On diversity in fiction, part 2: Case study

In this second part of my brief exploration of diversity in media, I put my money where my mouth is, examining my own works as proof that I live up to my own standard. For each of my “major” settings (which have—or will have—multiple books), I look at the characters through the lens of the diverse, and I explain why I made the choices I did.

Obviously, as this post concerns deep introspection of my writing, it will have spoilers. If you want to read any of the works I describe, check out my Patreon for more information.

Otherworld

Otherworld is my most developed setting. Its premise is that a team of archaeologists take their students to Mexico on a dig in the summer of 2019. They uncover a lost pyramid deep in the middle of nowhere, and it is conveniently aligned so that a hole in the domed top allows the sun to shine directly down on the summer solstice. After a storm drives them away, a subset of the dig team returns to watch the astronomical event, and they are transported to another planet populated by the descendants of a group of Paleo-Indians who left the Americas near the end of the Ice Age. The following 22 stories (so far!) describe the world, its inhabitants, and the unique challenges it creates for the protagonists.

The dig is organized by an American university (Arizona, to be specific) in modern times. Thus, it is diverse out of necessity: political pressure ensures that women are well-represented. Thus, of the 11 who travel to the Otherworld, 5 are women. Two are non-white. Ramón is a Mexican freshman who was offered a place on the team in exchange for being an extra translator. Damonte, I’ll admit, did begin in my mind as the “token black character”. But then, as I delved deeper into the story, I reimagined him as aware of that. He cultivated the image, if only because he thought it was funny when he didn’t act like he “should”.

In a way, Otherworld shows both sides of what I’ve been saying. The diversity is by force, but within the context of the story; for me, it developed mostly naturally. The characters from Earth are normal people. They live in our world. Ashley is a feminist, and she comes out as bi in the sixth story (Situational Awareness). But that’s not because I was pressured by the LGBT community, or because a producer told me I had to include a non-straight character. No, I thought that was the best direction to go. And while she does let it begin to overpower her thoughts, that’s her reaction to finally being among people who let her express her true self.

On the other side of the galaxy, things are a bit different. The Otherworld’s people are not like us, except insofar as they are human. They have different views, and much of the conflict comes from this kind of cultural impedance mismatch. The natives are descended from indigenous Americans of millennia ago, long before the Conquest. They see race in a different light. Those who look the most unlike themselves (Jeff, Ayla, Jenn, and, to a lesser extent, Sara) are viewed as something else. As the natives only have their own histories for guidance, they interpret blond and red hair on white skin the only way they know how, which becomes another main source of trouble.

Nocturne

Nocturne continues to by, in my opinion, the best novel I’ve ever written. I do have ideas for a sequel or two, but those won’t come for a few years. Until then, I only have a single book to extrapolate from, but here goes.

Basically, Nocturne is an allegory for race relations in the US in 2016. That was the backdrop for its writing, and it was largely my intent from the start. The story’s kingdom of Velin is home to three races: the fairly normal skyborn; the almost Aryan dayborn; and the pale-skinned, black-haired nightborn. These subdivisions, however, are not hereditary. In that, they more closely match other intrinsic factors such as orientation. The nightborn are most reviled, owing to their inherent magical abilities of stealth and secrecy.

The protagonist of the story, Shade, is unique in possessing both the abilities and appearance of the nightborn, but also the magics of the dayborn, all of which are associated with light, life, and heat. Thus, he is a kind of fulcrum character, a center point on the spectrum, and his mission is one of moderation. He wants to stop the endless strife of the races by showing that they can unite. (This, by the way, mirrors my own belief in the folly of partisan polarization.)

Beyond his realm, however, others exist, and these offer more “traditional” concepts of race. The southern land of Duravi, for instance, is well-known to Shade’s people; it’s a kind of Africa analogue. Distant Fernicia is a fairly generic Orient mostly based on China. The Northlands are home to, in essence, Vikings. But none of these play much of a role.

Nor do sex and gender. Velin is mostly blind to those by design—I wanted to focus most on the race aspect. So Kellis, the secondary protagonist, is a female police investigator, and she is not special for that. She is treated no differently, for good or ill, than her male counterparts. Others she meets do remark that she is a woman, because that’s what they see, but even the most radical feminist shouldn’t find fault in my portrayal of her. Her worst sin might be using a dinner date to lure a suspect into an interrogation.

Endless Forms

The Endless Forms series is my paranormal detective thriller playground. It’s got Bigfoot, werewolves, and all sorts of unnatural phenomena. (The second entry, the forthcoming The Beast Within, even has an oblique reference to Otherworld, one of the few times I’ve done that.) Our star here is Cam Weir, who just so happens to be a straight, white man from just outside Atlanta.

Nothing about the premise requires that. Indeed, for the first half of the initial novel, The Shape of Things, he’s almost the only white character in evidence. Investigating the paranormal in Atlanta requires being in Atlanta, and the inner city is very diverse. It was when I spent a summer night in 1996 riding around as my mom tried to find an all-night tattoo parlor (don’t ask), and everything I’ve seen points to it only becoming more so in the decades since.

Thus, I see Endless Forms as a good illustration of what I mean by “natural” diversity, at least as far as race is concerned. Cam’s white, but his neighbor Darrell isn’t, and neither really cares. They’ll joke about it, but that’s as far as it goes, because they’re friends. The psychic he goes to for advice has a mixed ancestry he can’t place (Cajun and Caribbean, mostly), but that’s his problem, and he doesn’t hold it against her. If anything, the biggest culture clash comes from this Southern boy traveling to Boston.

Men and women alike see the spooky ghosts and other creatures Cam hunts. The friends he meets on his Bigfoot chase are all men, but that’s because they’re bros. It happens. Other applications of diversity haven’t come up yet, but I’ll take them as they come.

Orphans of the Stars

My child-focused sci-fi/space opera series Orphans of the Stars again follows this rule. Sixteen young people are stranded on a ship, and 9 of them are boys. Random samples can be like that. Most are white or Asian, while one is of Middle Eastern descent, but the story takes place about 500 years in the future, where race just isn’t that big a deal. (That’s basically what I was referring to in the last post: space colonies in this setting, while still horrendously expensive, are cheap enough that a sufficiently motivated group can create their own.)

Issues of sexuality are also background information, but that comes from the characters. They’re children. With only a few exceptions, they’re not even that old. (Their ages range from 9-16 at the start of the story.) Some of them have all the hormonal problems of teens, but it just isn’t important for them, not when survival is at stake. Whether you like that boy on the bridge or the girl down in engineering doesn’t matter much when you just learned your parents are dead. Hanna, the oldest and most mature of the girls onboard the ship, is bicurious, but that’s about as far as the story needs to go.

Then again, these are children. The difference between boys and girls is stark in their eyes. As their eyes are the ones through which the story unfolds, that means I write about their feelings on the matter—Tori, for instance, has an irrational dislike of boys, and she lets that show. But they all recognize the difficult situation they face, so such distinctions naturally fade into the background. Nobody is chauvinist enough to say Mika, a 14-year-old girl, isn’t fit to be an engineer. And if the command crew is largely male, that’s only because they were the ones who took the seats. Except for those just mentioned, most of the girls are younger, or they just don’t like being in space to begin with.

