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A Lighter Shade of Grey
"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. As usual, this is not one of the 50 Shades of Grey.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • 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, and sparked a war where before the first episode, 50% of humanity was killed. When Zeta Gundam showed elements of the Federation as the bad guys (and AEUG was full of ex-Zeon soldiers, even The Dragon from Mobile Suit Gundam being among them), 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.
  • 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.

    Comicbooks 
  • 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 Tony Stark (the figurehead and commander of the Pro-Registration forces) commissioned the manufacture of an extradimensional KZ in a dimension referred to as worse than Hell and employed largely unrepentant supervillains to hunt down Anti-Registration heroes, in addition to the fact that the Anti-Registration side got almost no Shoot the Dog moments (and had Captain America, the Big Good of the Marvel Universe, as their own figurehead).
    • It also didn't help that every previous "superhuman registration" storyline (of which Marvel has done many) portrayed the idea as unambiguously wrong, often with thinly-veiled (or not veiled at all) references to Nazi concentration camps. Nor did they make more than a token attempt to explain how this registration act was different than the previous attempts, and perhaps worst of all, failed to even consistently describe the terms of the act.
  • 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 does not work, since though Robotman concedes that he and the rest of the Doom Patrol are close to the line, they are still on this side of the line and the Six are on the wrong side of the line.
  • 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.
    • As V himself puts it, he is the monster created by their monstrous actions.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Played with in Dungeon Keeper Ami in an interesting manner. The world of Dungeon Keeper works under the principle of Black and White Morality and the Sailor Moon world is the same. However, due to circumstances, Ami (who bonded to a villainous artifact, but is a Heroine) actually creates shades of grey, both in the ranks of the villains, and the heroes. Cathy and Jered, for example, darken. Jadite on the other hand, lightens quite a bit.
  • 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 
  • 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 Watchman 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 
  • 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 Always Chaotic Evil Harkonnens.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, House Stark is basically a mixture of decent-if-naive and normal-if-cynical people, though (by virtue of kicking their ass in a war a while back) unfortunately have House Bolton fighting for their side, who are a bunch of power-hungry sadists. Their arch-enemies House Lannister, however, while having somewhat decent-if-cynical-and-manipulative people like Tyrion (and, possibly, Jaime, though he has done some really bad stuff), or Cersei's innocent younger children, are generally a bunch of ruthless, backstabbing, power hungry assholes who are willing to put The Caligula on the throne if that is what keeps them in power, and employ evil psychopaths like Gregor Clegane without batting an eye. And while Tywin, the head of the House, may be pragmatic enough to know how to run the economy properly and keep the peasants happy and well-fed, he is still a monumental Jerkass who has entire families butchered and treats his children like dirt.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 madman 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.
  • Very much the case on True Blood. Vampires publicly try to fit in with human society, while utterly ignoring human law and morality every chance they get. They frequently commit murder, mind control people, imprison them, perform torture and engage in a wide range of other criminal behaviors. The main romantic leads of the series are not exceptions, but are not only hugely attractive to the heroine, but to the female fanbase at large. To keep this from becoming a A Lighter Shade of Black situation, efforts are usually made to make the vampire protagonists at least superficially appealing, while introducing enemies that seem to be much worse which they will help save the day from.
  • 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.
    • Although not necessarily corrupt per se: Humphrey's motivation is for the stability of the United Kingdom, the government, and the Civil Service. Of course, the latter covers the first two as far as he's concerned.
  • 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.
  • The conflict between alternate universes was mostly portrayed this way in Fringe. It was often commented on by critics that the only reason viewers sympathised with the prime universe over the alternate is because the focus was on the prime universe (when the two sides declared a truce and audiences saw the alternate universe not trying to wipe out the prime, they became a lot more sympathetic). It should be noted that the origin of the conflict was a child abduction perpetrated by someone from the prime universe.
    • To make it grey-er, the abduction saved the child's life (and was initially meant to last only long enough to do just that before returning him).
  • From Merlin, Merlin is a Type III Anti-Hero and Morgana is a Well-Intentioned Extremist with very good reasons to want all of Camelot dead. Merlin has done nearly all the things Morgana has done, but he mostly does them reluctantly and Morgana often looks for an excuse to do them. Again, it's justified by her backstory note  but Merlin's still more sympathetic.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer 40,000, the Tau were created to basically be this trope, and whilst some Fan Dumb has forced them to get darker since their introduction, they still manage to be this. It says a lot about the state of the 40k verse where the race with a "communist manifest destiny" motif, who openly admit to wanting to conquer the universe and make all other races part of their empire, who resort to violence if their efforts to diplomatically subsume other planets fail, and who (in one videogame comment of dubious canonicity) are implied to set up concentration camps and forced sterilization programs for races that resist their conquests and fail, are still the comparatively good guys.
    • The Imperium is as well. It's a massive Vestigial Empire choking with bureaucracy and preaches ignorance, zealotry and militarism while completely disregarding the individual... but it's still made of human beings trying to survive in a universe where Everything Is Trying to Kill You. Plus, at this point in the setting, the galaxy is so screwed up trying to fix it might actually bring about the apocalypse.
    • Most (non-Dark) Eldar also fall into this by default. While, like the Imperium, they consider all other races to be inferior, unlike the Imperium they're usually not actively trying to wipe anybody out unless they get in their way and they mostly just want to be left alone. The few Necron factions who aren't completely psychotic are similar.
  • BattleTech the Inner Sphere houses can be viewed as this, as they are fighting each other as they see themselves as the rightful heirs of the Sphere, and they don't want the other houses to eliminate them. Of course each houses have their darker moments. The Federated Suns and the Lyran Commonwealth have leaders who put shame in the family name, most notably Katherine Stiener-Davion. While the Draconis Combine and the Cappellan Confederation have ruthlessly killed billions in a single planet when their leaders felt like doing it. The Free Worlds on the other hand have a long history of constant squabbling, and the true Thomas Marik formed the Word of Blake and orchestrated the destructive war known as the Jihad.

