Wesley: There is a line, Lilah, black and white, good and evil.
Funny thing about black and white. You mix it together and you get grey. And it doesn't matter how much white you try and put back in, you're never gonna get anything but grey.
In an all-grey conflict, neither side is totally good or completely evil
. Both sides have a strong, justifiable reason for fighting, and contain a mixture of people of all kinds, from admirable, upstanding individuals to vicious, slimy scumbags.
In most cases, one side has better reasons and more good people than the other
. The protagonists usually fight for this better side, and if they don't, they'll switch sides before the end. While the audience roots for the better side, they still have sympathy for the opposition
, and often specific characters from the other side will be seen as Worthy Opponents
The result of such a conflict depends on where the story lies on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism
. At the idealistic end, both sides will eventually realize that fighting is futile and end up putting aside their differences to learn from each other and make a new and better world. At the centre, one side usually ends up crushing the other; this brings about peace, but of a hollow, depressing kind, as a faction with noble ideals has been destroyed. At the cynical end, both sides gradually become more extremist and less sympathetic as the war drags on until eventually the stronger side
utterly defeats the other, leading to harsh oppression (and/or elimination) of anyone who holds the weaker faction's views, which eventually results in the stronger side writing history books painting them as the noble heroes triumphant against the evil dissidents who threatened their ways
. That, or both parties simply end up destroying each other
, so no one wins in the end
In some cases, the story will end with both sides teaming up
against an unambiguously evil
third faction, who may even have been behind the war
in the first place. When this villain is defeated, the grey sides almost invariably decide to live in peace
(in the harsher version, the casualties from fighting that villain may find that there is actually now enough of whatever they fought over for all the survivors. Ultra-harsh version of this has the realization that the resources have been spent on the war).
A result of the above is that Grey and Gray Morality has one potentially great advantage: It can be easier to maintain suspense regarding the ending. In Black and White Morality
and Black and Gray Morality
situations, the ending is almost
always a forgone conclusion; good wins in the end
, it's just a matter of how. In a Grey-and-Grey situation, either side might conceivably win, or both, or neither. Another great advantage of this kind of moral model is that the experience can end up entirely different between two viewers: one viewer may prefer to side with Faction A over Faction B for any number of different reasons, and another viewer may think the opposite for other reasons. Properly written, this can make for some very
interesting story-telling. Video Games
in particular are a good medium for this, due to their interactive nature.
Can be the result of a long-term Graying Morality
of a Black and White narrative.
Note that the sides often will still be Dress-Coded for Your Convenience
Contrast with Black and White Morality
. Compare Both Sides Have a Point
, Black and Gray Morality
, White and Grey Morality
, Evil Versus Evil
, Morality Kitchen Sink
, Order Versus Chaos
, and A Lighter Shade of Grey
. Feuding Families
and Cycle of Revenge
stories tend to fall under this, as do many depictions of historical wars. A Mob War
may be this, or may fall under Black and Gray Morality
Any betrayals within a Grey and Gray Morality Universe will, by their very nature, be Hazy Feel Turns
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Anime & Manga
- Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is the larval form of an Eldritch Abomination, both Rorschach and the Comedian are sociopathic heroes , and Ozymandias is an Anti-Villain Well-Intentioned Extremist. None of the main characters is unambiguously villainous, but even Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are antiheroes. To quote Zack Snyder, director of the movie adaptation, "Superman doesn't care about humanity, Batman can't get it up, and the bad guy wants world peace."
- IDW's Megatron: Origin miniseries shows the series's iconic Evil Overlord's rise to power from a laid-off energon miner through underground gladiator to the leader of a rebellion against a corrupt Cybertronian senate, with the Autobot Security Services presented as an incompetent and in some cases fascistic police force under the control of the aforementioned senate.
- Before this the Dreamwave comic series revealed that the Autobot ruling council were servants of the Quintessons, the Transformers' entire history was a lie told to keep the Autobots in line and Megatron, having found all this out, forced the Decepticons to try and free his people and to bring order to the universe, albeit through very Knight Templar behavior.
- World War Hulk: Warbound vs The Illuminati. The Illuminati weren't guilty of the crime that Hulk was avenging, but they were the reason he was on Sakaar in the first place.
- Scalped. Dash is an Anti-Hero at best, and Red Crow has many shades of being an Anti-Villain. He definitely faces enough complete monsters that it's hard to pin him as the worst thing that could happen to the Rez.
- Superman: Red Son: Superman is a totalitarian dictator who brainwashes any domestic political threat including Batman, but values human life enough to never kill anybody and - to himself, at least - has humanity's best interests at heart, while Lex Luthor is totally obsessed with bringing Superman down rather than liberating humanity from Superman's yoke but does so by attempting to prove that he is the better leader. In other words, in this story, Superman's intentions are good but his means are evil, whereas Luthor's is the other way around.
- Alien vs. Predator, in both comics and video games, as the Alien is not much sentient, the Predator borders on Blue and Orange Morality, and the humans are most times just doing their jobs. Whoever it's the villain depends on the viewpoint character.
- In The Movement, the titular group seeks to help the downtrodden, but engages in some questionable methods and counts a brutal Knight Templar among their numbers. The police run the gamut from honest cops doing the best they can in the situation to corrupt sleazebags.
- V for Vendetta: V is a Well-Intentioned Extremist trying to bring down the brutally fascist Norsefire regime and its Lawful Stupid… Well-Intentioned Extremists. V was portrayed as A Lighter Shade of Grey but still an Unscrupulous Hero, and the ending pulled no punches about the fact that while getting rid of Norsefire was a good thing in the long run, the short to medium term consequences were not going to be pretty.
- Judge Dredd: While the comic is largely Black and Gray Morality, some stories (America being the best example) play with this by making Judge Dredd himself the antagonist who enforces the totalitarian police state because he believes it is necessary. The regular citizens in those stories are far from shining heroes themselves however, being driven to extreme acts to defend their human rights against the Judges.
- Dungeon Keeper Ami is a highly unusual example, being something of a crossover-Fusion fic combo. What's interesting is that Grey-and-Grey is played straight, inverted, averted, and sometimes double-inverted. Sometimes all at the same time. This is accomplished by having the titular heroine and the current universe she resides in both play Black and White Morality very straight, but the heroine herself is bonded to an undoubtedly evil artifact. The forces of good, unused to such a situation, are reluctant to consider Ami as anything not-evil. The forces of evil consider her either an abomination, or the most brilliant case of evil overlording gone right.
- Evangelion 303: Although initially the story pits a group of brave soldiers putting their lives in line to save the world and a shadowy terrorist organization, Grummancat warned that his story was going to be this. So, even though the Children are clearly heroic, Gendo is up to something, and Grummancat has hinted that things in Nerv are not as innocent as they seem. And Seele conspires against the USA because they regard it like a -literally- World Class bully... but they do not care for the loss of billions of lives and the collapse of world economy that would come as a result of the downfall of the "evil Empire".
- Tiberium Wars portrays both the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod in sympathetic light, with Nod being presented as desperate and angry and vengeful for the wrongs GDI has perpetuated on them, and GDI being presented as Well Intentioned Extremists who nonetheless are trying to protect the world and defend themselves against Nod aggression.
- It should come as no surprise, but the crossover fanfic Renegade by the same author does the same thing, with the same factions. In fact, both factions are presented as protagonists, with the Brotherhood of Nod intervening in the slaver raid on Elysium and with Kane himself attempting to negotiate a compromise between GDI and the Citadel. Of course, Nod apparently stole the Tacitus on Eden Prime, which caused said conflict between GDI and the Citadel and allowed Kane to score points by negotiating said compromise, so it might have been part of the plan....
