Introduction to Alignments, Part Two

Welcome to Part Two of my series on the alignment system! In Part One, I examined the basic structure, philosophical underpinnings, and limitations of the alignment system. In this installment, I will be examining each of the three Good alignments in detail. I’ll take a closer look at what makes each alignment itself, what makes each alignment unique relative to other, similar alignments, and look at sample characters of each alignment.

Before I begin, there are a couple of things I want to note about classifying characters into alignments. First, to mirror a point I made in Part One, the context in which each character is presented is very important for alignment classification. This is less an exercise in classifying the entirety of a character’s behavioral tendencies than an exercise in highlighting the aspects of a character that appear to be most important. If this makes it sound as though the method is highly subjective, it’s because it is! This subjectivity is a feature, not a bug. You’re allowed to disagree, and to debate what alignment you think a character falls under. That’s the fun of it!

Second, I also mentioned in Part One that if you’re attempting to classify a character using alignments, and you are finding that he/she doesn’t at all slot neatly into one alignment or another, then you should take that as evidence that the fictional universe in question is unsuited for the alignment system. I stand by this, but I do want to make it clear that sometimes, classifying is difficult because the story itself is poorly written. Incoherent characterization is a cornerstone of lesser storytelling, and sometimes an inability to categorize a character is a failure of execution on the writer’s part, not a sign that alignments cannot apply to the universe in question.

The Good Alignments

What does it mean to be Good? Even within the rather rigid parameters of the alignment system, there is room for variation as to what constitutes Goodness itself, depending on the story in question. Sometimes the state of being Good is simply being cast in diametric opposition to the forces of evil. Other times Goodness is even more abstract – perhaps a character or entity’s Goodness is defined less by what he/she does and more by what qualities he/she represents. Still other times, being Good is making the choice to do what is right, especially when doing what is right seems like a terrible idea. There are many roads to Goodness, but they all share one thing in common: those characters that are truly Good exist to make the universe a better place for everyone in it.

Another point I wish to clarify – none of the three Good alignments are inherently more or less Good than the others. The differences between them are differences of predispositions, means, and attitudes, and these differences do not have any bearing on the overall quantity of Goodness (whatever that means).

Lawful Good

Lawful Good characters get a bad rap these days, and that’s been the case for as far back as I can remember. They have a reputation for being boring sticks in the mud, overly principled fuddy-duddies who act solely based on a set of rigid principles, and who lack other defining characteristics. That’s a real shame, if you ask me. When done properly, Lawful Good characters are quite the opposite of intractable doofuses – It is in the nature of Lawful Good characters to exist in a state of inner conflict, and the exploration of that conflict is a hallmark of quality Lawful Good characterization.

A Lawful Good character is defined by two things. First, she/he believes that the best way to do the most good is by adherence to laws, societal norms, codes of ethics, etc. To the Lawful Good character, these rules exist for a reason – she/he believes that Order is necessary to ensure the preservation of goodness. Second, she/he also believes that the best way to approach the moral problems she/he is presented with is by finding solutions to those problems within the ordered parameters she/he has set, whether they be external rules (such as local laws and societal norms) or internal rules (such as a personal code).

A conflict between Lawfulness and Goodness is a common driving factor in stories that prominently feature Lawful Good characters. In most cases, a truly Lawful Good character ultimately prioritizes doing what is right over satisfying those parameters, and when she/he chooses satisfying Lawfulness over satisfying Goodness, it is typically depicted as failure for that character that is corrected or redeemed at a later point of catharsis. Even when the Lawful Good character is not cast into such a conflict, she/he is presented as a Fish Out of Water – a character whose commitments to both Lawfulness and Goodness isolate her/him as exceptional (that is to say, a total weirdo) in a universe that is not designed for maintaining both commitments easy.

Therefore, the Lawful Good character is one that strives to work within the established parameters of order when making moral decisions, but ultimately does not prioritize that order above doing what is good and right. A character that does place ultimate priority on order and adherence to laws and/or codes is better categorized as Lawful Neutral. A character that seeks to satisfy Goodness first, and who sometimes uses the parameters of law and order to do so without making law and order a priority, is better categorized as Neutral Good.

