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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.