Black and White morality in Storytelling. Is it really that bad?
[Disclaimer: This is all my opinion and view in the matter. If you disagree with me, I invite you to comment about it so we can have some good ol’ debate.]
So Black and White morality scheme. Perfect for that ‘Let me tell you a story’ feel. So overdone by our folks with heroic fantasy, modern readers have learned to hate it. Now it seems as if the differents variants of gray are what dominates not only literature, but even anime and other forms of entertainment.
Don’t believe me? Go to TVTropes and visit the Black vs White page, then visit the Gray vs Grey page. In both open all Example folders, then see which makes your scrolling bar smaller.
But what is gray morality? Some may ask. Well, basically it’s what stands in the middle of White and Black (duh). A morally gray character isn’t bad, but isn’t really good either. A very good example of this is John Quincy, from the movie John Q. He may take hostages and all, but he only does it to save his son’s life.
Okay so back on track, why are we moving away of Black and White morality? Why is it now seen almost as a sin in the storytelling industry? Now even characters that would normally be pure white would be thrown into some shades of gray just to stay away from the character being fully ‘white.’ This isn’t something ‘bad’ to do or anything, but it shows how scared we are getting as an industry of that scheme.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Well, besides the fact our ancestors overdone it. I think it has a lot to do with making ‘believable’ characters. We put so much effort in the characters we build, some storytellers just want their public to love all their cast, to show they all have some humanity inside them and thus they have their motives and reasons, making them relatable. They want us to say ‘dang I’d do that too in that situation.”
Other thing I’ve heard is really some people saying Black and White is simply not good and all characters must be humanized otherwise the work will be bad. Sometimes it happens on accident, you try to add a flaw to your characters and woops, we’ve got gray.
And simply because, let’s be honest, it’s easier that way to get your readers engaged with both sides of the conflict. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am fully aware 95% of Black and White stories are lazy writing and end up tacky and just not enjoyable, but when done right, Black and White is the most beautiful thing. With gray morality in the other hand, you just have to build two sides of the conflict, two persons. Almost like writing two main characters but one gets slightly less character development, it’s simple (I said simple, not easy).
Hey now but Gray morality has some variants, and I think it’d be appropriate to mention them here so later we can identify these things in entertainment and what not.
SHADES OF GRAY
There are three schemes inside the GRAY morality model. White vs Gray, Gray vs Grey, and Gray vs Black.
White vs Gray underlies conflict between two factions that are not actually evil, but have different point of views regarding a certain subject. E.T. is a good example of this. On one side we have the friendly alien who’s obviously a ‘good’ character. On the other side we have the police force, who are trying to stop E.T.
Are they doing it because they are evil? Oh hell no, they do it because they fear for the kid’s safety, that’s it. More examples can be found everywhere, especially in light-hearted anime series. This is the second most popular, outnumbered only by the next scheme.
Gray vs Grey happens when we have two force that aren’t exactly evil, but aren’t actually good either. I think the best example of this is pretty much the entire Game of Thrones saga, no faction is truly evil. Not even the Lannister nor the Baratheon. They all just want what’s best for their people. Even if getting there takes them more… ambiguous actions than what they expected. Basically, they are all well intended extremists. (Except the whitewalkers, obviously). This one is much more popular in works designated to teen and mature audiences. So yeah a lot of anime. Expect both sides to do a lot shady things for “the greater good.”
Gray vs Black. Here, there is no such thing as good. Just ‘less evil.’ This scheme is dark, gritty, and is very easy to shy away from it because this is shady as f****. No joke, these works tend to be dark and gritty and in my honest opinion no one below 16 should see them. Here you could have a sort of villain fighting another villain for revenge or other personal reasons, but ultimately, don’t expect someone to do something because it’s better for others.
The first example that comes to mind here is The Punisher. Certainly he kills mafiosos and gangsters. But he doesn’t do it to protect or anything, letting alone the fact that killing is bad, The Punisher kills because he hates and feels he needs to avenge his family. So if let’s say… a soldier accidentally killed his family, he’d go for army men and police officers without a doubt. Heck the amount of shady theories behind The Punisher are no joke. Some say he let the mafia kill his family because he knew he couldn’t protect them, and thus his entire crusade is actually a vendetta against himself. How? He’s actually punishing himself, by prohibiting peace take a place in his live and inviting death instead.
THE TRUE POWER OF BLACK AND WHITE
So as I said before, 95% of Black and White works end up being simply lazy writing. But here I’m going to talk about that 5% that becomes a masterpiece that endures the pass of time. And no, I’m not going to talk about Lord of The Rings or The Hobbit.
I’m going to talk about one of the most influential figures in the storytelling media, one that has come a long way since the 60s? Sorry I don’t have that data. I’m going to talk about *drumroll* The Joker.
I know some of you may look at this with confusion, but no one can deny The Joker is the one the, if not the most beloved villain in the history of modern storytelling. So let’s get this out of the way, think of one sole thing the Joker has done for a motive that isn’t ‘evil’?
Yeah. None. So the Joker is blacker than night. Perfect. Joker is so black I’ve seen some address him as a Force of Nature villain. If you don’t know, a Force of Nature villain is an antagonist that acts as a force of nature. Period.
Then why is he such a good character? First of all, because he’s in the perfect setting for him. His archenemy is the perfect archenemy for him, the city is the perfect city for him, but more importantly, Joker’s writers have embraced the blackness. They don’t shy away nor try to make him believable. They hug and kiss this concept of ‘simply evil.’
Joker is the purest form of chaos. And it’s genius. Because -ironically- Joker’s motive is to turn Batman into a grey character. Batman is the purest form of order. He’s a stoic, he doesn’t kill, he lives to protect. He’s white as a cloud. But Joker is actively looking for Batman to kill him because if he can make Batman kill, then he proves right to his statement that there’s evil inside every single one of us.
Joker is such a good character because of the relationship he’s formed with his archenemy and the ideology he follows to do what he does -oh wait, there’s none. The same can be said for Batman himself. He’s the most iconic fictional character to have sprung over the last what? Fifty years? And why? His pure representation of order, along his methods of seeding fear in the hearts of criminals, along other personality traits of his, he’s usually badassery incarnated. But is this believable? Hell no, if it was Batman would be killing criminals left and right. Do you guys have any idea of the scum that roams Gotham? Not only Joker, but we’ve got Zsasz (I’m sure I didn’t spell that right), Scarecrow, Bane, Killercroc, that shark dude.
All these villains around the same line as Joker, For the Evulz (I want you to google that), for the sheer joy of doing it. Wait, but if they all do that then why is Joker so much more popular than they are? Because Joker holds a direct relationship with Batman and his morality. And let’s not forget that Joker’s comedic occurrences are simply admirable.
In resume, Joker was built from the ground up to be evil, and everything in his characters adds up to that, from clothing to dialogue. And Batman was designed to be good, and just like with the Joker, everything around him builds up to that. The moral struggle with Joker gives him the depth we as spectators need to feel compelled with him.
Black and White can bring to the table struggles, situations, and characters that can’t exist in a gray ambient. It creates characters that aren’t relatable or eve believable, but deep, interesting, and simply enjoyable to spectate. It can put them in situations where the existence of Gray becomes a whole new moral dilemma, in which good or evil can win solely by the answer to the question “what are you willing to do?”
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