Character Crafting: The Third Alignment

Greetings everyone!  I’m pleased to present the second guest post by an outstanding writer, Andrew Lias. It’s inspired me to open another series of articles to round out Story Crafting and World Crafting: Character Crafting! I was particularly excited about this post, because I’m a fan of Michael Moorcock and Elric of Melnibone. Without further ado…


The Third Alignment

–Andrew Lias

Anyone who has played D&D should be familiar with the alignment system. For those who may not be, characters in the game are partially defined by an alignment that has two axes: good/evil and lawful/chaotic with each of them having a neutral mid-point. A character might be Lawful Good, Chaotic Neutral, or any of nine other combinations.

The narrative function of alignments are to provide an easy hook to understand a character’s motivations and actions. It’s like a behavioral synopsis. Strictly speaking it’s a bit of a lazy device that, at its worst, can make it difficult to play truly complex characters. In spite of this, it’s such a useful way to summarize characters that role players often get into the habit of assigning alignments to characters in other fictional constructs, such as books and movies. This is a habit that can easily carry over into writing fiction.

The history of the alignment system is fairly interesting. One might suppose that the moral axis (good/neutral/evil) would have come first, since that’s the most intuitive, followed by what we might call the dispositional axis (chaotic/neutral/lawful), but it was actually the other way around. In the basic version of D&D, characters could only be chaotic, lawful or neutral. The reason for this is that Gary Gygax was a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s Champion Eternal saga (whose most famous character must be Elric of Melnibone).

Moorcock was at the vanguard of the New Wave movement in speculative fiction. The New Wave was a deliberate break from the Golden Age tropes of science fiction that tended to emphasize heroic characters solving problems with technology and scientific savvy. The New Wave movement, by contrast, emphasized literary experimentation with a deemphasis on the hard sciences.

When Moorcock was writing the Champion Eternal saga, he realized that he had an opportunity to create a pantheon that wasn’t based around the traditional notions of good and evil. Explicitly rejecting the standard moral templates, he created a universe where the major conflict was between the forces of Law and Chaos. In practice, the Lords of Chaos were often portrayed as though they were evil beings, but there were always nuances to this, and the author took pains to show that the forces of order could be just as awful if they weren’t checked.

Moorcock is an explicitly political writer who felt that it was impossible to create fiction that didn’t have a political subtext. Given this, I think that we can understand Moorcock’s rejection of the good/evil dichotomy as a statement about how our moral intuitions don’t really map unto a world that’s complex and messy. Recasting the world in terms of order and chaos almost certainly made more sense to him.

As such, the reintroduction of good and evil into the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons system was, in truth, an ironic bastardization of Moorcock’s likely goal, but it’s also one that made a great deal of intuitive sense to players. It allowed people an easy way to see moral nuance. You now had a way to draw a distinction between a mindless brute that simply lashes out at anyone with naked malice and a character that torments people through careful machiavellian manipulations. Both characters can be called evil, but now we can say that the former is chaotic and the latter is lawful. The system is so intuitive, in fact, that I believe that it’s easy for people to overlook the fact that there’s something a bit odd about it’s nomenclature.

It’s not controversial to say that the opposite of good is evil, but the opposite of chaos is not law, it’s order. So why do we have an alignment system where chaos and lawfulness are the endpoint of the axis? It’s hard to say without indulging in some speculation, but I think that Moorcock’s use of the term Law was intended to invoke a sense of authoritarianism. Moorcock was (and, perhaps, remains) a political radical (he describes himself as a pragmatic anarchist) who has frequently expressed contempt for the established political institutions. While he saw the dangers of chaos, he also felt that political power, wielded in the name of upholding the law, could be even more dangerous.

Whatever political subtext may have inspired Moorcock to make Law the antonym of Chaos has certainly been lost in the context of role playing where Law has become used as an explicit synonym for order. Gamers usually reconcile the apparent contradiction of saying that something is lawful evil by saying that a character who is lawful evil is rule bound. A lawful evil person will have a code of honor. The Mafia is often held up as an example of a lawful evil organization due to their adherence to Omerta, which is an unwritten code of conduct that all mafioso are supposed to be bound by. I would, contend, however, that this doesn’t really work.

Consider Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic sociopath from The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is a brilliant psychologist and a master manipulator. His typical modus operandi is to treat the people around him as pawns to be moved on a chessboard that only he can fully perceive. He is, in other words, a highly organized character and it would be perverse to call him chaotic. But, at the same time, he completely lacks any moral compass. Hannibal does not have a code of honor. He may engage in quid pro quo exchanges, but only so long as they benefit him. He is perfectly capable of betrayal and lacks any sense of personal honor.