Occupation Trilogy

The Occupation Trilogy is a newer, more epic fantasy series I’ve been working on this year. The first novel, Shadows Before the Sun, is about two-thirds done, so I’ll probably release it sometime in 2019. But I can already say a little about the world from a diversity standpoint.

Mostly, the premise is thus: a colonial power similar to 18th-century Britain has taken over a distant land, and some of the locals are not too happy about it. A generation ago, the kingdom of Laurea invaded their home; the war of conquest lasted six years. They imposed their politics, government, religion, and very way of life on the natives of Ihnet. Most of all, they outlawed magic, because the religious teachings of Laurea forbid it.

This, then, has all the hallmarks of colonialism, and you probably know what that means for diversity. The series has two main races, the invaders and the natives. They view the world through different lenses. Ihnet’s women fought with magic alongside the men; Laurea sees the martial solely as the domain of men. Racial politics are vital to the story, and I choose each character’s race (and ancestry, as there are many of mixed descent) with care.

But this isn’t a series meant to make progressives happy. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and not all of them are guys. Men are overrepresented among the characters of Laurea, but that is because of the nature of colonization: many are ex-soldiers who settled down in this new land, took native brides (not always willingly), and started their lives anew.

On the contrary, the Occupation Trilogy mostly concerns itself with the very real factors of society. Whose side are you on? Are you with us, or against us? Both the occupying force of Laurea and the resistance of Ihnet believe there can be no middle ground, no compromise. All other problems are secondary to that, though this may change as the series progresses.

Others

My other works either aren’t as fleshed out, or just don’t offer the same depth of worldbuilding. Thus, I’ll treat them here in much less detail.

  • Hidden Hills: This series, beginning with Lair of the Wizards, is set in a generic quasi-Renaissance fantasy land. As it is fairly small in scope at present, issues of diversity aren’t really important to the narrative. The culture is late feudal, so the treatment and disposition of women can come up, but really not.

  • The Linear Cycle: This one’s post-apocalyptic. One of the premises of the genre is that the traditional divisions of society break down out of necessity. Other than that, there’s not a lot of room to delve into such matters, if only because the action is first and foremost.

  • Heirs of Divinity: One of these days, I’ll release this one. Until then, know that it’s set in 1737, and I endeavored to make that time as realistic as possible. It’s a little more liberal than the real thing, but the story otherwise follows real history, with all its attendant foibles, wherever it can.

  • Gateway: This one starts with The Soulstone Sorcerer, which I’ll put out next year. It’s a typical RPG fantasy world combined with modern Colorado. Much like Otherworld, the diversity comes from the Earth characters, while the secondary world follows its own rules.

  • Before I Wake, Fallen, Modern Minds: These don’t have enough characterization to even worry about diversity. In most cases, the characters of any specific story are just about interchangeable.

Conclusion

In this post, I hope I have explained my reasoning, my argument for a more natural sort of diversity in fiction. In every case, I strive to write what feels right. I don’t set out to solve the world’s problems, or empower a generation, or anything of the sort. My characters, I believe, should be those who best fit the story, the world, they inhabit. Whether or not that matches another person’s idea of diversity never plays into my decision. The story is bigger than me, bigger than my prejudices. I would like to believe that others feel the same about both my works and their own.

On diversity in fiction, part 1: Opinions

No matter where you go in the world today, diversity is a word on everyone’s lips. Love it or hate it, the concept has, thanks to a particularly vocal segment of society, become a fact of modern life. And that has spilled over into fiction of all sorts. After all, stories are ever a reflection of an author’s worldview, so it stands to reason that something so prominent finds its way into anything we write.

In this two-part post, I’d like to offer my opinions on diversity as it pertains to fiction in various sorts of media. That includes the written word, video games, movies, television, and even theater. Anywhere a story must be written, it seems that the writer must take diversity into account, and I feel there are right and wrong ways to go about that.

For this part, I merely want to speak what I believe. In the following entry, which I will post next week, I will then look at my own efforts as a kind of case study for what I feel to be the most appropriate method of dealing with the concept.

Definitions

First off, let me define what I mean by diversity. In this context, I refer to people, or rather characters, who show visible differences in what might be termed intrinsic factors. These are the divisions we’re most familiar with, the ones most evident in appearance or association, and those that are hardest—if not entirely impossible—to change. Race, sex, religion, national origin, culture, and sexual orientation are some of the most common. (Gender, as it exists in a social context, has become a bit more involved, but it works essentially the same way for our purposes here.)

Nothing in a fictional work should, in my opinion, give a reader, viewer, or player the impression that the author sees those who vary from the norm in a negative light. (Unless, of course, that is the true purpose of the work, as in extremist literature of all sorts.) The purpose of fiction is to create a story. Thus, the best authors leave their biases at the door, so to speak.

The fictional world—the secondary world, as some call it—can have its own biases, and those may be different from our primary world. In that case, it is the writer’s responsibility to explain those differences, those biases, in a way the is both entertaining and enlightening. If there is to be a message, then let it stand on its own merit. That goes for diversity as well as its lack.

The use of force

And this, I feel, is where so much modern media has gone astray. Too often, we see authors and screenwriters “force” diversity where it detracts from the story being told. As Hollywood has become far too fond of reboots and reimaginings, we can watch this unfold on a daily basis. In only the past year, I’ve seen reboots and story concepts that, for diversity’s sake, promise to change a character’s race (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), sex (the oft-rumored “female James Bond”), gender (Supergirl), and orientation (Star Trek).

My question is a simple one, yet one that would likely lead to my firing if I worked at one of these studios: who wins? If the object is to show that women/people of color/LGBT/whoever can be protagonists, then shoving them into roles defined by someone who is one of straight, white, or male can only be considered a failure. If your argument is that marginalized groups deserve their own heroes, then make them some heroes. Don’t try to remold preexisting heroes into a more diverse image for the sake of diversity. That, to use a term these people like, is no different from cultural appropriation.

The problem, as I see it, boils down to polarization. One side wants to see more diversity, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal. But those who don’t seek diversity in and of itself are then pushed to the other side, lumped in with white supremacists, homophobes, etc., for no reason other than they are not sufficiently progressive. Conversely, they then become shunned by those same elements for being too progressive. And the gap only continues to widen.

A better approach

Instead of this increasing bifurcation of society, I think a far better approach, at least regarding the creation of fiction, can be had by writing in a natural, organic fashion. Instead of forcing diversity, keeping quotas of minorities and the like, look at the story as a whole, the world it creates.

For fiction set in the real world of the present, this is almost too easy. We have demographics at our fingertips, so it’s not too hard to make a story that is both diverse and true to life. Historical fiction needs a little bit more work, but some common sense can tell you that it’d be silly for, say, Thor or Achilles to be black, or Guan Yu to be white. (Sexuality, especially in ancient times, is a whole different ballgame, particularly once you leave the familiar Christian West.)

Constructed worlds bring their own rules. In fantasy, you can make a case for just about anything. The men of Middle-Earth are white, if only because they are explicitly contrasted with the southern Haradrim. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series has a race of “savages” that, upon further inspection, are not African in appearance, but…ginger. Female warriors abound in literature—Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) is the example most pertinent for TV audiences. Non-heterosexual relationships aren’t at all uncommon. And a good author lets all that fade into the background unless it’s absolutely pivotal to the story.

