Creating Characters and Conflict with the D&D Alignment System

Dungeons & Dragons player characters have one nine alignments that vary between Lawful and Chaotic on one axis and Good and Evil on the other axis:

(struggled to find original credit for this…)

Descriptions below largely follow the D&D Version 3 manual, but I’ve occasionally added details or changed the archetypes given in parentheses.

Lawful Good (Crusader)

A lawful good character typically acts with compassion and always with honor and a sense of duty. However, lawful good characters will often regret taking any action they fear would violate their code, even if they recognize such action as being good.

Examples: Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Superman, Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story)

Neutral Good (Hero)

A neutral good character typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A neutral good character has no problems with cooperating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them.

Examples: Gandalf, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Chaotic Good (Rebel)

A chaotic good character does what is necessary to bring about change for the better, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. Chaotic good characters usually intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of sync with the rest of society.

Examples: Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, R2-D2

Lawful Neutral (Judge)

A lawful neutral character typically believes strongly in lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules, and tradition, but often follows a personal code in addition to, or even in preference to, one set down by a benevolent authority.

Examples: Dwight Schrute (The Office), Morpheus (The Sandman), Batman

True Neutral (Undecided or Aloof)

A neutral character (also called “true neutral”) is neutral on both axes and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment, or actively seeks their balance. They tend to be motivated by personal relationships, inscrutable concerns, or concerns separate from both axes.

Examples: Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher), The Dude (The Big Labowski), Garfield

Chaotic Neutral (Free Spirit)

A chaotic neutral character is an individualist who follows their own heart and generally shirks rules and traditions. Although chaotic neutral characters promote the ideals of freedom, it is their own freedom that comes first; good and evil come second to their need to be free.

Examples: Achilles (The Illiad), Joel Miller (The Last of Us), The Hulk

Lawful Evil (Tyrant)

A lawful evil character sees a well-ordered system as being necessary to fulfill their own personal wants and needs, using these systems to further their power and influence.

Examples: Darth Vader, Thanos (MCU Infinity War / Endgame), Bowser (Super Mario)

Neutral Evil (Out-for-oneself)

A neutral evil character is typically selfish and has no qualms about turning on allies-of-the-moment, and usually makes allies primarily to further their own goals. A neutral evil character has no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit for themselves.

Examples: Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Scar (The Lion King)

Chaotic Evil (Destroyer)

A chaotic evil character tends to have no respect for rules, other people’s lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have much regard for the lives or freedom of other people. Chaotic evil characters may pursue destruction even at risks to themselves.

Examples: The Joker, stereotypical psychopaths, cartoon villains

Is alignment a tool for character creation or a gimmick?

Google searches readily return alignment grids with Star Wars, Harry Potter, or characters from other franchises parsed into the nine grid cells. Is that just a gimmick? Or can it help us create characters and interesting conflicts.

There are some reasons to think alignment is not just a gimmick:

  • Some writers (me included) tend to make characters that are too complex, that have too many motivations or lack a clear philosophy. Often a simple phrase or dilemma is best for framing characters, and alignment can help us find that philosophical core (See the alignment grid above for example catch phrases).
  • Creativity for many writers is more of a hermeneutic circle than a process of accretion: the parts inform our understanding of the whole, and the whole informs our understanding of the parts. Writing prompts are a good starting point for some writers. But others work best starting from a whole, which could be the alignment system, and then using that to discover the parts that contribute to the whole.
  • Alignment can connect our characters and conflicts to central human themes concerning authority vs. freedom, the striving of good against evil, etc.
  • Interesting conflicts in fiction isn’t always the result of misaligned interests (e.g. the protagonist wants X, and the antagonist wants to stop the protagonist from having X, or vise versa). Conflict can result from characters disagreeing about the right way to approach a problem because they have different philosophical outlooks.
  • Many character arcs can helpfully be understood as movement from one alignment to another.

Treebeard: True Neutral to Chaotic Good

Let’s consider the last two points with an example (Caution: Spoilers Ahead!). Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings movies begins as a True Neutral. He doesn’t care about fighting the wars of men. He’s asked, “Whose side are you on?” and his response is, “Side? I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.” The overall impression we get is that he respects a natural order that is very old and slow-moving, one quite separate from human notions of law and order. Although he hates orcs (“They come with fire, they come with axes, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning, destroyers and usurpers.”). He destroys them like pests when he encounters them, but doesn’t actively move against them.

The hobbits Merry and Pippin encourage him to fight, but it’s only when he sees the widespread destruction and deforestation caused by the wizard Saruman that he laments, “Many of these trees were my friends” and marshals the ents for war against Saruman and Isengard.

