- Karina Sokulski
The Character Alignment System
I've been working on some additional characters lately and found myself perusing the character alignment system. I poked through the many alignments and realized I wanted to frame them out in a blog post. Considering how often I have to refresh myself on which is which whenever I make a new character, maybe it'll serve me better to write each out and finally have them memorized.
Before we do that, however, as we all know, I have a love for defining things, so let's start with what the system is:
The Character Alignment System originally was a system created to define role-playing primarily used in campaigns of table-top games like Dungeons and Dragons. In table-top games such as these, a player constructs the character they are playing and attach this character's alignment as a set of rules that will dictate the decisions they will make. This practice became so popular since it made the use of involved storytelling that the system was adapted for a tool for writers to use to refine their craft.
With this practice, developing the character's alignment serves the purpose of helping develop a character's identity. This ultimately helps develop a character's general morals and define what attitude they'll have towards significant events in a story. The attitude and decisions made by any character will usually fall into (but are not restricted to) one of nine categories. Those nine categories are: lawful, neutral, and chaotic good, lawful, true and chaotic neutral, lawful, neutral, and chaotic evil.
This system is a tool to develop characters but is by no means a form of restriction. Plenty of characters can blend two or more of these categories depending on how they are written and can even evolve from one to another. More on the blending of these categories later, for now, let's first comb through the categories.
The "Goods" are the characters that protect the innocent, defend the unfortunate and seek justice for the wronged. They are the characters that make the personal sacrifices and are motivated to help others. They are the favored for protagonists and sidekicks, love interests and the tragically missled. Whether they are Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic, this character tends to be someone's hero or motivator to pursue justice.
Lawful Good is the character that is the "all around good person." This character is a combination of compassion and honor. They are the white knight who will defend the wronged peasants, always tells the truth and keeps their word. The setback with this type of character, as all the categories have their setbacks, Lawful Good is easily tricked. They are eager to sacrifice themselves if necessary and completely negate self-interests for the masses. This particular type of character tends to suffer for their goodness and charity more than the rest of the categories.
Ned Stark, Lawful Good
An example of this kind of character is Ned Stark from A Game of Thrones. Spoiler alert, I suppose, but upon making the discovery that none of Robert Baratheon's children are his own, he moves to reveal the truth without any regard for the high risk involved in his actions. As a result of this, Ned is tricked by several characters at court, captured and later executed for treason.
Neutral Good is the most relatable every-day Joe (or Jane) who does the best they can. Like Lawful Good, they are devoted to helping others but don't often place themselves in roles of leadership as they don't share the bias of being for or against order. Chaos and law are both equally necessary in life, rather than only one or the other. The setback with this category often involves overly cautious natures and rule-bending in the way they think is right--which can lead to seen or unforeseen consequences.
Gandalf The Grey (or White), Neutral Good
An example of this character is Gandalf the Grey (or White) from The Lord of the Rings. In the third book, The Return of the King, Gandalf has to manipulate the circumstances Gondor faces to bring Aragorn to the throne. Steward Denethor likes his place on Aragorn's throne and has no intention of stepping down upon Aragorn's return. Had Gandalf been Lawful Good, his summoning Rohan's aid without Denethor's permission would not have happened, and the world of men would not have united to face Mordor.
Chaotic Good is the dreamer with the heart of gold. They are the free spirit that boldly follows their own path. Chaotic Good has their own conscience and regards little what others expect of them. They do things their own way but are charitable and generous. Chaotic good puts good deeds before the law, following their moral compass regardless of what society deems acceptable. The setback here is that Chaotic Good can be a lawbreaker with the best of intentions, ultimately resulting in consequences for innocent people and Chaotic Good to suffer together.
Robin Hood, Chaotic Good
A good example of this kind of character is Robin Hood from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin steals from the rich to give to the poor. Though his intentions are good, he's committing crimes to accomplish his goals. Many of these rich he steals from are Lords who, though without charity, are societally inclined to their wealth. This also marks Robin's band of merry men as criminals who face the death penalty should they be caught.