That doesn’t even get into the possibility that other races might have differing notions of what constitutes diversity, or different intrinsic factors. One can easily imagine polyamorous elves, matriarchal orcs, or shapeshifters to whom the very concepts of race and gender are nonsensical. A fictional world with multiple races and sub-races might have an incredibly complex system of lineage and rights, but equally plausible is the idea that diversity plays by different rules. If there are beast-men living in the next country over, then why are we so worried about skin color?

Science fiction set in the future brings its own baggage. Although I do love The Expanse (except for the very depressing Persepolis Rising), this is a case where I feel it breaks the rule of organic diversity. As far as I can tell, seven books have produced one stable, monogamous, straight couple for a major character: Duarte, the current villain! Race is also hopelessly muddled (one of the series’ main points, to be fair), and the whole thing sometimes comes off as an experiment in throwing as many diversity-friendly adjectives as possible into a character. “Oh,” I can imagine the authors saying, “we don’t have a half-Asian transgender character yet. Let’s get right on that.”

In the future, we can imagine the boundaries of the present falling down. But it’s no less a stretch to imagine them rising back up. As humanity expands its reach—and especially if it expands into space—communities might become more monolithic, rather than more diverse. If anyone can found a space colony, why wouldn’t a group experiment with a “pure” society? Human nature tends towards mild xenophobia. We like being with people who look like us, talk like us, believe the way we do. That’s why we’ve created echo chambers on the Internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t feel bad positing, say, a Nazi colony on Mars. (Now, I wouldn’t want to read about that, much less write about it, but you do you.) On the other hand, liberalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are on the upswing right now, and projecting that into the future seems like the safer bet.

Conclusion

Whatever your genre, whatever your medium, diversity should not be a goal in itself. Instead, natural storytelling should create diversity where it is needed, where it is expected. New York City and San Francisco today don’t have the same demographics as 13th-century London or 1st-century Palestine. Rather than attempt to check all the boxes, think about what characters would be where. Put them where they belong, rather than where society wants them to be.

Now, if the purpose of the story is to tell of a character or group’s struggle against adversity because of their intrinsic properties, then that’s okay. Slaves in the antebellum South are going to be black, no question. Medieval women will have a harder time than their modern counterparts, and a story focusing on them can certainly have a higher female:male ratio. A story that focuses on the X% doesn’t have to follow statistics.

Really, a story for the general populace doesn’t, either. Diversity is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a master spy who happens to be a woman. There’s no reason why a superhero can’t be black, or trans, or whatever descriptor you want to give them. But you shouldn’t tout that as an accomplishment. Because it’s not.

It’s just who they are.

Thinking about thinking

The title of this post sounds awfully meta, doesn’t it? But it really is about writing and story creation. Particularly, it’s about a facet of character development that is often overlooked: thought.

Very many books (and other written-form stories, even including video games) let you get inside a character’s thoughts. They might be set off in italics, occasionally interspersed with the running narration, but it’s not that hard to find a story that gives you a direct link to someone’s thought processes. In some, it’s practically dialogue, albeit a one-sided dialogue. More of a monologue, if you will.

As with any part of writing, how much you use this particular storytelling device depends heavily upon the story you’re trying to tell. Some are far more amenable to extended thought-speech, while others do best with a more indirect approach that only vaguely refers to what is going on in a character’s mind. A few might even require something more heavy-handed; I can imagine a work (let’s call it avant-garde, or something pretentious like that) that is so based on internal monologues that they become the narration.

I don’t write stories like that, however, and you probably don’t, either. But adding a bit of thought (pun intended) can be a boon.

Why?

As I’ve stated before, my personal preference in narration is for a limited third-person perspective. With this style, we effectively see the story through the eyes of the character who is currently “in focus”, and the reader’s knowledge of others’ thoughts, feelings, etc., is mostly limited to what that character can perceive.

In this particular case, I think internal thought fits perfectly. We’re already in the character’s head, so to speak, so what would it hurt to let us hear their thoughts directly? It breaks up exposition that might otherwise be dry and boring, and it gives us a closer experience. We see through their eyes, and now we hear their thoughts. It’s almost natural.

In other styles, direct thoughts still work, but it takes more care. First-person stories can be tricky. With these, you’re already hearing straight from the character—that’s rather the point of the first person, isn’t it? It’s like the character is telling you the story, and how often do you mention direct thoughts when you’re telling a story? It’s not unheard of, but it is rare.

Beyond whether it’s a fit for your story, you also need to ask yourself if thoughtful monologues are appropriate for your characters. More introspective types will be more prone to thinking things through. The kinds who shoot first, by contrast, probably don’t have a lot of need for italicized paragraphs detailing their thought processes. (And that’s even a genre thing, too. A fast-paced thriller simply won’t have time for extended discourses that take place in a character’s head, while a thousand-page epic fantasy might easily slip too many of them into its length.)

Why not?

Is there a case to be made against using internal thoughts? Beyond the obvious (it doesn’t fit the story), I don’t think so.

Almost all of my works involve internal monologues, sometimes becoming quite extended, but with Nocturne, I made a conscious choice to avoid them. Most of the story is told from a first-person perspective, where, in my opinion, direct thoughts aren’t what is needed. (And, in fact, this perspective is supposed to be the main character telling his tale, so that’s another mark against direct thoughts, as I said above.) The third-person parts, on the other hand, should be a natural fit, but I refrained here, too, mostly because I didn’t feel they would mesh well with the rest of the book.

That’s a bit of a special case, I think. Mostly, the choice boils down to this: is the story better served by the reader having direct access to a character’s thoughts? A lot of narrative “tricks” don’t work well with that notion, including the ever-popular unreliable narrator. A mystery novel told from the detective’s point of view, on the other hand, might need the details so that the reader can follow the logical reasoning used to solve the case. And even a “solo” chapter, where only the focused character is present, could use something to break up what would otherwise be pages of exposition and description.

In the end, though, it’s up to you. Find what works best for what you are creating. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. That’s usually a great idea, and so it is here.

Against omniscience

As I’ve said on more than one occasion, my preferred point of view, from a writing standpoint, is the third person. For Nocturne, I experimented with a first-person narration, and I have to admit that I did like it. It was fun, and I might try it again sometime. But the third makes up the majority of my writing, as I’m sure it does for most authors.

Specifically, for me, this is a “limited” third-person perspective: the narration has no knowledge outside that of the character in focus. Others might prefer the omniscient narrator, but I don’t particularly care for it (again, speaking only for my writing). Why? It’s hard to say, but I’ll give it a shot.

First and foremost, I do like to be challenged. That’s why I went with the first-person perspective for Nocturne, and it’s why I have no fewer than five current serials in various stages of development at the moment. Writing from a limited point of view is a challenge, because you have to consider how much a specific character knows. They won’t be able to read others’ thoughts (unless that’s the kind of story you’re writing), and they can only guess at emotional responses.

That brings me to the second point: the unreliable narrator. To be honest, it’s a bit of a crude rhetorical device, but it can serve a purpose when used judiciously. But you really can’t pull it off with an omniscient perspective. I mean, you can try, but I’m not sure it can be believable. If it’s clear that the unspecified narrator knows what lurks within the hearts of all the characters, how can that narrator then turn around and say, “Oh, no, I must have misremembered,” or words to that effect? That’s not unreliable—it’s outright lying!

