The classic tale of good versus evil is a narrative as old as storytelling itself.
But lo and behold, the literary landscape has undergone a seismic shift.
The manichean struggle has faded into obscurity, replaced by the intoxicating aroma of moral ambiguity.
Welcome to modern fantasy, where the heroes aren’t as virtuous as they seem and the villains aren’t necessarily in need of a good smiting.
Gone Are the Days of the Unblemished Hero
Remember the paragons of virtue, those champions of justice that graced the pages of early fantasy novels?
Well, it’s time to retire those lily-white conceptions of heroism.
The modern fantasy hero is as pure as a puddle in London—murky and filled with complexities.
Today’s protagonists come with vices, make questionable decisions, and show us that even heroes have a dark side.
Think Geralt of Rivia, the monster slayer with his own monstrous tendencies, or Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle, who’s as flawed as he is brilliant.
Villains You Could Have a Pint With
If the heroes are grey, then the villains must be… also grey?
Yes, you read that right.
Gone are the days of malevolent dark lords brooding in their lairs, twirling their proverbial mustaches.
Modern fantasy presents antagonists you can empathize with, whose motivations go beyond mere world domination.
Look at Sanderson’s Moash from the Stormlight Archive, or Martin’s Jamie Lannister—a man who goes from pushing a child out a window to becoming one of the series’ most complicated and endearing characters.
The World Isn’t Black and White, So Why Should Fantasy Be?
Real-world politics and ethics are messy, so it only makes sense that modern fantasy reflects this complexity.
Authors incorporate sociopolitical and ethical questions into their works, pushing readers to confront their own beliefs.
Characters become mouthpieces for conflicting philosophies, creating a playground for ethical debate.
The lines between right and wrong are deliciously blurred, leaving readers to wrestle with moral quandaries long after the book is closed.
Complexity as a Narrative Tool
Moral ambiguity serves more than just thematic depth; it’s a potent narrative tool.
A morally grey character keeps readers on their toes, injecting unpredictability into the plot.
Will the antihero redeem themselves or plunge further into darkness?
It’s this suspense that turns casual readers into frothing fanatics, discussing theories online as if life depended on it.
What’s Fueling This Trend?
One could argue that this trend is a reflection of our increasingly complex world.
Or perhaps it’s due to the natural evolution of the genre, influenced by postmodernist ideas questioning the nature of truth and morality.
Then again, maybe writers are just fed up with archetypes and want to play in the muddy waters of human complexity.
Moral ambiguity is more than a trend—it’s a revelation that has invigorated the fantasy genre.
It allows for more nuanced storytelling, richer characters, and a direct line to the messy questions that occupy our real-world selves.
So here’s to the morally grey characters who have made fantasy more colourful.
They’ve not only complicated our understanding of right and wrong, they’ve made it infinitely more interesting to read about.