Image: Matthew Loffhagen
One of the hardest parts of creating a character – let alone enough of them to tell a story – is knowing where to begin. Their function within the story is paramount (that’s what they’re ‘for’ after all), but after that, how do you start putting together complex, consistent, and engaging people?
There are many points of entry, but in this article I’ll be looking at a simple tool you can use to get started. It’s a grid of nine squares that can give you the basis for a strong character or the questions you need to flesh out what already exists.
Some of you already know what I’m talking about and are more than familiar with the concept of ‘character alignment’ and the way it can be expressed as a grid. For everyone else, here’s a brief explainer.
Character alignment, as it’s currently understood, originates from the world of role-playing games, in which players adopt the personas of various characters and engage in a mix of gameplay and group storytelling with the dual aims of a) accomplishing an in-story goal and b) making decisions in a way that realistically portrays the character they control within the game.
The most popular version of the system – and the one you’re likely to see when you search for the term – comes from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Despite this, it’s taken on a life of its own independent from the game (which has altered and updated its rules over the years) influencing other works and becoming a reference point in various forms of pop culture. It’s not unusual for fans to try and fill out a character alignment grid with characters from a favorite work (why this works, we’ll return to in a bit).
What’s notable about this method is that it focuses on a character’s utility within the world. The players have limited control over events in the story – they can decide what they want to do, but only with the information they have, and with no guarantee of success – and so the characters are treated as separate from the world and from each other.
This approach is ideal for some stories and terrible for others, but it’s worth trying, because it focuses on the character as something you can ‘use’ within the story. More delicate development follows, but where it works, the character alignment grid sets a bedrock of utility.Character alignment treats your characters in a unique way for surprising results.Click To Tweet
Knowing your character’s alignment means getting a rough idea of how they’ll feel about each other and about situations, which allows you to work harmoniously with the plot a lot sooner than other methods. It also allows you to bake group dynamics into character creation – in This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters I talked about how to decide on your characters by looking at what they’ll bring out in each other. This technique can usually be paired with the alignment grid for fantastic results.
So what is the character alignment grid?
The grid itself is usually depicted as nine squares which recreate a simplified but useful spectrum of behavior. This spectrum is constructed using two axes:
Axis 1 – Good to Evil: This denotes a character’s attitude to other individuals, and can best be understood as a spectrum of altruism to selfishness (or even outright sadism).
Axis 2 – Lawful to Chaotic: This denotes a character’s attitude to the system of laws that exist in their world. It’s important to note that, usually, this doesn’t apply to personal standards (to one’s personal code, for example) but to the objective rule of law.
In creating the character alignment grid, this system takes the extreme points of both axes as well as the middlemost point (referred to as ‘Neutral’), creating nine possible combinations for a character’s alignment:
- Lawful Good
- Neutral Good
- Chaotic Good
- Lawful Neutral
- True Neutral
- Chaotic Neutral
- Lawful Evil
- Neutral Evil
- Chaotic Evil
These are generally expressed in a grid, as below.
Applying the character alignment grid to your characters
Using the grid is easy – you simply take a character, consider what you already know about them, and judge which square suits them best. This categorization then acts as a reference point as you add more information or have them encounter new events.
I’ll move onto each square shortly, and provide some information to make your decision easier, but first there are the caveats:
- The system is primarily designed for role-playing games. It’s useful for authors, but it’s the starting point for further characterization, and is too simplistic to be everything you’ll need.
- Characters may end up shifting squares as they develop. This is normal, and is something to embrace – again, the grid provides a simple starting point for someone’s approach to the world and people around them, but people are complex, and characters should be too. Character alignment helps authors keep characterization consistent, but it’s a check, not a cage.
- I’ll be expanding on each square below with reference to existing, well-known characters. As the grid is only the start of characterization, these characters will be more complex and well-rounded than the square they inhabit – they may even shift squares as their stories go on – and are used solely for the purposes of illustration. The character grid famously invites controversy when applied to existing, developed characters, so it can be taken as read that, if you think someone belongs in a different category, you’re not alone, and you probably have a point.
The ‘Lawful Good’ categorization suggests a character who is both altruistic to other individuals and concerned with upholding existing standards of authority and justice.
To fall within this square, a character usually has to be actively invested in both these viewpoints. That is, they don’t just follow the law; they champion it. Likewise, they’re not simply un-cruel, but specifically seek to do good for others.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a good example of this character type – someone driven to solve crimes both because he wishes to help others and because he is an agent of the legal process. So committed to the law is Poirot that, when he cannot legally apprehend a dangerous individual and considers murdering them, he resolves to kill himself, as well, rather than live successfully outside the law.
This type of character crusades for justice, but they can also be limited by the laws that guide them and often come into conflict with characters who have a similar desire to do good but prefer (or need) to work outside the law.
As with the other squares within the ‘Good’ subgroup, ‘Neutral Good’ requires that a character actively pursues doing good for others, but here they’re less concerned with existing systems of law when doing so. A superhero vigilante like Spider-Man or Batman would be a good example – someone who helps others within and outside the law but has no particular desire to break the law in doing so.