Next on the list is kind of a combination of the previous two points. Writing from the character’s perspective, even if outside his thoughts, gives me a focus. It lets me tailor the narration to that specific character. Maybe they aren’t unreliable, but they do have their own lens through which they view the world. Here, I’ve written enough to provide examples. Some aren’t published yet, but that’s okay. They will be.

  • Kellis (Nocturne): Kellis is basically a fantasy cop. Her thoughts run along those lines, and narration follows along behind. Her chapters talk a lot about crime, discipline, order, etc.

  • Alex (Chronicles of the Otherworld): Alex is a nerd, geek, or whatever your favorite term is. (Basically, he’s me.) He’s also very rational, so his narration tends to focus on science and hard facts, rarely delving into speculation, but often argument.

  • Jarra (Lair of the Wizards): Being only eight years old at the start of the story, Jarra is tricky to write, but also unbelievably fun. Her parents are always referred to as “Mom” and “Dad”, she uses lots of emphasis on words, and the inner voice that is her narration is not above pouting.

  • Tod (Linear Cycle, Part 6: The Final Sacrifice): Tod lost his family, then watched as one of his last friends turned into a zombie, while her sister essentially killed herself in response. He’s deeply troubled, and he’s 17 years old. He’s going to be angsty, emotional, irrational, and I tried to make the writing reflect that.

With an omniscient perspective, I don’t think I could have pulled these off. My writing style simply depends on being closer to the characters than that perspective allows.

On the other hand, I have to admit that it does provide opportunities that my limited style doesn’t. For one, it’s really hard for me to do quick “flashes”, changing focus back and forth between characters. That’s why my writing tends to either have one POV (the Linear Cycle stories) or one per chapter (pretty much everything else). I did manage a few scene-break swaps in Before I Wake, and the finale for Chronicles of the Otherworld uses those exclusively, but inside a scene? Can’t do it.

Similarly, limited perspective is, well, limited. The same factors I spun as advantages above can become disadvantages in certain stories. Maybe you do need to show the inner thoughts of more than one character at a time. Maybe the story works better if it’s told by an all-seeing narrator. I don’t know, as I really don’t write that sort of fiction. I realize that’s a bit of selection bias: since I don’t write omniscient, what I write doesn’t make use of its advantages.

That’s just my personal style, though. Until last year, I didn’t think I could write something in the first person, either. I proved myself wrong, didn’t I? (Well, even Nocturne isn’t completely first-person.) So maybe I just need to try it out, and maybe I will at some point in the future. (Hey, that might be something for November!) Until that day, I don’t mind working within my limitations. They’re not that bad.

On characters you hate

As an author (I love saying that), I’ve written a lot of different characters. Most, of course, are the “background” types, what players of role-playing games would call NPCs. But a few of them get the limelight all to themselves. These are the “point of view” characters, the protagonists or whatever term you’d like to use.

The way I write, I prefer a style where the narration is from the point of view of the character in question. Usually, this remains in the third person (in Nocturne, the title character is first-person, but that was mostly an experiment), but it’s not the “omniscient” third-person of a lot of books, where the narrator knows everything. In my writing, the character in focus doesn’t hear other people’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t know for sure what’s in someone else’s head. On the other hand, this style makes it more natural, in my opinion, to get into that character’s head. I find it’s better for extended thought processes.

The characters fit the story, but they’re also people, and that’s important. Since I get a good look at their minds—and I provide this to my readers—I can see what they’re thinking, how they think. (Yes, I’m aware that I decide how they think. That’s not the point.) On a few occasions, I’ve found that I’ve written characters I simply don’t like. In at least one instance, I’ve created someone I hate.

Now, it seems pretty easy to write a character you hate, right? Just tell the story from the point of view of the villain. Write the inner narration of a psychopath, a murderer, a terrorist, somebody undeniably evil. Simple as that.

But it’s really not. Sure, that gives you a character who’s easy to hate, but if it doesn’t help the story, what have you accomplished? No, I’m talking here about a character who has naturally developed into someone you just don’t like. Since I use a more “organic” writing style, where I don’t do a lot of detailed planning, this happens more often than you might think.

I’ve written characters who are devoutly religious (including both earthly and fantasy religions). I don’t hate them for that; the way I see it, I have to respect their choice the same as any person in the real world. I’ve made rich or noble-born characters, but I don’t hate them.

No, this post came about because of a character from my Chronicles of the Otherworld series. Her name’s Ayla, and she was mostly a major NPC throughout the eight parts of that work. She started out as a kind of foil for one of the main characters. The way I wrote the series, though, she gradually changed, becoming more and more bitter about the situation she found herself in. Others reacted to that, and she reacted to them. (Her actions, in fact, were the catalyst for the entire sixth volume.)

At no point in the first 400,000 words of the series did I write the first word from her point of view. She was always seen from the outside, and the reader doesn’t get a look at her inner thoughts until the final chapter of the final part, and that’s only for a single scene lasting about three or four pages. After I wrote that scene, though, I realized how much I couldn’t stand her. She was insufferable, a know-it-all who saw herself surrounded by lesser minds, lesser people. (This makes more sense if you’ve read the series, but it’s not out yet. Sorry about that.) She’s blunt to the point of offensive, she only cooperates when there’s something in it for her, and she’s just a generally unpleasant person to be around. If I were the type to use such language, I could think of a few choice words to describe her.

And thus I’ve written myself into a corner, because there’s a sequel to Chronicles of the Otherworld. It’s “season 2” of the story, picking up a year later and building on the events of the first eight parts. In between, though, is something I’m calling A Bridge Between Worlds, a six-part anthology of short novellas that fill in the gaps. Four of those six stories are written for the four characters who (spoiler alert!) stay in the Otherworld rather than coming home. One of those is Ayla, which means I get to write the better part of 20,000 words stuck in the head of someone I’d rather not be in the same room with. Yay for me.

I do think it’s educational and even productive to write a character you truly despise. It’s different from writing one you simply don’t agree with. I’ve done that plenty of times, and it’s not too bad; the hardest part is forcing yourself to write things you think are wrong. (Another character in the series, Jenn, is one of those religious types that I can’t stand, and she can be a pain to write. Fortunately, I have a whole family of people just like her that I can draw on for inspiration.) But a character you hate is something else entirely. It’s a balancing act between the story’s needs and your own. I can guarantee you, for example, that there will be times I’ll want to write a gruesome death scene for my problem child. I know I can’t, though. I’ll just have to deal with her. Hey, it’s a learning experience.

On child characters

One of the more interesting challenges of writing in a “limited” style (i.e., not omniscient third-person) is getting into the minds of your characters. I don’t mind. In fact, I like it. I feel like it lets me try out new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. And nowhere is this more true than when I’m writing children.

This isn’t a purely theoretical exercise, either. My short story “Either Side of Night” is entirely written from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy caught up in events largely beyond his comprehension. A novel I’m writing features multiple POVs, and all of them are children when the story starts.

Of course, I’m not the only one. Plenty of authors write narrative through a child’s eyes, and some of the greatest fictional characters are young. Look, for instance, at Harry Potter, or half the cast of A Song of Ice and Fire. (Going strictly by the American standard of “under 18”, the kids narrating A Game of Thrones outnumber the adults!) I’m sure you can find plenty of others, and not just restricted to the young adult and teen fiction sections.

Eyes of a Child

Why, you may ask, should you bother writing from a child’s perspective? Well, disregarding the obvious answer of “it’s what the story needs”, I can think of a few reasons.

