I usually do not present theories by other dramatists in this blog, but I have recently incorporated the concept of Character Alignment into my dramatic method, a concept I find helpful enough to pass on. The Nine Character Alignments is a development and analysis tool that defines any character (or any real human being, for that matter) by placing them in one of nine categories defined along two axises: Good vs. Evil, (how likely a character is to behave altruistically, versus how likely he or she is to cause others harm,) and Lawful vs. Chaotic, (the degree to which a character values strict law and order versus the freedom to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants).
These categories break down as follows:
The interesting thing is that this approach did not originate in dramatic theory. It came from, of all places, role-playing board games such as Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, players create their own in-game characters governed by specific moral and ethical guidelines. However, as evidenced by the examples below, it seems these gamers stumbled upon a very simple shorthand for understanding human behavior, one that can be easily applied to dramatic storytelling to create characters audiences can quickly identify and understand.
This article provides only a basic overview of these alignments. For more comprehensive coverage, visit http://easydamus.com/alignment.html
(AUTHOR'S EDIT 3/29/13
This article has gotten a lot of attention over the last couple days, so I have chosen to provide some clarifications based off of questions I have received.
First of all, these are not strict categories. They are fuzzy around the edges. Whether certain characters fit into one or the other is open to personal interpretation on your particular views of what constitutes good or evil or what you think qualifies as law-abiding or law-defying behavior. In other words, each person’s view of the nine alignments is ironically influenced by that person’s own personal alignment in real life.
Second, these alignments merely explain how characters see the world. It is how they judge situations through their own eyes. However, this point of view does not place strict limits on every single action the person takes. A Good person may momentarily give into temptation and take a morally questionable action. A Chaotic person may from time to time concede to society’s laws as he or she struggles internally with the question over how to best overcome conflicts. But it is that person’s personal view of the world – his or her alignment – that decides whether the character feels satisfied or guilty about the action in retrospect.
Third, Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic are two separate, unrelated factors in how a person sees the world. To look at it like algebra, one is “x” the other is “y”. But each combination of variables creates very different modes of thought and behavior. Part of the confusion is in the terms “Lawful” and “Chaotic.” Most people think of lawfulness = goodness, and chaos = badness. So instead, it is better to think of Lawful vs. Chaotic as “Collectivist vs. Individualistic.” A Lawful person sees a society as millions of people bound together as one unit. In order for that unit to prosper, it is essential that everyone follow agreed upon rules of behavior. Therefore, a Lawful Good character believes that it is of supreme importance to maintain and enforce the purity of these rules in order for them to bring about the greatest good. Anyone who operates outside the rules is seen as a troublemaker who should be punished. A Chaotic person, in complete contrast, sees themselves and others as completely independent individuals that should have the freedom to think as do as they see fit without the interference of outside rules. Therefore, the methods a Chaotic Good hero uses are not based on what society says is proper, but by their own personal judgment. When they fight for good, it is for the life, love, and happiness of individual persons, not for abstract social concepts such as “morality” or “justice.” If this means they must blow up buildings or chop off heads to overcome evil, then so be it.
To illustrate, think of a hypothetical conflict between two heroes, Superman and Batman (I know this has been done a number of times in comics already, but I am not referencing any specific story). Superman cares most about protecting social stability. That’s why, when he sees Batman circumventing the law and undermining stability by doing things his own way, Superman believes Batman to be in the wrong. Batman, on the other hand, may see the system that Superman so strongly supports to be corrupt, inefficient, or incapable of delivering the swift justice criminals deserve. He believes Superman’s viewpoint actually does harm. Therefore, he resents any control from outside. He knows he is doing what is best and no one is going to tell him otherwise. Both characters are Good, but conflict due to the fact that they have very different ideas over what “good” actually means, and how to best achieve it.)
THE GOOD ALIGNMENTS
Characters in the morally good alignments (Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good) feel driven toward actions altruistic in nature. They see the world in terms of right and wrong, and believe it is their duty to do what they see as right. They will often go out of their way to help or defend others, even at personal cost. Characters in these categories can be easy defined as heroic.
The Lawful Good are the white knights, the Eagle Scouts, the real hero-heroes of the story world. They not only believe in doing what they consider morally right, but feel it necessary to uphold concepts such as truth and justice, while at the same time preserving the sanctity of the law. Lawful Goods are moral idealists who see the rule of law as essential to the health and happiness of all. Therefore, those who defy the law must be punished. However, if the rule of society should become corrupted or grow to contradict moral ideals, the Lawful Good character will feel compelled to fight against society to put things right. Even in these cases, the Lawful Good will still prefer to fight from within a morally-approved system and will continue to follow rules in order to lead by example. The Lawful Good are honest and forthright, and will never intentionally harm another. The only times when harming another is okay is if this acts is unavoidable in order to protect oneself or others, or if necessary to protect the greater good, such as defending one's country in war. All in all, the Lawful Good live by the Golden Rule.