The "neutrals" customarily are the most impressionable characters in a story, often making good or evil choices based upon the alignments of their allies or antagonists. Whether or not they are the protagonist themselves, they are influenced by other characters of good or evil alignments. Even though these characters are influenced by others they trust, they will stick to their code and break alliances with other characters if they see fit.
Lawful Neutral is the judge who preserves order, puts logic and reason before emotional ties. Despite Lawful Neutral's influential allies, customarily this type of character upholds law and tradition. They uphold their own personal code and will allow the law (whether made by good or evil) to influence their decisions. Lawful Neutral's setback is the perception of freedom being chaos rather than liberty. This character can often be the one to stifle society's freedom and diversity or they can be influenced to offer too much liberty to an ally that serves their needs.
James Gordon, Lawful Neutral
An example of this character type is James Gordon from the Batman series (comic books, animated series, etc). Though later James Gordon becomes an ally to Batman, he is reluctant to do so initially knowing full well the consequences of allowing a vigilante to roam the streets and fight crime. This leads James Gordon to later having to set the police force of Gotham City after Batman (who is a criminal) regardless of the police commissioner's alignment with the caped crusader. This character is also an excellent example of Lawful Neutral influenced by Batman, who is Chaotic Good.
True Neutral has a particularly captivating nature among the "neutrals." There are two types of True Neutral that behave rather differently. The first True Neutral operates by way of what seems like a good idea. They don't feel strongly towards decisions that are good or evil. Sometimes they decide based on convenience, the lesser of two evils or what their ally wants. This neutral is the most influenced by good or evil, even if they don't feel strongly towards the goals of other characters. The influence on this character revolves around their mainly being enlisted to help others but will not remain neutral and uninvolved. The second True Neutral will do the exact opposite, and philosophically swear themselves to neutrality. They actively abstain from aligning with good and evil and always walk the middle path.
Both of these types of True Neutral share the same setbacks involving apathy, indifference, self-doubt and lack of conviction. Another setback they share is the possibility of betrayal towards their allies, whether intentional or not.
Cloud Strife, True Neutral to Neutral Good
An example of the first type of True Neutral is Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII. Throughout the game of Final Fantasy VII Cloud struggles with a case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (due to past trauma) while aiding a terrorist group called AVALANCHE in its agenda to overthrow the Shinra Company that threatens the very planet they live on. Cloud is constantly at odds with the group when debating morality and reminds his allies he is only assisting them as a mercenary for hire. This all changes however when Cloud discovers his true identity and remembers the events of his traumatic past. Thus this True Neutral transforms and becomes Neutral Good.
Ashitaka, True Neutral
An example of the second type of True Neutral is Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke. In the backdrop of a war between forest gods and humanity, the incorruptible Ashitaka refuses to align with either side despite being human himself. He falls in love with the human adopted child of the wolf gods, the Mononoke Princess herself, but doesn't entirely ally with her in the war either. Despite his plight to save the world from the conflict, his actions lead him to betray both humanity and the forest gods to resolve the conflict.
Chaotic Neutral is the character that follows their own path in every sense. They are the lone wolf that serves themselves first and last. Their freedom is put before the freedom of others. They oppose authority and restrictions. To characters of other alignments, this character can be unpredictable and yet methodical as their motivation always stems from their self-serving freedom.
Unlike True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral can't be bent towards making decisions that align with good or evil, they can only be motivated by characters of other alignments so long as the actions also benefit them.
Like True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral typically has two types of characters, the first being the Chaotic Neutral that remains independent and never aligns with good or evil. This type usually is not the protagonist of their story but one that has an effect on the protagonist or the circumstances of their journey. The second type, that more often is the protagonist of their story, begins as Chaotic Neutral and shifts to align alongside good or evil (or both) depending on circumstance and allied characters.