First, children can be more ignorant of the inner workings of the setting. To them, especially to the younger ones, everything in the world is mysterious or unknown. That’s exactly how a reader starts out, too. Your readers don’t know who the political factions are, or what the different schools of magic teach, or which of the gods is really an ascended human from a bygone era. By writing from a child POV, you can introduce a reader to the more complex parts naturally; they follow the same path as the character.

This works even better if you’re doing something training-based, like a magic school (Harry Potter), an apprenticeship travelogue (the first parts of Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), or something of that nature. As the child advances in knowledge, so does the reader, and there’s no sense in them complaining about disbelief. Sure, it can be a slow reveal, but if that’s what you want, then it might be just what you need.

Second, children are innocent. This can be used by a writer in a couple of ways. It’s great for setting up good-versus-evil plot points, for example, because most kids won’t be able to discern the subtle shades of gray. And destroying innocence can be a powerful dramatic tool, as any fan of Arya Stark knows all too well. But children as characters can also keep things “light”. In escapist fantasy (as opposed to the gritty and grimdark types that are all too common these days), the child can be a kind of touchstone.

Finally, the third reason ties into both of the last two. Since children are less concerned with “adult” matters, as well as simply knowing less about them in general, that’s that much you don’t have to write about when they’re the center of attention. Kids aren’t going to be cynical and jaded. They won’t care about romantic and sexual relationships. They don’t have major responsibilities. Even the language you use for their narration can be simplified, especially if the child POV is only one of many.

Raising a child

The limitations, of course, are evident. Children don’t normally have the same opportunity for adventure. Their lack of responsibility is countered by a lack of ability, whether natural (kids aren’t as strong as adults) or social (kids can’t vote, drive, etc.), and this can hinder a story.

One easy way to circumvent some of those restrictions is to make the child “attached” to an adult in some way. Obviously, one possibility is traveling with their parents. Babysitters, master craftsmen, robot nannies, and royal servants all work just as well. No matter how you do it, since the adult and child are together, they’ll experience most of the same things. And then you have a quick and dirty way to increase dramatic tension by separating them.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who are alone. Typically, these tend to be older, usually teenagers. That’s because they’re close enough to adulthood to interact with “grownups” on a more even footing, but they still haven’t lost all of their childlike nature. Runaways, orphans, and incoming students all fit this mold, and their stories will likely involve lots of social conflict, issues of acceptance, and such.

Speaking of conflict, the kinds children can be involved in are often entirely different from those of their elders…at least to start. There’s nothing stopping an adolescent from being the Chosen One; that’s basically Harry Potter. But you can’t jump right into the deep end there. Let kids be kids for a while, so that when they can’t, it’ll pack that much more of a punch. And always be aware of both the limits of youth, and its capacity for exceeding them.

Conclusion

Writing children can be tiring, and it may seem unrewarding. But it can also be loads of fun. Even if you’re creating something entirely serious, a well-placed child’s point of view can add a bit of levity, a dash of lighthearted escapism, or just a change of pace. Or it can be a heartbreaking look into a shattered world full of broken dreams. Your choice.

We connect with children on a biological level. It’s innate to empathize. That’s why their stories can be so powerful, so emotionally moving. Whether you’re writing light or dark, it’s something to think about.

Writing The One

Many movies, books, and other works of fiction involve a protagonist who is destined (or fated or whatever other term you choose) to save the world. Only he (or she, but this is rarer) can do this. No one else has the power, or the will, or the knowledge necessary to accomplish this feat. But this character does, for some reason. He is The One.

Stories of The One aren’t hard to find. For example, Neo, in The Matrix, is explicitly referred to by that moniker. But the idea of a single savior of the world, someone who can do what no other person can, goes back centuries, if not more. After all, it’s the founding idea of Christianity. Perhaps that’s why it’s so embedded in the Western mind.

Writing a story about The One is fairly straightforward, but there are pitfalls. The most obvious is similarity: how do you distinguish your hero from all those who have come before? That part’s up to you, and it’s so dependent on your specific story that I’m not sure I can say much that would be relevant. However, I can offer some food for thought on the general notion of The One.

Begin at the beginning

Let’s start with the origin story, since that’s what is so popular these days. How did your One come about? More importantly, how did he gain that status? Here are a few ideas:

  • The One was born that way. This one works best when it’s fate driving the story. The One is somehow marked from birth as such. Maybe he was born in a time of omen, like an eclipse. Or he could be the child of a supernatural being. In any event, this kind of story can deal with the conflict inherent in growing up as The One. Another option is that The One’s status is fixed at birth, but his power comes later.

  • The One received the destined status at a certain time. This could be at a coming of age (18 years old or the cultural equivalent), or at the time of a particular event. Basically, this idea is just a delayed form of the one above, and most of the same caveats apply. The benefit is that you don’t have to write a story about a character growing both physically and metaphysically at the same time.

  • Something changed the course of fate. In other words, The One wasn’t always meant to be; he only came into his own after a specific event. The death of his parents, for example, or a plague ravaging his homeland. Or, perhaps, he finds a sage or a sword or whatever, setting him on the path of becoming The One. Before that, he was a kid on a farm or something like that. Clearly, in this case, some part of your story needs to tell that story, whether through a prologue, a series of flashbacks, or some other storytelling device. (Another option, if you’re making a trilogy or similar multi-part story, is to have the first “act” tell the protagonist’s origin.)

Method to the madness

Now we have another question: how does The One work? Rather, how does his status manifest itself? Jesus could work miracles. Neo had essentially godlike powers while he was in the Matrix. Luke Skywalker was simply more powerful and more adept at the Force. None of these are wrong answers, of course; the one you want largely depends on the goal of your story. Some options include:

  • All-powerful, all the time. Sometimes The One really does have the power of a deity. That can work for movies, and even for books. It’s harder for a video game, though, and it can be tricky in any medium. The hardest part is finding a way to challenge someone who has such a vast amount of power. Look to superheroes, especially overpowered ones like Superman and Thor, for ideas here. (If this kind of The One gains his powers after a life-changing event, then you have a nice, neat solution for the first part of your story.)

  • Increasing over time. This one is popular in fantasy literature and video games, mostly because it fits the progression model of RPGs. If you’ve ever played a game where you slowly “level up” as the story unfolds, then you know what’s going on here. Either The One grows in overall strength, or his powers gradually unlock. Both ways can work, but a non-game needs to be written so that it doesn’t seem too “gamey”.

  • Unlocking your full potential. Instead of a slow rise in power, it’s also possible that The One’s path follows a pattern more like a staircase. Here, pivotal events serve to mark the different “stages” to The One. In actuality, this is another way of leveling up, but it’s guided by the story. The final confrontation (or whatever would end the world, if not for The One) is then the final level, and drama dictates that this is when the protagonist would reach the apex of his ability—probably shortly after a failure or setback.

Supporting cast

The One isn’t always alone. Any proper world-saving hero is going to have a set of helpful allies and companions. By necessity, they won’t be as powerful, but they can each help in their own way. Almost any type of character works here, as long as they can fade a little bit into the background when it’s time for The One to take center stage. Here are some of the more common ones.

  • The love interest. It’s a given nowadays that a hero needs romance. In video games, the current fad is to let the player choose which character gets this role. For less interactive works, it’s obviously a fixed thing. Whoever it is, the point is to give the hero someone to love, someone who is utterly dependent on his success, in a more personal way than the rest of the world.