Finally, and I feel ashamed that I even need to point this out, but the stigma attached to Lawful Good characters demands that I do so – being Lawful Good does not preclude having a sense of humor, nor does it require lacking any sense of fun, nor does it doom the character to an existence of fundamental dullness. Two of the three examples of Lawful Good characters I will present below are enshrined as deities in the Pantheon of Snark. When the Fish Out of Water quality of a Lawful Good character is emphasized, she/he can come off as riotously goofy. Even when the character in question is presented as the deathly serious type, placing that character among a band of less principled misfits and assorted goofballs is a fertile ground of wackiness.

Examples of Lawful Good Characters

Superman (DC Comics): The end all and be all of modern Lawful Good characters, Superman exemplifies not only everything that goes into being Lawful Good, but also everything that people find boring about Lawful Good. Most people view Superman as a total bore, and in fairness, he often is. He’s invincible, for starters, and when his commitments to Truth, Justice, and the American Way are presented uncritically, he comes off as a dull, patriarchal blowhard. But when he’s placed into conflict with his ethics and ideals, he becomes fascinating. The 1978 Superman movie is a great example of what a Lawful Good character arc is meant to be. He is faced with a decision between doing what is truly Good and doing what satisfies his rules, botches it by choosing the rules, then corrects it by breaking those rules in order to satisfy Goodness. He’s presented as better than the rest of us, but it comes at a price. He’s also a goofy Fish Out of Water, particularly when he’s in Clark Kent mode. Superman may be dull sometimes, but he doesn’t have to be, and neither do Lawful Good characters.

Princess Leia (Star Wars): Princess Leia is the glue that holds the Rebel Alliance (and, in the sequels, the Resistance) together. The Rebels present themselves as a militarized outfit, and they are to some extent, but they are always greatly outnumbered and outmatched by the Empire/First Order, and therefore are forced to pull membership from a variety of disparate sources. Leia routinely makes it her duty to command and instill order among those disparate forces because it is in the nature of her character to use order as a resource. In A New Hope, it is strongly implied that she is using her ties to the Imperial Senate, a legislative body, to assist the Rebels. In The Force Awakens, she deals with the tragedy of losing Ben Solo to the Dark Side by turning toward the work of organizing the Resistance. In both cases, she exemplifies the Lawful Good approach of using order to bring about the most good. And, as I hinted above, these commitments in no way repress her personality. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, and is in no way afraid to get snarky and sarcastic to make her points and commands clear.

Rupert Giles (Buffyverse): Buffy the Vampire Slayer contains a lot of things, and was deeply influential for too many reasons to get into here. One of those reasons, however, is the way in which it is both fully a story of Good vs. Evil, and also fully committed to depicting each member of the Scooby Gang as a deeply flawed human being. At the beginning of the series, Giles plays his role as Team Dad straight and to the hilt, but it doesn’t take too long for us to learn about his dark, sordid past. For Giles, his embrace of his duties as Buffy’s Watcher is his means of atoning for the sins of his past. We never learn them in detail, but it is enough for us to know they existed to see the regret that colors the life Giles has chosen in reaction. Even after relations with the Watcher’s Council sour, Giles remains a stabilizing presence for Buffy (who we’ll get to in a bit) and the rest of the Scoobies, as he makes it his duty to ensure that the Good guys do what is Good the right way. He also sports a sense of humor drier than a stale saltine.

Neutral Good

The ethically Neutral alignments are the most abstract, and often the hardest to identify. What makes a character Neutral Good, as opposed to Lawful Good or Chaotic Good or even True Neutral? In some ways, Neutral Good is simply is the alignment of characters that are clearly aligned with Good, but demonstrate no particular tendency towards law or chaos. But to claim that as the essence of the Neutral Good alignment would under-describe the range of characterizations that Neutral Good can manifest in.