- Fittingly, considering the canon series' Grey and Gray Morality and Black and Gray Morality tendencies, the Mass Effect fanfic The Council Era is entirely these two. The Villain Protagonist seeks to create a Utopia for the galaxy, and does improve it over time, but he believes that Utopia Justifies the Means and commits seriously heinous acts in order to marginally improve the galaxy. His Worthy Opponent in this Evil Versus Evil plotline merely seeks to create a firm foothold for his newly spacefaring people, the krogans. By exterminating every other species, and turning the krogan into a Master Race.
- 24: The Musical, a fan-made musical of 24's second season lampshades this in the song "Dammit!" Jack Bauer sings that "Sometimes the rules can be gray," in justifying shooting Marshall Goren and then asking for a hacksaw.
Jack: Get me a hacksaw, cut off his head!
Mason: Are you crazy, Jack?
Jack: Come on, George. He's already dead! I know this is drastic, it's all that we've got. Sometimes the rules can be gray!
- The Conversion Bureau. The ponies are fairly consistently portrayed as racist (speciesist?) to varying degrees, but genuinely believe that their actions are helping humanity and leaving them happier in the long run. Humanity is only trying to defend itself, its culture, and its world but seems to take rather perverse glee in living down to its thuggish reputation in the process.
- The setting of Sonic X: Dark Chaos. Maledict and the Demons are willing to exterminate whole galaxies and fight brutal wars, but Maledict genuinely believes that absolute order under the Demon Empire alone is the only way to preserve stability and peace in the universe, and the Demons have created a standard economic system and raised up far more races than they've destroyed. On the other side, three hundred trillion years of war has hardened the Angel Federation to the point where they see nothing wrong with genocide if it damages their Demon foes.
- In The Fairly OddParents fanfiction, Never Had A Friend Like Me, this is how Norm sees the genies vs. fairies arrangement. Norm has declared many times that he gets a kick out of tormenting masters by screwing them over, but he at least he doesn't pretend to be a saint. And while fairies do enjoy having godchildren and try to fill the gap their parents can't, he thinks the fact that fairies eventually terminate their relationships with their godchildren, not to mention their memories of time together is also pretty cruel. Granted he may have a point, considering Amanda his current master, and the most selfless girl he's ever encountered, is pretty horrified by the concept.
- The universe created in the Star Wars/Mass Effect crossover Fractured zig-zags the trope. On one hand, it's pretty heroic to save save a galaxy under attack but on the other, playing allies off each other (even unintentionally) tends to go over badly. Further, in a galaxy not ready for certain advanced technologies, even in face of Reapers it could be argued that the Trans-Galactic Republic got a little careless. Then the Republic Intelligence Service comes along in Origins to muddy things up...
- Goddess Reborn Chronicle-naturally. Unusually, the players can fix it or create an apocalypse.
- What Lies Beyond the Walls mostly focuses on two different factions. On one side is the Long Patrol, which is led by a badger who is a Jerkass Anti-Hero at best, and a bloodthirsty racist at worst. Most of the members of the Long Patrol are aware of how unhinged the badger is, but they usually just shrug off anything he does that they know is wrong, and some of the hares are just as sadistic as he is. On the other side is a Badass Crew of vermin corsairs led by Kurwin the Flayer. While some of them (Kurwin included) are merciless murderers and/or rapists, others are Affably Evil Punch Clock Villains, and a few members (most notably Stinkfoot) are Anti-Villains who only joined Kurwin's crew because they had nowhere else to go, and because Kurwin was nice to them and treated them like family.
- The Utena and MawaruPenguindrum crossover fanfic Seinen Kakumei Utena stays very loyal to both series in this regard.
- Western Animation/Titan A.E.: The Drej are acting in premptive self-defense, while Corso is a very sympathetic Anti-Villain.
- From Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli fame…
The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it - I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.
- Though Studio Ghibli films usually tend a bit more towards White and Grey Morality, this is generally true. Princess Mononoke is one of the best examples (with the two sides having both good and bad qualities). Both Eboshi and the animal spirits only want to protect their people, but both sides are more than willing to kill lots of innocents for that. Even the one character who is closest to being a real villain is a very nice and likable guy. For the overall conflict, the film skillfully balances Humans Are Bastards with Nature Is Not Nice. The monkeys are really creepy, but their situation makes it kind of understandable why they would resolve to such drastic measures. It's nonetheless worth noting that Miyazaki's earlier films were more Black and White Morality, so retroactively even the writer developed a better understanding of this trope's existence.
- The Matrix sequels and supplementary materials retconned the human/machine war into this, with the robots repeatedly trying to settle matters diplomatically, and the humans revealed to be lazy, arrogant, and decadent as the result of robot labor relieving much of their previous responsibility. Fortunately, peace is borne once more when Neo makes a truce with the machines to stop Agent Smith from destroying everything, thereby uniting humans, machines, programs, etc. once more.
- Star Wars:
- While the Clone Wars saw the Separatists being led by a bunch of corrupt corporate executives and Sith Lords and a homicidal cyborg, a lot of the worlds joining them were only doing so to oppose what they with some justification saw as a corrupt Republic. To grey out the other side further, as Anakin Skywalker observed, even the Jedi Council was feeling compelled to move into a more pragmatic and less moral direction. Ultimately, though, Anakin's protestations about such morality when he has fallen to the Dark Side are ironically empty, as he has chosen to join with the altogether black Big Bad who was behind it all from the start and who makes him eat kittens. Still, it should be mentioned that the Separatists are still on the darker end. Yes, the Republic ended up becoming the Empire, but the conduct of clone troopers before Order 66 was much better than the droids. Also, contrast the Jedi Generals with General Grievous, and consider the fact that many Republic generals and statesmen later became rebels. Furthermore, that corruption in the Republic? It largely originated from those same Corrupt Corporate Executives that led the Separatists. The Republic isn't perfect, but at least they don't have a reputation of wanton brutality.
- Let's face it, when the bad guys are crooked bankers, Blood Knights, and Sith with a droid army and your "heroes" are the ones with an army of teenaged Padawans trained from infancy leading armies of ten-year-old age-accelerated Artificial Humans trained from conception, both with Training from Hell, the only place you will end up is here.
- The trope is invoked in the opening of Revenge of the Sith, where the blurb briefly mentions that "there are heroes on both sides." In the films proper, however, there aren't any good Separatists shown on-screen. The Star Wars: The Clone Wars series attempted to rectify this, by actually showcasing some of those heroic Separatists.
- In the 2007 Chinese film The Warlords, the three main characters are all grey, and so are pretty much all the characters. There are no heroes or outright monsters. This is a film that challenges the viewer to decide which is the more moral choice. Sometimes the moral thing to do results in greater harm or loss of life than the socially reprehensible thing to do.
- King Kong, especially the Peter Jackson remake. Kong, an aggressive animal who kidnaps a human but wants to protect her as well, fights first a film crew — greedy, but they don't initially want to hurt anyone and only capture him as a last resort, and later the army, who want only to defend their city.
- The Chinese/Korean coproduction Musa The Warrior shows both sides of the conflict (exiled Korean soldiers and defeated Mongol horsemen) to be somewhat sympathetic but deeply flawed people bound by both grim necessity and inflexible ethical codes to slaughter each other in a series of running battles which ultimately achieve little but tragic attrition.
- In Election, Tracy is a sweet but borderline psychotic overachiever who tears down Paul's posters in a fit of rage, Paul is a well-intentioned but fairly clueless guy who's only running because he was told to by his teacher, Tammy is only in the race to get revenge against Paul and Lisa, and Mr. McAllister cheats on his wife and rigs the ballots to deny Tracy the victory. None of them are particularly "good," but all of them have their reasons for behaving the way that they do. The original novel is even grayer. Tracy's sociopathy and Paul's ditziness were greatly increased from their original characterizations, and Mr. McAllister's buffoonishness was a detail Alexander Payne, who wrote and directed the film, invented from scratch, purely for the sake of having a buffoonish protagonist. In the book, the characters feel more realistic and believable, making it that much easier for the reader to understand and side with them.