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right… When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world, “No, you move.”
– J. Michael Straczynski, The Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War
Tolkien’s Gandalf is a more authoritative example – someone who is happy to work with lawmakers and authority figures for the good of others but isn’t bound by their opinions or rules.
This type of character is freer to pursue their altruism than a Lawful Good character, but can be disruptive in doing so, and may consider other characters to be limited in their attitudes.
A character who is Chaotic Good is altruistic but is also actively aggressive to existing figures and systems of authority. Though the specifics of his legend make his relationship to authority more complex, the general pop-culture perception of Robin Hood as a benevolent bandit makes him a good example.
Robin Hood is often depicted deliberately harassing agents of the king because of their authority, which he feels is to the detriment of the king’s subjects. It’s this active targeting of the law that makes a character chaotic, rather than simply coming into conflict with it.
Chaotic Good characters are most usually paired with a corrupt system, and almost always depicted as some form of rebel.
A Lawful Neutral character is unconcerned with whether they’re kind or cruel to others, using the importance of the law and existing systems of authority as the guiding light of their behavior.Morality and the law aren’t always the same, especially in a character’s worldview.Click To Tweet
This is the case with Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert. To Javert, a man’s criminality is his defining trait, and a criminal must be apprehended at all costs, no matter how much time has passed or how thoroughly the man has reformed.
I have denounced you as a convict, you, a respectable man, a mayor, a magistrate! That is serious, very serious. I have insulted authority in your person, I, an agent of the authorities! If one of my subordinates had done what I have done, I should have declared him unworthy of the service, and have expelled him… Good God! it is very easy to be kind; the difficulty lies in being just. Come! if you had been what I thought you, I should not have been kind to you, not I!
– Victor Hugo, The Works of Victor Hugo
This type of character is often depicted as a villain – authority without compassion is difficult to render sympathetically – but they are sincere. Javert believes that society depends on holding authority as sacrosanct, and when he begins to consider that it might be somehow right to allow a guilty man to go free, he finds that, in doing so, he would also have to take his own life.
A truly neutral character isn’t particularly concerned with whether they’re cruel or kind, nor whether they operate within the law or against it. Often, this type of character is seen as the everyman – someone who’s just trying to live their life without actively seeking to meet an absolute standard. In fact, many role-playing games that use a character alignment system group animals into this category.
It’s rare that main characters are depicted as True Neutral. Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind comes close – a hapless coward who wishes the world would leave him alone and spends most of his time running away (though he does have the odd heroic moment).
He’d always felt he had a right to exist as a wizard in the same way that you couldn’t do proper maths without the number 0, which wasn’t a number at all but, if it went away, would leave a lot of larger numbers looking bloody stupid.
– Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times
Even here, though, Rincewind is deliberately pathetic, often paired with more deliberate characters, and something of an experiment into whether his character type could support a novel (a debatable success, seeing as he appeared less and less in Pratchett’s later work, and the novels featuring him are often identified as some of the weakest).
This type, however, also has room for conmen and grifters. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (spoilers to follow) offers a prime example in the form of DJ. Portrayed by Benicio Del Toro, this character is sincerely willing to aid the heroes for a reward but, when caught, is equally happy to switch sides to save his skin and make a profit – he has no real agenda for the world and whatever moral inclination he might have isn’t enough to sway his behavior in either instance. These characters are fun, but they can rarely support a story without having an attack of conscience that shifts their categorization – not caring much either way isn’t that compelling.
A chaotic neutral character wants to do whatever they feel like at any given time, and they resent any authority that might stand in the way of them doing so. The most obvious contemporary example is Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty – Rick is a super-genius who can travel between dimensions; a freedom that leads him to consider any kind of wider authority as a personal and philosophical affront.
Jerry: Uh, Rick, is there anything you’d like to tell us about your relationship with this previously unknown galactic government?
Rick: All the important points seem pretty clear, no? They think they control the galaxy, I disagree. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, son.
– Dan Harmon, ‘The Wedding Squanchers’, Rick and Morty
Rick has consequently come into conflict with the galactic government, the president of America, and ‘The Council of Ricks’, a group made up of versions of himself from other dimensions.
Characters in this category are often particularly extreme (even cartoonish) since their main aim is to challenge order, often as a goal in itself. They’re difficult to structure a story around, but are often excellent secondary characters, giving authors the freedom to throw a grenade into their story on a whim. Sometimes, these characters take on the role of the trickster – something we covered in Writing Loki – Why Your Novel Needs A Trickster.
Lawful Evil characters are selfish and cruel, and they value systems of authority. These two interests often intersect, as their position in an orderly society allows for expressions of cruelty and control, but both beliefs are sincere – a character who is merely cruel, and will pursue either order or chaos if it allows them to hurt others, is Neutral Evil.
In George Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien is an agent of the tyrannical government, happily tasked with ensuring its continued rule. His cruelty manifests in the deliberate pain he inflicts on others, and his chosen role as not just an agent of the state, but one who deliberately fosters false hope. His belief in order is just as real, to the extent that he expresses the belief that an ordered government is the only source of metaphysical truth.
Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.
– George Orwell, 1984
Lawful Evil characters make great antagonists, since readers don’t need much of an excuse to dislike authority, and lend themselves to David and Goliath struggles where they hold power over the protagonist. They can also work as protagonists, since a skilled author can convince the reader that even a lawful evil is preferable to a certain kind of chaos.There are many different types of character, but the right choice can make a story sing.Click To Tweet
The movie Starship Troopers plays with this idea, depicting a war between Earth and a race of giant insects, with the humans becoming more glaringly fascistic as the story unfolds.
Neutral Evil characters want to hurt or suppress others for their own advantage, but they’re happy to work with or against authority to do it. J.K. Rowling’s Dementors are a good example. They want to feed on human happiness, but they’re willing to do so in the wild or to join up with political factions – in the Harry Potter series, they’re used by successive governments, seemingly motivated solely by the opportunity to feed unimpeded.
This is also the case for characters who were willing to work within the law until it stopped being an option – Disney’s Cruella De Vil is a surprisingly vile example of a Neutral Evil character. She wants to make a coat out of puppies, but she’s perfectly happy to pay for them. When that fails, she resorts to theft, but it wasn’t her first choice – it’s just the most convenient means to her evil ends.
De Vil is a useful example, because she shows that Neutral Evil isn’t necessarily any less evil than its chaotic and lawful siblings – it isn’t even necessarily less compelling. There are plenty of evil lawyers, bosses, and agents of the law who begin stories using their lawful powers for evil before opting for the illegal when they fail.
Remember that character alignment is about who someone is, rather than just what they do – a Neutral Evil character might stay within the law because it’s working for them. They don’t need to stray from the law to be Neutral Evil, they just need to not care about it – attitude over action.
Chaotic Evil characters want to hurt, suppress, and use others, and they also hate authority. As with Lawful Evil characters, it’s important to keep in mind that both beliefs are sincere – the Chaotic Evil character might hate that the legal system stops them hurting others in the ways they’d like, but they also venerate chaos as its own end.
This character alignment is so extreme that it’s often the purview of demons – things that live outside ordered reality and so are free to pursue its extinction. Crazed serial killers often make the grade – as much unable to cope with an ordered world as feeling they’d benefit from one that’s chaotic – and the most obvious example is DC’s The Joker, if only for Alfred Pennyworth’s perfect description of the mentality:
Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
– Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Chaotic Evil characters are often both thrilling and unsympathetic, but like every other character, it’s possible for them to carry the right sort of story. Mark Millar’s Wanted revolves around a character who discovers his criminal lineage and sets about waging war on the systems that used to govern his life. He’s a genuinely heinous figure – and the ending arguably highlights that any readers who found him sympathetic were in the wrong – but in a narrative that discusses the small indignities of an unremarkable life, he’s an effective protagonist.
The interplay of alignments
I mentioned earlier that it’s common to see people slotting the casts of various media into the character alignment grid. It’s an overly simplistic process, but it’s often pretty easy to do, and that’s because stories benefit from conflict, and combining characters of different alignments is a recipe for all different kinds and sizes of conflict. Your Lawful Evil antagonistic might have a Chaotic Evil henchman who goes too far for their tastes. Your protagonist might be Neutral Good, flanked by friends who are chaotic and lawful – the relative angel and devil on their shoulders. Complexities emerge from there, but it’s a good model for a three-person unit, and an easy way to address the chicken and egg scenario of how to begin a plot without characters (and vice versa).There are ways to construct enough of your characters to kick-start your plot.Click To Tweet
It can also solve problems like how to keep a series going, how to make multiple antagonists or protagonists work in a story, or how to find conflict in moments that don’t immediately present it. The different character alignments present different approaches, but they also show the fault lines – the building blocks of a character’s worldview that can bring them into conflict with others, be it differing priorities or different ideas of how those priorities can be addressed. You can look at any two characters and see where they differ in their approach, look at the alignments present in a situation and see what new viewpoint can be added, or try to imagine a character’s journey from one square to another over the course of a story.
Developing your story with the alignment grid
You can also, of course, begin building a cast of characters. If that’s what you want to do, I suggest printing out the boxes and creating small labels with indicators for various characters – names or, if they don’t have them yet, roles. You’ll quickly see if too many of your characters share the same worldview, or if there are any perspectives you’re not using to explore your story.
Of course, it’s something you can do in your head, but the tactility of actually having spaces to fill and labels to put in them can make an abundance or absence more apparent. Maybe your story of resolute heroes and diabolical villains could use a character who’s just trying to get by, or maybe making one character more concerned with law and traditions will set up some interesting roadblocks with their stalwart ally. There are connections and sources of conflict waiting to be discovered, so give it a try.
Let me know what this process yields in the comments below, and check out This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters for more on how different alignments interact, and How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story for a focus on how exploring different viewpoints can bring depth, or even new life, to your story.