Neutral Good characters believe that doing what is Good is the most important thing, full stop. Like Lawful Good characters, many Neutral Good characters often struggle with the difficulty of doing Good things. However, the source of that struggle isn’t inherently about the tension between the Good decision and the Lawful decision. When a Neutral Good character’s desire to do Good does come into conflict with law, law is presented as an impediment that he/she must be overcome; there is no struggle to reconcile the two, since he/she invariably views doing what is Good as more important. But often, the ways in which it is hard for Neutral Good characters to live up to their ideals take other forms. For example, it is common to see a Neutral Good character forced to choose between fulfilling his/her personal obligations to friends, family, or loved ones and fulfilling his/her duty to do what is right.

Having a sense of duty is often of fundamental importance to Neutral Good characters – a Neutral Good character takes up the cause he/she is charged with (quite possibly after an initial Refusal of The Call; many Hero’s Journey types slot in as Neutral Good) because he/she sees the cause as larger than himself/herself. Because of this, Neutral Good characters are often members or allies of organizations, and sometimes, these organizations are grounded in Lawfulness. This does not mean that the character is Lawful Good, and in fact, membership or allegiance to such organizations can emphasize the ways in which he/she values good above all else. It is common to see the rules of these organizations placed as impediments to doing what is right, for starters, and it also demonstrates that the character is willing to compromise on his/her preferred methods in order to do the most good. Again, a Neutral Good character will ignore laws and rules when he/she feels they are getting in the way, but he/she will also use them to his/her advantage when able.

Personality-wise, Neutral Good characters are often (but by no means always) aggressively benevolent to others, particularly those he/she is close to; in other cases, his/her commitments to doing what is right can manifest as a kind of aloofness. Sometimes he/she is a little of both, or neither. Regardless of other personality traits, Neutral Good characters often place a lot of pressure on themselves to do the right thing at all times, and when a Neutral Good character is grating, it is often because he/she is coming across as whiny and/or self-important. This isn’t necessarily a sign of bad writing; it’s simply part of what Neutral Good characters struggle against. A Neutral Good character doesn’t always acknowledge the possibility that he/she will fail before it happens, and when he/she does fail, he/she often doesn’t take it well.

While Neutral Good is not a catch-all alignment for vaguely Good-aligned characters, certain Neutral Good characters can resemble that. A character or entity that is meant as a pure representation of ideals such as Love, Friendship, Beauty, Truth, etc. is probably Neutral Good, absent other characteristics. If a character frequently gives real philosophical weight to the importance of laws, he/she is probably Lawful Good. If he/she is inherently dismissive of laws and authority, he/she is probably Chaotic Good. A character that routinely prioritizes doing what is best himself/herself and his/her loved ones, even as a matter of duty, is often better categorized as True Neutral.

Examples of Neutral Good Characters

Buffy Summers (Buffyverse): There may be more famous Neutral Good characters out there, but few as representative of the sum total of Neutral Goodness as Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself. She answers the call to be the Slayer not because she wants to be the Slayer – Buffy constantly struggles with the consequences of being the Slayer; she makes necessary sacrifices (she literally dies in the line of duty twice) and attendant regrets that shape who she is throughout the course of the show’s run. But despite this, she never fails to carry out her duties as Slayer, since she knows it is necessary. It is also frequently made clear that Buffy considers her duty to be doing what she knows is right, regardless of what the Watcher’s Council or Principal Snyder or her mother or anyone else says. Buffy is often defined as a character by her struggles to be a good person; outside of her commitments to fighting evil, she also wants good lives for herself and her friends, and she beats herself up when she feels she is not living up to her own expectations. This creates all sorts of problems for Buffy throughout the show, but it also demonstrates the depth of her commitment to making things better, however she can.

