Kacen Callender on Why Morally Gray Characters Make Us Uncomfortable

Kacen Callender on Why Morally Gray Characters Make Us Uncomfortable

Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender’s adult debut is one of our must-reads of the season! Queen of the Conquered follows Sigourney Rose, who grew up on the colonized islands of Hans Lollik after the Fjern murdered her family. Now, she’s seeking revenge. To celebrate the book’s release, Callender talked about how writing and reading a morally gray protagonist can feel like holding up a mirror to the parts of ourselves that make us the most uncomfortable.

Most people want to read about a hero with characteristics they’d love to see in themselves: courageous, unwavering in their sense of justice and ethics, quick to do the right thing. We want to read about heroes because we want to be the heroes of our own stories—someone whose actions are admirable, someone who is beloved. Villains are the deplorables that we use as symbols of who we are not. We use those symbols to feel better about ourselves and our own moral stances. In comparison to heroes and villains, reading about the in-between morally gray protagonists creates an uncertainty that can make us uncomfortable.

As an author, it can be uncomfortable to create morally gray protagonists, too. In my new novel Queen of the Conquered, the main character Sigourney Rose is morally ambiguous as she infiltrates a royal island and plots to take the crown from the Fjern, colonizers who enslaved her people and slaughtered her family. Sigourney is oppressed by the Fjern, but she’s also an oppressor as the only islander who has been given the privilege of becoming one of the nobles of this society. As she seeks revenge against the colonizers by plotting to take power in the form of the crown, she struggles with the fact that she, in turn, is using the same system to oppress her own people.

When looking at the horrors of history, a lot of people, myself included, have a habit of saying what they would have done differently and how they would have acted courageously. We would have fought against slavery, fought against internment, fought against genocide. We would have been braver than our ancestors and would have done what was unquestionably right. We say and think this without considering the fact that we’re in a time and place where slavery and concentration camps and genocide exist right now, and that we’re all contributing to the same system that oppresses others. I personally feel a helplessness in my privilege and know that I’m a hypocrite for being a part of this system—for thinking we would’ve done better than our ancestors, when we aren’t doing better right now. 

Writing a character like Sigourney Rose requires looking at myself with honesty. It requires being vulnerable to the truth that I’m not always as heroic as the protagonists of beloved stories. Like Sigourney, I was born into a world that shows me discrimination and oppresses me as a Black, trans, and queer person—but also like Sigourney, I have privilege as well, and like most of us, I use that privilege to live a life of comfort in a system that feeds from others. The ultimate discomfort of the morally ambiguous protagonist is that they force us to take an honest look at ourselves and realize that we might not be the hero we hope to be, but are instead a little closer to that morally gray character than we initially thought. The ultimate discomfort is realizing that we are not the hero fighting the villain, but that we’re all morally gray people, too.

This is what I love most about characters like Sigourney: even if they make choices that seem unforgivable, we still need to be able to sympathize with the character enough to care about where their story leads them, in the same way that we care about ourselves. We still need to have hope that the morally gray protagonist can learn from their mistakes and choose the correct path, as we hope for ourselves. Sigourney’s story is undeniably sympathetic. Her family was killed by the Fjern, and hope remains that she’ll be able to find redemption from her mistakes. Reading a character like Sigourney and realizing that her morally ambiguous character is realistic reminds us that we are also worthy of sympathy and redemption.

Kacen Callender was born two days after a hurricane and was first brought home to a house without its roof. After spending their first eighteen years on St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, Kacen studied Japanese, Fine Arts, and Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received their MFA from the New School. Kacen is the author of the middle grade novel Hurricane Child and the young adult novel This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story.

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