In the battle against Isengard, he orders the undamming of a river and destroys industrial fortifications, indicating that he has not only moved toward Good in actively opposing Evil but now views nature in its destructive aspect as a force for Good. He’s now closer to Chaotic Good, which is a natural opponent of Chaotic Evil orcs. The incongruity between his original True Neutral alignment and his hatred of orcs is resolved. The alignment grid helps us recognize his change as not just increased motivation to act, but as a change in his philosophical outlook. A savvy writer making a Treebeard-like character can use this to write a more profound character arc.

Deirdre Beaubeirdra: Lawful Neutral to Neutral Good

In the Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once, Jamie Lee Curtis plays an IRS agent named Deirdre Beaubeirdra. She’s setup as Lawful Neutral, as we expect IRS agents to be. Although there are signs there’s more too her: She gives Evelyn Quan and Waymond Wang, a Chinese couple that own a failing laundromat, extra chances to get their finances in order. When there are indications Quan and Wang might be deducting certain expenses fraudulently she only has them fill out more paperwork rather than pursue her suspicions.

Because Everything Everywhere All at Once is a scifi film that involves different versions of the same person body-jumping between different universes in the multiverse, Beaubeirdra arguably has a stint as Chaotic Evil when she rampages after Quan and Wang as a pro-wrestler. But her real change occurs later when she comes to repossess Quan and Wang’s laundromat. In the end, she takes pity and decides to give them another chance. We can’t view her as Lawful Neutral anymore. Characters of that alignment don’t let compassion get in the way of their principles. The power of her change comes from how decisive her shift is. It’s not just that she’s waffled around within the confines of an alignment. She’s Neutral Good, and we suspect that’s really how she always was–an impression that’s nurtured knowing that in another universe (where everyone has hotdogs for fingers) she and Quan are deeply intimate. The conflict between Beaubeirdra and Quan is resolved because she turns out to not have the devotion to Law that we thought she had. They’re now the same alignment.

What’s the lesson for writers? Try imagining your character arc as a change from one alignment to another. That might make it more powerful.

Steve Rogers/Captain America vs. Iron Man/Tony Stark

The central problem in Captain America: Civil War is that the Avengers, while acting unilaterally in Nigeria, fail to contain an explosion and a dozen or more innocent people die. Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Ironman) have different perspectives on how to respond. Stark thinks the Avengers should accept oversight by the United Nations, and Rogers distrusts that politicians will act with the wisdom and decisiveness needed for the Avengers to do the most good.

On the surface, Rogers seems to be the paradigm of a Lawful Good character, but when the chips are down, he favors Good over Law, so he’s closer to Neutral Good. Or to be precise, Rogers’s Lawful impulses undermine themselves. He’s so committed to his own principles that he’s less willing to compromise, even with legitimate authority, when Good is at risk. Whereas, Stark is willing to compromise. Conversely, Stark appears to be a Neutral Good character because he’s more open to compromise and rougher around the edges, but he bends toward Law in light of the collateral damage the Avengers caused. They both serve Good, but they disagree about methods.

On one hand, this example shows weakness in the alignment system: Lawful Good and Neutral Good don’t fully describe Rogers’s or Stark’s philosophies. But on the other hand, the alignment system helps us understand why they have the philosophies they have and why they responded to the inciting incident behind Captain America: Civil War so differently.

Making Our Own Characters with the Alignment Grid

This process can take many forms and shouldn’t be seen as a strict algorithm to follow. But say we’re starting from square one, trying to dream up our protagonist and their main problem. We pick an alignment, possibly at random, although in practice choosing an Evil alignment can be tricky in terms of making a our protagonist likeable. But we still want something off-beat, so our protagonist can be an assassin that’s Chaotic Neutral. So our protagonist is a free spirit, he likes his freedom, maybe like Han Solo.

How did he get that way? Maybe he was (is?) forced into serving a character with a different alignment, say the antagonist, a Lawful Evil tyrant, kind of like Darth Vader. This is starting to feel too Star Warsy, but we still want an antagonist that’s philosophically different from the protag, so make the antag Lawful Neutral. She’s really-by-the-book. What kind of by-the-book characters are associated with assassins? Well, assassins are associated with death, and the Grim Reaper is almost always a rules guy. So our antag can be the GR and our protag can be an assassin that’s the GR’s punk little brother.

Protag and Antag need some kind of concrete disagreement that becomes a bigger and bigger problem for both of them (Maybe there’s some super-Reaper that Antag is beholden to. Maybe we have some kind of bureaucracy of Reapers, Antag is a middle-manager and Protag is a grunt). We also need Protag to be likeable, but he can’t be particularly good if he’s Chaotic Neutral. So he’s reaping people in droves because he does clean-up after natural disasters (he values nature for its wild energy, but doesn’t like his mop up work because its basically checking names off a list).