Hannibal is not chaotic, but neither is he lawful in any of the senses that we would normally associate with the term. If we have to peg Hannibal down, most gamers would say that he’s Neutral Evil, suggesting that he can vacillate between chaotic and lawful behaviors, but I would contend that this isn’t really the case. Hannibal is never chaotic. He is consistently orderly. The problem isn’t with his disposition; the problem is with the term Lawful.

Lawfulness isn’t the opposite of chaotic, nor does it make sense to express it as a dichotomy of chaos except from within the political context of Moorcock’s own writing. The use of the term Lawful obscures what I feel is the need for a third axis: lawful and unlawful.

Where good and evil are moral coordinates and order and chaos are behavioral coordinates, lawful and unlawful can be thought of thought of as social coordinates. By this, I mean that they represent a character’s relationship to their society. A lawful character obeys the rules of society where an unlawful one breaks them. In these terms, Hannibal is Orderly Unlawful Evil. His methodical approach to the world and his capacity to plan far in advance makes him orderly, his disdain for the rules of society make him unlawful, and his murderousness makes him evil.

We can look to Robin Hood as an example of another character that isn’t well served by the standard alignments. Is he Lawful? He flaunts the laws of the land and defies the government, so that doesn’t seem right. Is he chaotic? He carefully plans and plots against the king, so that doesn’t fit. Once again, we’re tempted to use Neutral as a catch-all, but that just seems like we’re evading the question. Indeed, this is a problem with any sort of vigilante hero archetype. Batman is in the same basic boat.

If we add a lawful/unlawful axis, though, and change the dispositional axis to chaotic/orderly, all of the confusion evaporates. Now we can consistently say that Robin Hood is Orderly Unlawful Good without feeling like we’re trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

So what’s the point of this? After all, the traditional alignments work perfectly well for gaming and have for decades. Why even bring it up? The reason isn’t that this would be useful for gamers; however, it should be useful for authors who are also gamers.

As authors, we can not, and should not, attempt to avoid our influences. An author who is a gamer has a natural tendency to view characters in terms of the D&D alignment system, and why not? Even though there is a risk of using alignments too rigidly, it’s a useful cognitive tool for getting an initial vantage point on what sort of person a given character is. It’s so useful, in fact, that we ought to be aware of the hidden assumptions that the alignment system is based upon.

The weakness of the standard alignments is that they were grafted from a set of stories that were trying to make specific political points into a world based on a different set of assumptions. While they work well enough for the purposes of role playing, those same assumptions have the potential to warp the characters we make when it comes time to put pen to paper.

I believe that proposing a third axis helps to mitigate those assumptions and that it can also give us a way to think about our characters more precisely. With three axes, we are able to start from a more nuanced point. Is my character a good person? Is she impulsive or precise? Does she tend to work from within the rules of society, or does she violate them? And if so, how does she violate them? This, in turn, can lead to numerous why questions.

Another way of saying this is that if you want your characters to have depth, you need a third dimension.

7 thoughts on “Character Crafting: The Third Alignment

  1. Pingback: Character Crafting: Shifting Perspectives | Inner Worlds Fiction

  2. Interesting post. I’ve never been a gamer, so I tend not to think of characters in terms of D&D alignments, but I’d agree they’re a useful resource if they’re used, not just parrotted. I’ve been a fan of Moorcock, though, for more years than I care to think. I recall one of his books (though I’ve forgotten the title) where he deliberately turned the whole thing on its head – the heroes represented Chaos, which was seen as creativity and imagination, while Law was a monolithic tyranny.

    Chaotic Lawful Good – wouldn’t that describe Columbo?

    • Great books. In the Elric series, I don’t think it was as cut and dry as heroes=chaos=good, thought the protagonists were certainly chaotic. Elric was screwed over by his demon lords from time to time, and the order guys helped at times, but were also dreadfully terrible if they were ever to win. I think in the end he rejects both the lords of order and of chaos.

    • PS… Nyki… I know you exist, but I always find it a curiosity when I find a sci-fi/fantasy writer who’s not a gamer. I must stare at you and tap on the glass.

    • Well, the easiest example of that would be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype (think Zoey Deschenel).

      She’s entirely unpredictable (“Hey, let’s go hula hoop in the rain!”), so she’s chaotic, but she doesn’t break the law (she won’t spontaneously decide to rob a liquor store), and she’s good because she tries to make the world a happier place.

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