This is a continuous theme among fantasy writers and bloggers. As fantasy becomes more and more mainstream, the question persists. Which is better? The traditional formula of "black and white" fantasy in which there is a clear "good" side and a clear "bad" side? The good men fighting the forces of a Dark Lord's evil? Or the morally ambiguous human characters who are both good and bad, both black and white, harder to figure out? Where good and evil is a shadier, "grayer" subject, something harder to pinpoint?
In my humble opinion, there is no better or worse option, no right or wrong formula to use when creating fantasy. Both work well, and both create great stories. However, I also believe that there is no story that has one way or the other, nothing can be completely black and white or totally gray. There is a bit of both in every story, fantasy or not.
I think black and white (good and evil) is the basis for any good, honest story. It's a reflection of the world around us, there are forces of good and evil, battling it out in various capacities around the world, whether in one heart, one household, one city, or one nation, beneath it all, there is an ever-raging war between the "black and white" spiritual forces of God and Satan. This is inescapable, whether you are writing a fantasy or not, whether you are writing or not. Evidence of this battle is very clear in the world around us.
But as a result of this battle, the people (or characters) have both sides fighting for control inside them. And what do you get when you mix black and white? Gray.
People are not basically good beings, and they are not totally evil all the time either. While most often we humans are self-serving we do have our moments, a heroic, selfless deed, a kind word, a simple helping hand. In fantasy this is often shown in the protagonist(s) and hero(es). But just as humans can be surprisingly kind and compassionate, they can also be dark and cruel. This is usually shown in the anti-hero(es) and villain(s).
In my fantasy series, there is a "God" being running things, looking out for his people, and there is an enemy, a "Satan-like" being doing his best to subvert it and bring darkness across the land. He manifests in a Dark Lord-esque persona, waiting for the day when he can crush the protagonist beneath his evil heel. In the meantime, throughout all of this fictional world's history, he has been making sure that the people mess up their world on their own, stirring up dissension, hatred and war. Since his evil poisoned the land in the beginning he has delighted in letting his darkness pervert and work in the human (and elven, and dwarven) heart, perversely entertained by his villainy coming alive in them. At the very base of this story, the battle of good vs. evil rages red-hot. God against his Enemy, fighting for control of the world.
Though this war is very much a spiritual battle, and not as easily distinguished as the human wars that wage on the surface, it is the driving force behind all other aspects of my fictional universe. It is from this root battle that all other battles stem.
The characters through which we experience this world, have this spiritual war raging inside them. Their inherent evil and darkness trying to keep control, and the light of God struggling to overcome. In some characters this battle is more clearly shown than others. Some are more specifically bent on evil intentions, but I make a point to make sure every "good" guy has a flaw or weakness, and every "bad" guy has a redemptive or soft moment. This is what I believe makes characters interesting and relateable, what makes you sympathetic to them and their cause. Even a cruel, hateful character can inspire some compassion when painted in a certain light, and even a kind, gentle character can surprise the audience with moments of brutality and anger and selfishness. A character that inspires, teaches and keeps you guessing is the kind of character I desire to create. Ultimately, a character that is undeniably human.
In short, I believe that black and white and gray fantasy go hand in hand, when properly molded and layered the combination creates an utterly breathtaking exploration into the battle of good and evil in the world and how it works in the shady recesses of the human heart. A good fantasy story should be built on the basic concept of a black and white, good and evil force, battling it out behind the scenes, and the gray people caught up in it. This reflects the struggle of our reality, an inescapable struggle that ultimately pervades every good and honest story.
And this is exactly what I want my stories to be. Good and honest.