Luke Skywalker (Star Wars): Luke Skywalker is a more well-known but less psychologically complex example of the Neutral Good alignment. He follows his own conscience above all else, even when it gets him into trouble, both in the mortal sense and in the being turned towards the Dark Side sense. During his Jedi training on Dagobah, Luke chafes at Yoda’s directives but nonetheless abides by them, and he sticks with his training just long enough to understand the scope of his power, but not long enough to use that power responsibly. He ignores both Yoda and Obi-Wan to save his friends and almost pays with his life, and thus spends Return of the Jedi making good with both his friends and the Light Side. Luke is constantly seeking the real truth of the Light Side – when he botches the training of Ben Solo, he retreats into isolation so that he can dig deeper into the nature of that truth, and he reemerges to confront Kylo Ren only when it proves necessary for the good of the Resistance, and the completion of his journey.

Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings): Frodo didn’t want to have to do any of this shit. If the events of Frodo’s life were only up to Frodo, he would have stayed at home in his Hobbit hole, taking frequent puffs of quality Shire sticky and eating lots of cake. But, to allow Sauron to come into possession of the One Ring would be to allow the ruin of his own life, the lives of everyone he knows, and everyone else. As such, the necessity of destroying the One Ring drove him out of that life, and Frodo stuck to it, no matter how much it sucked, and most of it sucked a lot. Frodo is a prominent example of Neutral Good as a default classification. He’s obviously Good, being both a good dude to his friends and motivated by a desire be a good dude to others. He does not tie his actions to laws, but he doesn’t display any pointed dislike for or distrust of authority, either. He works with the Fellowship just fine when they’re headed in the same direction, but it’s not any sort of problem once he and Sam get split off from the rest.

Chaotic Good

As with Lawful Good, many people’s conception of what a Chaotic Good character looks like doesn’t always reflect the breadth of characters that fit the description. Chaotic Good is viewed as the alignment of well-meaning anarchists, benevolent pirates, thieves/prostitutes/con artists with with hearts of gold, and the like. It is seen as the alignment of the fun heroes, wacky scoundrels whose adventures can often be described as ‘shenanigans’. And while Chaotic Good characters are often all of these things, this only describes certain, commonly-seen aspects of those characters. It doesn’t quite describe what being Chaotic Good is.

Chaotic Good characters are Good-aligned characters that are inherently resistant to submitting to authority. If a Lawful Good character strives to accommodate both law and Goodness, and a Neutral Good character doesn’t place special value on law but will work within its parameters to advance her/his causes, a Chaotic Good character views the existence law as counterproductive to the cause of Good itself. If a character is Chaotic Good, she/he typically believes that freedom for the individual is one of the highest, if not the highest form of Good. When a Chaotic Good character is struggling with the law, it is because the law is represents active antagonism to her/him; often, the villains in these stories are evil dictatorships. Even when the government has good intentions, its insistence on acting within its laws will lead to direct conflict with what she/he wishes to accomplish.

Therefore, while Chaotic Good characters invariably act outside the law, that does not mean that a Chaotic Good character will break the law for its own sake, nor does it mean that all Chaotic Good characters are considered criminals in their universes. Nor does it mean that Chaotic Good characters won’t join or ally themselves with organizations – on the contrary, many Chaotic Good main protagonists lead some kind of group. That said, these groups tend to be relatively small (10 members or less), and lacking in a defined leadership structure. Similarly, there is nothing preventing a Chaotic Good character from joining or working closely with more rigidly structured groups, either. Sometimes, this decision is made under duress, but as with Neutral Good characters, a Chaotic Good character will freely join such an organization. Maybe that organization allows her/him is the best option for her/his considerable talents, or is demonstrably Good enough that she/he can tolerate working for it – just because a character is Chaotic Good doesn’t mean she/he cannot be motivated by duty, or abide by a personal code.