  • The childhood friend. This is another way to add a personal element to the catastrophe. Like the love interest (which can actually be the same person), the childhood friend “grounds” The One in reality, giving a human side to someone who is by definition, a superhuman. (Note that you can also substitute a family member here, but then you can’t really combine this role with the love interest.)

  • The strongman. Unless The One is physically strong, he’ll likely need additional muscle, possibly even in the form of a bodyguard. This works in traditional fantasy, where it’s standard for the mages to be weaklings with massive hidden power. For most other styles, it’s harder to justify, but a tough guy is welcome in any party.

  • The academic. Some stories rely on the fact that The One doesn’t know everything about his potential, his destiny, his enemies, or even himself. The academic, then, serves the role of exposition, allowing the audience to learn about these things at the same time as the hero. This kind of character shines in the early acts of a story; by the end, dramatic pacing takes precedence, and the academic is no longer needed.

  • The otherworldly. In stories with a significant supernatural element, The One might have an inhuman friend or ally. This could be anything from a guardian angel, to an elemental creature, to a bound demon, to even an alien. This otherworldly character can break the rules the story sets for “normal” humans, as well as giving the protagonist an outside perspective. It can also function as a kind of academic, as beings from other worlds or planes often have hidden knowledge.

  • The turncoat. There are two ways you can go with this character. Either he’s someone who turned on The One—in which case, the turncoat makes a good secondary villain—or he turned on The One’s enemy to join the “good guys”. This second possibility is the more interesting, story-wise, because it’s almost like adding a second origin story. Why did he turn? Is he going to try and double-cross The One? The turncoat can also be a way to provide inside information that the protagonist logically shouldn’t have access to.

Conclusion

Writing The One is easy. Writing one of them to be more than simple wish-fulfillment is much harder. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Not just the protagonist, but the supporting crew, too. Think about the mechanism of fate, as it exists in the world you’re creating. And think about how you show the power that The One has. Sure, explosions are eye-catching, but they aren’t everything. The One can outwit his foes just as easily as he can overpower them, and sometimes that’s exactly what he must do.

Dragons in fantasy

If there is one thing, one creature, one being that we can point to as the symbol of the fantasy genre, it has to be the dragon. They’re everywhere in fantasy literature. The Hobbit, of course, is an old fantasy story that has come back into vogue in the last few years. More recent books involve dragons as major characters (Steven Erikson’s Malazan series) or as plot points (Daniel Abraham’s appropriately-titled The Dragon’s Path). Movies go through cycles, and dragons are sometimes the “in” subject (the movies based on The Hobbit, but also less recent films like Reign of Fire). Television likes dragons, too, when it has the budget to do them (Game of Thrones, of course). And we can also find these magnificent creatures represented in video games (Drakengard, Skyrim), tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons—it’s even in the name!), and music (DragonForce).

So what makes dragons so…interesting? It’s not a recent phenomenon; dragon legends go back centuries. They feature in Arthurian legend, Chinese mythology, and Greek epics. They’re everywhere, all throughout history. Something about them fires the imagination, so what is it?

The birth of the dragon

Every ancient culture, it seems, has a mythology involving giant beasts of a kind unknown to modern science. We think of the Greek myths of the Hydra, of course, but it’s only one of many. Even in the Bible, monsters are found: the leviathan and behemoth found in the book of Job, for example. But something like a dragon seems to be found in almost every mythos.

How did this happen? For things like this, there are usually a few possible explanations. One, it could be a borrowing, something that arose in one culture, then spread to its neighbors. That seems plausible, except that New World peoples also have dragon-like supernatural beings, and they had them before Columbus. Another possibility is that the first idea of the dragon was invented in the deep past, before humanity spread to every corner of the globe. But that’s a bit far-fetched. You’d then have to explain how something like that stuck around for 30,000 or so years with so little change, using only art and oral transmission for most of that time.

The third option is, in my opinion, the most reasonable: the idea of dragons arose in a few different places independently, in something like convergent evolution. Each “region” would have its own dragon mythology, where the concept of “dragon” is about the same, while different regions might have wildly different ideas of what they should be.

I would also say that the same should be true for other fantastical creatures—giants, for instance—that pop up around the world. And, in my mind, there’s a perfectly good reason why these same tropes appear everywhere: fossils. We know that there used to be huge animals roaming the earth. Dinosaurs could be enormous, and you could imagine a Bronze Age hunter stumbling upon the fossilized bones of one of them and jumping to conclusions.

Even in recent geological time, it was only the Ice Age that wiped out the mammoths and so many other “megafauna”. (Today’s environmental movement tends to want to blame humans for everything bad, including this, but the evidence can be twisted just about any way you like.) In these cases, we can see the possibility that early human bands did meet these true giants, and they would have told stories about them. In time, those stories, as such stories tend to do, could have become legendary. For dragons, this one doesn’t matter too much, but it’s a point in favor of the idea that ancient peoples saw giant creatures—or their remains—and mythologized them into dragons and giants and everything else.

The nature of the beast

Moving far forward in time, we can see that the modern era’s literature has taken the time-honored myth of the dragon and given it new direction. At some point in the last few decades, authors seem to have decided that dragons must make sense. Sure, that’s completely silly from a mythological point of view, but that’s how it is.

Even in older stories, though, dragons had a purpose. That purpose was different for different stories, as it is today. For many of them, the dragon is a nemesis, an enemy. Sometimes, it’s essentially a force of nature, if not a god in its own right. In a few, dragons are good guys, protectors. Christian cultures in medieval times liked to use the slaying dragon as a symbol for the defeat of paganism. But it’s only relatively recently that the idea of dragons as “people” has become popular. Nowadays, we can find fiction where dragons are represented as magicians, sages, and oracles. A few settings even turn them into another sapient race, with their own civilization, culture, religion, and so on.

The form of dragons also depends a lot on the which mythos we’re talking about. The modern perception of a dragon as a winged, bipedal serpent who breathes fire and hoards gold (in other words, more like the wyvern) is just one possibility. Plenty of cultures have wingless dragons, and most of the “true” dragons have no legs; they’re more like giant snakes. Still, there’s an awful lot of variation, and there’s no single, definitive version of a dragon.

Your own dragon

Dragons in a work of fiction, whether novel or film or game, need to be there for a reason, if you want a coherent story. You don’t have to work out a whole ecological treatise on them, showing their diets, sleep patterns, and reproductive habits—Tolkien’s dragons, for example, were supernatural creations, so they didn’t have to make scientific sense—but you should know why a dragon appears.

If there’s only one of them, there’s probably a reason why. Maybe it’s a demon, or a creation of the gods, or an avatar of chaos. Maybe it’s the sole survivor of its kind, frozen in time for millennia (that’s a big spoiler, but I’m not going to tell you for what). Whatever you come up with, you should be able to justify it with something more than “because it’s there”. The more dragons you have, the more this problem can grow. In the extreme, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t they running things?

More than their reason for existing in the first place, you need to think about their story role. Are they enemies? Are they good or evil? Can they talk? What are they like? Smaug was greedy and haughty, for instance, and it’s a conceit of D&D that dragons are complex beings that are completely misunderstood by us lesser mortals simply because we can’t understand their true motives.

