Note: This article is strictly about show canon. The book counterparts of these characters were not taken into consideration.
In modern television, purely black and white characters don’t work anymore. The audience is tired of the flawless hero, the paragon of everything good, and the oh, so evil villain that came straight out of a comic book page. Good versus evil is still a theme that fascinates but only in a surface level. What truly grabs the attention is the characters in that fight. The ones we’ll be tagging along throughout the journey.
These shades of morality are a central theme of Shadowhunters. In the dichotomy of angels (good) and demons (evil), there are a hundred different colors of characters in between. Moreover, Shadowhunters proves over and over that your proximity to the top or bottom of the scale doesn’t determine your morality.
Half-demon Magnus Bane continues to fight for goodness while half-angel Valentine promoted genocides all over the world. A number of darkly shaded Downworlders act with violence against the oppression of the holy Clave.
Even when an angel is brought to the screen, Shadowhunters presents ambiguity. Valentine raised the Angel Raziel to fulfill the holy mission of destroying demons. Only, his interpretation of that mission included Downworlders and those who helped them. It is a different interpretation of what Heavens believes. The error was Valentine’s. He twisted the Shadowhunters’ purpose to fit his own criteria, painting it with a darker tone.
But just as Valentine distorted the ideal of good, others fight for it in less than perfect ways. Clary is the quintessential example of that. Our main protagonist doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. Still, she will talk a big game on saving all Downworlders while leaving big sister Dot behind (twice) and acting like Dot is the enemy when the warlock is finally saved from her abuser.
Both our heroes and villains have flaws and strengths. It makes for a better story and, naturally, more compelling characters.
The Heroes: The lighter part of the spectrum
Shadowhunters has a big cast, especially when it comes to regulars. We have eight main characters and all of them are heroes in their own right. But much like every character in the show, they are not perfect. Neither should they be.
Clary Fray: The Selfish Hero
It is no secret that Clary is highly criticized for never facing the consequences of her actions. That is a flaw more attributed to the writing of the show than to the character herself. Clary herself is a young, privileged girl from Brooklyn. She has a strong grasp of right and wrong, but no sense of consequence. That is because she never had to face consequences of her own actions; only side-effects of things done to her by others.
Being kept from the Shadow World, losing her mother, choosing to bring Simon back as a vampire. None of those trials are results of Clary’s doing. And so, Clary doesn’t understand that her actions have bad consequences. She lives in the now and here, never looking to the future. Clary cares for those she loves and for those she can immediately see.
This is why she’ll organize a revolt against taking Meliorn to the Silent Brothers, but will hide and hook up with her boyfriend while Madzie is at Valentine’s mercy. Clary puts herself and her loved ones first. Coincidentally, that often positions her directly against the great evil and Clary will not hesitate to strike it down. More often than not, she will consider sacrificing herself when presented with the choice between her life and countless others. That is never her first reaction and the plot usually saves her from going there, but it is a conclusion Clary arrives at the end of the day. She is a selfish hero, but Clary is a hero nonetheless.
Jace Herondale: The Child Warrior
As an abuse survivor and golden boy, Jace has a lot laying under the surface. He puts up an arrogant façade as a defense wall to hide a soft heart underneath. Just like the other Shadowhunter-raised characters, Jace’s morality is a product of his strict up-rising.
Even more so in his case. Jace’s education was a violent one, tempered with sporadic displays of affection. He was raised in isolation and to be a weapon, to follow orders without question. Once he was under the care of the Lightwoods, though, Jace learned what family means. True loyalty and the sense of duty came only then.
And yet, those are selectively given. Much like the other Shadowhunters, Jace has internalized a sense of superiority. He protects mundanes and Downworlders but repeats the same old platitudes degrading both. Jace is a skilled warrior but no leader. He knows right from wrong but his actions are colored with a juvenile immediacy. Like the child he never got to be, Jace’s high principles cloud his vision of the practical effects of his actions. Still, there is no denying his inherent goodness. Jace’s heart is in the right place even if his actions may result in more harm than good from time to time.
