In the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, Derek Shepherd declares to Meredith, “There’s a right, and there’s a wrong.”
To which she protests, “It’s more complicated than that!”
Instantly we know that one is a black-and-white thinker, and that the other is a “shades of grey” person (no pun intended). And they are headed for a big problem unless they figure this disconnect out.
In the same way, authors and readers of stories seem to fall into one or the other of these two camps. And then, like Der and Mer, we come to the friction point between them. Those comfortable with shades of grey often become irked with right/wrong binary thinkers, who strike them as inflexible and judgmental. Those who insist there is a right and wrong, and nothing in between, often see the grey-area folks as being wishy-washy and morally bankrupt, and probably hopelessly relativistic about, well, everything.
Of course, this is also something of a false dichotomy. There are more outlooks than the unbending extremes at either end of this spectrum. Yet “black and white” or “grey area” are basic ways of framing the world. These are mind sets people seem to default to, and they tend one way or the other depending on their personal inclinations and psychology. These outlooks certainly show up in our fiction.
The Black-White-Grey Clash in Fiction
A moment ago I said authors and readers fall into these camps. Are they clashing with each other, then, literally, because of these differing views? Well, usually not directly (unless we’re dealing with political non-fiction!) But I think that in fiction this clash becomes expressed in the characters an author creates, and in the relationship a reader develops to those characters.
Through the medium of characters, one value-forming viewpoint or the other becomes embodied in the story. Once that happens, readers align like iron filings around a magnet: if the character’s value orientation is aligned with their own, they will tend to like that character. If not, they will find the character less sympathetic, perhaps even outright repellent.
I was put in mind of this recently when I read a review of the 1994 Ang Lee movie, Eat Drink Man Woman. I was reading this as grist for something else I’m working on, but this part caught my eye. The reviewer remarked:
“Our point of view is so itinerant in this film that important frictions and stare-downs between the characters are conveyed to us a little too dilutedly. We manage to be on everyone’s ‘side’ at once, even when such a neutral position is not possible for the characters themselves.”
The fact that this kind of critical observation is made in the first place says two things to me.
First, that for this reviewer, there is too much “grey area” in this story. He is discomforted by finding everyone sympatico, and rooting for everyone at once. No one is clearly “right” or “wrong”. One might guess from his comments that he is a black and white thinker, uncomfortable with the shades of grey he has been immersed in. I might be wrong about that with this reviewer – I am unacquainted with him personally – but I know that would be the case for many people of a certain psychological bent.
Second, writers who are fond of grey areas risk losing their audience when they spend too much time there. People like to identify with characters, and as this reviewer’s comment illustrates, it can be uncomfortable to have no clear heroes or villains. When a character has a side to take, readers and viewers tend to pick a side and align with that character.
Value Orientation and Taking Sides
So what does “taking sides” have to do with value orientations? Well, characters of the black-and-white variety are much more adamant about where lines are drawn for them. This makes it easier to play to them dramatically, for there is no need to guess where they stand about things. If they don’t yet have a side they will soon make one, because there is a “right” place to be, and a “wrong” one.
This can be played simplistically, and all too often is. In contrast to the black-and-white character’s usual representation, I think the grey-area character is deeper and more challenging to write. Lacking a clear-cut “yes/no”, “right/wrong” calculus, they are compelled to grapple more with issues, to weigh conflicting factors in their search for what is right. That’s a great way to pull a reader into a character’s psyche and outlook, and comes with built-in dramatic tension.
So what are the takeaways from this little thought experiment? I’m not going to be unbiased about this at all, but rather share with you some observations that resonate with and my own writing style and entertainment preferences. Here they are:
A. Lazy writers go for black/white, good/evil. Not only lazy writers – good writers can do this too and make it feel dense and multifaceted and truly entertaining (especially when writing something like epic heroic fiction that requires this dichotomy). But for those without the skill or insight, this is a common default position because it clearly (and often, too simply) signals “who to root for”, who the “bad” guy is, and comes with a built in binary conflict. Very convenient if you’re not versed on other ways to create dramatic tension.
Yes, people generally like “the good guys” to win (or put another way, we want a satisfying end to the hero’s journey). But I argue that it is possible to depict a Good Guy by the collective weight of his actions. We don’t have to slap that label in block letters on his forehead from the get-go. It is no surprise that writing and screenplays that rely on this moral compass metric often feel flat and one-dimensional.
B. If you have a character with a side to take, viewers/readers want to get on board and support that side. That’s straightforward storytelling. But….
C. “Taking sides” can work against the dramatic balance of the larger work, if the theme specifically involves ambiguities, unknowns, and grey areas. In that case, it may be (usually is?) better to let shades of grey prevail, as long as this works in the service of telling the story. But…
D. If you do this you need to skillfully employ other factors to keep readers engaged with the characters. Otherwise it is easy to frustrate them because they “don’t know who the protagonist/hero” is, or otherwise get lost in the grey. Kinda like being Lost in Space, only foggier.
Maybe I am giving myself some advice here, because I love love love ambiguities and grey areas. I love characters who aren’t so much “bad” as “conflicted”. Look at Reva in Mainline: my heroine is an assassin. That’s something too easily painted as evil, but to do so would shortchange the character. Reva is alienated from everything around her. In the arc of the story she learns (or relearns) human connection. So the tale is really about alienation and recovery from same – and if that isn’t an excursion through the Grey Zone, I don’t know what is.
As someone on the receiving end of entertainment, which do you prefer? Derek (black and white), or Meredith (grey area)? If you write, what kinds of characters do you prefer to work with? What style do you identify with more?
Please leave your comments below. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this one!
1. I’m not going to fall into the argument that one of these outlooks is more moral or reflects better values than the other. Neither of these perspectives are value sets in and of themselves; they are, rather, perspectives through which value judgments are formed. And that is whole different conversation and post.
2. Of course, many other factors also conspire to influence whether or not we like and identify with a fictional character. It is even possible to like a character who embodies all sorts of things we despise and would ordinarily find alienating. (And yay for the authors who can take us on that journey.) Yet I think the black-white-grey value orientation works more subtly and at a deeper, unrecognized level than do most signal traits about characters. This orientation is insidious and more powerful than is generally recognized.
3. Incidentally, I don’t agree with this assessment of the movie. Nothing here felt “diluted” to me, and I personally felt no discomfort about having a fluid point of view or essentially being on “everyone’s side at once.” I took it as it flowed and found myself with hopes for all the characters. This did not make my head explode. Then again, I have no problem reconciling a multiplicity like that.