Are there different kinds of dragons? Again we can look at D&D, which has a bewildering assortment even before we include wyverns, lesser drakes, and the like. Of course, a game will need a different notion of role than a novel, and gamers like variation in their enemies, but only the most jaded player would think of a dragon as anything less than a major boss character.

Another thing that’s popular is the idea that dragons can change their form to look human. This might be derived from RPGs, or they might have taken it from an earlier source. However it worked out, a lot of people like the idea of a shapeshifting dragon. (Half the characters in the aforementioned Malazan series seem to be like this, and that’s not the only example in fantasy.) Shapechanging, of course, is an important part of a lot of fantasy, and I might do a post on it later on. It is another interesting possibility, though, if you can get it right.

In a very big way, dragons-as-people is a similar problem as other fantasy races, as well as sci-fi aliens. The challenge here is to make something that feels different, something that isn’t quite human, while still making it believable for the story at hand. If dragons live for 500 years, for example, they will have a different outlook on life and history than we would. If they lay eggs—and who doesn’t like dragon eggs?—they won’t understand the pain and danger of live childbirth, among other things. The ways in which a dragon isn’t like a human are breeding grounds for conflict, both internal and external. All you have to do is follow the notion towards its logical conclusion. You know, just like everything else.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I do like dragons, when they’re done right. They can be these imposing, alien presences beyond reason or understanding, and that is something I find interesting. But in the wrong hands, they turn into little more than pets or mounts, giant versions of dogs and horses that happen to have scales. Dragons don’t need to be noble or evil, but they should have an impact when you meet one. I mean, you’d feel amazed if you met one in real life, wouldn’t you?

Character alignment

If you’ve ever played or even read about Dungeons & Dragons or similar role-playing games (including derivative RPGs like Pathfinder or even computer games like Nethack), you might have heard of the concept of alignment. It’s a component of a character that, in some cases, can play an important role in defining that character. Depending on the Game Master (GM), alignment can be one more thing to note on a character sheet before forgetting it altogether, or it can be a role-playing straitjacket, a constant presence that urges you towards a particular outcome. Good games, of course, place it somewhere between these two extremes.

The concept also has its uses outside of the particulars of RPGs. Specifically, in the realm of fiction, the notion of alignment can be made to work as an extra “label” for a character. Rather than totally defining the character, pigeonholing him into one of a hew boxes, I find that it works better as a starting point. In a couple of words, we can neatly capture a bit of a character’s essence. It doesn’t always work, and it’s far too coarse for much more than a rough draft, but it can neatly convey the core of a character, giving us a foundation.

First, though, we need to know what alignment actually is. In the “traditional” system, it’s a measure of a character’s nature on two different scales. These each have three possible values; elementary multiplication should tell you that we have nine possibilities. Clearly, this isn’t an exact science, but we don’t need it to be. It’s the first step.

One of the two axes in our alignment graph is the time-honored spectrum of good and evil. A character can be Good, Evil, or Neutral. In a game, these would be quite important, as some magic spells detect Evil or only affect Good characters. Also, some GMs refuse to allow players to play Evil characters. For writing, this distinction by itself matters only in certain kinds of fiction, where “good versus evil” morality is a major theme. Mythic fantasy, for example, is one of these.

The second axis is a little harder to define, even among gamers. The possibilities, again, are threefold: Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral. Broadly, this is a reflection of a character’s willingness to follow laws, customs, and traditions. In RPGs, it tends to have more severe implications than morality (e.g., D&D barbarians can’t be Lawful), but less severe consequences (few spells, for example, only affect Chaotic characters). In non-gaming fiction, I find the Lawful–Chaotic continuum to be more interesting than the Good–Evil one, but that’s just me.

As I said before, there are nine different alignments. Really, all you do is pick one value from either axis: Lawful Good, Neutral Evil, etc. Each of these affects gameplay and character development, at least if the GM wants it to. And, as it happens, each one covers a nice segment of possible characters in fiction. So, let’s take a look at them.

Lawful Good

We’ll start with Lawful Good (LG). In D&D, paladins must be of this alignment, and “paladin” is a pretty good descriptor of it. Lawful Good is the paragon, the chivalrous knight, the holy saint. It’s Superman. LG characters will be Good with a capital G. They’ll fight evil, then turn the Bad Guys over to the authorities, safe in the knowledge that truth and justice will prevail.

The nicey-niceness of Lawful Good can make for some interesting character dynamics, but they’re almost all centered on situations that force the LG character to make a choice between what is legal and what is morally right. A cop or a knight isn’t supposed to kill innocents, but what happens when inaction causes him to? Is war just, even that waged against evil? Is a mass murderer worth saving? LG, at first, seems one-dimensional; in a way, it is. But there’s definitely a story in there. Something like Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” works here, as does anything with a strict code of morality and honor.

Some LG characters include Superman, obviously, and Eddard Stark of A Song of Ice and Fire (and look where that got him). Real-world examples are harder to come by; a lot of people think they’re Lawful Good (or they aspire to it), but few can actually uphold the ideal.

Neutral Good

You can be good without being Good, and that’s what this alignment is. Neutral Good (NG) is for those that try their best to do the right thing legally, but who aren’t afraid to take matters into their own hands if necessary (but only then). You’re still a Good Guy, but you don’t keep to the same high standards as Lawful Good, nor do you hold others to those standards.

Neutral Good fits any general “good guys” situation, but it can also be more specific. It’s not the perfect paragon that Lawful Good is. NG characters have flaws. They have suspicions. That makes them feel more “real” than LG white knights. The stories for an NG protagonist are easier to write than those for LG, because there are more possibilities. Any good-and-evil story works, for starters. The old “cop gets fired/taken off the case” also fits Neutral Good.

Truly NG characters are hard to find, but good guys that aren’t obviously Lawful or Chaotic fit right in. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a nice example, as Star Wars places a heavy emphasis on morality. The “everyday heroes” we see on the news are usually NG, too, and that’s a whole class that can work in short stories or a serial drama.

Chaotic Good

I’ll admit, I’m biased. I like Chaotic Good (CG) characters, so I can say the most about them, but I’ll try to restrain myself. CG characters are still good guys. They still fight evil. But they do it alone, following their own moral compass that often—but not always—points towards freedom. If laws get in the way of doing good, then a CG hero ignores them, and he worries about the consequences later.

Chaotic Good is the (supposed) alignment of the vigilante, the friendly rogue, the honorable thief, the freedom fighter working against a tyrannical, oppressive government. It’s the guys that want to do what they believe is right, not what they’re told is right. In fiction, especially modern fantasy and sci-fi, when there are characters that can be described as good, they’re usually Chaotic Good. They’re popular for quite a few reasons: everybody likes the underdog, everyone has an inner rebel, and so on. You have a good guy fighting evil, but also fighting the corruption of The System. The stories practically write themselves.

CG characters are everywhere, especially in movies and TV: Batman is one of the most prominent examples from popular culture of the last decade. But Robin Hood is CG, too. In the real world, CG fairly accurately fits most of the heroes of history, those who chose to do the right thing even knowing what it would cost. (If you’re of a religious bent, you could even make the claim that Jesus was CG. I wouldn’t argue.)

Lawful Neutral

Moving away from the good guys, we come to Lawful Neutral (LN). The best way to describe this alignment, I think, is “order above all”. Following the law (or your code of honor, promises, contracts, etc.) is the most important thing. If others come to harm because of it, that’s not your concern. It’s kind of a cold, calculating style, if you ask me, but there’s good to be had in it, and “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is completely Lawful Neutral in its sentiment.

