A Lighter Shade of Grey

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"Most humans are grey. And our job is to chastise the darker grey, correct?"
Bokurano, chapter 39 page 19.

In conflicts that feature Grey and Gray Morality, neither side in the struggle is more "right" than the other due to both having well-justified goals that they accomplish by perpetrating acts of heroism and villainy.

At least, that's the way in works in theory.

In practice, either one side has more heroes than the other, or the writing portrays one side as, if not more "right," then at least more sympathetic.

The usual result is the story and struggle shifting tone, sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically, making one side the heroes and the other the villains. Sometimes, to balance out this shift, authors will give the "good guys" opportunities to show their pragmatism, or they'll give the "bad guys" a chance to show off that they're not really that bad. How effective this is depends on a number of things, but suffice to say that it doesn't always work, in which case the tale continues to favor one group as "the heroes" over the other.

A Lighter Shade of Black is this trope's Evil Counterpart.

Examples of A Lighter Shade of Grey include:

Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Code Geass clearly does favor Lelouch. However, his most frequently recurring antagonist, Suzaku, has the same goal and generally goes about it with less dog kicking than he does. They end up on the same side by the end of the series.
    • It flips once you get into R2, where Suzaku does his own share of dog-kicking, Lelouch gets turned into even more of a Woobie/Chew Toy, and everybody betrays someone (especially Suzaku).
    • The other shades of grey are Emperor Charles and Schniezel. Charles clearly believed that his Assimilation Plot was for the good of mankind. Schniezel had the same world peace goal as the Lelouch and Suzaku but he was going way too far with his plan of nuking major cities from orbit and thus came out darker.
      • The reasons offered by Lelouch were that Charles' plan would essentially devolve into humanity constantly reliving memories, while Schniezel's would result in all progress grinding to a halt, whereas by binding up hate onto his regime, Lelouch's plan would allow people to move more freely into the future.
    • Also very prevalent in the Nightmare of Nunnally manga Spin Off, where everybody is flinging around the same phrase: "create a kind and gentle world". A lot of them also come off a lighter shade than in the anime.
  • The protagonists of Fullmetal Alchemist almost all have a dark past - including genocide, in one case. And yet, they are a lighter shade of grey because they are now trying to do something to atone for that. But placing a character like Scar into clear black or white categories would be nearly impossible.
  • The main "Federation vs. Zeon" conflict in Mobile Suit Gundam (and the rest of the Universal Century) is much like this. The Federation as a whole was usually portrayed as being at worst a little corrupt and bureaucratic, while nearly everyone shown on the Zeon side (save Gihren) was portrayed sympathetically... Enough so that many fans forget that Zeon started the war by flooding a neutral colony with nerve gas and then dropping it onto an Earth city, an act that is stated in-universe to have killed millions of people. When Zeta Gundam showed elements of the Federation as the bad guys, works that came back to the One Year War era occasionally showed some Federation commanders as being outright General Rippers as well as the sympathetic ones.
    • Celestial Being in Gundam 00 is definitely in the moral grey area: they are attempting world peace and unification, but their methods are essentially killing anyone who tries to start a war (or even promotes or prepares for war) in order to frighten people into non-violence. Their enemies are... well, the leading nations of the world, who are portrayed fairly realistically: a bit corrupt and doing a couple heinous things behind the scenes, but not openly malicious or oppressive. They become less gray and more white once Ribbons steps up his game as Big Bad, though.
  • Legend of Galactic Heroes has a slight tendency towards this on a governmental level, insofar that for every corrupt and inefficient noble and inter-house spats shown in the Galactic Empire, the Free Planets' Alliance has three corrupt and inefficient politicians/military commanders breathing down Yang's neck and a civil war/complete breakdown of law and order every ten episodes. The first FPA politician who has both actual power and is presented at least partially sympathetically is the man who is forced to take over after the Empire besieges Heinessen and forces the former cabinet to surrender.
  • About the only thing that really puts Death Note's L on a higher moral ground than Light is that he doesn't kill people himself-
    • However, he seems to have absolutely no trouble with indirectly sacrificing as many people as he can legally get away with if it will help him catch Kira, which arguably makes him worse. Luckily, laws are pretty strict about that sort of thing.
      • True, but Light is more willing to outright murder good people just for getting in his way, and sometimes in really dickish ways without a need to - remember how he made Naomi Misora, an FBI Agent whose fiancee he'd killed, commit suicide in such a way that nobody would ever find her body? Or what he did to Kiyomi Takada? Contrast this to L, who sacrificed Lind L. Taylor in his first 'appearance' - except that Taylor was a convicted murderer sentenced to be executed the same day. On the other hand, during the period where Light had no memory of the Death Note, he proved much less morally compromising that L did. It's all a matter of perspective, and deciding for oneself who, if anyone, is more in the right.
      • The live-action film adaptation, however, seems to place the 'lighter' ball squarely in L's court.
  • SlayersTRY, which gets really confusing 2/3 of the way through when it seems like everyone wants the same thing but are on different sides.
  • Crest of the Stars subverts the usual portrayal of The Empire vs. The Federation as a Black and Grey Morality: the Four Nations Alliance is the Designated Villain, while the Humankind Empire Abh is the Designated Hero.
  • The two "villanous" factions in Neon Genesis Evangelion (Gendo and SEELE) are split like this. Gendo's vision is reuniting with his dead wife and ruling together to bring mankind into a new , utopian, era. SEELE's motivations are far more ambiguous, being a group of people which aren't given much time as individuals, but from what is known, they want to keep humanity as a blob of Tang and rule over it.


