Welcome to Part Three of my series on the alignment system! In Part One, I examined the basic structure, philosophical underpinnings, and limitations of the alignment system. In Part Two, I examined each of the three Good alignments in detail. In this installment, I will be examining the Neutral alignments. 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.
It’s time to take a look at the morally Neutral alignments, but first, as reminder – alignment classification is a radically subjective exercise. Dissent is both inevitable and encouraged. Also, if you’re deeply unsure what alignment a character falls under, consider that evidence that alignments don’t really apply to the story/universe, the story itself is badly written, or both.
The Neutral Alignments
Moral neutrality is the most confusing aspect of the alignment system, and that’s because it can be very difficult to pin down what it even means to be Neutral. Neutral characters run the gamut of personality and behavior. Some are villains and some are heroes. Some are perfectly pleasant and some are utter jerkoffs. Some are deeply ambivalent about the larger struggle between Good and Evil. Some are convinced that Good and Evil must be allowed to coexist. And some are indifferent to that struggle, and are just trying to survive in a tough universe.
Just as it is with the question of what it means to be Good or Evil, the question of what it is to be Neutral is a question of intent. All Neutral characters are, in one way or another, doing what they think is best. At first blush, this sure looks like a deeply unhelpful distinction – Good characters obviously want what they think is best, too, and hell, plenty of Evil characters bring a substantial amount of moral conviction to the table. Characters of every alignment are doing what they think is best, but characters of different alignments cash that concept out in different ways.
But the things a Neutral character considers to be best lie outside of the broader interests of Good and Evil. A typical Neutral character is just doing her/his job, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. This does not mean that Neutral characters are completely indifferent to what is happening around them, but it does mean that at the end of the day, a Neutral character’s level of concern doesn’t extend past her/his immediate interests. Put another way, not wanting to die at the hands of the bad guys doesn’t constitute a commitment to Good, and working for the bad guys in order to get by isn’t necessarily a commitment to Evil. Those interests can be deeply tied to the character’s loved ones and communities, but they can also be rooted in selfishness (although a maliciously selfish character is almost always Evil).
Obviously, this describes a very broad range of character types. But to sum up, all Good characters want to do good, and all Evil characters want to commit Evil acts, but Neutral characters want all sorts of things. Because of this, a Neutral character’s ethics is usually much more descriptive of what she/he is about than her/his Neutrality.
Like their Lawful Good counterparts, Lawful Neutral characters also have a dubious association in the popular consciousness. If Lawful Good characters are presumed to be buzzkills with good intentions, then Lawful Neutral characters are just viewed as regular old buzzkills. As with the perception of Lawful Good, that’s not quite fair, but in this case that unfairness is a bit more understandable. More than characters of any other alignment, Lawful Neutral characters are Just Doing Their Job, and that makes it the official alignment of obstructive bureaucrats, cops that enforce the letter of the law but not necessarily the spirit, and anyone else who seems to prioritize order above basic decency and common sense.
While that describes a subset of Lawful Neutral characters, it is not the common thread that unites all of them. At heart, every Lawful Neutral character wants to view every situation through the same lens. When this tendency is presented unsympathetically, it results in a character whose inflexibility stymies any potential benefits to her/his approach. However, it is also possible to present this trait as fundamentally noble, as demonstrating honesty and a desire for fairness. In either case, a character that is Lawful Neutral is disinclined to treat others differently in different situations. If a Lawful Good character is one who believes in the power of laws as the best way to do the most Good, a Lawful Neutral character is one who believes that the laws themselves as the most relevant consideration.
Like the other Lawful alignments, a Lawful Neutral’s commitments are not necessarily tied to external laws – those commitments can just as easily take the form of personal codes and the like. More than most every other alignment, Lawful Neutral characters are also likely to be poorly written. When this happens, it is usually because her/his code or interpretation of the law can be so pronounced in its inflexibility that it constitutes her/his only defining characteristic, and/or causes the character to disregard common sense, or otherwise look much, much dumber than she/is meant to be depicted. (A great example of both of these issues is any member of the Jedi Council in the Star Wars prequels, including Obi-Wan. Yeesh.)
When written well, Lawful Neutral characters can make complicated and sympathetic antagonists. It is common to see Lawful Neutral antagonists depicted as fundamentally misguided – the sort of person who believes herself/himself to be Lawful Good, but isn’t really. Perhaps her/his faith in the intentions of her/his Evil superiors is misplaced. Perhaps her/his zeal in pursuing her/his convictions causes significant trouble for the protagonists (and others). Or perhaps she/he is just one of many anonymous security guards, destined to be heroically murdered. Characters serving as Guardians of the Ancient Temple/Sacred Artifact/etc. are almost always Lawful Neutral as well, although I wouldn’t call those characters antagonists.
When a Lawful Neutral character is a protagonist, they are usually differentiated from their Good counterparts in one of two ways. Either her/his methods are sufficiently extreme to belie any notion of Goodness, or she/he is joined up with a group of heroes as part of her/his duties, or both. In a long enough story, such characters will often gradually shift to Good-aligned, but not always. A character whose desire to do what’s right is presented as more important than doing her/his job is better classified as Lawful Good. A character that appears to take pleasure in using unsavory methods, or doesn’t seem to require any justification for using such methods, or intentionally uses law to oppress others, is better classified as Lawful Evil. A character that is still doing a job but is otherwise defined by an expressed or pronounced preference for non-involvement is probably best classified as True Neutral.