Alec Lightwood: To be Good or to be Lawful
Alec’s ordeal is all about moral versus lawful. As the oldest of the Lightwoods and the first one in line to inherit the New York Institute, Alec was raised closely following the Shadowhunter ways. He had to be perfect, so both elevate himself to the level of his younger, more naturally talented siblings, and to uphold to his family standards.
His actions illustrate that perfectly. Alec has condoned torture, belittled Downworlders and mundanes alike, and withheld vital information from Downworlder leaders. On a personal level, Alec was willing to sacrifice his happiness to save his family, conforming to a homophobic society.
However, Alec has also been the Shadowhunter who’s growth is most noticeable. His relationship with Magnus and his training as a diplomat have made Alec change. As the season progresses, he continues to choose good instead of lawful. Alec stands against oppressing measures such as racially profiling Downworlders. He apologizes for his mistakes and learns from them, he creates initiatives to bring together Shadowhunters and Downworlders. Alec’s morality is in a constant clash against his upbringing, but now it wins more often than it loses.
Izzy Lightwood: A Benevolent Oppressor
From the three characters raised as Shadowhunters, Izzy has the most fascinating mindset. She is fiercely independent and, yet, she maintains a strong sense of teamwork. Izzy does not care for following the social norm or the current rules. The way Izzy dresses screams transgression in an otherwise strictly professional and practical society. Izzy outright says she finds more fun in breaking rules rather them following them.
But that doesn’t mean Izzy doesn’t have an internal set of morals she upholds to. Izzy puts family and friends first, and she follows her own moral compass. In the rigid society of the Shadowhunters, however, that not always means Izzy is acting within the legal parameters. More often than not, Izzy will break the rules to do the right thing.
As inherently benevolent as Izzy is, she is also not free of internalized bias. Izzy has no qualms in getting romantically involved with Downworlders while using them for her own gain. She also makes uses of crude language while fighting, mocking the Downworlder adversaries she overpowers.
Simon Lewis: A Nice Guy Syndrome
Just like Clary, Simon is a spoiled, middle-class Brooklyn teenager. His first priority is himself; his band, the girl he likes, his academic life. This is all well and good until Simon becomes a vampire. He never went from teenager to part of a clan. Simon’s loyalty has nothing to do with kin; it is given only to those he grows to care about.
That means Simon will not hesitate to throw the vampires under the bus to save himself. He refuses to recognize his part in the bigger picture, which comes from both a place of insecurity and disregard. When given a little bit of power, Simon is prone to abuse it. As he constantly finds himself under the wing of powerful players of the Shadow World, Simon never tries to step up from the role of funny side-kick. He barks but often let others bite for him.
But Simon isn’t defined by his bad traits. In a lot of ways, he is more mature than a lot of people his own age. Simon has lost a father and had to live with an alcoholic mother, yet family is everything to him. He is caring and attentive to his friends’ troubles. Although he has loved a girl since childhood, Simon has never demanded that she loved him back. Even if he says he is not hero, Simon will put himself at risk for those he loves every single time. His heart is in the right place.
Magnus Bane: The Chaos of Goodness
From all the heroes of the show, Magnus might be the closest to the white spectrum of morality. Older and wiser than the others, he has lived his fair share of abuse. Magnus’ personal quest to distance himself from demonic influences has led him to a path of good decisions.
That is not to say Magnus is incapable of doing shady things. He has helped Jace steal Alec’s stele, let personal feelings influence his decision as a political figure, broken the relationship between Shadowhunters and warlocks to the point of putting the Institute Shadowhunters in potential danger. Magnus has a tendency of letting his emotions rule him, for the better or worse. That makes him a generous friend and an implacable foe.
In his centuries of life, Magnus has most certainly done objectively evil things. Not least of them, burning his step-father alive. However, the actions of a scared kid hardly count as evil. Neither does Magnus’ unwavering sense of duty when it comes the people he protects.