Luke Skywalker - Star Wars
Maximus - Gladiator
Marge Gunderson – Fargo
Frodo Baggins – Lord of the Rings
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – (500) Days of Summer
Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) – Saving Private Ryan
The Neutral Good also wish to do what is morally best for society, but are much more flexible in the methods they use to accomplish the greater good. While the Lawful Good believe in an abstract, idealized view of morality, the Neutral Good follow a more of a personal view of right and wrong. They do all they can to achieve what they think is right. They generally support society's laws, but unlike the Lawful Good, they are willing to bend or even break the rules if they see those rules as unjust, or if a greater and quicker good can be achieved by cutting corners. The Neutral Good will not harm the innocent, but will harm evildoers when the act is justified. They are honest and will keep their word, unless it is to an evildoer. The Neutral Good are pragmatic in their heroics, doing whatever needs to be done (within limits) in order to achieve the greatest good.
John McClane – Die Hard
Rocky Balboa – Rocky
Po – Kung-Fu Panda
Jack Bauer – “24”
Jason Bourne – The Bourne Identity
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) – The Sixth Sense
The Chaotic Good are rebellious heroes, often charismatic outsiders who see the system they live in as corrupt, incompetent, or immoral. They reject the rules of their society and see it as their duty to work outside of the system to accomplish the greater good. They are often loners at odds with societal norms, and value personal freedom above all other ideals, as opposed to the stability that comes from the strict rule of law. For the Chaotic Good, the ends justify the means and are more than willing to break the law to protect the innocent or provide the greater benefit to all mankind. Despite their lawlessness, the Chaotic Good act by strict personal moral codes. They will not harm the innocent and will act out of self-defense, but are much more willing to attack evildoers without warning when doing so is justified.
Neo – The Matrix
Tony Stark – Iron Man
The Dude – The Big Lebowski
T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia
The Bride – Kill Bill
THE NEUTRAL ALIGNMENTS
Characters in neutral alignments, (Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, and Chaotic Neutral) tend to see themselves as decent persons, but will generally not go out of their way or take any personal risk to promote the greater good. They are more concerned with themselves and their own personal lives than society as a whole. Stories with neutral protagonists may have main characters who are morally ambiguous, morally conflicted, self-concerned, or “everyday” men and women struggling with the wants and needs of daily life.
The Lawful Neutral are not concerned as much with Good or Evil, but with Right and Wrong. They believe a strong society requires strong rules, and those rules must be followed to ensure stability and well-being of all. Lawful Neutrals tend to see the world in black-and-white. If something is legal, it is okay. If it is illegal, it is bad and should be avoided. The Lawful Neutral believe that rules should be enforced universally and will generally not care about the ethical gray areas enforcement may create. Lawful Neutrals tend to be self-disciplined and gravitate towards areas of civic responsibility or authority. They fit in well with society and tend to be loyal and honest. However, the Lawful Neutral will rarely take any extra effort to improve society's well-being or take any risk if it means personal discomfort- especially if these actions may disrupt stability. The Lawful Neutral will not harm the innocent, but are willing to take morally ambiguous actions against supposed evildoers if it is for the benefit of social control.
Jake Gittes – Chinatown
Dwight Shrute - “The Office”
Ripley – Alien
Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) – Amadeus
Woody – Toy Story
Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) – Election
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) – Inception
True Neutrals are chiefly concerned with what is best for themselves at the particular moment. Their decisions are based mostly upon self-preservation and the desire to bring happiness to their own lives. Though they may be sympathetic to the less fortunate, they have no strong desire to do good for others, nor to do others harm. Neither do they have strong feelings about law and order. Instead, they simply accept the law as long as it does not interfere with their daily lives. Most people encountered in real life are true neutrals, going through life concerned mostly with their personal problems. Most True Neutrals see themselves as good persons, and will act ethically in most situations, but only because they believe ethical actions will benefit them more than unethical. True Neutrals are also highly law-abiding, but their obedience comes from fear of punishment rather than any ideological belief. Despite this, True Neutrals are prone to temptation. If they can gain greatly from breaking a law and believe they can escape punishment, True Neutrals will be tempted to do so. True Neutrals believe in moral reciprocity: Do unto others as they have done unto you.
Rick Blaine – Casablanca
Marlin – Finding Nemo
Ben Stone (Seth Rogan) – Knocked Up
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) – Office Space
Miles (Paul Giamatti) – Sideways
Jack (Edward Norton) – Fight Club
"Blondie" (Clint Eastwood) – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Chaotic Neutrals care for their personal freedom above everything else. Like the Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutrals see themselves as rebels or outsiders, but unlike Chaotic Good, they are motivated only by self-interest. Chaotic Neutrals are the centers of their own world. They have little to no respect for authority, and will defy the law if they believe the benefit will outweigh the punishment. It is difficult for Chaotic Neutrals to trust others and may not keep their word. They often have a disrupting influence on their environment. However, morality and ethical behavior is not uncommon. Chaotic Neutrals will often feel conflicted between their desire for personal freedom and the needs of those they care about. Like True Neutrals, Chaotic Neutrals follow moral reciprocity. They are good to those who are good to them. A Chaotic Neutral may harm an innocent person, but will feel remorse. In contrast, they feel no remorse for harming those they consider enemies.