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Marvel's Civil War was intended to feature ambiguous morals and sides that were not really more right than the other. In practice, the authors seemed to have missed the memo and increasingly portrayed the Pro-Registration side as the bad guys, made especially bad by the fact that Stark (the figurehead and commander of the Pro-Registration forces) commissioned the manufacture of an extradimensional KZ in addition to the fact that the Anti-Registration side got almost no Shoot the Dog moments (and had Captain America (comics)).
  • Mentioned by Catman when the Secret Six fought the Doom Patrol. His reasoning was that, though the Doom Patrol were heroes, both teams operated in a grey area of the superhuman community, so they should let the Six go. It doesn't work.
  • V for Vendetta is something like this. On one hand, it's a struggle between a repressive fascist government which may nevertheless be humanity's last hope in a nuclear-holocaust blighted world, and a fanatical anarchist terrorist who has absolutely no qualms about blowing up buildings and killing people to get his way, and whose efforts may ultimately doom humanity. On the other, however, the government is genocidal (having wiped out racial minorities and the LGBT population, amongst others) and composed pretty much entirely of hateful, dysfunctional and irredeemable bastards, while V is an incredibly charismatic guy who only lost his sanity after said regime used him for experimentation fodder, and who we first see rescuing a young girl from government hired rapists, and who comes to happily admit that he's got no place in the better world he's trying to create. It's certainly not a black and white situation, but it's hard to argue that V doesn't come across as a hell of a lot more sympathetic than the Norsefire government.


Fan Fiction[edit | hide]

  • In Tiberium Wars, even though the story is supposed to be about both sides equally, the author has admitted that he favors GDI over the Brotherhood of Nod, and the portrayal does reflect this; GDI characters have a few more scenes than the Nod side, and the GDI troops are portrayed as more sympathetic than their Nod counterparts, who generally come off as religious fanatics.
  • Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts is supposedly an attempt to balance out Princess Celestia (who's had to do some very unpleasant things to keep Equestria from collapsing on itself) and Princess Luna (who wants Equestria to run itself and values freedom... but doesn't realize the price). However, the author is rather clearly on Luna's side, with Celestia being portrayed again and again as a tyrant and those under her as monsters, while Luna is the viewpoint character and all of the sympathetic characters are on her side. After a while, the grey unmixes into black and white (no pun intended).


Film[edit | hide]

  • In Watchmen, almost all the characters have perpetrated acts of murder, some are guilty of rape, and yet others plan nuclear scale destruction. Out of them all, the costumed hero who comes out looking most like the good guy is Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg) whose worst sin is being a little bit boring. Arguably, the one who comes out looking like the worst bad guy is the Comedian, whose killings, unlike those committed by Ozymandias, had no grander purpose than eliminating those considered a threat by the US government.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • House Atreides in Dune is a good example of this trope, although Dune is only Grey and Grey Morality if you consider the 'other side' to ultimately include the Corrino Emperor rather than just being the Exclusively Evil Harkonnens.


Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Joss Whedon's Dollhouse is all about this trope. In season one, you have Paul Ballard, dangerously obsessed FBI agent who is projecting his own fantasy onto Caroline, and on the other side you have the Rossum Corporation, admittedly involved in human trafficking, and in the middle, playing one against the other, a Complete Monster and Ax Crazy whose insanity was, at least partially, inflicted upon him by the Dollhouse. In season two, the enemy is the Rossum Corporation's upper management, versus Adelle DeWitt and the rapidly self-aware Actives. Adelle crosses some Moral Event Horizons, but ends up being more sympathetic than her fellow co-workers simply by being less evil than the rest of the Rossum Corporation.
  • In Yes Minister, both Hacker (an elected MP) and Sir Humphrey (an unelected civil servant) always have their own interests at heart when deciding government policy. However, Hacker, while not entirely free of venal self-interest (he's often willing to put 'what will get me re-elected' over 'what is the right thing to do' when push comes to shove) almost always ends up the most sympathetic of the pair; he's often at least aware of what would be best for the people, and will try to fight for a cause he truly believes is right. Sir Humphrey is just unashamedly corrupt.
  • Within the protagonist group in The Walking Dead Shane is definitely the darker, pure survival oriented Sociopathic Hero to Rick who thinks not only of the group but even of others outside the group and makes a conscious effort to cling to his morality.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Warhammer 40,000 has a lot of this, both to prevent slide into hopeless boring gloom and due to internal disagreements.
    • In the Imperium it's implemented using its sheer size and variety. thus, some Inquisitors will purge you with fire for possibly seeing a daemon or other warp-spawn, while some may recruit after a brief interview or just order to keep quiet about it and move on. Some Commissars will blow a soldier's brain out for lacking excessive enthusiasm, others manage to avoid summary executions even when they're supposed to do so and only lead by example instead. Some commanders just send their troops into meatgrinder (it's explicitly discouraged officially, but the practice varies), others anything but. Some of the Space Marines see the mere humans as highly expendable, others will risk themselves to save one civilian. And so on.
    • With the Eldar, variability is ensured by the isolated communities each with their own history and inclinations, while influential individuals who lived for thousand years can be quirky as hell.
    • With the Tau, it's on-again-off-again. There's no baseline, since even generic interpretations vary wildly between various factions among the fandom (and therefore the authors), the main reasons being that they are sort-of-communists and run brightly colored Humongous Mecha, and even one of these points, obviously, would be an enormous Flame Bait. Thus in any particular work they may fall anywhere between "extra-sinister behind the curtains", "deluded morons happily marching straight into Hell's maw and dragging others with them" and "the greatest thing since sliced bread".

Theater[edit | hide]

  • Despite the houses of Montague and Capulet being stressed as "alike in dignity" in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues come off looking a lot better in many adaptations, probably because they feature a lot less. Then again, in the original text itself the Capulets come off as a Big Screwed-Up Family consisting of a warlike father, a weak-willed mother, a painfully naive daughter, and a dangerously Hot Blooded nephew; meanwhile, Lord Montague does try to join the opening brawl but is relieved his son Romeo avoided it, and the main characters in his house are Wide-Eyed Idealist Romeo and Only Sane Man Benvolio. The most volatile non-Capulet in the play, Mercutio, isn't even a Montague- he's related to the prince. It's not hard to conjecture that the Montagues may be just as involved in the feud, but there's a strong chance of a much more functional private family life.


Videogames[edit | hide]