- Inception is a curious example in that it has neither heroes nor villains. Fisher, despite inheriting a major corporation, is an innocent; Saito is a business rival of his; and Cobb and the team are only in it for themselves (Cobb in hopes of getting home to his family, Ariadne for thrills, the others for money). The antagonist, Mal, is, in the dreams, a manifestation of Cobb's self-destructive subconscious with no free will of her own.
- In Air America, there are definitely good guys and bad guys, but none of the good guys are pure white-hats, not even Billy Covington and Corinne Landreaux, who probably come closest, and none of the villains are pure black-hats, not even Major Lemond and General Soong. Yes, granted, Soong, Lemond, and Lemond's assistant Rob Diehl are drug runners, but there is no evidence that Lemond and Diehl are enriching themselves, and even Gene Ryack, who is more or less neutral for most of the film, points out that it is impossible to win a war in Southeast Asia without controlling the opiate trade, so Lemond and Diehl, and even Soong, are just doing what is necessary for the war effort. Ryack himself is a gun runner, and it is made clear that pretty much all the pilots are running illegal scams on the side. Corinne, again, might seem closest to being a pure white-hat, but she's dating Rob, one of the villains. Senator Davenport turns out to be a good guy at the end, but he's willing to look the other way at Gen. Soong's rather dodgy "recruitment" techniques. So all in all, no one in the film really seems all good or all evil.
- Blade Runner was certainly an example of this. On one hand, you've got the murderous replicants who simply want to be human, and on the other you have the people who hunt them to keep the streets safe who aren't entirely saints themselves.
- In Now You See Me, the Horsemen are smug jerks and thieves, but they're stealing from bad people. The only main characters who stand out as good guys are Dylan Rhodes and Alma Vargas. Dylan ends up being the fifth Horseman and Alma is complicit when she finds out.
- Roger Ebert panned The Dying Gaul basically for having no redeeming character, but each character has their own highs (which are relatively middling) and lows (which get shockingly low). This was also Ebert's problem with MouseHunt. Essentially, the movie never really decides whose side we're supposed to be on. You can't fault the brothers, who are flat broke with sympathetic backstories, for wanting to get back on their feet. Nor can you blame the mouse for defending its home and its life. At the film's close however, it manages to subvert this by giving both sides a Happily Ever After. This trope is also true of the majority of the Tom and Jerry shorts which this movie borrows heavily from, so perhaps it was done on purpose.
- Rush goes out of its way to not pit either James Hunt or Niki Lauda as the 'hero' or the 'villain' in the story. Neither are bad people per se, just two very different people with two different and equally valid lifestyles and driving styles.
- As Will points out in Transcendence, RIFT wants to take down potentially useful technology, and they won't hesitate to kill anyone to do so. On the other side, Will's move toward hybridization and group consciousness, no matter how peacefully he goes about it, is seen as a threat by everyone, including his closest friends and his wife.
- The fraternity from Neighbors, especially Teddy, are depicted surprisingly sympathetically, while Mac and Kelly do some pretty dark things during the feud. Neither side comes across as fully bad or fully good.
- In Thank You For Smoking, the Merchants of Death, for the most part, are pretty unscrupulous, but while the actions of the MO+D Squad are questionable, they don't cross any serious lines. But their opposition, Senator Finistirre isn't above a bit of manipulation, either.
- In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there's really barely a single wholly unsympathetic character in the entire film. Out of the film's main antagonists, Dreyfus is more misguided and ill-informed than malicious and Koba has a solid Freudian Excuse for hating the humans and fearing what they could do if given too much lenience. Even Carver, the Jerkass who accidentally kicks off the hostilities with his bad behaviour, is clearly acting more out of fear and misplaced blame towards the apes than malice or sadism. Rise as well. Yes, the apes have good reason for rebelling, Humans Being Bastards of course, but it's not like the experiments being conducted on them were for the fun of it.
- Vera Drake. The film revolves around a back-alley abortionist who is keeping her profession a secret from her family. No one on either side of the issue, with the arguable exception of her son Sid, is portrayed as heroic or villainous.
- In Chung Kuo, there is no really good side; both the Han rulers and the European rebels commit atrocities as the story progresses
- The War between Manticore and Haven in Honor Harrington, with the second Haven revolution in the series resulting in a government led by good people, has become this. Indeed, as this carries on it's lost even much of that, becoming more of a Let's You and Him Fight between good guys.
- As of Mission of Honor, the governments of Manticore and Haven realize they were manipulated into their wars, and ally to fight Mesa, which is responsible for their troubles.
- Featured very prominently from the second series onward in Warrior Cats. The authors have even gone back to write sympathetic backstories for most of the villains, the most notable being Scourge. Tigerstar and Hawkfrost are also noteworthy because, although they wanted power and did horrible things to get it, they only wanted power because they believed they could do a better job of running the Clans and help keep the forest peaceful (Although Tigerstar's vision for running the Clans was very racist). The villains of the fourth series also consist almost entirely of cats that have been wronged or forgotten and are rising up for revenge. Then for the heroes, we have Brambleclaw, who had the exact same goals as Hawkfrost, and leaned dangerously close to The Dark Side, making Hawkfrost's status as a Manipulative Bastard pretty much the only difference between them. We also have Leafpool and Squirrelflight with their (spoileriffic) lies and betrayal. And then there is Hollyleaf, Lionblaze and Jayfeather, who all seem to be much more dysfunctional than all the other characters.
- Pretty much everything Guy Gavriel Kay ever wrote falls under this trope. Exceptions:
- Ysabel is closer to White and Grey Morality.
- And Tigana covers the whole spectrum. You've got the sympathetic and "good" Devin and Dianora, then Alessan, Brandin, and Alberico. In other words, it's more like White and Gray and Darker Gray and Black morality.
- Animorphs falls under this tropes in the later books. At first it's a pretty clear cut case of the bad guys (the Yeerks, taking over the planet parasitically) and the good guys (the Animorphs, and by extension the Andalites, who also hate the Yeerks). As time wears on, however, it's revealed that the Andalites response to the Yeerks infesting the Hork-Bajir homeworld was to release a deadly virus into the atmosphere of the planet, killing nearly all Hork-Bajir on their homeworld. If the Animorphs fail to stop the Yeerk invasion, the Andalites have plans to do exactly the same thing to Earth. As well as that, some of the Yeerks start to be portrayed as true characters, with individual motivations and emotions, instead of just a pack of slugs. Even the Taxxons, giant centipede-like creatures get some of this; they're revealed to be total slaves to their own hunger, literally unable to stop eating as long as there is food around. Then there are the Animorphs themselves; over the course of the books they morph from idealistic kids doing the best they can to a hardened guerilla force with no qualms about sacrificing the new bunch of idealistic kids in the name of winning the war. This seems to have been the point of the series.
- The Kommandant's Mistress. The entire book is based on a concentration camp Kommandent and a Jewish inmate, who respectively are not entirely a villain and not entirely a victim.
- Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen has this part of the time, such as in the Malazan/Darujhistan conflict and the Letherii/Tiste Edur Conflict. At other times the series veers into Black and Gray Morality (the Crippled God vs. everyone else) and even Black and White Morality (Anomander Rake vs. Chaos in Toll the Hounds).
- The Chaos Walking trilogy is all about this. While Mayor Prentiss is a darker shade of gray, Mistress Coyle and the Answer's methods of stopping him (no matter what the cost) can be those of a terrorist or a freedom fighter. This is heightened when the heroes are forced upon the two different sides, while being aware of how much rubbish the whole war is. Also the fact that it's practically a gender battle heightens the uncertainty of the war. In the third book they team up in an alliance against the Spackle, even though the Spackle are the ones that were treated so terribly
- The Iliad, by Homer, and the rest of the Trojan Cycle, making this Older Than Feudalism.