Examples of Lawful Neutral Characters
Inspector Javert (Les Miserables): The poster boy for Lawful Neutral characters as antagonists, Inspector Javert is an unflinching asshole who pursues Jean Valjean and the revolutionaries with relentless zeal. Javert pursues upholding the profoundly unjust laws of his society without an ounce of compassion for anyone who does not abide by those laws, and while this would seem to place him squarely in the Lawful Evil camp, classifying him as Evil is reductive. In every version of the story, he is given a degree of sympathy by his psychological need to uphold the law. His ability to comprehend reality is deeply tied to his sense of law and order, and when his sense of law and order is finally shaken, his sanity dissolves into a pool of guilt and remorse. This point is hammered home even further in the book, which takes the time to describe how his rough upbringing shaped his worldview, making it clear that he acts the way he does because he is human, not because he is opposed to humanity.
Cordelia Chase (Buffy the Vampire Slayer): Cordelia’s level of involvement in the business of the Scooby Gang is always due to happenstance. Her opposition to vampires and other demons doesn’t extend far beyond a desire so stay alive, and when she does end up dragged along to the climactic showdown with the forces of evil, it’s usually against her will and when she does get directly involved, she is always shown to be in over her head. Her primary commitment is one of order, specifically to the social order of Sunnydale High School and maintaining her place in that order, as well as the image of herself she has chosen to project. Like a lot of Neutral protagonists, our sympathy and understanding for Cordelia is doled out in small increments as the story progresses. While she starts out as a stereotypical mean girl, we come to learn more and more about what humanizes her, both in her personal life and in how she deals with the fucked-up stuff that forms part of life in Sunnydale. She does eventually turn fully to Good, but not until she joins the cast of the spinoff Angel, which mostly sucks if you ask me and therefore doesn’t count.
Judge Dredd (Judge Dredd): A relatively rare example of a Lawful Neutral character as main protagonist, Judge Dredd upholds the laws of his own deeply and almost comically fucked up society without any variation or exception. His catchphrase is “I am the Law”, for Pete’s sake. Because law enforcement in Mega City One tends to involve lots and lots of killing and lots of violence, no one would mistake Judge Dredd for a Good guy; heck, depending on who you ask, some people will tell you he is either a straight-up fascist or a satire of fascism and the police state. He is emblematic of a certain kind of Neutral protagonist, though – one who exists in a world that can be described in terms of Good and Evil, sure, but that is so dystopian that even the ‘good’ guys have to resort to extreme methods to keep Evil in check, and therefore lack the benevolent intentions necessary to be classified as Good.
All alignments are misunderstood to some degree; perhaps that’s simply a feature of the alignment system’s inherent subjectivity. But it is very, very difficult indeed to suss out what traits and characteristics are most emblematic of the True Neutral alignment, and therefore very difficult to describe with any degree of precision. After all, the other eight alignments have a baked-in component that you can look to and say, “This is what this alignment is about.” Each points to an aspect of the character’s behavior and psychology that represent who he/she is, as a moral agent. True Neutral, however, lacks such obvious identifiers, which makes it easy to think of True Neutral as representing total indifference, a lack of concrete moral and ethical commitments, or, on occasion, commitment to maintaining absolute balance (more on that in a bit).
While there are True Neutral characters that are in fact largely indifferent to what is going on around them, they tend to be minor characters, or characters whose arcs are centered on growing out of their indifference. There is very little narrative hay to be made out of complete apathy, and more to the point, Neutral does not mean indifferent. Every worthwhile character of any alignment has things that he/she cares about. That said, there is a way in which every True Neutral character is trying to merely exist. If the Lawful Neutral alignment best exemplifies the ways in which Neutral characters are just doing their jobs, True Neutral best exemplifies the ways in which Neutral characters are just trying to survive.
To understand this, consider True Neutral as it exists in Dungeons & Dragons, the origin of the alignment system. In Dungeons & Dragons, True Neutral primarily represents animals and natural forces. What do animals want? They all want to survive and to reproduce. Social animals typically want these for their kin, as well. They all need food and are often concerned with threats to their territory. All of these are perfectly reasonable desires on their face, even when the methods animals use to obtain these things strike us brutal or abhorrent. Similarly, natural phenomena are neither Good nor Evil; they simply are. This is absolutely not to say that all True Neutral characters are unsophisticated, unprincipled, or animalistic; rather, it is to stress that a True Neutral character is motivated by reasonable self-interest and acts understandably (though not always benevolently) in pursuit of those interests. He/she is often doing his/her job, just like a Lawful Neutral character, but unlike a Lawful Neutral character he/she does so out of practical necessity and not because of other beliefs.