  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, one side of the Lion War rallies behind Prince Goltana, the other behind Prince Larg, the church has got its fingers in the conflict, not to mention the Lucavi, and then there's your player group. Out of the two main sides involved in the war, those siding with Prince Larg come out looking more like good guys, in general, by virtue of not having Delita on their side. Out of all groups, though, the player's party comes out looking like the best good guys of all, but whether that's due to the main character's being played or being honestly virtuous is a matter of debate.
  • Both Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas revolve around this conflict. It's less obvious in 3 as the Brotherhood act mostly as white knights, but are capable of doing very unpleasant things, such as murdering Ghouls on sight and killing civilans outside of Megaton. But not on the same scale as the Enclave who plan on killing anyone with even the slightest form of mutation. The NCR are often greedy and corrupt, but in contrast to Caesar's Legion, an evil empire that endorses slavery, child soldiers, rape, paedophelia and torture, they seem like saints.
    • In Fallout 3's DLC The Pitt, the main conflict you must invariably choose a side in is a conflict between an Anti-Villain and an Anti-Hero. On the one hand there's Lord Ashur, who uses slave labor guarded by raiders to revive the steel mills in the ruins of old world Pittsburg, but who plans to free the slaves once The Pitt is its own superpower, as well as finding a cure for the sickness that turns the inhabitants of The Pitt into troglodytes. On the other hand, there's Werner, Ashur's former lieutenant who wants to free the slaves of Ashur's rule (and has the support of the people), but does it primarily so that he can rule The Pitt in Ashur's stead. Werner is in fact the one who brings in outside help (read: you) to tip the scales in his favor, and he conveniently fails to mention the whole "controlling The Pitt" thing, not to mention the cure for the trog disease is within Ashur's own infant daughter.
  • One notable situation is World of Warcraft, where it is scientifically proven that the debate over which faction (Alliance or Horde) is this will never end. Both factions have had their good and bad moments.
    • As of Cataclysm, the Horde's grey is darkening at an astonishing fast pace.
  • MadWorld. Jack, by his own words kills people rather than helping them and participates in a snuff competition, Death Watch. Leo's Dad organized Death Watch as a cover to show off his virus which, in the context of Death Watch all it did was clear out most of the innocent bystanders, cleanly overshadowed by THE FUCKING DEATH WATCH. And Leo is even worse, who helped with the plan For the Evulz. So naturally Jack kills them all with relish.
  • The Spectres from Mass Effect fall into this category, within their own organisation. Their Agents given full authority to do anything to get the job done, but exactly how far they go to accomplish their objectives is left completely at the discretion of any individual Agent. Hence the reason why it took over twenty years before Saren finally lost his Spectre status.
    • Lampshaded in Lair of the Shadow Broker, where Shepard berates Tela Vasir for betraying the Spectres by working with the Shadow Broker. Vasir throws it right back at them, that Shepard is working with Cerberus, so how are they different?
      • Shepard's alliance with Cerberus is temporary and does not require him to do anything he would normally be unwilling to do without Cerberus, and Shepard's reason for entering that alliance is 'because there is a threat to all life in the galaxy that must be stopped and only Cerberus, out of all the people I've asked, is able and willing to help me stop it'. Tela Vasir is the Shadow Broker's employee and is murdering innocent people as his paid hitwoman, and her reasons for doing it are 'so I can advance my own career by using inside information'.[1] That's a very substantial difference.
        • Also, although Vasir arguably does not know this part, the Shadow Broker was an ally or pawn of the Reapers. So Vasir is ultimately working for the destruction of all life in the galaxy, while Shepard is fighting to preserve it. It doesn't get any more different.
    • The Spectres arguably are this to the Asari Justicars. The Justicars are an ancient order that patrol Asari Space in pursuit of justice and adhere to a highly strict Code that dictates what they can and cannot do. This can allow them to kill anyone who gets in their way, including other law-enforcers, should they be foolish enough to try to apprehend them. This rarely happens.

Webcomics[edit | hide]


Web Original[edit | hide]

  • Ilivais X inverts the usual here: Iriana may have been horribly broken by the Aztec Empire, but her goal isn't REALLY to end the war and create a free society, it's to get revenge. Meanwhile, both empires have been at war with each other for centuries, but they're mostly not bad people, and they've maintained a society that works very nicely for the people in all that time.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Toyed with in Avatar: The Last Airbender. While by the end of The Hundred Year War, the Fire Nation was clearly in the wrong. However, at the beginning of the war, Sozin was supposedly trying to spread the Fire Nation's wealth to the other nations. However, Sozin was by no means the good guy. So, while both sides of the war at the beginning was really grey, Roku was the lighter shade of grey.
  • Played with in Justice League. In the show's earlier run, when it was simply known as Justice League, the show's heroes and villains were pretty unambiguous. Fast forward to the second part, entitled Justice League Unlimited. The heroes make some morally questionable choices, and the "villains" arrayed against them (Project Cadmus) are suddenly cast in a whole new light. In the end, though, Cadmus ends up disbanding due to its long streak of mistakes while the League sticks around, so they ultimately remain the "good guys" of the story.
  • While both Tom and Jerry are jerks in the long run, Jerry is generally portrayed as the more heroic one. Most of the time, he's off minding his own business before Tom shows up and ruins whatever he's doing. He also is seen has more Pet the Dog moments than his counterpart, who has practically none to speak of.
  1. While it is true that the inside information Vasir is getting is helping her catch criminals, her activities for the Shadow Broker are also helping an even larger criminal not get caught, so this one's either a wash or a net loss for the galaxy at large.