Mollie can get miffed and go off to another bed.
Oh, Gracie, you are one stinker! I can just see it happening! This is why we started closing our door: so that there wouldn’t be a cat fight in our bed while we’re asleep! haha I know what you mean about what to tolerate. Things that affect me are apt to bother me, but then so would seeing somebody do harm to someone else. I guess it needs to be something that is not harmful?
Anything negative to animals is a deal breaker for me. Or children or old people. Anyone vulnerable. I’ve had friends who exaggerate to the point of it almost being a lie. I can usually scale the story back to some semblance of the truth but I’m never quite sure.
I think we all have people like that in our life, but it’s interesting how tricky it can be to bring them to life on the page. It’s all too easy to make an unpleasant character one-dimensional, but if we can manage to give them likable traits too, it’s a more conflicting–and enjoyable–ride for the reader.
Thank you! Yes! Very tricky. I am having a devilish time with it. And in this case the protagonist is a child to begin with, so it’s natural to want to side with the child which means that it’s harder to make a sympathetic morally ambiguous adult in contrast to a kid. If that makes sense.
It does. 😊
I think creating sympathetic traits can make a reader tolerate a morally ambiguous character and maybe even cheer for him. One of my favorites was Walter White from Breaking Bad.
I have never seen Breaking Bad! I guess I didn’t like the premise and just never bothered with it! Silly me. I’ll watch for him if I ever do watch it (10 years from now in reruns). Sympathetic traits, yes. I need to work on that more. What are examples of sympathetic traits? Helping a child take care of dying guinea pig babies? Is that a good one?
I never watched it when it was originally aired. One weekend, while on my treadmill, I stumbled across the first episode and got sucked in. Little did I know, it was a marathon. I recorded it and watched many of the shows. There was one episode in particular with a scene I found very disturbing, so I deleted the recordings and never watched anymore. Oh yes, helping a child with a dying guinea pig babie, for sure!
Oh good (re the guinea pig babies)! A disturbing scene? That’s what I am afraid of, I guess. I like my TV light. And I like nice people to get ahead.
You and me both!
I’ve twice written short stories with morally ambiguous characters, and I think, beyond the fact that we’re all a bit ambiguous in relative terms, we love a likable villain. I agree it’s a good technique. Sympathy is required. The reader has to connect to the morally ambiguous from a standpoint of sympathy.
In real life, I refuse to enable or condone, which makes me a hard character to sympathize with. There are many who espouse love and compassion and acceptance while I’m like, ‘there’s a limit’ and ‘there’s a cost’. This makes me seem harder than I am by far, but it’s self-protection, really.
If we let readers see the cause, the motivation, little by little, they do put the pieces together and AHA!
There are sometimes tussles in our bedroom at night, but no matter the fuss, Clara sleeps on my side and Cletus sleeps wherever she is not. Catticus and the dog vary their sleeping places and they certainly don’t sleep together, although, that would be sweet. Strange and sweet 🙂
Interesting how you made that leap from what you like in fiction and what you like/don’tlike in real life. I was thinking earlier today that it’s kind of trendy to be really self-protective and advocate getting rid of any and all ties to “toxic people.” But what is a toxic person? Toxic to me specifically or to themselves or to most other people, if not all? And isn’t that throwing the baby out with the bathwater? But if we tolerate people who do bad things aren’t we enabling the bad behavior? It’s so complicated!
That sounds like a fun sleeping arrangement! I might prefer sleeping on couches. We have 2, one for me and one for the gardener. Tiger and Pear Blossom sleep with me and Kana in a basket on the floor right next to me. That’s half the cats right there. Much easier than the bedroom where only one can be.
Yes, I agree, it’s complicated. I think many of us start out willing to give, to listen, to make nice —
Shall I wade in with my tuppence worth Luanne – despite the fact I am not a writer? I’m always fascinated by the psychology of us humans. We are multi-dimensional beings, our personalities and traits built over years of experiences that shape us, making us better or worse according to other choices we make. There is always a reason someone behaves as they do – a long ago well buried hurt, unresolved childhood trauma, feeling unloved, unwanted, unappreciated …….. We tend to reveal our ‘off side’ in a particular way I think – it isn’t random. I can describe someone I once counselled. She was a kleptomaniac who stole love – something that happened in the moment of stealing the thing she admired empowered her. She had the wanted object. The feeling didn’t last, so the next thing that caught her eye must also be taken. She was powerless to stop the action in the moment – it was stronger than her rational mind and so there was guilt. Guilt made her feel unworthy of love and so the cycle continued……. But in her ‘real’ life she was a wife, a mother, a respected member of a community group or two reaching out to help those less (materially) successful. She loved children and animals and made a beautiful garden. She was a lovely person, she just had a wee child hidden deep within who never quite felt loved or celebrated and who would leap out crying ‘What about me’ now and again. She stole from me and after I discovered that and wrestled with my own feelings of condemnation and indignation I gave her something for her child at the end of every session.