Luke Garroway: A Leader in the Making
Luke has an interesting position to hold. When he was a young Shadowhunter, Luke was idealistic and righteous. He wanted nothing more than to fulfill his duty and be the best Shadowhunter he could be. However, that didn’t stop him from falling in love with his Parabatai’s wife. We don’t control our hearts but Luke and Jocelyn lived an emotional affair on Valentine’s back.
The experience, though, all but tainted their love. Even after Valentine was thought dead, Luke never again pursued Jocelyn’s romantic affections. He loved her from afar, helping her raise little Clary. Just as he helped Elaine take care of her young son when Simon’s dad was gone. In fact, Luke’s role as a protector extends his familial ties. He becomes Alpha of a pack he never asked for to save Clary and her friends.
But Luke’s loyalty is not unconditional. Once Valentine ambushed him, there was no coming back from there. Worse, Luke had to withstand his own family forsaking him for being a Downworlder. He doesn’t trust Cleophas, nor does he forgets what she has put him through. Luke also has a problem balancing out his priorities. He’s come a long way from locking up Maia in a tight space while letting Clary run free while both girls made hard choices to pursue what they thought was the only way. Luke’s sense of right or wrong serves his community now, rather than a handful of people.
Maia Roberts: Moved by Passion
After enduring abuse by both her family and boyfriend, Maia has a problem with love. That influences her relationships, both romantically and platonic. Maia has issues with trust and letting herself be vulnerable. As a black woman and a Downworlder, she is ostracized no matter which world she’s in. That makes her channel her pain to one very explosive path: violence.
But Maia’s violent tendencies are not directed at every aspect of her life. She maintains a regular job, frequents an online bachelor course, and is well-connected among her werewolf peers. Maia’s primarily trait is not anger or violence, it is passion. Too wise for someone her own age, Maia is perfectly capable of finding the smart solution to her problems. We see her doing so when helping Simon and Bat. Her problem is just when she is feeling vulnerable.
Therefore, Maia’s greatest strength is her passion. However, that is also her undoing. In the heat of the moment, she will not hesitate to throw the first punch. How could she not when Maia has been beaten up all her life? Still, Maia is quick to learn from her mistakes. She is brave enough to take a step into the unknown with Simon, to form a colored friendship with Jace, to learn how to appreciate Clary. Passion might make someone dangerous, but it is only because it overcomes fear.
The Villains: The darker part of the spectrum
Every villain is the hero of their own story. Real people – and well-written characters – have motivations driven them to do their actions. That is never so true as when we take apart Shadowhunters‘ most notorious bad guys and gals. They occupy the darker shades of the spectrum but that doesn’t mean they are deprived of good traits.
Valentine Morgenstern: The Evil Mastermind
In his youth, Valentine was everything a Shadowhunter was supposed to be. Charismatic and highly intelligent, he surrounded himself with his the best of his generation. His goal was to uphold their sacred duty; protect Downworlders and mundanes and destroy the demons.
Somewhere along the line, though, Val became Valentine. The betrayal of his wife and Parabatai, the Clave’ corruption, the annihilation of dozens of Shadowhunters. Valentine lost sight of the first part of his vow. Destroying the demons was everything that mattered to him. Because of that, he could condemn all demon-blooded creatures and then transform his own Parabatai into a werewolf. He could give his unborn baby demon blood and then continue to experiment with two unsuspecting women. Valentine could even lock up an angel and keep him prisoner for 20 years.
All his charisma and intelligence were put to the worst possible use. Power replaced love and so Valentine used children as weapons. His contempt goes beyond a mere hatred for Downworlders. Valentine has no qualms using mundanes and Shadowhunters to achieve his goals. He is brilliant and resourceful. Valentine’s descend to darkness is a fascinating tale exactly because it was born from a place of light.
