Sorry, folks. No book review today. I wanted to delve into an interesting concept related to character development. It relates to books, but it stems from gaming.
While listening the Imaginary Worlds podcast on why we enjoy watching the good guys fight each other in the superhero genre, I got introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard of before: character alignment.
Character alignment’s a concept from Dungeons and Dragons. Obviously, having not heard of it before, you should be able to infer that I’m not a D&D person. Nothing against it; I just never played. Too social for my liking.
The basic idea of character alignment (as gleaned from the podcast) is that at the beginning of D&D gameplay, you place your character somewhere in a 3X3 alignment to help guide your character. The dimensions are law/chaos and good/evil, with a neutral option for each dimension.
Law vs. Chaos
The first, and original, dimension is law/chaos. A lawful character follows the law no matter what it is. For them, structure matters. They’re going to follow the rules no matter what they are. Whether’s it’s the good guy upholding the laws or the bad guy keeping you down under the guise of the law, they follow rules to a fault. On the other end is chaos. They don’t believe in the rules and are probably actively trying to break them. They’re not a part of the system.
In the middle, there’s neutral. They don’t want to ignore law and order, but they don’t want it to interfere with what they’d like to accomplish.
Good vs. Evil
Somehow, this was not the original D&D axis. Kind of interesting they went with rules vs. chaos before they thought good vs. evil. This is what you think: Good is the altruistic one who wants to save lives, evil want to (or don’t care) about others and their lives, and neutral don’t want to harm others but aren’t going to sacrifice themselves for others under most circumstances.
As it happens, when you have a way of categorizing in geekdom, it rolls over into other fandoms, and you can find character alignment memes like you find MBTI memes. Much like the MBTI memes, they’re worth is based on the person building them, so you always take it with a grain of salt. That said, I’m going to try to give examples of each of the 9 groupings and provide pop culture examples, including literary ones (this is sort of cheating because comic book characters are everywhere in the example charts, so not a lot of work on my part beyond calling BS on what I consider bad categorizations).
The quintessential hero, if you like boring heroes. This is the good guy who not only wants to save the day but wants to do it by the rules. Superman lives and dies by the rules. He’s the ultimate boy scout. Another example would be Ned Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire. His moral and ethical fiber is such that he couldn’t imagine deviating from the rules. His one deviation is such that everyone talks about it (the bastard Jon Snow). Of course, we’ve all seen what happens to lawful good in Westeros.
Neutral good doesn’t necessarily hate the rules, but they also won’t be hampered by them. Depending on the writer’s and reader’s interpretations, Spiderman and Batman could fit here. This is generally where I tend to put them. Both of them are essentially vigilantes who have to run from the law as they chase down the bad guys, but they also tend to hand the bad guy over to the cops. They don’t trust the law to be able to do the right thing, but they’re not completely breaking the system (the fact that Batman works with Commissioner Gordon is, to me, the ultimate evidence that he is neutral and not chaotic). Within ASOIAF, Jon Snow’s good example. He wants to do good (Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins after all), but he’s also not going to completely play by the rules (as a bastard, the rules don’t exactly work in his favor, and he’s also more pragmatic than Eddard)
Chaotic good wants to do the right thing but actively believes the system is broke. This is your rebel with a cause. The Punisher is an excellent example. The rules failed him, so he’s going to take care of things himself. You can throw in Robin Hood as he steals from the rich (chaotic) to give to the poor (good). Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games could possibly be thrown in here, especially once you reach the end of her arc. At the beginning, she’s not really raging against the machine, though she’s definitely not in favor of it. Even when the sides change, she still doesn’t play well with the system.
The bureaucrat. Ugh. This one’s the worst.
This is the character who’s going to follow the rules no matter what. They don’t really care whether the rules are good or not. They just follow them anyway. Judge Dredd was mentioned as one in the podcast. The blue dude (I couldn’t remember his name, and I felt shamed for having to look it up, so I decided to let you know that I failed as a geek) from Watchmen gets listed as an example as well (he doesn’t really seem to care so much as he’ll act anyway). The senior Barty Crouch in Harry Potter‘s an example. He’s going to uphold the rules, no matter the cost. Ultimately, he’s doing things that should be for the good guys, but because he doesn’t show compassion for others, he also does harm. And if you’d like a more humorous example, the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are a good example. Bureaucrats to the end.
Surprisingly, I don’t find true neutrals to be that boring. To me, they’re sort of above it all. They will neither help nor hinder. The Watchers in Marvel are given as an example. The Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five are another example. They’re around, and they’ve already seen what will happen, including how one of their own ends the universe. When asked why they won’t try to stop it, they say it’s already happened. I find these types of characters infuriatingly intriguing.
They don’t like the rules. They’re not here to hurt you or help you. They’re just here. And they’re going to f#$% s#$% up while they’re here. Zaphod Beeblebrox from Hitchhiker’s Guide is a good example. He has not care for the rules or feelings of those around him, but he’s not out to actively harm anyone. He’s there for a good time. I feel like the neutral ground is great for an anti-hero, and this where I’d throw the ultimate anti-hero: Deadpool. He’ll do the right thing, but he’ll also try to murder good guys sometimes too. I believe his comics arc has shifted him from evil to good slowly, but part of the fun is that he’s never supposed to be truly good.