The major setback of this category is shared among both types when it comes to trust and camaraderie. Chaotic Neutral will never maintain trust among allies without work and compensation and gain more enemies than friends. Typically Chaotic Neutral will force themselves into an independent role unless motivated by allies of good or evil aligning with their self-interest. Many Chaotic Neutrals are also written as intentionally independent and align with no one even when interests align.
The Cheshire Cat, Chaotic Neutral
The Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland embodies the first type of Chaotic Neutral in that the character never aligns with the protagonist. Chaotic Neutral does however deeply affect the circumstances of their journey. The Cheshire Cat is as mad as the rest of the inhabitants of Wonderland. He is methodical in his pursuit to spread madness to the capricious Alice and lead her exactly where she wants to go. Unbeknownst to Alice, but known full well by the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts will inevitably call for her beheading.
The Cheshire Cat gives no regard for Alice's safety, nor does he warn her because sending Alice to the Queen aligns with his goal. The Cheshire Cat however is not an ally to the Queen of Hearts. In fact, the Queen of Hearts doesn't even seemingly know the cat exists and thus becomes antagonized by Alice when the Cheshire Cat reappears. This results in both Alice and the Queen of Hearts being tricked by this Chaotic Neutral.
Zuko, Chaotic Neutral to All
Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender embodies the second Chaotic Neutral type of character. This character begins as being more aligned as evil because he is the disgraced prince of the war-bent Fire Nation and is undergoing a hero-redeemed character arc. In order to reclaim his title as heir to the Fire Nation throne, he must capture and present the Avatar to his father.
Zuko is motivated to align himself with the Fire Nation as he desires his birthright, but his own allies have cast him out and demand a high price for his rejoining their ranks. This inevitably brings Zuko to a turning point where he betrays the Fire Nation and, for a time, aligns himself independently. This character, in particular, is a fictional chameleon as he can be sorted into every alignment and category depending on the stages of his character arc.
For the sake of this example, however, Zuko is motivated by the core values of Chaotic Neutral. He inevitably joins the Avatar's group, thus aligning with good. At this stage of the story, though motivated by his new allies to help the world, his birthright is now a prize he can potentially gain albeit by force. Once he regains is birthright and becomes the next emperor of the Fire Nation, Zuko transforms into Lawful Good.
The "Evils" are true to their namesake. The evils are the outright harmful and exploitative characters that intend ill-doing on the world around them. They lack compassion, cannot forgive and are often the most vengeful of the three categories. Whether these characters are born or made evil, they inevitably become the story's antagonist or anti-hero that the world will inevitably have to overcome.
Lawful Evil is the most methodical of the evils as they have a code that dictates their actions. Everything they claim for themselves fits within this self-established code that also applies to relationships they have with other characters. This character believes in loyalty, tradition and order but usually is the one who implicates or maintains all three. Lawful Evil follows their rules like a religion and brings down all those who don't.
This character can also be the type to punish entire populations not for their actions but for their race, status, alignment, etc. Lawful Evil depends heavily on order in the law both because it is their method of control and their safeguard against opposition.
The setback of this character type is that they tend to oppress all other alignments and become the obstacle all other characters will need to overcome. These characters tend to think themselves above every other character and interchange allies since their allies are considered subordinates. Loyalty is conditional and a means to an end when it benefits them, which also results in Lawful Evil's becoming an unreliable ally.
Gustavo, Lawful Evil
Gustavo "Gus" Fring from Breaking Bad is an example of Lawful Evil as, his success as a mob boss is quickly established from his cautious, systematic nature. He has a set of rules he follows for every move he makes. These rules range from meeting new business partners, as protagonist Walter White quickly discovers, to eliminating threats without his direct involvement. The only way Gus is defeated is by Walter White and allies wreaking havoc to his system and aligning with an enemy Gus purposefully entrapped within the system he built.
