The world isn’t black and white, as most teenagers will realize. Your story should reflect that. Here’s how to write morally ambiguous characters in YA.

How to make your YA characters seem realistic without being edgy
How to make your YA characters seem realistic without being edgy
Photo by Mohamed Hassan on Pxhere

During adolescence, most kids realize that the world around them isn’t black and white. Many YA authors will acknowledge this by making their protagonists morally ambiguous. If you’re writing YA, this can be a great way to push the boundaries of what you’d be allowed to write in a kid’s book.

However, some YA writers’ attempts at writing morally ambiguous characters have mixed results. They may attempt to write a difficult character and just end up with someone that none of their readers can like. If you’re trying to add depth and realism to your YA story, here are a few tips to do this without seeming pretentious and alienating your audience.

Nobody’s Perfect (Especially Not YA Characters)

Morally ambiguous characters work because people are morally ambiguous. Nobody actually fits into a rigid definition of “Good” or “Evil.” For a character in YA, this is especially true.

People in that age group are mostly still figuring themselves out, and they might be completely different in ten years. The YA narrative, at its heart, is a story about growing up. Part of growing up is changing and making mistakes. As a YA writer, it’s important that you allow your protagonist to stay sympathetic throughout their mistakes.

Of course, your main character shouldn’t be the only one who’s morally ambiguous. A good writer acknowledges the humanity of all their characters, not just the main character. If another character hurts the protagonist, they should be allowed to have their own reasons – even if those reasons aren’t quite sympathetic.

If your protagonist hurts another character, whether they meant it or not, a good writer will acknowledge this instead of sweeping it under the rug because they’re not the main character. Which brings me to my next point.

Don’t Let Your Main Character Get Away with Murder

This is one of the main problems you’ll see in works with a “difficult” or morally ambiguous main character. They only do half the work.

Sure, the character mistreats people around them and then feels bad about it later. They make terrible decisions and put themselves first every time. But for some reason, the same character never actually faces consequences for what they do. The author does their best to sweep the effects of their actions under the rug.

Doing this is convenient, but not realistic. In real life, that character’s actions would definitely have some effect on the story. Don’t expect your readers to ignore this.

Besides, it’ll be easier to keep the character sympathetic if they have to face consequences like a real person would. Consequences might be the first step towards actual character development.

“Morally Ambiguous” Doesn’t Always Mean “Cynical”

Many YA stories start with a naïve main character and put them through the grinder. Then have the same character end the story as a cynical and morally ambiguous person.

This isn’t a bad way to write character development, and may be relatable for a lot of YA readers. However, it’s important to remember that the reverse is also possible.

A kind and innocent character might turn into a jerk and isolate themselves from their friends – and then they might start pulling themselves together in a few years. An obnoxious character might grow up to be a decent person.

Some YA writers will make their characters morally ambiguous and end up with characters that nobody can relate to. If you’re going to try to put morally ambiguous characters in your YA story, remember that your main goal is realism – not making the story dark and cynical.

For most people, adolescence is a time when we do things we’ll eventually regret. However, it’s also a time of growth. A good YA story will reflect both of these things.