September 12 – 18: “Have you created characters with moral ambiguity?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Have you created characters with moral ambiguity? This week ITW members Paul McGoran, Arlene Kay, Shannon Baker, Judy Penz Sheluk, Michael J. Martinez, Ian Truman, Ann Parker, Wendy Walker and Charles Salzberg discuss writing characters with moral ambiguity and how difficult are they to make believable?




skeletonsJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, the first in the Glass Dolphin Mystery series, was published in July 2015 by Barking Rain Press. Skeletons in the Attic, Judy’s second novel, and the first in her Marketville Mystery series, will be published in August 2016 by Imajin Books. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime (Carrick Publishing), The Whole She-Bang 2 (Toronto Sisters in Crime), Flash and Bang (Untreed Reads) and Live Free or Tri: a collection of three short mystery stories. She is also the author of Unhappy Endings: a collection of three flash fiction stories. In her less mysterious pursuits, Judy works as a freelance writer; her articles have appeared regularly in dozens of U.S. and Canadian consumer and trade publications. In addition to ITW, Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She lives in Alliston, Ontario, Canada, with her husband, Mike, and their golden retriever, Leroy Jethro “Gibbs”.


ALL IS NOT FORGOTTENWendy Walker is a family law attorney in Connecticut. Prior to her legal career, she worked as a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs. All Is Not Forgotten is her first psychological thriller. Wendy is currently writing her second thriller and managing a busy household of teenage boys.




Breastplate coverBefore turning to crime fiction, Paul McGoran had a varied career as Navy linguist, marketing executive, management consultant and day trader. His first published novel was the pulp thriller, Made for Murder (New Pulp Press, 2015). He is also the author of a collection of short noir fiction, Paying for Pain. Paul writes fiction because it is most immersive activity he has ever known. His next novel will bring his P.I. protagonist back to his old hometown to solve the revenge murder of the bully who terrorized his childhood.



what goldAnn Parker earned degrees in Physics and English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, before falling into a career as a science/corporate writer. During the daylight hours, she scribbles about “bleeding-edge” research for a scientific R&D institution and enterprise business solutions for legal firms. At night, she delves into the past. Her award-winning Silver Rush historical series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is set in the 1880s silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, and features Silver Queen Saloon owner Inez Stannert–a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. The series was picked as a “Booksellers Favorite” by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, International Thriller Writers, Historical Novel Society, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Women Writing the West, and Western Writers of America (and probably a few other organizations that have slipped her mind at the moment). Ann and her family reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, whence they have weathered numerous boom-and-bust cycles.


swannArlene Kay spent twenty years as a Senior Executive with the Federal Government where she was known as a most unconventional public servant. Experience in offices around the nation allowed her to observe both human and corporate foibles and rejoice in unintentional humor.




grand trunkIan Truman is a novelist, a musician and a visual artist. Born and raised in the East End of Montreal, he is a fan of punk, hardcore, hip hop, dirty realism, noir, satire and hopes to mix these genres in all of his works. A graduate of Concordia University’s creative writing program, he won the 2013 Expozine Awards for best Independent English Novel. He lives in Montreal with his wife and two daughters.




strippedShannon Baker writes the Kate Fox mystery series (Tor/Forge). Stripped Bare, the first in the series, features a sheriff in rural Nebraska and has been called Longmire meets The Good Wife. Baker also writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series (Midnight Ink), a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Baker was voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2104 Writer of the Year. She writes from the Colorado Rockies to the Nebraska Sandhills, the peaks of Flagstaff and the deserts of Tucson.



MJ12_FinalMichael J. Martinez is a critically acclaimed author of historical fantasy and genre-blending fiction, including the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic-era space opera novels and the new MAJESTIC-12 series from Night Shade Books. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter, two cats, and several chickens.




triple shotCharles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann’s Last Song, and two others in the series, Swann Dives In, and Swann’s Lake of Despair, which was a finalist for 2 Silver Falchions, the Beverly Hills Book Award, and the Indie Excellence Award. The next in the series, Swann’s Way Out, will be published in early 2017. He is also the author of Devil in the Hole, which was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine, and more than two dozen nonfiction books. He teaches writing in New York City at the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.




  1. Thanks ITW, for letting me hang out with all these great writers this week! I can’t wait to hear their wisdom and pick up some character tips.

    The most obvious example of a character with moral ambiguity is a villain. Of course we want the bad guy to be bad, but, aside from the principle at my daughters’ high school, I’ve never met anyone evil to core. Even my ex had a few redeeming qualities.