Jonathan Morgenstern: The Monstrous Child
A tragic character, Jonathan was, first of all, a victim. Before he was even born, Jonathan was given demon blood in his mother’s womb. As a baby, the blood manifested by killing living things. It made his own mother turn on him, ruling Jonathan evil and unsalvagable. As Jocelyn turned her back to him, Valentine embraced their son’s worse tendencies. Jonathan grew up being fed by terrible teachings.
When the boy acted on his teachings, Valentine ruled him as a failed experiment. He banished Jonathan to Hell, where he was raised but none other than Lilith herself. After torture and disfigurement, Jonathan became the monster he was raised to be. Ragnor’s prediction for him became true. However, just as in any prophecy, that is not because it was foreseen but because circumstances converged for it to be.
Inside that monster, though, still lives the child. Just as any child, Jonathan claims for love. This is why it was so easy for Valentine to manipulate him. This is why Jonathan was so obsessed with his sister. He craves for love and acceptance. Only, Jonathan doesn’t know what those are. He’ll do anything to get it, overcoming as many obstacles as he can. And, like a child with their new toy, he will break it as soon as he has it.
Inquisitor Imogen: Family Above All
Loss and grief have turned Imogen Herondale into a caricature of the woman she once was. For twenty years, she thought she was the last of her line. As Shadowhunter royalty, she would take to the grave one of the most celebrated lineages of Raziel’s children. It is no fate for an elderly woman, to watch her son and grandson die before her. Imogen grew hard and bitter, consumed with nothing but pain.
That pain became thirsty for revenge when Imogen learned Valentine was still alive. Her implacable search for the Mortal Cup is a testimony of that, as is her bending of the rules. Imogen was even willing to risk her position as Inquisitor to kill Valentine. The man murdered her son and daughter-in-law, and Imogen would make him pay for it.
Family, then, is in her core. Imogen completely transforms when she learns Jace is her grandson. The harsh and unfair way she treated him becomes admiration and high esteem. Still, Imogen continues to bend the rules to her own satisfaction. The Herondales are above all, so she names Jace as Head of the Institute even though she knows that is not his calling. Imogen tenderness to Jace – and those he loves – comes from a place of pride instead of love. Family and duty, but in that order.
Camille Belcourt: The Ruthless of Boredom
As an old and powerful vampire, Camille has lived through centuries. The ruthless manipulator we meet in 2016 is not who Camille started out as. We know from Magnus that Camille had once been different. So different in fact, she saved his life when Magnus was at his lowest point. For centuries, she and Magnus lived as king and queen, crashing parties and having a blast.
But while Magnus had grown out of this reckless behavior, Camille embraced it. Her irreverence causes backslash to innocents but Camille is one of the few Downworlders that lived by her own rules. Under the tight fist of the Clave, she has escaped the law a thousand times over. However, her reckless behavior only ever benefits herself. In time, Camille grew colder and aloof to life. She has forever to look forward to, so why bother with anything that isn’t instantaneous pleasure?
The only time Camille ever seems crossed is when her freedom is at risk. She went for the Mortal Cup as a protection against a rising Valentine. Camille tried her hardest to manipulate Magnus into letting her go once she realized it was her life against Raphael’s. Eternity might bore her but Camille will do everything in her power to secure it.
The In-Between: All shades of gray
No story is made solemnly of heroes and villains. Those in-between are just as important as the opposing forces. More often than not, those characters are the one most easy to relate to. They screw up with the best of intentions, they make hard choices for less than savory reasons. The narrative is much more forgiven of its heroes’ mistakes, but every so often, a complex character will have their merit recognized as well.
Maryse Lightwood: From Mother to Mom
When we first meet Maryse, we are set up not to like her. Not only is she horrible to her daughter, Maryse only seems to care about hos useful her children were. Jace got all the affection but just as far as his shadowhunting skills went. Maryse was also the voice of prejudice; for two seasons she has made racist and homophobic remarks in every appearance.
