Women in literature always steal the show. Whether they’re feminine or gender non-conforming, there’s nothing better than a strong female character in a good book. There’s something especially tantalizing, though, about women characters in fiction with a little more edge. It’s undeniable that the morally gray women in our favorite books are mysterious and alluring. The fact that they’re morally ambiguous makes them a lot more intriguing than being just good or evil. Let’s take a look at some of the best morally gray women in fiction.
Jude, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Jude is a human who, after her parents are killed, is stolen along with her two sisters to live in the world of the faeries. The faeries aren’t welcoming of humans, though. Least of all, the High King’s youngest son, Cardan. If Jude is to have a place in the court, she’ll have to defy him and face the consequences. As she becomes embroiled in the palace’s deceptions, she begins to learn her own capacity for bloodshed. Jude isn’t a character that’s entirely good or bad. While I can’t agree with some of her actions, I also don’t know that I would have acted any differently. Her character makes this story an amazing fantasy fiction novel.
Rin, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
This story inspired by China’s bloody twentieth-century is that of Rin. She’s a dark-skinned peasant girl who just aced the Keju, an empire-wide test to find the most talented youths to study at the academies. She’s accepted to Sinegard, the most elite military academy in Nikan, and finds herself the subject of discrimination for her skin color, gender, and poverty. She also finds she possesses an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. With the help of an insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin begins to learn the depths of her lethal powers. With a third Poppy War looming over the Nikara Empire, Rin will have to use her powers to win the war to save her people, but it may come at the cost of her humanity.
Ead, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
I’ll disclose that Ead is my personal favorite out of many morally gray characters in this story. She’s a spy loyal to a hidden society of mages that’s been hired to watch over Queen Sabran. The society has its own view of Cleolind, the Mother, and Sir Galian, the Deceiver, that differs from that of the queen. Ead rises to the position of lady-in-waiting and secretly protects the queen with forbidden magic. The queen, who has yet to produce an heir, is under threat of assassins who are gradually encroaching on the queendom. Ead is one character in a story full of deceit and conspiracy that fans of high fantasy fiction novels will enjoy.
Alex Stern, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
As the main character, Galaxy “Alex” Stern begins to show her true colors, you’ll realize she’s not who you thought she was. After dropping out of Yale and a slew of shady, drug-dealer boyfriends, Alex finds herself the sole survivor of a brutal multiple homicide. While she’s in the hospital, she’s offered a position at one of the world’s most elite universities, entirely free. When she arrives, she’s tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring Yale’s secret societies. She finds their occult activities are a lot more insidious than she ever could have imagined.
Cersei Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
While almost every character in this series is morally gray, Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones takes the cake. She ascended the iron throne after the death of her husband and three children. While she was protective of her own, cunning, and very ambitious, she’s also ruthless, cold, and willing to betray anyone that trusts her. While she has a fair amount of tactical ability, she lacks strategy, and her schemes often backfire on her. As she fights to retain the throne and maintain order in the Seven Kingdoms, she displays herself to be a particularly selfish and morally ambiguous ruler.
Lowen Ashleigh, Verity by Colleen Hoover
The protagonist of Colleen Hoover’s Verity starts out as a redeemable and sympathetic character. She’s recruited by author Verity Crawford’s husband, Jeremy, to complete her successful series after she sustains an injury. As she sifts through years of Verity’s notes and work, she discovers an autobiography full of terrifying confessions. She debates whether she should come forward with the discovery and do the right thing or spare the already grieving father from more heartbreak. But as Lowen begins to fall in love with Jeremy, she shows her true colors and begins to consider all of the ways she could benefit from exposing the author’s dark secret.
Carly and Dr. Clark, They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Vigilante justice is one of my favorite forms of moral ambiguity, especially when done by a woman. Or, in this case, two. Layne Fargo’s novel tells the story of Dr. Clark, an English professor who targets the worst men at Gorman University, professors and students alike. However, when the school starts investigating the growing body count as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, she feels her back hit the wall. She puts herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge. But when she loses control of her latest victim, she is once again at risk for exposure.
The story is also that of Gorman freshman Carly Schiller. She’s ready to be away from her abusive father and fade into the ether of the university. She quickly forms an intense friendship with her roommate, Allison, whose everything Carly wants to be fun, cool, and confident. When Allison is sexually assaulted at a party one night, Carly becomes obsessed with making her attacker pay. Both Dr. Clark and Carly are deliciously morally gray characters determined to enact justice when and how they see fit.
Val, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
Legrand’s novel is an epic blend of fantasy and horror. The novel is about three girls, Marion, Zoey, and Val. Marion is awkward and plain but dependable. Zoey is a pariah, lonely and grieving and plagued with strange dreams about vanished girls. Val is a queen bee, ruthless and full of secrets and lies. They all end up on the beautiful island of Sawkill Rock. They hear stories of an insidious monster that they shrug off until teenage girls start disappearing. The three come together to fight the unknown evil, but they might not make it off the island alive.
Robin, Burn the Dark by S.A. Hunt
Robin, a punk YouTuber that went viral for her gripping and all-too-realistic witch-hunting series, has a secret. The series isn’t fiction. She’s set out to seek justice against a coven of witches who wronged her mother years before. She meets both new and young friends when she returns to her hometown of Blackfield, along with a mysterious entity known as the Red Lord. Hunt’s Malus Domestica series blends paranormal, horror, and fantasy in a captivating and proudly modern story.
Carrie, Look What You Made Me Do by Elaine Murphy
Carrie Lawrence has spent more than a decade covering up her sister Becca’s gruesome crimes. She wants to live a safe, normal life, but her sister’s blackmailed her. Now Carrie’s stuck trekking through the woods in the middle of the night with a dead body. When thirteen bodies are uncovered in their town, Carrie’s shocked. She thought she knew everything about her sister’s crimes. When Becca insists she isn’t behind the new murders, they learn there’s another serial killer in their town. And he’s coming after Carrie.
Morally ambiguous characters are intriguing with their unpredictable and only partially respectable motives. I’m convinced we love these characters so much because they represent real people, people who aren’t wholly good or bad. Their actions aren’t entirely justified, but we can’t always say we’d act differently. Now that we’ve explored some of the best morally gray female characters in fiction, do you agree with your list? Do you have a favorite morally gray heroine we didn’t include here? Let us know! For more on strong female characters in literature, check out our article here!