LN, in my opinion, is hard to write as a protagonist. Maybe that’s my own Chaotic inclination talking. Still, there are plenty of possibilities. A judge is a perfect example of Lawful Neutral, as are beat cops. (More…experienced cops, as well as most lawyers, probably fall under Lawful Evil.) Political and religious leaders both fall under Lawful Neutral, and offer lots of potential. But I think LN works best as the secondary characters. Not the direct protagonist, but not the antagonists, either.

Lawful Neutral, as I said above, best describes anybody whose purpose is upholding the law without judging it. Those people aren’t likely to be called heroes, but they won’t be villains, either, except in the eyes of anarchists.

True Neutral

The intersection of the two alignment axes is the “Neutral Neutral” point, which is most commonly called True Neutral or simply Neutral (N). Most people, by default, go here. Every child is born Neutral. Every animal incapable of comprehending morality or legality is also True Neutral. But some people are there by choice. Whether they’re amoral, or they strive for total balance, or they’re simply too wishy-washy to take a stand, they stay Neutral.

Neutrality, in and of itself, isn’t that exciting. A double dose can be downright boring. But it works great as a starting point. For an origin story, we can have the protagonist begin as True Neutral, only coming to his final alignment as the story progresses. Characters that choose to be Neutral, on the other hand, are harder to justify. They need a reason, although that itself can be cause for a tale. They can make good “third parties”, too, the alternative to the extremes of Good and Evil. In a particularly dark story, even the best characters might never be more “good” than N.

True Neutral people are everywhere, as the people that have no clear leanings in either direction on either axis. Chosen Neutrals, on the other hand, are a little rarer. It tends to be more common as a quality of a group rather than an individual: Zen Buddhism, Switzerland.

Chaotic Neutral

Seasoned gamers are often wary of Chaotic Neutral (CN), if only because it’s often used as the ultimate “get out of jail free” card of alignment. Some people take CN as saying, “I can do whatever I want.” But that’s not it at all. It’s individualism, freedom above all. Egalitarianism, even anarchy. For Chaotic Neutral, the self rules all. That doesn’t mean you have a license to ignore consequences; on the contrary, CN characters will often run right into them. But they’ll chalk that up as another case of The Man holding them back.

If you don’t consider Chaotic Neutral to be synonymous with Chaotic Stupid, then you have a world of character possibilities. Rebels of all kinds fall under CN. Survivalists fit here, too. Stories with a CN protagonist might be full of reflection, or of fights for freedom. Chaotic Neutral antagonists, by contrast, might stray more into the “do what I want” category. In fiction, the alignment tends to show up more in stories where there isn’t a strong sense of morality, where there are no definite good or bad guys. A dystopic sci-fi novel could easily star a CN protagonist, but a socialist utopia would see them as the villains.

Most of the less…savory sorts of rogues are CN, at least those that aren’t outright evil. Stoners and hippies, anarchists and doomsday preppers, all of these also fit into Chaotic Neutral. As for fictional characters, just about any “anti-hero” works here. The Punisher might be one example.

Lawful Evil

Evil, it might be said, is relative. Lawful Evil (LE) might even be described as contentious. I would personally describe it as tyranny, oppression. The police state in fiction is Lawful Evil, as are the police who uphold it and the politicians who created it. For the LE character, the law is the perfect way to exploit people.

All evil works best for the bad guys, and it takes an amazing writer to pull off an Evil protagonist. LE villains, however, are perfect, especially when the hero is Chaotic Good. Greedy corporations, rogue states, and the Machiavellian schemer are all Lawful Evil, and they all make great bad guys. Like CG, Lawful Evil baddies are downright easy to write, although they’re certainly susceptible to overuse.

LE characters abound, nearly always as antagonists. Almost any “evil empire” of fiction is Lawful Evil. The corrupted churches popular in medieval fantasy fall under this alignment, as well. In reality, too, we can find plenty of LE examples: Hitler, the Inquisition, Dick Cheney, the list goes on.

Neutral Evil

Like Neutral Good, Neutral Evil (NE) fits best into stories where morality is key. But it’s also the best alignment to describe the kind of self-serving evil that marks the sociopath. A character who is NE is probably selfish, certainly not above manipulating others for personal gain, but definitely not insane or destructive. Vindictive, maybe.

Neutral Evil characters tend to fall into a couple of major roles. One is the counterpart to NG: the Bad Guy. This is the type you’ll see in stories of pure good and evil. The second is the true villain, the kind of person who sees everyone around him as a tool to be used and—when no longer required—discarded. It’s an amoral sort of evil, more nuanced than either Lawful or Chaotic, and thus more real. It’s easy to truly hate a Neutral Evil character.

Some of the best antagonists in fiction are NE, but so are some of the most clichéd. The superhero’s nemesis tends to be Neutral Evil, unless he’s a madman or a tyrant; the same is true of the bad guys of action movies. Real-life examples also include many corporate executives (studies claim that as many as 90% of the highest-paid CEOs are sociopaths), quite a few hacking groups (those that are doing it for the money, especially), and likely many of the current Republican presidential candidates (the Democrats tend to be Lawful Evil).

Chaotic Evil

The last of our nine alignments, Chaotic Evil (CE) embraces chaos and madness. It’s the alignment of D&D demons, true, but also psychopaths and terrorists. Pathfinder’s “Strategy Guide” describes CE as “Just wants to watch the world burn”, and that’s a pretty good way of putting it.

For a writer, though, Chaotic Evil is almost a trap. It’s almost too easy. CE characters don’t need motivations, or organization, or even coherent plans. They can act out of impulse, which is certainly interesting, but maybe not the best for characterization. It’s absolutely possible to write a Chaotic Evil villain (though probably impossible to write a believably CE anti-hero), but you have to be careful not to give in to him. You can’t let him take over, because he could do anything. Chaos is inherently unpredictable.

Chaotic Evil is easy to find in fiction. Just look at the Joker, or Jason Voorhees, or every summoned demon and Mad King in fantasy literature. And, unfortunately, it’s far too easy to find CE people in our world’s history: Osama bin Laden, Charles Manson, the Unabomber, and a thousand others along the same lines.

In closing

As I stated above, alignment isn’t the whole of a character. It’s not even a part, really. It’s a guideline, a template to quickly find where a character stands. Saying that a protagonist is Chaotic Good, for instance, is a shorthand way of specifying a number of his qualities. It tells a little about him, his goals, his motivations. It even gives us a hint as to his enemies: Lawful and/or Evil characters and groups, those most distant on either alignment axis.

In some RPGs, acting “out of alignment” is a cardinal sin. It certainly is for player characters like D&D paladins, who have to adhere to a strict moral code. (How strict that code is depends on the GM.) For a fictional character in a story, it’s not so bad, but it can be jarring if it happens suddenly. Given time to develop, on the other hand, it’s a way to show the growth of a character’s morality. Good guys turn bad, lawmen go rogue, but not on a whim.

Again, alignment is not a straitjacket to constrain you, but it can be a writing aid. Sure, it doesn’t fit all sizes. As a lot of gamers will tell you, it’s not even necessary for an RPG. But it’s one more tool at our disposal. This simple three-by-three system lets us visualize, at a glance, a complex web of relationships, and that can be invaluable.