Oh, the humanity. They’re evil and they like rules? This is Dolores Umbridge to a T. She has all these rules and edicts made so she can get her way, which just happens to be pretty evil. In the HP universe, it’s pretty well decided that Umbridge is more hated than Voldemort despite not doing nearly as much damage. Rowling has speculated that it’s because Umbridge is an evil we all know: a bully. I’ll take it a step further: Umbridge is a person who on paper who should be acting for good (i.e., she acts on behalf of civilized order) but instead does a great deal of harm instead: she begins with trying to basically murder a teenager, progresses to bullying a school of teenagers, and then caps it by serving as the bigoted judge and jury for wizards in the last book. There are other examples, but this one is the epitome for me.
This character would want to do harm but won’t sew carnage everyone just for the sake of doing it. Voldemort would be an example. While he is clearly evil, he doesn’t want to destroy everyone, though he will if he feels it is best. Snow in Hunger Games epitomizes this category in the last book (spoiler ahead) when he meets with Katniss and says he wasn’t the one who bombed the civilians and healers because he knew he’d already lost, so it wouldn’t serve a point. We all know he would do it without question if it helped him, but he ultimately wants some structure so things look on the level (lawful) but he can still work his way around it as needed, hence neutral evil.
And finally we reach the character alignment we should all be afraid of: chaotic evil. They want to do damage and they want it to break the system along the way. The Joker is considered the archetype here. He’s is often portrayed as a serial killer or a terrorist. His game is often that he just wants to break the Batman. I actually don’t have a better one than this (or even an other one, to be honest, except maybe Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender).
Why This Matters
All of this is well and good, but it’s useless without application. As a book reader (and maybe someday, if I ever gain the ability to work hard and actually write well, a writer), you can see the application of these concepts to stories. But not just as a means to categorize. No, it’s better if you can let these categories guide characters. You can pin good vs. good (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America vs. Iron Man, Punisher vs. every single good guy he’s tried to kill in his tenure) to have a tale of morals and ethics. You can also force someone out of their natural/original category due to extreme circumstances. I haven’t seen it yet, but the new Captain America is an example of this. Cappy is the consummate good guy. Generally, he wants to stay within the rules. Iron Man, by contrast, begins his arc as someone who doesn’t care for the rules because he’s smarter than the system. Both of their arcs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe force them into a new box. Iron Man (after continually putting others at risk due to his recklessness) supports superhero registration while the Captain (after continually being put at risk by evil contingents within the system) opposes superhero registration. Even without pinning them against each other, you have the opportunity for a crisis of faith.
Another author whose work is fun to look at through this lens in Maggie Stiefvater, particularly in The Raven Cycle. Stiefvater says she likes to have character driven stories. Knowing this actually altered my rereading of that series, and finding out about this character alignment classification system makes me want to try to lump her characters into nice little boxes. Of course, it’s not really that easy. No one is pure good/evil. No one is pure lawful/chaotic. Even in fiction, you don’t find true personifications 100% of the time. The Joker is considered the epitome of Chaotic Evil, but he functions with others. He’s a gangster in some iterations, indicating some semblance of structure. That said, he’s a good example of that particular box most of the time. The point is that trying to group characters is a bit tricky if the author goes for realism, but you still get some semblance of where someone lies.
Ronan in The Raven Cycle is definitely chaotic. He’s certainly not evil and is probably neutral. He’ll sacrifice himself but not for everyone, just those he cares about. A big progress moment for Blue in those books is when Ronan reaches out to save her without hesitating. For her, that showed that she mattered to Ronan. For our boy scout Gansey, he probably reaches out to save anyone because that’s just who he is. Gansey is lawful good because he wants to save the day and he wants to do it the right way (the critical lens would say it’s because he’s a rich, SWM, so the system was built by people like him and therefore operating in the system works just fine). Blue is likely more along the lines of neutral good (she wants to do the right thing, but the system doesn’t always work for her). Adam would be lawful neutral (wants to follow the rules, but he isn’t intrinsically looking to help people out along the way).
And so it goes. The lens is interesting, especially as it guides character interactions. When you think of two characters who should get along but don’t (Batman and Superman) or characters who should hate each other but don’t (Umbridge and Voldemort), this two-dimensional view of their characters (the characters’ characters, if you will) can help make a little more sense of things. And it can make things fun if you can break them out of their molds for a purpose. And if you’re reading a book where the characters suck, I’ll make a bet that one of two things is going on: 1) characters aren’t obeying consistent, internal drives (e.g., randomly switching from lawful good to chaotic good without adequate justification) or 2) the characters are all in one or two boxes (e.g., lawful good vs. chaotic evil).
But that’s all I have to say about that. Next time you see me, I should have an actual book review for you. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start grouping characters into little boxes like this for every review, and that’ll be my thing. I’ll pigeonhole characters based on a classification system that I’ve never used myself as a non-D&D person.