- The Reynard Cycle draws the very clear distinction that behaving heroically doesn't always directly translate to behaving ethically or morally. It also portrays the majority of its villains as driven by understandable (occasionally even laudable) goals and motivations. That said, several Complete Monsters tend to keep things fresh.
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe flies up and down the morality scale Depending on the Writer; most of them have pretty clear bad guys, and with Timothy Zahn most of those bad guys aren't so bad, but his book Outbound Flight fits here. There are a lot of major characters, but they end up falling into one of three categories: Jedi and civilians on Outbound Flight, Chiss and captives, and Darth Sidious's agent. None of those are entirely good or evil. Outbound Flight is led by Jorus C'baoth, an arrogant and domineering Master who believes himself to be the ultimate authority, and whom the others are reluctant to contradict. The main Chiss character is Thrawn, who... well, he's at his most heroic here, but he's Thrawn. Sidious's agent is planning to destroy Outbound Flight, but he doesn't exactly cackle and he respects Thrawn. The few unambiguously Good characters have subplots, but in the end all they're able to do is die to save fifty-seven out of the fifty thousand who were on Outbound Flight.
- On the one hand DORLA in Kit Whitfield's Benighted uses police state tactics and functionally, if not officially, operates on a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. On the other hand they do a dirty, dangerous and very necessary job and get less than zero appreciation for it from the public.
- There's an interesting variation on this trope in Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series: the protagonist wakes up from almost a century in suspended animation, having been "killed" in the first battle of a presumably White on Grey war, to find the same war still raging, but with both sides reduced to the lowest possible moral levels as a result of ridiculously high attrition and a circle of atrocity and counter-atrocity. Being understandably appalled at this, he goes on to teach his fleet about honour and efficiency to move it away from Black on Black to Black and Gray Morality before exploring the mindset of his Syndic enemies (upgrading them from Black to merely ridiculously inefficient dark Grey). And then it turns out that there are ineffable aliens (with their own morality altogether) behind it all. By the end of the story, Geary only manages to deal with the aliens by completely defeating the Syndics first and getting to the other side of their territory.
- In the A Song of Ice and Fire series and its television adaptation, no one major faction is wholly good or evil — each has its own unique positive and negative traits; it's the methods they choose to use that decides whether they are face or heel:
- The Starks are "heroic" because they are honorable to a fault and prefer diplomacy over warfare. Despite this, one of their most useful bannermen is Roose Bolton, who is tolerated as a Token Evil Teammate until he finally does betray them, and testimony from peasants in the wrong place at the wrong time show that Stark grunts do Rape, Pillage, and Burn just as much as the Lannisters.
- The Lannisters are "villainous" because they hire people like Gregor Clegane, the Bloody Mummers and later House Frey (whom the Lannisters regard with some disgust after a bloody violation of Sacred Hospitality). Despite this, it is mentioned several times that commoners loved Tywin, because while he might be an Abusive Parent, he was nevertheless an excellent ruler who gave Westeros some measure of peace and prosperity while he was Hand of the King to Aerys "The Mad" II Targaryen. But he has also gain the ire of other people like House Martell for the murder of Elia and later Oberyn Martell. Even with his ruthless but well meaning decisions, he has left the Riverlands in ruin with millions dead.
- The main Baratheon family is a mixed bag, because King Robert is shown as a charismatic ruler who is at least Genre Savvy enough to surround himself with able advisers. On the other hand, his son (by his wife Cersei through Brother-Sister Incest with Jaime) Joffrey is psychotic, immature and capricious, with his only redeeming trait being his yearning to win his father's approval.
- Renly Baratheon's faction is "heroic" because they fight honorably and have several noble warriors on their side, but are fools who still are fighting a bloody war for personal honor and power.
- Stannis Baratheon's faction is "villainous" because they use incredibly creepy Black Magic and assassinations to accomplish their goal which is ultimately noble. This is finally proved when Stannis, at Davos' insistence, finally realizes that if he is a true king it is his duty to protect his subjects by temporarily putting his ambition on hold and going to the Wall. So far, he is the only ruler to actually accept responsibility in this way.
- Daenerys Targaryen is "heroic" because she is fighting to reclaim the Iron Throne, despite being constantly reminded that her father, Aerys II, was a lunatic, and that commoners would rather be left alone. She initially believed that the commoners secretly prayed for her return, but even when disabused of this notion she still thinks of wreaking revenge on the "usurpers" instead of considering if Westeros even wants the Targaryens back in the first place. As the story progress she becomes a crusader against slavery and exploitation but conquers whole cities in the effort to eradicate the practice which proves equally problematic. She also shows no remorse for ordering deaths, including burning a woman alive.
- Varys is "villainous" because he is one of the top chessmasters of the brutal civil war, who did as much as anyone to bring it about, but his claim that he genuinely cares for the realm makes him more sympathetic to some readers, especially as compared to his intellectual rival, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, who is an outright sociopath. On the other hand, certain of his actions make it clear he's only interested in stability on his own terms, as seen when he kills Kevan Lannister just when he was starting to pull King's Landing back together after Cersei's reckless craziness.
- Patrick Tilley's Amtrak Wars series, with elements of Order Versus Chaos thrown in.
- Kevin J. Anderson's Terra Incognita series. Examples ranging the spectrum from the very good to the very evil can be found among both the Aidenists and the Urecari while the Saedrans stay strictly neutral.
- The Old Man's War series: The Colonial Union really wants to protect and preserve the human race in a universe full of hostile aliens who want to eat them. But they're basically a military junta using some questionable, authoritarian methods: recruiting the majority of their soldiers from a planet (Earth) kept completely in the dark about the rest of the universe, and vat-growing a group of emotionally-stunted, effectively Child Soldiers from the bodies of the dead as Special Forces, restricting civilians from certain technological advances, and engaging in aggressively expansionist wars of colonization, steadily turning the rest of the galaxy against them. On the other side, there actually are many hostile alien races who want to eat humanity, but most end up joining the Conclave out of a desire to use diplomacy to try and minimize aggressive war and further bloodshed.
- The three empires in the Quintara Marathon series demonstrate this, at least in terms of the humans who are represented in all three. The Exchange is a free-market free-for-all with the most personal freedom, but minimal social safety nets and an underbelly of corruption and unofficial slavery (in the form of genetically engineered intelligent beings considered as property). The Mizlaplan control a rigid theocracy where they are unquestionably the rulers (and effective gods), inquisitors and priest can use whatever methods they feel are necessary, sexual discrimination against women is part of the system, and where brainwashing into absolute obedience is commonly used, but where most people live peaceful, safe lives without concern about going hungry, crime, or actually being personally oppressed. The Mychol Empire is a dog-eat-dog vicious society with oppression, slavery, and a great deal of violence, but where everyone has the opportunity to rise if they are smart enough.
- In Lonely Werewolf Girl no one is really heroic; Kalix killed her father, Sarapen is batshit insane, the rest of the werewolves downright callous and manipulative, Moonglow cheats on her boyfriend, Daniel is trying to be a Dogged Nice Guy to Moonglow, Malveria a Retired Monster, and the Avenaris Guild of werewolf hunters are trigger happy sociopaths.
- The Civil War in Bernard Cornwell's Starbuck Chronicles. This is because rather than deal with the causes of the war he approaches it from the perspective of the individuals on both sides and finds that there are heroes and scoundrels on both sides. Emphasized by making the viewpoint character, Nathaniel Starbuck, a "Copperhead" (a Northerner who sided with the South) and another major character, Adam Falconer, a "Scalawag" (a Southerner who sided with the North).
- Gone, by Michael Grant. All the characters are kids under the age of 15 who are trapped in a bubble without adults. On their 15th birthdays, they disappear, too. That's called the "Poof". The heroes are trying to figure things out, put things back to normal, learn how to use their new powers, and figure out how to survive their 15th birthdays. The villains have mostly the same motivations, except that their methods are different. The heroes sometimes do bad things, and the villains sometimes do good things. Basically, they all just want to survive. The exception is Drake, who Michael Grant has confirmed is pure evil, no shades of gray. Penny is also wholly evil.