    As writers, we’ve all heard that everyone is the hero of their own story. No one thinks they are doing wrong. Even if they do bad things, they are motivated by what they feel is a noble cause. I didn’t understand this principle until I was in middle age and dealing with, what I thought, were some great parents. They were caring, involved, encouraging. But when their son did something despicable and downright mean, they lied, covered up, and passed blame all to protect him. I’m sure by sacrificing integrity to keep their child from harm they felt they were noble. To me, they were dead wrong and villainous.

    I try to keep that idea in mind when writing characters, especially villains. Even Walter White had damned good reasons for his start down that slippery slope.

    1. This is the perfect question because it’s exactly what I deal with in my novella, Twist of Fate (part of the Triple Shot collection of three crime novellas).
      Trish Sullivan, an ambitious TV investigative reporter in a small market wants to move onto the national stage. Pushing 40, her time is running out. A potentially big story falls into her lap: a woman in prison for killing her husband and two young children claims innocence and asks Trish to investigate her case.
      Trish must make the ultimate moral decision: should she murder someone in order to make things right.
      It was a very interesting predicament to write myself into. Trish sees herself as a moral and ethical person, yet she feels compelled to commit an act that goes against everything she’s stood for.
      It was actually surprisingly easy to make this believable, because none of us is perfect. Each of us, at one time or another in our life is capable of doing something that flies in the face of our core beliefs. Human beings are complex. We all embody the yin and yang of life. And we all have to make choices, every day, in terms of morality. They may be small choices, but they’re choices nonetheless.

      1. Moral ambiguity is sorta the basis of story. Without it, you end up copying the mistake that a lot of lousy studio films make which is to present you with a series of actions in which “A good guy gets even gooder” because everyone fears the audience response. In the collection “Triple Shot,” (my novella is “Thump Gun Hitched” appearing with the novellas of Charles and Tim O’Mara) there’s nothing but moral ambiguity. Having lived my life in a particular manner, I feel I can accurately report on this.

        1. Interesting comment about lousy films going the “good guy gets even gooder” route. Old-time movies and TV (not noir, but your run-of-the-mill entertainment films, Westerns, sci-fi, what-have-you… think 1950s, ’60s,) often had characters with little moral ambiguity. I guess audience expectations/preferences change with the times (or maybe with the generations? Hmmm.).

          1. I think that lousy films can be great but that says a lot about the nature of moral characters. If they are purely moral or amoral, then they almost always come off as comedic rather than dramatic. And sometimes you can go for that and it works out incredibly funny (Nathan Fillion Characters can be an example) but if the writer was going for serious and dramatic and made their characters a “perfect white knight” then it will most likely fail miserably.

          2. That’s a wide field of films to talk about, Ann, but I think a lot of the old-time 50’s and 60’s run-of-the-mill pictures had morally ambiguous characters…then sometimes just pasted on a happy ending. There was a period, mostly during the blacklist, where some films tightened up. But if you’re spotlighting those two decades, Westerns and sci-fi especially were morally ambiguous…

  2. First, let’s assume we’re discussing characters who are difficult to classify as either good or evil because they contain strong elements of both. The kind of guy or gal who may be either hero or villain. Most people have a touch of ambiguity in their moral makeup, but the bad guy who’s capable of the occasional kind deed and the hero who messes up now and then aren’t morally ambiguous, they’re just human. The classic example of moral ambiguity is Hamlet. Someone capable of both heroism and perfidy, and hugely conflicted about it

    While I’ve never created a Hamlet, I believe there are two morally ambiguous characters in my novel THE BREASTPLATE OF FAITH AND LOVE. Mickey Cullion is an ex-con striving for redemption who nevertheless commits a brutal murder in the heat of passion. His hard work in helping others at a storefront mission is countered by tendencies he hasn’t been able to conquer. We sympathize with Mickey for the good he has done while we recognize the failure of his better nature to prevail at a crucial moment.

    As writers, we sometimes hide the moral ambiguity of a character, so that their turn to evil comes as a surprise late in the story. To make this real, the motive for so acting has to be revealed, and it will need to be convincing for the reader.

    In BREASTPLATE, Claudia Chitworth is such a character. A grandmotherly type, Claudia is first seen worrying about the welfare of a young boy entrusted to her son’s custody. Her attitude is benign and her concern sincere. But late in the novel we learn that her motive has been deeply selfish, and that she has undermined my PI’s investigation as well as her own son’s good intentions. While not the climactic moment of the novel, the revelation of her perfidy is the key to the denouement.

