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 clich├ęd. 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.