- Fugue for a Darkening Island invokes this trope, 70's Britain split into civil war as thousands of African refugees flee into Europe to escape a nuclear war. The refugees are innocent and desperate, but often violent and thuggish. The fascist government is cruel and oppressive, but the only thing preventing the total collapse of the country. The secessionist movement is liberal and free, but weak and elitist.'
- In The Underland Chronicles, the human-rat war is FULL of this.
- Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is very dark grey on all sides. The calorie men are out to make profits by whatever means necessary, but they're also trying to stave off unending waves of plagues and blights. The Kingdom of Thailand heroically resists the outsiders who want to plunder it, but it's also deeply corrupt and politically unstable. Hock Seng, who appears ready to do anything to save himself, also has one of the most depressing backstories, and when we last see him, he is risking his own life to save a little girl. A character who looks heroic will turn out to have something very dark in their past (or present), while one who looks villainous may have honorable intentions.
- David Drake's Hammer's Slammers does a good job of showing how this trope applies in war; both the titular mercenaries and their opponents do some pretty despicable things in order to hold their own losses down, like nuking a rebel stronghold because attacking it any other way would result in unacceptable losses for the attackers. When the series deviates from Gray and Gray, it's usually to go to Black and Gray, especially if Major Joachim Steuben is involved.
- Keys to the Kingdom has a lot of this as well. Dame Primus is quite The Chessmaster, and not in a good way. The only truly good character is Arthur, and he barely has any idea what's going on for a lot of the time.
- In The Kingdoms of Evil: The main character is put in charge of all the evil in the world. Next up, figure out what the hell evil actually is.
- Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. On the one hand, we have a mother who is desperate to save her daughter's life, even if it means subjecting her other daughter to a variety of increasingly invasive medical procedures against her will. On the other hand, we have a girl who doesn't want to undergo dangerous and painful medical procedures anymore and wants to be seen for herself rather than as replacement body parts for her sister, even if it means taking away her sick sister's last chance at survival. Welcome to the world of no right answers, folks.
- Summarised perfectly in this quote from Anna:
Anna: Even if we win, we don't.
- Jodi Picoult, period. "No right answers" is pretty much her stock in trade...
- In The 39 Clues book series, even Amy and Dan, who are by far the nicest and most principled clue hunters, will do morally questionable things from time to time.
- The first book of the Artemis Fowl series has this in spades. Artemis freely admits that he's a greedy, manipulative villain, but he aims to use the gold from his kidnapping/extortion scheme to find his lost father and his mother is millimeters away from a nervous breakdown. The LEP just want their officer back without paying any gold, but they go through some very dark means to get it and even intend to kill Artemis if none of their other plans succeed.
- The soldiers and rebels in Beachwalker are both portrayed as having sympathetic members, and the book entirely avoids taking sides in their conflict, focusing instead on the specific combatants and civilians in the protagonist's immediate sphere of influence.
- Black Company by Glen Cook at best. Most prevalent in the first book, and then appearing here and there throughout the series.
- The people on either side of the diamond wall in Dirge for Prester John view themselves as the real Pentexore. Neither side is more valid than the other, just one side has the benefit of the Fountain of Youth.
- All sides in The First Law trilogy have a mix of good, evil, and indifferent. Then groups of good guys from a mostly evil faction will have a Token Evil Teammate. Then that evil guy might have a good side. It is a mess where an avowedly morally indifferent protagonist character from a corrupt faction of the nominal good guys recognizes that someone's treason was probably the morally correct decision while still pursuing his country's aims. Another book follows a war with protagonist characters on both sides.
- In Michael Moorcock's book; The Eternal Champion, the humans are seen as good for the first approximate fifth of the book, but as the story progresses the humans are switched to being about on par with the Eldren (Humanity's inhuman enemies), and towards the end, even Ambiguously Evil.
- Black Crown: Depending on your views about the conflict in 'Schism', either side could easily be seen as a reasonable way to deal with the situation. May become A Lighter Shade of Grey for whichever side you take.
- In The Dresden Files, aside from Harry and his friends, a large number of groups aren't quite so cut and dried.:
- The White Council, portrayed as axe-crazy templars in the first few books (due to picking on Harry personally), are later shown to not only genuinely be serving their greater good, but that that good is actually the best of a lot of bad options.
- Judeo-Christian God, who is the source of the saintly knights of the cross, also has an archangel specifically tasked with being a spy and assassin.
- The fae courts are more Blue and Orange Morality than black and white to begin with, but the almost-human members and even many fae seem to have the same mix of malice and innocence as vanilla mortals.
- Gentleman Johnny Marcone is a gangster of the Al Capone school, and thinks nothing of murder to protect his business interests... but he hates inefficiency with a passion and prevents more "unnecessary" murder than the entire police force put together, as well as suppressing rivals' crime on his turf. There have been hints that the police aren't so much afraid to go after him as that they simply don't want to, as his way is preferable to disorganized crime.
- Harry himself has slipped off of the slippery slope more than enough times to qualify as more gray than white, though in his case it's at least not typically willingly— something that the people on his side regularly assure him still puts him firmly on the side of right, and everyone else isn't so sure of.
- This is a major element of The Truth About Celia Frost. Dr. Hudson even lampshades this:
Celia: I understand the difference between right and wrong, and what you've done is wrong!
Dr. Hudson: You're being naďve. Wouldn't it be simple if everything was really as you see it? Black and white, right and wrong. But I'm afraid life is more complicated than that. Those messy grey areas keep getting in the way.
- The Mirrorworld Series: Kami'en and the Goyl versus Empress Therese and the Imperials. The Goyl seem like the logical villains until you find out more about Therese's ruthless tactics. Not to mention, their hatred of humans is a natural response to years of human aggression. Then again, Therese and Austrya aren't entirely unsympathetic either...
- The Nexus Series: Multiple factions come into conflict over how to use the titular Nexus 5, which allows a user to have a permanent and unobtrusive Brain–Computer Interface. The developers of said technology just want to see how many cool things they can do with it, believing the benefits outweigh the risks. As soon as the technology becomes available however, terrorists and criminals begin using it to create slaves and suicide bombers. At the same time, parents of autistics use Nexus to communicate with their afflicted children and help them socialize. People using Nexus start to resent being subjugated by the anti-transhuman laws designed to protect the rest of the populace, and some are driven to become exactly the monsters that the laws were drafted to fight. With very few exeptions, it's pretty hard to write one side or the other off as being completely in the wrong.
- Kindling Ashes: Each side believes that this is a case of Black and White Morality but the dual protagonist system shows that each side has grievances. One dragon recalls how humans killed his mate, broke his Flyer, and smashed eggs, while in the next chapter, that human recalls how that same dragon teared down towers and burned humans alive.
- In Czech fantasy/horror series Hammer On Wizard (roughly translated as Kladivo Na Čaroděje) is second to none line between good and evil. Almost everyone there is motivated either by money, career, saving his/her sorry butt or some personal reasons better left unknown. Living in Crapsack World, where No Good Deed Goes Unpunished plays a role too.
- In ''Dark Ones Mistress" the MC Clarabelle learns the ruler of her kingdom (the Dark One of the title) uses criminals in the royal army, keeping them leashed by way of stealing their souls. Innocents people sometimes get caught in this web and while killing him off is the only way to free them, it would basically unleash hell on the populous.
- Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path, book one of The Dagger and the Coin series, has, as one of its most sympathetic, likable, and humane characters, a mass murderer who burned down an entire city, killing thousands of innocent civilians, out of pride. One of the main conflicts is between two factions of aristocrats, one of which wants to liberalize the empire, allowing greater representation within government to the common people, but which is willing to use assassination and treason to accomplish its ends, and the other, which is trying to maintain the privileges and powers of the aristocracy, but is more honorable and patriotic.