    Theater 
  • 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 
  • 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 a diverse, wealthy, democratic, powerful, prosperous, and expansionist federation that greatly improve standards of living in any given region, but they are often greedy and corrupt. In contrast to Caesar's Legion, an evil empire that endorses slavery, child soldiers, rape, paedophelia and torture, and Mr. House, a greedy, despotic, egotistical, dictator who is not above destroying factions that he considers a potential threat, they seem like saints.
    • Of course, Mr. House is himself a Lighter Shade of Grey compared to the Legion. While by no means a nice man, he has no interest in actively persecuting the people of the Mojave and provided that they simply follow his rules and not remain a threat he runs a prosperous resort town open to anyone for the right price.
    • 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.
  • 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, and then only because Shepard was able to provide conclusive evidence of treason.
    • 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?
    • 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.
  • A general theme in Shin Megami Tensei's driving Order Versus Chaos conflict. Which side is less grey is left entirely up to the player, ostensibly with all having equal ups and downs... but the general consensus is that Law is Darkest Shade, and while there is some debate, Neutral is often seen as a fair bit lighter than Chaos (particularly after the games began to be tailored to not offend a Western audience).
    • Order views humanity as cattle and labor, desiring to destroy anything resembling free will or independent thought, complete with the murder of any who might threaten that 'ideal' or resist brainwashing independent thought away... but also offers an endgame plan where everyone is safe and protected, all needs met, suffering unknown and life-ruining social turmoil unheard of (even if the price is Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul and spending eternity singing the praises of YHVH).
    • Chaos wants nature red in tooth and claw, where cooperation is unheard of and only those whose talents happen to lie in killing things can survive and/or thrive... but also wants to preserve the freedom to choose what kind of life you want to live and to think for yourself, and to remove all artificial social restrictions holding people back from achieving their potential (if you have the necessary power to make it to the top of the food chain, of course).
    • Neutral doesn't and cannot have an endgame plan, and only seeks to either destroy everything or kick the can down the road on either of the other sides winning, either way guaranteeing tremendous suffering at some point... but also offering either the opportunity to end a Vicious Cycle or at least temporarily defend the status quo against parties that may be perceived as wanting to make it worse (even if it won't last).

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 
  • 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 
  • 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.
    • That's how the writers of these shorts wanted us to see things, but many viewers don't agree. They see Tom as a Designated Villain, who has to suffer more than what is necessary, and Jerry as a Designated Hero, who gets away with way too much of his antics. So your milage may vary on who's the lighter shade of grey here.
    • There were some episodes though were Jerry saved Tom from being frozen to death despite being enemies and another episode where Tom actually tried to POISON Jerry. (This backfired though as it actually gave him steroids and made him really big. When Tom actually drank it on purpose afterwards, he got really small, earning him some karmic retribution. However, some of Tom's antics come from being a Punch Clock Villain since he's told to catch Jerry by his owner who often gets mad at him, much like Garfield.


A Lighter Shade of BlackPhilosophy TropesBlack and Gray Morality
A Lighter Shade of BlackMorality TropesBlack and Gray Morality

alternative title(s): A Lighter Shade Of Gray; A Darker Shade Of Grey; A Darker Shade Of Gray
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