But every now and then, there was a glimpse of something else. A tender moment with Alec, sincere worry for Izzy. Maryse was never an easy character to like but her children’s presence brought out the human in her. It is when that part wins over the soldier that Maryse shines best. She had to be shocked out of her comfort-zone, it is true, but Maryse has not let it take her down. When she finds out her husband is cheating on her, Maryse is failable and lost. But she is also strong and resolved.
Her story is done finished. Maryse’s wrongdoings are not washed out but she is set to a path of learning from it. Her children taught her to change her ways and Maryse has done something no other Circle member has: she’s apologized. First to her family but also to former friends. There is still a long way to go, but Maryse is more than capable of doing so. She has shown her true alliance and it is not circular.
Jocelyn Fray: Good Intentions, Disastrous Consequences
Almost every character in Shadowhunters remarks on how amazing Jocelyn is. From Shadowhunters to Downworlders, there seems to be a consensus. Jocelyn Fairchild was the very paragon of conduct. This is why it is so shocking to realize she is one of the most reckless and selfish characters in the show.
Much like most people in her generation, Jocelyn was seduced by the ideology of the original Circle. Together with Luke, though, she betrayed Valentine when her then-husband began deviating from their goal. Jocelyn is undeniably a victim of Valentine’s, both from moral and domestic abuse. Valentine has used Jocelyn’s body to inject their son with demon-blood. He also fed her with angel blood without her permission, resulting in another modified child.
A lot of Jocelyn’s behavior can be justified with fear. But not all of it. She has used a network of Downworlders as her body-shields against both Valentine and the Clave. Jocelyn is ready to put to risk anything and anyone for the people she cares about, which is why she was willing to use Alec and Jace’s Parabati bond to locate Clary. She wanted to protect her daughter so much, she rendered Clary completely defenseless. Jocelyn was blinded by fear and it shows in her selfish actions.
Raphael Santiago: The Antihero
For a brooding vampire, Raphael is very much alive. He may hide his soft heart behind stylish jackets and a hard-ass attitude, but it is easy to see through him. Raphael is driven by his responsibility to his clan. He overthrows Camille when she is risking the Clave’s wrath upon them, he chooses to kill Clary in order to prevent the activation of the Soul Sword. Raphael will go to any lengths to guarantee his vampire’s safety.
Though he is also deeply insecure. Raphael has yet to understand the amount of power he yields and how influential he is. Until then, he’ll continue to react rather than act. That even means enduring a fledgling that wants nothing to do with him. Raphael has offered Simon protection time and time again, until his offerings blew up in his face. When Camille’s misbehaviors were threatening the New York clan again, Raphael came to claim that debt. He resolved Simon’s troubles with his family, through threats or encanto, and demanded that Simon rectified his own mistake.
Raphael is also a romantic at heart. Christian-raised, he has very clear views of how the world works. He’ll be hard when the situation demands it from him, but he’ll hesitant before asking too much of others. Raphael only went to Magnus as a last resort and only after he was tortured by Aldertree. He also blames himself for Izzy’s and his mutual addiction problem. Although he is not afraid to go dark, Raphael has a lighter heart than those living around him.
Shadowhunters has a range of morally gray characters. It is when the show remembers it that the writing is strongest. A hero’s actions are not heroic inherently; it is the other way around. Actions, when what the characters learn from it define if they are the good or the bad guy. If they are placed on the lighter or darker shade of the spectrum.
Luckily for us, Shadowhunters has everything it needs to continue to tell a compelling story. Original characters such as Lydia Branwell, Victor Aldertree, and Iris Rouse add to this palette of grays perfectly. Season 3 will count with the addition of Lilith, the mother of all demons. As any greater demon, Lilith has her own personality and traits. That puts her above the general “as evil as they come” characteristics of the demons. Will the show take advantage of that and paint her with some shades of white? Or will it make her just as dark as she looks?
Judging by the little that we know and the track record of the writers, my bets are on the former.