- Bear in mind, however, that subsequent books in the series become less grey, as the guy who burned down the city in book one becomes a lot less sympathetic. He has Jumped Off The Slippery Slope by book three at the latest, and may even have passed the Moral Event Horizon by book four.
- In Penryn and the End of Days, Penryn falls back on quite harsh, if desperate measures, to get to Paige, like brute force and blackmail. Many humans live as gangs, terrorizing, mugging, and killing others and trading with parts of angels. Others live as servants and courtesans to the angels. Most of the angels, however brutal and dangerous, don't even know why they were sent to Earth. That the humans shot their leader might be a motivation for their cruelty as well. There are also the Nephilim, unholy offspring of angels and humans. If the humans slept with the angels voluntarily is not clear.
- The Monkees' song "Shades of Grey" is about this.
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of grey
- A Billy Joel song with the same name as the above is about how he goes from the Black and White Morality of youth to this, while simultaneously warning of Black and White Insanity.
- French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman titled one of his songs "Entre gris clair et gris foncé" ("Between Light Gray and Dark Gray"). Specifically, its lyrics are about the increase of ambiguous morality in fiction.
Devils aren't so black anymore
- Angels & Airwaves have Epic Holiday, from the Love album.
Life's just a game
It's just one epic holiday
Mythology, Religion & Folklore
- The Norse view of the world was pretty much entirely founded on this trope. While the Gods weren't all that bad, Odin could be an unreliable jerkass and tended to decide men's fates on a whim. Similarly, despite their horrific nature, the Gods' enemies could be portrayed as sympathetic, especially in the case of Loki. He constantly broke rules, but on the logic that too much order would stifle creativity. The real conflict is more one of order versus chaos, although it's clear which side the audience was rooting for.
- Reynard the Fox fables evoke this. Reynard is a trickster, and frequently the bane of other characters, but all characters are flawed. They are all animals (just like we are) and act according to their instincts. Reynard is the folk hero, but is not "good" or "bad", he is just as flawed as all the other characters.
- Similarly, Wolf and/or Coyote, depending on the region and tribe (and even storyteller). Sometimes, he's a Prometheus-like creature who stole fire from the Gods to give birth or help humanity. Sometimes he's just looking for a meal, and isn't any more harmful than Bugs Bunny. Sometimes, he's a rapist coward who murders men, women, and children by tricking them into deadly games. One rape of a woman lead him into pitying her and helping her give birth, while others have him return food and protect those he stole from. He's a complicated case.
- While observing the happening of various promotions in the USA and Japan, Pro Wrestling Is Art found this response.
“Pro Wrestling Is Destroying Someone Else’s Dreams To Achieve Yours”
– Ice Ribbon – 2011-12-25 – Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan
- In Troll Cops, the Magpie comes back from her Bad Future with a very strong belief in a clear Black and White Morality, getting her in trouble very quickly. In the first midseason finale, Rose finally drills home for her the fact that there is no black and white, and what really exists is one of these.
Rose: Those of us who fight for good, even as grey as we are, do our best to save as many lives as we can. We do the best we can, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Sometimes we do unsavory actions like lying, cheating and stealing. Like taking bribes, helping criminals, or killing unsavory people. But despite all our problems we are still trying to do the right thing.
- While individual conflicts often have more clearly defined heroes and villains, almost every major faction in the BattleTech universe is ultimately like this, and many characters are simply soldiers and commanders doing their job for their respective cause.
- The only faction that could truly be considered evil was the Word of Blake, and they didn't become true villains until 20 years after the setting premiered.
- Exalted. While the various demons, undead, and The Fair Folk are usually portrayed as antagonistic (and even then, there are exceptions), the various human and Exalted factions all have plenty of good people mixed in with the villains, selfish bastards, and crazies.
- The closest things that the setting has as out-and-out villains are the Neverborn and the Ebon Dragon. The first are a number of undead gods, always dying and suffering, who desire that everything be swept into Oblivion to end their torment. The latter is the spirit of opposition, who is -everyone's- antagonist and whom most believe to be evil because they believe themselves to be good.
- Planescape. Factions aren't explicitly good or evil, they just have different motivations and can commit a variety of acts.
- RuneQuest is the epitome of this trope, though evil exists in the form of Wakboth the Devil and its minions.
- In the Dungeons & Dragons Wrath of the Immortals campaign, the two principal factions of Immortals (D&D's functional equivalent of AD&D's gods), the Ring of Fire and the Fellowship of the Star, both have good reasons for what they do, and both pursue their objectives by morally questionable means. Rad and his followers in the Fellowship of the Star are just pursuing knowledge, and are studying a magical artifact, the Nucleus of the Spheres, that has incredible powers that are unique in the universe, and might possibly be used to make the world a much better place. The problem is that the Nucleus is draining the magical energy from the world, which would, among other things, exterminate every magical race, including elves, dragons, fairies, etc., meaning several counts of genocide. To say nothing of all the other people who would die as the civilizations, most notably Alphatia, that depend on magic would collapse. So Ixion and his followers in the Ring of Fire have sound reasons to want to destroy Rad and stop anyone from using the Nucleus of the Spheres. As things develop, however, the only way to destroy Rad is to kill all his mortal followers, meaning that Ixion and his allies have to provoke a war by Alphatia against Glantri, a war which drags in Thyatis and the Heldann Freeholds as well, and which ultimately spreads to many other countries, killing millions. But neither is side really wrong. The Brotherhood of Shadow, a third group of Entropic Immortals who are just trying to prolong and exacerbate the conflict are straightforwardly evil, except that their scheming is both pretty ineffective and, even more importantly, enables the heroes to figure out the whole plot and save the world. So the good Immortals unleash a war that kills millions of innocent people, while the evil Immortals are relatively ineffective at making things worse and inadvertently save the world. Go figure.
- Lesser Shades of Evil. It's in the title, people.
- William Shakespeare's historical plays sometimes work this way. In others he rewrites history to upgrade heroes and villains to create a Black and White Morality that appeases the reigning dynasty.
- Into the Woods uses this in relation to fairy tales; for example, Jack might be the hero, but he still killed someone's son. The point of the musical is to show that people are not good or evil, but just people.
There are rights and wrongs and inbetweens
No-one waits when fortune intervenes
Witches can be right, giants can be good.
You decide what's right, you decide what's good.
Someone is on your side.
Someone else is not.
While we're seeing our side
Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.
- The main characters' dilemma in the second act is choosing whether they want to give Jack to the giant and save themselves or spare him and let the giant kill everyone in the kingdom.
- Peer Gynt plays this straight on the title character. Come the fourth act, he lampshades it heavily, relating this as his philosophy of life: balancing out the bad deeds with good ones. For instance, he deals with slaves, and also trades in pagan idols. For every pagan idol he sells, he makes sure a heathen is baptized.
- Beyond The Western Deep is by its own creators admission meant to be a morally gray piece, opposing the very Black and White Morality of the Redwall series it was inspired by. None of it's Funny Animal races are inherently good or evil, and the main conflict of the series is too complex to be categorised as justified or not: one of the races, the Ermehn (which are anthropomorphic weasels, strongly averting the usual Wicked Weasel archetype with many sympathetic characters and an Anti-Villain for an antagonist) have been banished from their homelands to die off in the wastes, and the series is focused on the rising tensions across the world as they want to remain alive by reclaiming said territories.
- Last Res0rt, with several condemned criminals in its ranks, usually sits firmly here; while most of the characters involved are criminals (and even some of the volunteers are only a couple notches above 'em), it's only when Arikos, Geisha, or the Celeste get involved that the comic slips into Black and Gray Morality.
- Angels 2200 does not go into the causes behind the colonies' revolt against earth, and both sides are composed of leaders who use morally dubious tactics in order to win and soldiers who only want to stay alive. Then again, depending on what the true origin of the genetic plague is, one of the sides might count as black.