Now Neutral characters (except Neutral Evil) tend to put stock in personal relationships, so he needs someone to be invested in. So we need another character (an ally), someone Good because we’ve got the feeling our Protag should make a change toward Good (probably Neutral Good). Ally knows natural disasters are out of control–say they’re storms because Protag likes riding storms–and are killing way too many people. She can’t harm reapers, but she can make them experience their human life before they were reapers, and that same magic draws them together because they were lovers in his past life. So Protag has to make a choice between reaping her and letting her live, and he lets her live, even though its against the rules. This ruffles Antag, who doesn’t break the rules.

It comes out that Antag’s boss is causing the uptick in storms, trying to acquire extra souls. Boss is Lawful Evil, although with some definite Neutral Evil tendencies because they’re definitely less by-the-book than most reapers. They exploit the reaper bureaucracy more like a pyramid scheme….

Weaknesses of Alignment as a Tool

What are some weaknesses of the alignment system for character generation? One is shown by the Captain America example above. Rogers and Stark aren’t just differentiated by their core dispositions, but by their personal experiences: Stark has an encounter with a mother who lost her son due to collateral damage when the Avengers fought a battle in Sokovia. Rogers is told by a close friend that it’s important not to compromise when you know what you’re doing is right, even if everyone tells you compromise is necessary. No matter how superheroic Rogers and Stark and, they’re still people, and most people are roughly True Neutrals most of the time, just living life but encouraged to take a stand due to personal relationships and experiences. If we’re aimed at making characters like this, as do many authors of realistic or literary fiction, the alignment grid loses much of its versatility for our purposes.

This leads into another potential drawback of the alignment system. If we follow character alignment slavishly (as a Lawful Neutral character might) we might generate characters that seem flat or only appropriate for a certain genres, like superhero fiction. For instance Cersei Lannister is, for the most part, a textbook example of a Neutral Evil character. She doesn’t have inordinate respect for institutions, but she is more than willing to control and exploit them for selfish purposes. However she also has a sincere interest in protecting her children and promoting their interests, potentially even at the expense of her own. It can be helpful to take inspiration from a character’s alignment–in the same way that we take inspiration from writing prompts–but be willing to build in exceptions as circumstances require. Perhaps these exceptions will enrich an otherwise static character. Other times, they might be the start of a character change that leads them to a new alignment.

Last, the alignment grid can help us develop characters with philosophical grounding, but it’s not sufficient for getting at every kind of character’s philosophy or at the themes those philosophies point towards. There are many other axes we might helpfully locate our characters on: optimism versus pessimism, forgiving versus prickly, etc. In Hollywood movies, perhaps the most common character change is a movement from cowardice to courage. The alignment grid doesn’t help with that change. Also, there are axes that fit on the alignment grid after a fashion, but the Lawful versus Chaotic labels are too coarse to describe them: tradition versus innovation, principled versus pragmatic, etc. We’ve seen this with the Captain America case above where we have to break Law into multiple aspects in order to analyze the conflict.

Making New Alignment Grids

Traditional D&D alignment not describing particular character changes or conflicts isn’t necessarily an objection to the overall approach. We’re free to make new grids using new axes to help generate ideas for characters and conflict. Say we want to explore “Hollywood alignment”, which preserves Good vs. Evil on the vertical axis but swaps in Courageous vs. Cowardly on the horizontal axis.

WarriorEverymanTrue Coward

In dreaming up paradigms for the nine cells in new grids, I found it surprisingly difficult to imagine labels for all nine–especially the Neutral cells. So that’s why I have Reactive and Proactive in the upper row, even though they aren’t nouns. The idea is that Hollywood protagonists tend to be fundamentally Good people, but they’re indecisive, cowardly, or unsure. At first, they’re mostly controlled by their habits and their circumstances (Reactive). They have to make a move toward being more active and altering their circumstances (Proactive). Finally, they accomplish feats or perform sacrifices beyond the caliber of most people and are recognized as a Hero.

How can we use this grid to push a Hollywood protagonist through this arc:

  • They could compare themselves with a True Coward (someone that doesn’t care to do good and is also afraid to act) and grow to hate the cowardice in themself
  • They could try to live up to the achievements of a Hero character
  • They could respect the courage of a Warrior (not bad, not particularly inclined to do good) or Mercenary (ruthless / out-for-themself) and be embarrassed they aren’t move proactive when others who lack their Good ideals are.

Of course all of these conflicts need not be strictly introspective processes. These other characters could be in open conflict with our Reactive or Proactive protagonist, actively or accidentally pushing them to be more of a Hero.

Final Advice

  • Can you describe your character’s change as a shift between alignments? If not, try to. Your character’s change might not be decisive or profound enough.
  • All are the major characters of your story different alignments. If not, would the story be more interesting if they were?
  • Do you want to deal with themes or conflicts between characters that aren’t described well by the alignment grid axes. Try making a new grid and using that instead.
  • Don’t let your characters’ alignments handcuff them. Real people and interesting characters act differently in different situations and are motivated by many different factors.