Neutral Evil has no attachment to allies or enemies when pursuing their goals. Their self-interest is their main goal regardless of who drops in their wake. This type of character's pursuit of self-interest is a badge of honor and the only thing that matters to them. This character usually is the antagonist of any story or the ultimate anti-hero as Neutral Evil is counter-pointed to every other alignment and variation.
The setback to this category is that they quickly find themselves alone among a cast of characters. Like Lawful Evil, they are also counter to every other alignment. They are untrustworthy, unreliable and quick to motive other characters to form alliances against them.
Thanos, Neutral Evil
Thanos from the Marvel Comics is an example of Neutral Evil. His ultimate goal is to gather the Infinity Stones to destroy half of the galaxy's population and prevent chaos by way of overpopulation. Thanos believes his cause is just and is hated by the daughters he kidnapped from their worlds respectively. When his allies fail him, he leaves them in his wake and hunts the stones alone. When he must make a sacrifice to gain one of the stones, he sacrifices one of his kidnapped daughters to gain it. By the time he gathers the stones and accomplishes his mission, he is completely out of allies and left to defend himself against a united front.
Chaotic Evil is true to their namesake. Chaotic evil is driven by their own self-interest with little regard for what the world expects of them. Whims of hatred, greed, and lust are what steer Chaotic Evil down their path. Chaotic evil cannot be bent to the desires of others, their motivations are absolute and incorruptible.
There are two types of Chaotic Evil that are about as similar as they are different. The first is the Chaotic Evil that are fiercely independent and do not ally with others. They outright exploit all other alignments, even fellow evil alignments, in the pursuit of their goal. This type of Chaotic Evil can be beastly or a predator that is easily satisfied until the urge to hunt returns.
The second type of Chaotic Evil shares the collateral damage behavior but is far more cunning than its counterpart. The major difference between the two being that this type of character becomes Chaotic Evil from a different origin. This Chaotic Evil is the opportunist and serial killer, the methodical mad man (or woman) who acts with a particular motivation. Whether that motivation is revenge or their method of operation, there is some manner of ritual behind the slaughter.
The setbacks are shared between both types of this character. They are usually the antagonist of the story, harm everyone around them, are beyond trust and have no regard for self-preservation if self-sacrifice will mean obtaining their goal. Chaotic evil is destructive, threatens every life it comes in contact with and are the greatest motivator for all other alignments to join forces to stop them.
Dracula, Chaotic Evil
Dracula from the novel of the same name, is an example of Chaotic Evil in his predatory nature. I mentioned in a previous blog post [X] that Dracula is considered a flat character because his motivations revolve entirely around drinking blood and building an army of vampires. Chaotic Evil characters often times will be considered flat because, uniquely, they don't tend to have character arcs that explore the origin of their nature, nor do they undergo change. Their nature "simply is" when they are not evolving from other alignments and categories. Dracula was born a vampire and dies one. He has no regard for the sake of others, only cares about ruling the world through his expansion of the vampire population and risks self-preservation to do so.
Edmond Dantes, Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil
Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Christo is a perfect example of a Lawful Good character that becomes Chaotic Evil. Edmund starts out in his story as an unremarkable but intelligent, honest and loving man who is set to marry the woman he loves. After he is framed for a crime he did not commit, he transforms into a cunning and bitterly vengeful man out for blood. Once free and coming into unimaginable wealth, Edmond rewards those sympathetic to his plight and seeks to enact his revenge upon those who wronged him. Throughout this pursuit, his sympathizers either become collateral or barely escape with their lives. When the opportunity comes that Edmond can escape with his stolen bride, he refuses and obsessively pursues his revenge.
These alignments and categories are meant as a guide to help develop characters for writing purposes. In no way should this be used as a way to restrict artistic liberty. Instead, this system is intended to encourage writers to explore the possibility of writing characters that blend and evolve from one to as many other categories as they can. Challenge yourself to become more familiar with your favorite alignments and categories by identifying the characters you love and see just how much you can further your own writing.
The Alignment System Chart