5 Reasons Why We Love Lannisters (and Other Morally Gray Characters)
***SPOILER WARNING: This entire article will contain spoilers for the Game of Thrones TV show up through season four and the books up through the early portions of A Feast for Crows. If you're caught up, read on. Otherwise, get to binge-watching and binge-reading! I heartily recommend both.***
The premiere of the latest season of Game of Thrones is just on the horizon (though GRRM still hasn't given a release date for The Winds of Winter), and fans are eager to return to the gritty world of Westeros. It's a world where you might die from an infected wound, a shadow demon, starvation, or dragon fire—but, let's face it: You're probably going to die.
Beyond the harshness and political intrigue of the seven kingdoms, the show has earned great appeal through its cast of morally gray characters. While there's no shortage of such characters to examine, the most fascinating to me are the Lannisters: The family presented as the "bad guys" early on in the story. Yet somehow, despite being despicable, several of the Lannisters have earned "favorite character" status.
-A Feast for Crows
I'm going to use this article to explore why we find the Lannisters—and other morally gray characters—so compelling.
Their psychology is complex.
Everyone who isn't us is an enemy.
Too often, "good guys" use morality in place of psychology. They do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and their motives basically end there. Likewise, many "bad guys" do things simply because they're evil. Morally gray characters cannot simply allude to morality (or a complete lack thereof) as the justification for their actions. As such, believable gray characters must be written with a degree of psychological complexity that is often lacking in those who are merely good or evil.
As a result, while we may not agree with the decisions of morally gray characters, we are often given the opportunity to understand their underlying motives. Cersei provides a good example of this. She's easily one of the most hateable characters in the show and books, but her background justifies her choices. She's obsessed with power—but why wouldn't she be after a life of powerlessness? This is a character who was told she can't inherit land and titles, who was married off for her family's benefit, and who was stuck in a loveless marriage with a whore-monger of a husband. Her "out" was a secret life that offered her love (albeit with her brother) and children (even if one of them is pure evil). We can understand Cersei's obsession with reclaiming power and with protecting the children that represented the one element of her life that was truly hers.
Are her choices suddenly admirable? Of course not. But it moves actions from the realm of "evil" to something far more rich. To avoid being merely arbitrary, the actions of morally gray characters must find a justification within the character's messy life and worldview, and that makes the characters more believable, resonant, and interesting.
They're less predictable.
There are no men like me. Only me.
When a character is driven by moral goodness (or pure evil), it's easy to see their possible range of actions in any given situation. Even if ignoble choices are on the table, you basically know that the most your "good guy" will ever do is wrestle with that temptation. Morally gray characters, on the other hand, are bound to surprise you.
Jaime Lannister is the great example of this. How can we see him as anything but a villain when his first major appearance has him throwing a child out of the window? Yet over time he continues to surprise us. Each part of his backstory is problematized: He slept with his sister, but he's one of the few men on the show who has been loyal to a single romantic partner; he broke his oath and killed the king he swore to protect, but he was doing it to save King's Landing and to end the Mad King's tyranny; he threw Bran from the tower, but he was honest about his actions when confronted by Cat. And then we have that moment at the bear pit.
If Jaime was morally good or purely evil, it would be obvious to any reader (or viewer) what comes next. But Jaime is not good or evil. As a result, the moment of decision becomes far more compelling: We just don't know what's going to happen. Characters who reside in morally gray territory naturally raise the stakes of any situation because readers (or viewers) can't predict what's going to happen.
They have more richly developed personalities.
"Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you."
Morally admirable characters are easy enough to like purely based on their actions. But what about when the character's actions are purely base? To make a character likeable in these situations, they need to have a compelling personality.
So let's state the obvious: Tyrion is one of the most loved characters in the show because he's funny. His sardonic wit often punctures the egos of those in the show who rub us the wrong way. He says the things we feel, and he says them in a very clever way. While he may not be a traditional "good guy," his personality is rounded out with a number of characteristics that make him more sympathetic: intelligence, wit, ballsiness, and empathy (especially toward cripples, bastards, and broken things).
When writing a morally gray character, authors have to be far more conscious about the development of the character's personality. Even setting aside all the other factors that make these morally gray characters more compelling, this attention to developing each character's personality makes for far more interesting characters.
They challenge our ethical narratives.
Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.
Morally gray characters—whether they're stepping into a heroic or villainous role—often make choices for reasons that fall outside of our ethical framework. In this process, they often approach those choices in their own ethical or rational terms.
And here, let's talk about Tywin Lannister. Tywin's psychology is fascinating: As he grew up, he saw his father (Lord Tytos) losing power. Tytos' series of bad investments and a tendency toward indecision made him a laughingstock throughout the realm—even among his own bannermen. As Tywin rose to power, he refused to be taken lightly. He became brutal, to say the least, but it's hard to deny that his approach is ... effective.
After the Red Wedding, the discussion between Tywin and Tyrion raises some of the most difficult moral questions of the show. We witnessed the treachery and brutality of the Red Wedding and likely had a powerful emotional response—but can we really say that killing "ten thousand men in battle" would be better than the deaths of these "dozen at dinner"? By challenging our ethical narratives, characters like Tywin force us to think—and that makes us active and engaged participants in answering the story's ethical questions, whoever we wind up agreeing with.
Their choices are more meaningful.
Loras: "The heroes will always be remembered. The best."
Jaime: "The best and the worst. And a few who were a bit of both."
For me, one of the most profound moments in the books has yet to be explored in the TV show. Jaime Lannister returns to King's Landing (and, in the books, does not rape his sister in the church next to their dead son) and resumes command of the King's Guard. As he looks through a book that records the lives of those who serve in the King's Guard, he comes to the page that describes his own deeds.
It describes his past: He killed the king he swore to protect. The rest of the page is blank.
That "blank page" moment is, to me, one of the most profound moments of A Song of Ice and Fire. It shows Jaime confronting the reality of his unknown future. Who will he choose to be? Will he seek redemption? Will he fulfill his oath to Catelyn Stark? Will he live up to the immoral life that others seem to expect of him?
These questions of the blank page futures and decisions of what sort of person to become resonate with me as some of the most deeply human dilemmas. Being in a morally gray territory forces characters to actively confront these realities rather than simply being put into a position of heroism or villainy. As a result, their choices are their own—and are thus far more meaningful.
These are just a few of my thoughts on why morally gray characters are so fascinating. Despite being a House Stark fanboy, I'll admit to having a soft spot for the Lannisters—from Cersei's willingness to claim the power that was taken from her to Tywin's brutalist ethics to Jaime's confrontation of his own unknown future to Tyrion's clever mind and surprising empathy.
But what do you think? What, for you, makes these (and other morally gray) characters so compelling? What do you think of the Lannisters: love them, hate them, or a bit of both? Leave your thoughts in the comments, below.
P.S. Want to learn more about writing complex, interesting characters? Check out 8 Ways to Make Your Characters More Relatable.
To leave a comment