Sure, everyone loves rooting for the good guy. But protagonists with perfect moral compasses can get a little boring. I prefer my characters to be a bit more complex—some of the best novels feature protagonists that you’re not totally sure you can trust. This moral ambiguity makes them seem more real, more human.
Here are 7 fantastic books that feature morally gray protagonists, some of which you can read online.
1) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray has it all—he’s handsome, charming, and refined. He knows his good looks won’t last forever, so when he sees an exquisite oil painting an artist has painted of him, he wishes he could sell his soul so that the painting would age while he would stay young and beautiful. His wish is granted and as the decades pass, he doesn’t age a day. The painting, however, is another story—it endures all of Dorian’s misdeeds and becomes a reflection of his true character.
Oscar Wilde only ever wrote one novel, and boy, did he knock it out of the park on his first try. Dorian Gray came along at a time when morally ambiguous protagonists were not at all common—and in fact, many critics of the novel found it to be utterly indecent. Dorian is capable of cruel, cold acts. But he is also not immune to feeling remorse for those actions and wishing to rectify them. Even as his character becomes more and more twisted over the years, you as the reader still want to cling to the glimmers of good you see in him.
Bonus: You can read this book on Project Gutenberg
2) Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Eighteen-year-old Celaena Sardothien has spent the past year slaving in the Endovier salt mines as penance for her crimes. Then Dorian, the Crown Prince, offers her a way out. She has to act as his champion in a competition to find the new royal assassin. If she wins, after three years of serving in the position she will gain her freedom. She strives to beat her male rivals—the best thieves and warriors from all over the kingdom—in each round of elimination. But when her opponents start turning up dead, one by one, she must find the killer or else she’ll be next.
It’s hard to believe that this bestselling young adult series started out as a story posted online, just like those you can find on Fictionate.Me. Celaena is a wonderfully complex character. On the one hand, she’s a cold-hearted killer who is always looking out for herself. But as you learn more about her back story and how she got to be this way, you begin to understand where she’s coming from. Her relationships with the prince and the captain of the guard also help to soften her and allow the reader to see the kindness underneath her hard exterior.
3) Demons with Hooks by M3Rhys
The pirates underestimated Runa Maydo when they thought she was “only a girl”. With a soul darker than black, she can fling a blade and kill a thousand, walking away without a scratch. Zane is the captain of a ship with an ever-present smirk. His loyal crew follows him, enemies fear him, and ladies love him. He’s known as the Prince of Pirates. Now it comes down to a girl, a boy, and a dangerous heist.
This beautifully written adventure/romance includes not just one, but two morally gray protagonists. They are both ruthless killers with hidden depths underneath. Their romance helps to develop them more into real people, rather than the two-dimensional villains they would be in another story.
Bonus: You can read this ongoing story on Wattpad
4) The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
Nothing seems all that special about eight-year-old Beth Harmon until she plays her first game of chess. With some reluctance, a janitor at her orphanage teaches her the game and for the first time in her life, she feels some sense of control. By the time she’s sixteen, she’s competing in the U.S. Open championship. But as she hones her skills, her isolation grows more profound, and escape becomes all the more tempting.
Beth Harmon is one of the more fascinating protagonists in recent years (as you possibly already know from the popular Netflix miniseries and Anya Taylor-Joy’s wonderful portrayal of her). There’s a great deal to admire about her—she becomes a chess champion at a time when no women were playing the game and has so much determination. For all the gifts she shows professionally, though, she’s a mess when it comes to her personal life. She keeps friends and lovers at a distance, preferring to get lost in alcohol and drugs. Yet it is precisely because of how flawed Beth is that we hope all the more that she’ll eventually find her way.
5) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
After graduating from Yale, Nick Carraway moves into a bungalow in the Long Island village of West Egg. He lives next door to Jay Gatsby’s luxurious estate and finds himself invited to one of his mysterious neighbor’s raucous parties. From there Nick forges a friendship with Gatsby and learns of his obsessive desire to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy happens to be a distant relative of Nick’s and is now married to Tom, who is having an affair.
It really does not get much more morally gray than The Great Gatsby. There’s not a single upstanding citizen to be found in this book—everyone has their own agenda, and acts largely out of their own self-interest. In many ways, Nick Carraway seems like the most moral character of the bunch. Unlike the others, he actually cares about Gatsby on some level. And yet, he also stands by, watching and silently judging while his friends ruin their own and other people’s lives. It also never seems to occur to him to start hanging out with a better crowd.
Bonus: You can read this book on Project Gutenberg
6) The Secret History by Donna Tartt
When Richard Papen transfers to the elite Hampden college, he immediately becomes fascinated by a group of eccentric misfits—particularly by a beautiful girl named Camilla. He enrolls in their classics class and falls under the spell of their charismatic professor. He couldn’t be happier as a member of this tight-knit group until one night things go too far, and all their lives are changed forever.
Like Nick Carraway, Richard Papen is a newcomer who soon ingratiates himself with a group of glamorous, extremely morally gray people. Not only that, but he adores them and looks up to them. He continuously ignores their shortcomings, even as their actions become darker and darker. His love for Camilla and infatuation with the group as a whole clouds his vision and allows him to rationalize doing some terrible things of his own. Richard is incredibly hard to pin down morally, and that’s part of what makes his perspective so compelling.
7) Assassin’s Choice by shadowmuse
As far back as she can remember, Runa has been a member of the guild of assassins. She has always followed her orders, no questions asked. But then she is given an assignment that she can’t help but question—she is tasked with killing a traitor to the guild, who also happens to be her one and only friend. Now she must decide whether she can really kill him, or if she should try to make a run for it with him and abandon the only life she’s ever known.
Like Celaena Sardothien, Runa is a hard-as-nails assassin whose skill you can’t help but admire. After years of dominantly seeing men in these sorts of roles, it’s always exciting to see a leading lady who can handle herself in a fight. But it’s also hard to like a protagonist who is able to kill so easily and without emotion. Getting to know Runa throughout the novel is a lot more interesting this way than it would have been if she’d just seemed good and honest right off the bat.
Bonus: You can read this book right here on Fictionate.Me