A Chaotic Good character often is free-spirited in ways that manifest outside of their moral behaviors. In cases where she/he is a criminal of some kind, displaying a magnetic personality is an effective way to build sympathy for her/him, even as she/he engages in activity we as viewers/readers would otherwise frown upon. Even when she/he is not a criminal, having a pronounced sense of fun is deployed as a shorthand way of demonstrating her/his fundamentally Chaotic attitude – a character in the police or military purposefully annoying her/his superiors for her/his own amusement is a common trope associated with Chaotic Good characters. (Of course, such characters will also freely disregard regulations in order to what they feel is right.) While it may be relatively rare for Chaotic Good characters to have a mostly serious disposition, it does happen, and even the fun-loving ones will get serious when the situation calls for it.

A character that is clearly Good-aligned and also gets into trouble with authority (whether occasionally or frequently) in the service of Good, but does not otherwise demonstrate a principled resistance toward being told what to do, is probably better categorized as Neutral Good. A character that actively resists authority, but does so in service of her/his own ends and not to advance any larger cause is better categorized as Chaotic Neutral (or even Chaotic Evil).

Examples of Chaotic Good Characters

The Doctor (Doctor Who): This categorization is complicated by the fact that well…which Doctor are we talking about here? While it’s true that each version of The Doctor has her/his own personality quirks, the aspects common to every Doctor are in step with the characteristics of Chaotic Good. Every Doctor has an inherent distrust for authority figures and views authority as an impediment to doing the most good; it’s very, very common for authority figures the Doctor encounters to be actively malicious, deeply misguided, or both. Every Doctor is concerned with preserving the freedom of individuals, or at very least, her/his own freedom. Seeming exceptions to this are less exceptional than they may appear. Sure, the Third Doctor spent most of his time working for U.N.I.T., but very begrudgingly, and only because the T.A.R.D.I.S. was busted. Sure, the Fifth Doctor gives off strong Dad vibes, but he still acted solely according to his own conscience. Those Doctors that are more convincing exceptions are so not because they’re not necessarily Chaotic, but because they’re not necessarily Good (the First, Seventh, and Ninth Doctors spring immediately to mind here. Also the Sixth, but we don’t discuss that shit here). Even those Doctors usually do the right thing. The various Doctors are also a good demonstration of the range of personality types among Chaotic Good characters. Most of them are presented as fun rogues, but not all of them.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Battlestar Galactica): Despite being a member of the military, Starbuck is constantly at odds with at least one and usually more than one of her superiors, whether it be Commander Adama, Colonel Tigh, or Apollo (and this is by no means an all-inclusive list of the people Starbuck pisses off). Hell, Commander Adama outright states that he only tolerates her antics because she’s just so damn good at her job. Starbuck’s resistance to authority is two-pronged. She disregards orders; sometimes she does so just because she feels like it, but other times she feels her orders are limiting her ability to do what is best, and she’s confident enough in her abilities that she’ll be able to pull off whatever risky, inadvisable action she’s attempting. She also actively tries to get under the skin of her superiors. While she admires Commander Adama too much to blatantly disrespect him, she will still question his orders to his face. That’s not the case with Colonel Tigh, who she will openly mock and clearly holds in some degree of contempt (and not always in jest, either; there are times when she’s clearly trying to hurt the guy’s feelings. In fairness, Tigh is an asshole). She’s also a drunk mess. But despite all of this, her desire to do Good is never in dispute.

Mal Reynolds (Firefly): Mal Reynolds embodies a lot of the Chaotic Good archetype. He leads the crew of the Serenity in righteous struggle against the foul jerkoffs of the Alliance, and their adventures involve lots and lots (and lots) of breaking the law. He doesn’t impose much in the way of rigid discipline, but he wouldn’t be a fraction as good of a leader if he did. He cracks lots of jokes, and is affable as they come. Until, of course, it’s time to get serious, in which case he’s got a bunch of guns and the skill to use them. He values his personal freedom above most, but not all other things. And, most critically, he does the things he does because he thinks the universe he inhabits, and the power structures that govern it, are shitty for most people, and he wants to do something about that. He’s the embodiment of the lovable, good-hearted scoundrel, and thus a decidedly classic take on Chaotic Good.

This concludes Part Two of my series on Alignments. In Part Three, I will break down the Neutral alignments. Until then!

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