    In a crime novel, especially one in either the noir or the thriller genre, it’s my opinion that the morally ambiguous character will provide both the reader (and the writer) the most profound insights into the human heart of the story.

  3. Of course! Where would the mystery/thriller writer be without characters of moral ambiguity? In The Hanged Man’s Noose, the most obvious flawed character is Garrett Stonehaven, a greedy real estate developer who comes to a small town with plans to build a mega-box store, thereby threatening the potential livelihood of the existing small independent shops. I know — you probably already hate him, but even Garrett has people who love him, and not everyone in town is opposed to his plan. But it’s the characters you think are stellar (and turn out not to be quite so nice) that are the big surprise, and isn’t that often so in life? An ex-boyfriend comes to mind…in fact, I wrote about “Jack” in my short story, Live Free or Die (in the collection Live Free or Tri and also World Enough and Crime). Was there something cathartic about exposing Jack’s moral ambiguity 30 years after he broke my heart? You bet there was!!!
    In my latest book, Skeletons in the Attic, it’s hard to know who to trust, and my protagonist, Callie Barnstable, is understandably wary. Moral ambiguity — there’s a little of it in all of us, even the good guys. How far we push those borders is what makes the reader sit up and take notice. But it still has to be “in character.” We can accept that John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport, for example, wouldn’t think twice about killing a murderer, or protecting his family at all costs ..but if cheated on Weather…I don’t think anyone would forgive that.

  4. This is my favorite topic because I am completely fixated on morally ambiguous characters! In my thriller, All Is Not Forgotten, the narrator and the mother are both conflicted characters whose dark pasts continue to drive their behavior. The mother, Charlotte, was one of my favorite characters to write. When I gave the first fifty pages of the manuscript to my agent, she said to keep on writing! Everything was working – but what was I going to do with the mother? She was coming across as unlikeable and that is usually not good for a main character who is not a villain in the story. I told her not to worry – I had a plan for Charlotte that would change everything she thought and felt about her. Confronting this challenge was one of the most enjoying aspects of writing this book. Every time I got to a section where I could be Charlotte, I felt a twinge of excitement because I knew readers would get her in the end.

    As the story unfolds, we come to learn about Charlotte’s past, what drives her, what scares her, and what is at the heart of her internal conflict. She has built a perfect life and is emotionally unable to see it tarnished in any way. But why? And why does she do things herself that could destroy this life she is fighting so hard to protect?

    There are two selves living within Charlotte – Good Charlotte and Bad Charlotte. Good Charlotte has dominated, and is responsible for the perfect life with Tom and their children in the bucolic town of Fairview. But Bad Charlotte lives in the shadows, rattling the bars of the cage she has been relegated to since Charlotte’s dark childhood. Good Charlotte must let her out in small ways in order to keep her locked in her cage. It becomes a force she cannot suppress. The only way to stop it is to pull Good Charlotte from her pedestal and live an authentic life as just Charlotte – the good and the bad – exposed to the world.

    What I loved about creating this morally challenged character is that we all have aspects of this fractured self. We all think things we do not say out loud, do things we wish we hadn’t, and desire things that are not good for us. We are all flawed in this way, and that is part of what makes us human. I think readers hear a voice inside saying “yes!” when characters like this are deconstructed, because they see themselves. And those are the connections between readers and characters that make books stay with us after the last page is turned.

  5. Hello ITW and The Big Thrill! Really excited to be talking about this topic with so many talented folks. Let’s do this.

    We all like to think we’re good, morally upstanding citizens, and for the most part, I think that holds true. Unless one is truly, deeply evil or utterly and completely deranged (and the line between those states is fuzzy at best), most people generally believe they are doing the right thing, no matter how they define “right.” And again, most people have enough cultural and educational knowledge of right and wrong to generally be considered decent folks.

    In many thrillers, we find a character has allowed him or herself to be placed in a difficult situation, backsliding on his or her own morality to the point where everything is ambiguous and ultimately very trying. The hitman with a heart of gold, for example, is a great trope that plays with this. The hitman’s morality almost becomes transactional — each murder is followed by an act of atonement designed to mitigate the wrong, but only serves to magnify guilt.

    Ultimately, I think the best moral ambiguity is situational, because extraordinary situations can be interpreted very differently by two people with good intentions. In my paranormal Cold War spy thriller MJ-12: INCEPTION, random Americans have been empowered with extraordinary abilities, powers that make them dangerous. Different people in the U.S. government have different ideas for these so-called Variants, all with their own validity. Imprison and study these people? Kill them? Use them against the greater threat of the Soviets? Are the Soviets even a greater threat than the Variants?