As it appears I am now writing a book I shall stop 🙂
Pauline, I am so glad you did share your thoughts on this subject! Wow, what a powerful example, the kleptomaniac. I have known two people who were kleptomaniacs. One was a relative I didn’t see much. Had to watch her like a hawk when she visited. The other was someone who used to bring me gifts all the time. But she stole every time she came over. So there was always her taking something and then giving something, which I always imagined was something stolen from somebody else! Gosh, I need to write a story about her! Well, I actually did publish a story on a related topic, now that I think of it. The idea of giving the person something for her child is brilliant. I wonder if I had given the woman I’ve described her something if she would have stopped taking. You have no idea how much this is related to my memoir, in some ways. Thank you!
There’s something both comedic and touching about your kleptomaniac passing her stolen items on around as gifts to others. I forgot to say I enjoyed your kitty stories too.
Aw, thank you! Yes, it’s an odd story for sure. Now I am wondering about an angle I can grab for a story.
I think this kind of person does things that society disapproves of but that he can justify as being necessary, and when he has glimpses of realization that it’s not good what he’s doing, he feels genuine remorse. Wife beaters come to mind. But maybe that’s not the kind of morally ambiguous person you meant?
I think that’s an excellent example, Anneli. It makes it harder for the beaten wife to leave or press charges when the husband can be kind and remorseful. Icky example, but excellent!
You have lots of great examples here, Luanne. I think the most interesting characters are morally ambiguous, or at least not all good or bad, especially if they live in a situation in which they might have to do “bad things” to survive, although they are not evil people. In Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Gunther is a police detective in Nazi Germany who ends up working for Nazi’s though still as a police detective investigating murders. I suppose repressive societies tend to have lots of people who might be morally ambiguous.
Your cat stories made me laugh. My Ricky sleeps curled up against me. Mickey sometimes sleeps on the bed, sometimes sleeps somewhere else. In the past, when it got cold, they’ve slept close together. I’m waiting to see if it happens this winter. 🙂
Our poor ginger tom cat was too intimidated to come into the bedroom because one of his ‘sisters’ obviously didn’t want him in there – poor thing, he was the only boy with 4 sisters and was completely under their thumbs 🙂 So right that a character has to have flaws to be interesting but it can be difficult to write them so that the reader still roots for them.
Oh poor boy! He sounds like my Felix! Until Perry he was the only boy with 4 cranky sisters. Now Perry thinks he can boss Felix around. Fe never gets to be the boss!
That’s exactly what I want: to show a very flawed and difficult character that ULTIMATELY the reader will root for.
Hi Luanne! First, let me say, in our household we really laughed at the story of Sloopy Anne hiding out in the bedroom so she could stay in. I told my husband about it, and he thought it was very cute. Our Pickles has the opposite problem, we don’t let her sleep with us, because she hops on and off all night. (If I’m traveling, my husband will leave the bedroom door open, but she still goes in and out all night, I guess he’s less bothered by it.) But in the morning, like 7:00, we hear “Yeooowl! Yeoooowl!” – Pickles wanting to be let in. Then she prowls in, murrring and yurgging to tell us what’s going on, circles around the bed meowing until finally jumping up, maybe to stay, maybe not. We call her Fickle Pickles. Also “Piti-kit.” The most cute thing she does is, if I’ve gotten up, my husband sometimes makes a little “nest” for her on my side out of the comforter, and she will sometimes lie down right up against him and fall fast asleep. It is very cute.
Second, about the morally ambiguous character: I’ve got a story I’m working on right now where the character prowls around (so to speak), doing things that are not exactly acceptable in good company. But it’s her nature, and it’s a redemption story, so she’ll start to go through a transformation. Oh, and years ago I wrote a story about a magician’s housekeeper who stole his Coat of Many Colors and sold it at the Saturday Flea Market, only when she stole it she started having OCD due to an anti-theft spell he cast on it. Eventually she returns it, and the magician scolds her – but then she decides to keep her eyes open for another opportunity to order something in his name and keep it for herself. Hmmm.
Thanks for a great post! 🙂
Fickle Pickles! What a cutie! Haha, sounds like a cat to me! It sounds like your husband is the spoiler :). My husband can be like that. If a cat is on his chair, I say, “let me take her off,” and he’ll say, “No, don’t bother her.” hahaha I LOVE the idea of your magician’s housekeeper story! What a cool idea!
Poor Sloopy Anne is sleeping outside the bedroom again, so at night I put a little bed for her right outside so she’s not on the hard floor.
Ah, yes, it sounds like our husbands definitely have a soft heart where cats are concerned. I have a couple of photos I just took with my husband’s ipad of Pickles on the bed to illustrate her relaxation, which I’ll include in a future post, and tag you!
I’m picturing Sloopy Anne in a cozy little bed outside your door. How fun!
Haha, ok, I can’t wait! I just found a better bed for Sloopy Anne in my daughter’s closet when I went through it looking for something else!