- Word of God claims that this is the case in Drowtales, where the story is shown through several viewpoint characters, neither being portrayed as good/evil and with fairly realistic motivations for their actions. It also features a character who in most stories would be a shoe in for The Hero who is a horrifically abusive parent, while her counterpart on the "bad" side is unquestionably one of the best parents in the series. And even the character who so far seems to be clearest example of the Big Bad sill remains somewhat sympathetic and has a point on some issues.
- In the very Not Safe for Work webcomic Felarya, man - eating monsters are depicted as no worse than the humans they eat.
- The conflict between Agatha and Klaus in Girl Genius. Klaus has every reason to want to keep Agatha locked up until she's proven trustworthy, and (given recent events) can make a pretty good case for killing her with fire. On the other hand, Agatha really hasn't done much to deserve that (yet), aside from getting the Big Bad stuck in her head, and she's got every right to fight back (particularly when her friends get caught in the crossfire). Not forgetting Othar, who is killing off sparks. He's deluded, but considering some spark's creations he's kinda right.
- Othar slips out of grey if you read the side materials in his point of view: his solution to the problems caused by Sparks is to kill them all. He's pretty OK with a train going into a canyon with everybody aboard when he finds out they're all Sparks. Let's hope he never realizes the definite possibility that he will have to kill all humans to permanently eliminate Sparks.
- Klaus' reign over Europa itself. At first, it's pretty much implied to be an Evil Empire, with Klaus at its head as the Big Bad and his son as the main love interest for the protagonist. Then you read about his backstory and what Europa was like before Klaus: note When The Other's return nearly two decades later sets off a chain of events resulting in both Klaus and Agatha being put out of commission for a while, Europa degrades right back to chaos, and that's with most of the rebelling factions banding together to support the new Baron - showing just how necessary the previous Baron's ruthlessness really was.
- The main conflict in Juathuur is between control and freedom. Both sides have their reasons, and their differences are mainly due to age gaps (as the 'control' side grew up in a world torn by war, and the 'freedom' side did not). See the comic page for details.
- The main characters of Narbonic are a mad scientist, her henchwoman who loves to destroy things, her henchman with a deep dark secret not even he knows, and a superintelligent gerbil whose efforts to do good often cause more havoc and chaos than some of the evil plans afoot.
- In Spiritual Sequel (and, we eventually find out, actual sequel) Skin Horse, there's somewhat more of the same; again, surrounding Artie. Specifically, transgenic rights activists that fall into two main camps: Older transgenics, like Artie, who favor peaceful resolution through debate, but some are insane by any human standard and quite possibly by their own as well, and not all of them are necessarily nice people; and younger ones, who overall tend to be more personable in their outward attitude, but aren't above using a little terrorism to achieve their ends, and also some are insane by any human standard and quite possibly their own.
- In Sinfest, this appears, rather more literally, to Seymour's horror.
- The Kingfisher: Both Theodore and his sworn enemies - the vampire progenitors - are uncanny, manipulative, and monstrous. It's telling that the protagonist has not committed to a side.
- Lackadaisy is full of this. Even the Spoiled Sweet, pretty girl who mainly works the restaurant front knows how to use a gun, is still a pretty big part in the operation, and in a recent arc, is still responsible for a large shipment of booze going to Lackadaisy. Basically, nobody in the comic is blameless, and it reaches truly ridiculous heights in the more recent arcs.
- In Off-White, the dark wolf spirit Hati is trying to save the world, but he's willing to kill (or at least threaten to kill) Sköll/Ike's innocent pack mates to do so. Meanwhile, the white wolf spirit Sköll wants the world to die, but the world is going to get rotten anyway because the guardian of good died so goodness is dying with her.
- The Forever War between Angels and Demons in Slightly Damned. Neither species is inherently good or evil, and both have committed atrocities, as you might expect in a war that long.
- In Terra the Forever War between the United Earth Coalition and Asurian Empire is a fairly dark version. Both sides are responsible for atrocities, and both sides also have good people who are just Punch Clock Villains (one of the main characters joined the UEC military to feed his family, not out of ideology). The Resistance is A Lighter Shade of Grey: they're fighting for their homes and loved ones and have the goal of forcing both sides to the negotiating table with the hopes of ending the war and setting up a Fictional United Nations, but they use assassination as a primary tactic.
- Among The Chosen has the mega corps Heirotus & Expert Technologies Limited, a politically neutral Interstellar Cartography Group, and semi-secret-society Templars; all of which have some shady secrets and generally good publicity.
- Erfworld is centered around the conflict between Gobwin Knob and the Royal Crown Coalition led by Jetstone. Gobwin Knob is led by Stanley who is convinced he is following the will of the Titans and many of his subordinates are merely trying to survive against their enemies. The members of the RCC have good reason to try to put down Stanley, as he's been attacking most of them in his quest to get the Arkentools. Jetstone, however, doesn't really have a reason to hate Stanley beyond the fact that he isn't a Royal, which they believe to be the only proper rulers in Erfworld. Even so, they still value honor and justice in battle, which Stanley and his Chief Warlord Parson don't. The whole thing is further muddied by the very nature of Erfworld, where open warfare against someone is virtually the only way to survive, much less grow, and the local laws of physics promote a forever war.
- Draconia Chronicles: Originally, the central conflict had the Tigers as the clear good guys and the Dragons as the clear bad guys. However, with the addition of some sympathetic Dragon characters, and some brutal Kick the Dog moments for the Tiger side, the conflict instead falls squarely into this.
- Cucumber Quest is a more light-hearted variation of this. Characters like Cordelia and the Disaster Masters are pretty Obviously Evil and they don't exactly try to hide it...but their actual interactions with other members of the cast can be surprisingly heartwarming such as Cordelia cheering up her minion Peridot as well as Noisemaster and Mutemaster's unseparable friendship. Meanwhile on the "heroes" side, the Dream Oracle, the supposed Big Good, is portrayed as hilariously incompetent at her job and even interrupts the chapter intermissions whenever they start to question her actions, while Cucumber's father Cabbage is pretty much the personification of a Jerkface, being greedy and teaching his son to do well on tests by cheating. Most of the time it's Played for Laughs.
- Homestuck has the conflict between Prospit and Derse, the conflict that drives the "game" of Sburb. Prospit is fighting so that Sburb can perform it's intended purpose, creating new universes, while Derse is fighting to destroy Skaia, which would stop Sburb from destroying innocent worlds and races to propagate itself. In-Universe the players of Sburb are intended to side with Prospit and thus continue the game but it's made clear to the reader that both sides of the conflict are mostly good people. Indeed, late in the Kids session the two armies end up making peace under the unified goal of overthrowing the Black King though this doesn't end well due to Bec Noir...
- Schlock Mercenary falls into this quite hard. The main characters are mercenaries who will enthusiastically participate in almost anything as long as there's money in it, while the governments they work for scratch and claw for advantage. Even the most benevolent figure, the Fleetmind, is still extremely ruthless when it needs to be. At the same time, however, most of the people engaging in active bastardry are there for positive reasons such as patriotism, they're just working towards them in horrible, horrible ways.
- The online book Imperial Dawn is centered around a war between those who support democracy, and those who are moving towards an arguably better new government system. Neither side is presented as wholly good nor bad.
- There Will Be Brawl: There is no good or evil. The 'good guys' are drug dealers, strippers, or Fallen Heroes, the 'bad guys' actually have a plan to improve the quality of life in the Mushroom Kingdom, and the cops are corrupt and trying to usurp the throne. The only one with a clear designation is Kirby...who is a psychotic cannibal, a la Hannibal Lecter.
- There's also Red, the only character who is truly good. Which makes it all the more sad (and fitting) when he dies by Pikmin bomb
- In The Chronicles Of Taras the hero is a psychopathic, snarky teenage girl with a penchant for martial arts and mass slaughter, while the bad guys are scientists who just want to make the world a better place and see her as a test subject for their horrific Bio Punk Experiments.