    Good people can differ on these questions. And ultimately, because the situation is so extraordinary, nearly everyone involved with the answer is compromised to some degree. Even the Variants — a school teacher, a factory worker, a car salesman, a WWII veteran — must wrestle with this ambiguity. Surrender your freedom for the greater good? Protect the gift you’ve been given? What’s the obligation to your fellow humans? Or your fellow Variants? Your country? The world?

    In the early days of the Cold War, moral ambiguity was the name of the game in the U.S. intelligence community. Indeed, one could argue that the CIA, State Department, Defense Department and a slew of other offices and agencies made themselves right at home in moral gray areas. Hard to imagine that, less than 20 years prior, Secretary of State Henry Stimson claimed that “gentlemen do not reach each other’s mail.”

    At the end of the day, I would argue that moral ambiguity is the sweet spot in which a good spy thriller thrives. Personal morality clashes with competing loyalties and difficult choices that will inevitably harm as well as help — that’s where it starts getting good.

  6. Most of my protagonists (and ALL of my antagonists) have traces of moral ambiguity in their DNA. It makes them more interesting and frankly more realistic than the one dimensional goody two-shoes or Snidely Whiplash characters we sometimes see. I enjoy strong personalities and try to layer them throughout my novels. (Never could stand Melanie or Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett and Rhett were just my speed). A likeable villain is much more sinister than a thoroughly detestable creature who stands out like a beacon. He or she sharpens the reader’s sense of vulnerability and forces him/her to re-evaluate judgement and personal choices. Likewise, virtuous heroes often activate my gag reflexes and tempt me to make them the murder victim. In several of my novels, the protagonist wrestled with the justice vs. the law dilemma. Justice triumphed.

  7. I love this topic!
    Thank you, ITW, for this opportunity to see what everyone has to say and put my two cents in.
    I’d like to say right off: Isn’t it great that there are characters for every taste and temperament? Those readers who prefer protagonists to be unambiguously on the side of justice and truth can easily find such. At the other extreme, readers who prefer protagonists that are unredeemably dark (or nearly so) can also find thrillers that reflect their tastes. Personally, I find those characters that are morally ambiguous the most interesting. As a reader (and sometimes, truth to tell, as a writer) you never know which way they will respond in a given situation. Given all that, when I created a female protagonist for my 1880s series set in the rough-and-tumble silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado, I knew from the start she would be the kind of person who was neither a “white hat” nor a “black hat,” but tended toward varying shades of grey.
    I like to say that my character Inez Stannert is a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. Hewr character reflects all that. Yes, she’s loyal to her friends (perhaps to a fault!), and stands on the side of justice (at least, her definition of such). She also lies, cheats, uses a gun or other weapons when she deems it appropriate. In this time and place in the West, trust me, real-life women did the same. I like placing her with untenable situations and exploring where she will draw the line. Will she opt for morality and integrity? Or will she sidle into the arms of Machiavelli? Or will she somehow find a way to straddle the line and embrace both?
    Did I find Inez difficult to create to make “believable?” Not at all, actually. I’m not at all sure what that says about me, but there you go…

  8. And what about the ultimate… Dexter? In any writing workshop/how-to book you hear it said that we must bring our characters to the breaking point, to be forced to do something they would never do otherwise. That conflict brings about the most dramatic tension on the page.

  9. I’m (ahem) “old enough” to recall when the anti-hero in Western movies suddenly became the craze (think: spaghetti Westerns, The-Man-With-No-Name, etc.). I and my friends found these characters intriguing. I’m wracking my brains right now… Did characters with “bendable ethics” become popular in thrillers/mystery fiction about the same time? Time to do a little search on the Internet…

    1. Chiming in here on Inez Stannert — I see her as a complicated woman whose choices seem the best ones at the time. Not always within the prevailing law; at time more just than that, more humane. The important thing is that we are always rooting for her, just as (as someone pointed out) we rooted for Dexter. (No, no, Inez is not a serial killer. I’d better stop here.)

      1. Too, there’s the times in which Inez lives… In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a moral ideal, “proper women” were assumed to be pillars of moral strength and virtue, etc. The line between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” wasn’t always the same as it is now. A young lawyer from Leadville wrote home in 1879 that “a murderer is safer in Leadville than a horsethief.” A woman who was too independent, who dared to step outside the feminine sphere, was often viewed as suspect.
        It’s fascinating (well, at least for me) to consider and contrast the moral stances of then and now…

  10. Wow, lots of people this week.

    Lots of good stuff coming up. I believe everyone will agree that morally ambiguous characters are preferred by readers. From one level or another, we all want to know people aren’t entirely good or bad.