Tyler Durden – Fight Club
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – Bonnie & Clyde
Will Hunting – Good Will Hunting
Homer Simpson - “The Simpsons”
Renton – Trainspotting
Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) – (500) Days of Summer
THE EVIL ALIGNMENTS
Evil alignments (Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil) are not only solely concerned with themselves, but they are ready and willing to harm others to achieve personal gain. Unlike the neutral alignments, there is no debate other whether an act is ethical or unethical, nor is there remorse after the act is committed. Though not all antagonists fall into evil alignments, it is impossible for a hero to successfully occupy these categories since a moral audience cannot brings themselves to anchor themselves to a person of such unethical behavior.
Most world dictators can be considered Lawful Evil. The Lawful Evil generally seek to attain and hold onto positions of power, wealth, and authority, and will do whatever it takes to do so. The Lawful Evil operate by rules, generally believing in the values of order and stability, but are motivated solely by personal gain. In fact, they will often use the law as a tool of ruthless ambition. Ironically, the Lawful Evil see themselves as good persons. They often think of themselves as acting for the betterment of society. Only, to make an omelet, they must break some eggs. And this is how the Lawful Evil see the innocents that are crushed in their wake -- as mere broken eggs, acceptable losses necessary to achieve an ultimate end. Lawful Evil have little compunction against killing when necessary, but will generally not do the killing themselves, or will at least keep it quick and painless. Despite this, the Lawful Evil are the most ethical of villains. They follow a personal code of honor and will generally keep their word. Though the Lawful Evil commit unethical actions, they always justify those actions with a logic that makes it seem necessary.
Darth Vader – Star Wars
Magneto – X-Men
Mr. Burns - “The Simpsons”
Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) – Touch of Evil
Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) – Office Space
Agent Smith – The Matrix
Doctor Zaius – Planet of the Apes
This is the alignment of most career criminals. Neutral Evils do whatever they can get away with. They are concerned solely with self-gain and do not care if they must break laws or harm innocent people to get what they want. They see the world divided into two camps: the smart and the suckers. Suckers follow the law. The smart do whatever they can get away with. Like the Neutral Good, the Neutral Evil are very pragmatic in their actions. They do whatever seems the smartest at the time. They will rarely commit evil simply for the sake of evil, and will not take foolish risks that have a high chance of capture. They form and betray alliances as it suits them. They keep and break their word as convenient. They will do whatever it takes to get ahead. The Neutral Evil will harm the innocent, and may do so for pleasure. The Neutral Evil may also help others if there is some sort of reward. Unlike the Lawful Evil, the Neutral Evil are indifferent to concepts like honor or discipline, and will use such ideals only when self-serving.
Hans Gruber – Die Hard
Virgil Sollozzo – The Godfather
Biff Tannen – Back to the Future
Lord Farquar – Shrek
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) – The Departed
Lex Luthor – The Superman franchise
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) - Fargo
These characters are the worst of the worst. The Chaotic Evil will cut a path of death and destruction after whatever their greed, lust, or wrath drives them after with no regard for either the rule of law or the welfare of others. Assuredly psychopathic in nature, the Chaotic Evil are incapable of feeling sympathy for others. Nor do they wish to, since they see others as mere playthings and pawns to fulfill their sick desires. The Chaotic Evil will kill readily and will often do so for enjoyment. They think of themselves as above both law and morality, and believe anyone who follows either is a sap. They see the world as being made up of sheep and wolves. Those who have the power to take what they want should do so, and not feel the slightest twinge of conscience.
The Joker – The Dark Knight
Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – Schindler's List
Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard
The T-800 Cyborg (and T1000 in the sequel) – The Terminator
Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs
Jason Vorhees – Friday the 13th
Noah Cross (John Huston) – Chinatown
CHARACTER ALIGNMENT AND CHARACTER ARC
Some characters will shift their alignment as their character arcs progress. Not all characters will shift. Only those whose arc deals with a trait relating to Good vs. Evil or Lawfulness vs. Chaos. Characters may move -
Up: Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List (Lawful Evil to Lawful Good)
Down: Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral)
or, Sideways: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty (Lawful Neutral to Chaotic Neutral)
I have yet to see a character shift diagonally, such as from Chaotic Neutral to Neutral Good. Such a move may be impossible to achieve. Perhaps this is because the cinematic form demands simplicity in character arcs, meaning only one major trait transforms over the course of the story. A diagonal move would require a character to change in both his or her capacity for good/evil, as well as his or her views of law/chaos. It would seem such a move would require two separate character arcs, which would end up muddying and confusing the story.