So great, lucky Sloopy Anne! Lately I’ve been opening the bedroom door in the morning to find Pickles quietly sitting there, waiting (instead of yeowling). Yay!
Awww, now that is progress! Yay, Pickles! Maybe not so fickle!
Today she hopped up on the padded dining room chair next to me where I was working on my laptop on the table. Her ears and head were festooned with cobwebby strands and dust; we’ve been letting them go into the laundry room (first time in 10 years they’ve been living) because I moved the cat boxes in there so the finished basement room was not so dusty. She has been exploring the dusty corners, obviously. But she seems completely oblivious to the cobwebs on her ears! I tried to get a photo … but it didn’t come out well (too dark, she’s all-black and I think I let it be backlit. Thought of you and the Perry Chronicles when I saw Pickles!
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Oh wow, thank you, Carrie! It’s so nice of you mention Kin Types! These other books look so great. Oh, the stress the stress ;)!
If there’s one thing that irks me it’s the ‘very bad’ characters in books and movies who are only put there to annoy and try and bring down the ‘hero’, Nobody is that bad (I hope – I’ve never met anyone that bad) and I don’t believe people are born bad. That’s why I like a villain or a conman with a back-story. The one thing I do with my ‘evil’ characters is give them something to put doubt in the readers mind that they are truly evil (one act of random kindness to make them seem more ‘human’). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Luther (staring Idris Elba), but his nemesis (Alice) is my all time favourite complicated evil character 😉
It’s so lovely to get an update on the fur-babies! xxxx
I have not seen it! I just looked it up and don’t know why I haven’t. Maybe not on TV in my area? It looks like something I would love.
I hope you will see such a lovely selection of friends with more suggestions here, Luanne. 😊
Your posts about the kitties melt my heart. 💞 They each have a need for your love and attention. 🐈
I liked the idea of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, even as a child. I thought Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a good movie which showed very human characteristics. They supposedly never killed or harmed people. I still wish I had kept the Encyclopedia Britannica which had the story of the Hole in the Wall gang.
I think cranky older people are somewhat stereotypes in children’s books and stories. Once children meet and talk to them, they become more rounded people.
Taking the person in your memoir from child stage into maturity, adding layers of their “bad” or distasteful qualities as they grow may help to build a more sympathetic person.
In my childhood, there was a child who tore wings off butterflies, legs off grasshoppers and did the opposite of what I thought he would turn out. He became a pediatrician who everyone in my old hometown loves! Who would guess that his yanking body parts off bugs would mean he was scientific? Smiles, Robin 🐦 🏵
I guess you’re right about the pediatrician, though if I heard that story about my kids’ pediatrician, I’m sure I would switch doctors! That kind of science for curiosity’s sake doesn’t sit well with me. So interesting about cranky older people being stereotypes. I think that is true. A good morally ambiguous character is never a stereotype, but then I think stereotypes are more useful in children’s books than in adult books. The scenario you mention really teaches children to look beyond a “book’s cover.” But sometimes stereotypes are just uck. I can’t stand Roald Dahl books because he’s a cruel person and it shows in his books–and his stereotypes of “fat” people. I agree about Robin Hood!!! I hope your weekend is lovely! xo
Oh my goodness! Yes, to so much you expressed here, Luanne.
I don’t live where I spent age 3 – grade 3 so I cannot tell people about my neighbor, Billy S. (It kind of creeps me out. Maybe wrote a story about this. . .)
As far as older people I wish more people would portray older people as they are now; more active, knowledgeable, and gentle souls. I have met so many kind elderly people both in my activity director position (’94-99) and as a person who ate many meals in my Mom’s dining room, senior living apt building. (’13-16).
Luanne, there are two people who I’m not crazy about in their insanely popular status: Jennifer Walls (the Glass Castle author) and Roald Dahl. I agree about the way Dahl treats his fringe characters, parents are mean and anyone who is different (big or small) is given horrible traits.
Thank you for your pleasant conversation with intuitive perceptions. This is why cats and friends love you! xo
I love the way you describe the elderly people you have known. My friend who comments here as jeannieunbottled has worked with older people for years and years. She teaches writing classes to senior and used to work for the senior services department for the city where she lives. She has such a sensitivity to them. Isn’t it amazing though how if we don’t put ourselves in the position of being around the elderly we don’t meet very many? Our society is so “compartmentalized.” I’m glad you feel as I do about Dahl. So many people love his books, and I think they are not paying attention! Re Jeannette walls (it’s Jeannette, but I don’t know it’s it’s one or two Ns) I liked her fine though I thought her book told a story that seemed as if it could barely be true. I particularly liked her in her book Half-Broke Horses about her grandmother which showed compassion toward her grandmother’s life. In The Glass Castle did the situation with the parents bother you? Was it how she started off with her mother scrounging in the dumpster? How did it happen for you that you ended up not liking her?