    The issue then is how to write such characters and make them believable.

    I usually try to keep stories as truthful as they can be and let the readers make their own minds about the morality of the characters. I try not to slip my own views in there. I let the characters go where they need to go, providing the “raw material” to the reader and they’ll get to analyze the novel if they want to.

    I write from a very “low key” point of view which works well in noir. I write about the common, the poor, the working class. I write people that are down with the rest of us. I think that in those settings, moral ambiguity just comes out naturally. If you are truthful to those certain times and places it’s gonna appear on its own and still feel plausible to the reader.

    One thing about crime in general, in real life or in literature, is that if you are poor or working class, it’s actually very easy to “fall” into it. I’ve heard that quite a few times : “he fell into crime. The issue is that if you are poor or working class you don’t actually fall into crime at all, it’s always close enough to feel natural to you. The stories of friends or friends of friends who end up in barfights that start feuds that end up in blood one way or another. The stories of people you went to school with that end up dead on a job or by suicide or who bolted and joined the army so it wouldn’t happen to them anyways (often with very mixed results).

    When you’re from that kind of social environment, it’s fairly easy to know people who can get you a job running a truck full of weed down from Canada into New-York State. And it kinda just happens the way you’d end up on any other job : some guy couldn’t make it and they needed someone right this minuted? You can say yes and have a good pay day and make it across the border just fine or get busted and go to jail for it.

    People are flawed, right? We try to make the right calls but it dosen’t always (or even often) works out right. Everyone’s flawed, of course, but if you’re poor and working class, any fuck up big enough and you’re not getting back from it. If you make a choice and it ends up being the wrong one, then you’ll likely pay for it for years (either in jail time or actually money which you didn’t have much of to start with.)

    That’s sorta the background for GRAND TRUNK AND SHEARER. It’s set in a place that has been working class for as long as Montreal existed. And now that the downtown core’s caught up to it, it’s getting gentrified very fast and that brings stress on the neighbourhood. Things happens as people try to scavenge enough money to get by. Things happen and one guy dies and another one may or may not go to jail if he gets through the week.

    No matter what happens, you’ll think about they guy and hope one way or the other.

  11. Connected to the ambiguity of character question is something else that often gets thrown around. Agents and editors will often say, “I just didn’t like the character.” That particular criticism has always bugged me. As a writer, I don’t give a damn whether or not you “like” or “love” the character. I want you to be interested in the character. I want to make you think about the character and what he or she does in the book.

    A couple of years ago my novel, Devil in the Hole, which was based on a true crime about a man who killed his entire family, wife, three kids, mother and the family dog and disappeared. Not a particularly likable character, right? I was invited out to a college class in Long Island where all the students read the book. When the class began, a young woman raised her hand and sheepishly said, “I feel really guilty about this, but after reading your book I kind of found myself feeling sorry for the murderer.”

    That was the best thing anyone could possibly say about the book. It meant that I’d created a “real” character, one that had committed a heinous act but was still, in the end, human. The young woman certainly didn’t condone what the murderer did, but she understood what drove him to it. This is what creating an ambiguous moral character can do: make you think about yourself and everyone else in realistic terms. Some of us, no matter how good we are, do things that aren’t that good. And in effect, that’s what makes us human.

    1. That’s the best reaction you could hope for! That’s awesome.

      I think that speaks to the moral ambiguity on all sides of a good thriller. Unless you’re doing four-color adventure stories (which I’ve done), the shades of gray apply to the protagonists and antagonists alike. It’s very rare that people do morally awful things without having some kind of acknowledgement of that in their minds, but even the so-called bad guys generally believe what they’re doing is still “right” — at least by their definition of it.

      1. I thought so, too, Michael. It’s all I could hope for…understanding what motivates people to do what they do. I maintain that no one wakes up in the morning and says to him or herself, “I’m going to do something really evil today.” More likely, that evil deed would come from self-interest, doing something that’s good for you but in doing so might hurt someone else.

        1. Agreed, Charles. And not just agents and editors, but readers as well. If a reader is “ambiguous” about a character, comes away from a story struggling a bit about a character’s choices and motivations, that’s a good thing!

    2. I totally agree! And I have the same reaction to those comments about liking characters. If every book had only good characters for readers to like and bad characters for readers to hate, books would be very boring. Giving a shout out to Dennis Lehane, Mystic River did this brilliantly. I love leaving a book feeling a sense of deep angst over the complexities of being human.

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