“Grey” characters and realism in fiction—for example, Battlestar Galactica

The television series Battlestar Galactica, or “BSG” as it was affectionately known to its fans, was widely praised by critics for its “gritty realism.” The realism didn’t come from the premise of the series—i.e., humans from another planet fighting sentient robots isn’t exactly realistic—so much as from the alleged ‘moral grey-ness’ of the characters and some of the sub-plots surrounding torture, terrorism, black-market depravity and so forth.  It was said that BSG was more for grownups than Star Trek or Star Wars, because there were “no black and white characters;” everyone was a mixture of good and evil, “just like real life.”

I’m going to explain why this view is mostly wrong, and why writers who follow this grey-equals-realism equation will create characters that no one will identify with, because human beings don’t like morally ambiguous people.  Wait a minute, you say, how come people watched BSG if they don’t like grey characters?

There’s a simple answer: the characters, for the most part, were not morally ambiguous at all. The good characters—like Starbuck, Tigh, Roslin, the two Adamas—had flaws, yes, but their good sides always overtook their worst. Even Baltar, who was supposed to be the greyest of the greys, was not immoral so much a pathologically weak. But that’s not the whole story either: we intuitively knew from the start that Baltar would eventually redeem himself somehow, since he wasn’t really evil deep down.

In other words, BSG’s characters, much like the characters in ancient tragedy, were limited: they had limited knowledge, abilities, particular emotional vulnerabilities, but none of these characters was morally ambiguous. None of them committed evil deeds for their own benefit, say, then flipped a switch back to doing good ones. Come to that, we can’t even imagine such a person.

Take Colonel Tigh. He was fanatically loyal to the service and to his friend Adama.  He was also a drunk and he had a weakness for the kind toxic relations with the opposite sex that can cost you everything. Yet he never did anything wicked. Even when he declared martial law after Adama was shot, it was out of weakness—his inability to deal with the to and fro of democratic leadership—not because he wanted to rule what was left of the world with an iron fist.

So mark the word limited in your brain because that’s also why we identified with the characters in BSG. Indeed, what often made it tragic was our recognition of the very real limitations of the human condition in them–that good people can suffer for no other reason than want of knowledge.

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