The other day I was trying to find information about a person whose name was in the news. Who it was isn't important but what was interesting was what I found out. Or rather what I didn't find out.
Everything I read either demonized or lionized the person. They were either a minion sent from Hell to drag down the pillars of society or they were a beacon of goodness, a lighthouse of virtue illuminating the word in warm wisdom. Nothing in the middle. After awhile I grew bored.
Extremes are boring. I know, in our high concept, punchy entertainment world, we are flooded with extremes. But nothing is ever pure evil or pure good. The world is imperfect. That doesn't stop us from making categorizing things as either good or evil, our news media, which should be objective, is pandering to public excitement. Its dangerous and does nothing to help situations. And its boring.
Fiction is riddled with extremes. Too often writers think if their hero or heroine isn't all good, the readers will dislike them. I find the opposite to be true. If they have no moral conflicts, they are two dimensional. I have no interest. And not just a moment of rudeness, it needs to be something more. And a reader may not like it, but they will keep reading to see what happens. Same goes for villains. A villain who is evil for evil's sake is dull and not particularly frightening. Its like one of those rubber Halloween decorations which moves if you walk by it. Startling the first moment but quickly grows boring then annoying. Psychotic behavior is fine for a 90 minute slasher movie but stales in a novel.
It isn't an easy line to tread for a writer. Right now I'm in the midst of a scene between a villain and the heroine. I want my readers to hate the guy, but I also want them to understand why he is the way he is and that he does have a reason behind his actions. I want the reader to like my heroine, but I also want them to realize the reason she is in this situation is due in part to her short-sightedness and an arrogant dismissal of the truth of her world.
Dialogue has been my best friend in this situation. While there has been some physical violence, my villain's words are what are the most chilling, particularly since they make sense. Inner dialogue on my heroine's part has helped as well. She processes what he says and it terrifies her. He has ripped away her illusions and shown her just how ugly things will get. She is broken and hopeless now, almost to the acme of the black moment. Part of the darkness of that moment is that she put herself in the situation, giving the villain all the ammo he needed without his having to do a whole lot.
I think this ambiguity with villains and heroes is why urban fantasy is so big. Vampires, the scourge of folklore, are given new dimensions by writers, showing them in unorthodox lights, giving them shreds of humanity. Heroines who make their living killing things and yet are still the good guys. Lots of moral conflict.
Pay attention to the light and dark in your stories. Its easy to make everything good and evil, but its dull. Moral complications are far more interesting.