- Red vs. Blue. The default characterization seems to be 'incompetent jerk', with variations lying mostly in the type and degree of incompetence and/or jerkassery.
- The gray becomes even more clear when the Freelancer backstory starts to be brought out in seasons 6 through 10. On one hand, you want to root for the Freelancers. On the other, they're doing a lot of morally questionable things. Even those who are clearly "bad guys" (Sigma, the Director, CT, etc.) have a lot of nuance once you learn why they do the horrible things they do, and in the end, it's hard to say who's really good or bad.
- Dark Dream Chronicle. One side has the Laughing Clown and Darkness as two of its primary members. The other is trying to warp humanity for their Cause and are more than willing to use violence to get there. Oh, and it's led by the Slender Man.
- "Champions of Meridell" in Neopets is the first war between Meridell and the Darigan Citadel, after the greedy king Skarl stole the orb of prosperity from the originally Perfect Pacifist People of Darigan for his own glory and power, causing them much misery and pain and mutating them into vengeful monsters who try to destroy Meridell. There are both good and evil in both sides, with the heroic Jeran serving the villainous Skarl, and the anti-villain Darigan seeking to return the orb to his people.
- In Pokegirls, humankind survives entirely due to a system of raping and brainwashing the eponymous female subspecies... which are themselves notorious for rape and murder.
- Neither side in The Abridged Series Sonic The Other Movie is clean. Sonic only fights evil because it's fun, and villain Dr. Robotnik's evil plans to kill Sonic are simply to remove the obstacle preventing him from taking over the world and turning into a utopia.
- Equestria Chronicles takes place in a cold civil war setting. Nuff said.
- While Doug's writings of the anniversaries are a bit blacker, The Nostalgia Critic's show runs on this. Critic's a Psychopathic Manchild but tries to be a decent human being, Sage-as-Satan is much less scary than he is as his normal self in other series, Big Good Santa Christ can hold a mean grudge and even major troll Douchey manages to show a bit of heart when he feels pity for Critic at the end of the third fuck-up list.
- Dead Fantasy. Sort of. Montyoum always said right from the start that the series isn't about which side wins, or which is better, or which is good or bad, and that everyone should just focus on the fighting.
- Comes up in RWBY, and Played for Drama. What happens when you take two people who are supposed to be friends and colleagues and have circumstances beyond their control place them on opposite sides of a conflict like this? Just ask Weiss and Blake. Weiss is the heiress of the Schnee Dust Company, and Blake is a former member of the White Fang terrorist group. Weiss and her family have been targeted by members of the White Fang for as long as she can remember, and it's also implied that her ill-tempered father took his frustrations out on her, but where Weiss is wrong is that her personal prejudices cross the boundaries onto all Faunas in general. While it is true that Blake was a member of the White Fang, she left because they began terrorising and killing innocent people, which she objected to. Despite this, she still feels compelled to defend their cause and their actions. Of the two, Blake is perhaps the more sympathetic, but Weiss remains a Tragic Bigot.
- In Space Janitors, a parody of the Star Wars universe, rebels are portrayed as egotistical adrenaline junkies. Meanwhile, imperial citizen are portrayed as very happy to completely buy into the propaganda of the empire.
- Justice League Unlimited: For the Cadmus Story Arc, Cadmus is presented as rather dodgy, but with legitimate fears about the dangers of superheroes. The heroes, meanwhile, had a habit of putting the good of their own members ahead of that of unpowered individuals most at risk of supervillains. Notably, this went so far that the writers were forced to have a more 'traditional' supervillain take over the Big Bad seat, because they had no way to finish the arc in a satisfactory way with the time given without massive Motive Decay to make Cadmus arbitrarily 'evil'.
- Exo Squad. The Neosapiens do perform atrocities and Phaeton is pretty much a Card-Carrying Villain but they are responding to being essentially slaves whose earlier, more moderate attempt to gain civil rights was stomped on. The Space Pirates are more chaotic than evil and are motivated by a combination of survival and having been screwed over themselves in the past. The Space Pirates were a prison labor force that were abandoned once the Neo Sapiens were made and were driven crazy by their secret homeworld Chaos.
- Tom and Jerry. Though Tom is often out to harass, kill, and eat Jerry, you can't overlook the fact that Jerry is extremely sadistic, and sometimes isn't even provoked. But that still doesn't excuse Tom, who often brings his punishment upon himself, and at the beginning of the majority of the episodes is bullying Jerry. At times its hard to tell who the victim is; sometimes its neither (and occasionally it's both).
- The Jet/Zuko conflict in the later half of season 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender, since both are former villains seemingly on the road to redemption, there's really no way to give one moral superiority. However, since Jet was the aggressor, and the show had spent most of the season building up Zuko's eventual Heel-Face Turn, he came off as more in the right.
- The Sequel Series, The Legend of Korra, is even better at this. The main enemies are the Equalists, who show Fantastic Racism towards bending and wish to eradicate it, and their leader Amon can be very brutal and callous in his treatment of benders. On the other hand, he has a point - the Council of Republic City is itself very prejudiced towards non-benders, and only Tenzin appears to represent their best interests as well as those of benders. There are good and bad people on both sides - Tarrlok vs. Tenzin on the council, and Amon's side has people like Hiroshi Sato, who despises benders for similar reasons but is still more sympathetic than the Big Bad. On a non-political level, Korra and her friends aren't depicted as paragons of goodness (though they try to do what's right), and even characters like Tahno and Lin Beifong have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Only Tenzin's family can be considered purely "white", while Yakone and his son Tarrlok might well be purely "black".
- Even Tarrlok, after the season finale, is revealed to not be completely black and Amon is also portrayed in quite a sympathetic light. So really only Yakone, a posthumous character, is portrayed as completely black morality.
- Overall, The Legend of Korra takes this route, as nearly all of the antagonists have very valid points, just not reasonable methods. Amon wanted equality, Unalaq unity between the spirits and world nations, Zaheer freedom and Kuvira to make her nation safe. The only truly evil villains are Vaatu, the spirit of darkness, and Hou-Ting, the Earth Queen.
- Ed, Edd n Eddy is chock full of this. Kevin is evil in the eyes of Eddy, who is actually pretty cruel himself, who is viewed as merely ignorant by Double-D, who is seen as a talking encyclopedia to Ed, who is seen as a complete idiot by Sarah, who is seen as the greatest heroine by Jimmy, but is otherwise seen as an annoying and violent Scrappy by everyone else. And that's not even covering the entire cast.
- Daria: Despite some of the shallow natures and flaws of characters, few characters are truly malicious and at some points prove to be decent people (such as DeMartino and Britney). Daria, while mostly moral, can often become petty and cold towards others.
- Regular Show: Mordecai and Rigby are far from good workers most of the time, and often either slack off, or inadvertently cause destruction. However, their boss Benson is also a Jerkass who shows blatant favoritism towards other workers, and occasionally deliberately antagonizes the main duo, but his boss is even worse then him.
- Pretty much the central conflict of Ćon Flux. Aeon is a ruthless self-motivated secret agent doing spy-work for an underground organisation, or possibly simple sabotage for the sake of anarchy, but she honestly thinks her terrorist activities are done for the greater good. Trevor is a morally ambiguous totalitarian ruler who genuinely believes that people are better off submitting to his authority. May also count as Blue and Orange Morality; the two take their opposite ideologies to such extremes that they're difficult to quantify by realistic standards.
- Captain Planet: The episode If It's Doomsday, This Must Be Belfast explores this. One of the villains, for the heck of it plants a nuclear bomb in three areas of ethnic conflict, and gives detonators to one member of each side, in an attempt to prove humanity will destroy itself. The individuals from each side do act petty and have their fingers on the button at one point, but their grievances going back generations, and when they are shown the true horror of nuclear annihilation, they agree to disarm the nukes.