Photo by Rory Lewis Photography
What is a morally ambiguous character? This is a question that I’ve asked myself frequently in the process of writing my three novels, most recently It Ends at Midnight, which was published in the Unite States in February. I guess the answer is that it’s a character whose values don’t align with the reader. But which reader? And which values? That’s where the fun really starts.
I think there are some basic values with which we can all agree. Killing is wrong, right? Murder is unequivocally to be condemned. Of course! So why is that we all sympathize with Tom Ripley when he offs the execrable Freddie Miles? The murder of Desi at the end of Gone Girl is clearly terrible but it’s hard fully to condemn Amy Dunn for killing him.
So, there are circumstances in which we can tolerate murder. What about theft? Well, The Talented Mr. Ripley goes against that, too—why should Dickie Greenstreet have all this wealth, this incredible lifestyle, and not Tom? Isn’t what Tom does in stealing from him, even down to his very identity, a not unjustified redistribution of assets from the haves to the have-nots?
Let’s see about adultery, then. This is where it gets more complicated. In my first novel, Blood Orange, the protagonist Alison is having an affair with one of her work colleagues. Her marriage isn’t happy but of course, that’s not much excuse. She’s a complex character, though, and she’s masking her unhappiness with drinking and self-sabotaging behavior. That’s something that many of us do, right. Right? Well, not if you look at the reviews that appeared on Amazon.
Readers hated Alison. I mean, they really hated her. They thought she was the worst person they’d ever read about, they wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake her (an ironic response to a novel about domestic violence, but there we are). Not every reader, of course, but many. I was honestly shocked when I first came across such visceral responses—I hadn’t realized that morally ambiguous equaled unlikable, or that it would render a character worthy of such contempt and disdain.
That’s the thing. Morally ambiguous for me does not equal unlikable, and certainly does not mean that I won’t root for that character. But it truly is a question of what morals are being brought into question. I’m reminded of Rizzo’s song in Grease, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"—she doesn’t lie, she doesn’t steal, she just has sexual relationships in a world that doesn’t readily permit women their sexual autonomy without judgment or prejudice.
And that to me is the core issue. There’s a standard of behavior applied t o women’s behavior that simply isn’t applied to men. He’s a stud, she’s a slut. It’s like that in life, it’s like that in the pages of books. In Blood Orange, Alison drinks, smokes, has extramarital sex and doesn’t always get home in time to put her child to bed—standard behavior for a male police officer in a detective novel and no one turns a hair. Ah, boys. Totally fine for them, utterly unacceptable for a female character.
It's the same situation with the characters in It Ends at Midnight. They’re not cookie-cutter. They’re complicated. Sylvie, the narrator of the novel, is an ambitious career-driven lawyer who has prioritized work over settling down in a relationship and having kids. Tess is married, but has no children, and is facing a potentially terminal diagnosis. They’ve been friends for years and their relationship is toxic in many ways, though not in every respect.
Are they likable? I don’t even know what that means. According to how some readers think women should behave, absolutely not. But I think they’re funny, feisty, interesting women who I’d like to spend time with, even if they’re not fluffy and sweet and spend their lives rescuing drowning kittens.
Will you root for them? I don’t know. But do they feel real? In my opinion, yes. Aspects of them are similar to me, to friends of mine, to women I’ve known and loved through all the years of my life. Selfish, bitchy, ambitious women who are capable of huge kindness, love their friends and will go to the ends of the earth for them. In other words, you or me at our worst and at our best. Human.
Harriet Tyce was born and grew up in Edinburgh. She graduated from the University of Oxford in 1994 with a degree in English Literature before gaining legal qualifications. She worked as a criminal barrister for ten years, leaving after the birth of her first child. She completed an MA in Creative Writing—Crime Fiction at UEA where she wrote Blood Orange, which is her first novel.