Because True Neutral is so commonly identified with nature and, given the importance of balance in actual, real-life ecology, there is a tendency to view True Neutral characters as fundamentally concerned with preserving balance, both in the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons and in other forms of storytelling. Certainly, there are characters concerned with preserving balance in fiction, however, in my experience the best versions of those characters exist in deconstructions and other stories that aren’t really appropriate for alignment analysis.
There are also characters best described as indifferent in a Nietzschean sense – that is, powerful characters whose view of what is best exists outside of traditional moral guidelines, or who choose not to use their powers. Again, such characters are common in deconstructions (Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen is a great example of this, however, since Watchmen was written specifically to deconstruct the black-and-white morality of superhero stories, I’m not going to assign an alignment to him, or any other Watchmen character), but can be found in stories where alignments very much do apply. Characters that exist to operate as a Greek chorus are also typically True Neutral – they are, after all, merely observing.
In most situations, it would be very difficult to confuse True Neutral with Neutral Good, but it’s worth noting that if Neutral Good really is the official alignment of the Hero’s Journey, then a great many of those heroes start out as True Neutral. A character whose interests lie outside of the struggle between Good and Evil but otherwise tends to favor discipline, structure, law, etc. is best described as Lawful Neutral. A character that demonstrates that same indifference but tends to act impulsively, actively resists authority, is particularly individualistic, etc. is best categorized as Chaotic Neutral. If a character is accurately described as indifferent, but that indifference takes on hateful or nihilistic dimensions, or otherwise gives rise to remorseless violence and destruction, then that character is best categorized as Neutral Evil.
Examples of True Neutral Characters
Becky Lynch (WWE): I know, I know. In Part One of this series, I said that professional wrestling doesn’t have much in the way of Neutral characters these days, and yet here I am, claiming that the one of the biggest wrestling starts in the entire dang world is True Neutral. The nerve! But in her current character, Becky Lynch is emblematic of the Nietzschean superman in pro wrestling. She doesn’t really do anything heroic for others, which is fine because in wrestling there isn’t a real expectation for top faces to help other faces, what with it being an ostensible competition at all. Becky’s current character is also grounded in the persona she adopted after turning heel on Charlotte last summer; this heel turn made her more popular than ever, so when creative course corrected to acknowledge her as a face, none of her heel persona changed. As The Man, Becky is in it strictly for herself, fighting as many people as possible and occasionally being a funny asshole on Twitter.
Merry and Pippin (The Lord of the Rings): If Frodo didn’t want any of this shit but went through with it anyway, Merry and Pippin really didn’t want any of this shit. Dragged along for the ride for no more noble reason than because it’s what their buddies were up to, Merry and Pippin’s role in the story is as observers; they don’t do anything to further the cause of Good, but to provide the reader with looks at some of the various story threads playing out away from Frodo’s quest and whatever the rest of the fellowship is doing. In the beginning, their main role is to provide light comic relief by bitching about their traveling conditions. Later, we see the struggle between the Ents and the forces of Saruman through their perspective, and also how much the Steward of Gondor sucks at his job. But during all of this, Merry and Pippin’s primary interest is getting back to the Shire alive, and any and all of the acts they commit you could almost call “heroic” are in service of survival.
Gaius Baltar (Battlestar Galactica): There aren’t as many True Neutral antagonists as there are Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral ones. Gaius Baltar isn’t even really a pure antagonist, at least, not in the sense that he actively opposes the protagonists, but his self-absorption, his womanizing, and his (rather understandable) desire to keep his dark secrets to himself routinely cloud his judgment, and the decisions he makes as a result tend to make everything worse for everybody. Yes, he allows the Cylons to take control of the Colonial defense grid, but in his defense he didn’t know, he just thought he had a hot girlfriend. He builds the Cylon detector, and then when he runs it on Boomer and it comes back positive, he doesn’t do anything about it. Later, he gains enough political clout to make things incredibly difficult for both President Roslin and the military, and eventually is made President of New Caprica; he uses the office primarily as a means of getting laid and doing pills, and that’s before he surrenders to the Cylons. Granted, that’s the definition of living the dream, but it’s also incompetence bordering on malice.
Of all of the Neutral alignments, Chaotic Neutral may be the hardest to separate from its Evil counterpart. if a Lawful Neutral character values law and order above everything else, then the Chaotic Neutral character values her/his own freedom above everything else, and for its own sake. All Neutral characters are selfish to some extent, but the typically self-centered desires and frequently lawless methods of Chaotic Neutral characters typically push their behavior close to or beyond the fringes of social acceptability. Since the concept of Evil mostly reduces to a combination of selfishness and hatefulness, when a Chaotic Neutral character follows her/his own impulses at the expense of the protagonists, or is working for the antagonists directly, she/he often looks like such an asshole that it’s hard to tell how she/he isn’t Chaotic Evil.
As with a character of the other Neutral alignments, a Chaotic Neutral character is typically trying to do her/his job and survive, but since she/he usually isn’t the sort to play well with others, the jobs a Chaotic Neutral character is likely to have tend towards the unsavory and/or intrinsically violent. Chaotic Neutral characters are often bounty hunters, pirates, and career criminals. When her/his Chaotic nature isn’t necessarily reflected in her/his profession, it is often expressed in the form of bad habits and antisocial behaviors. Perhaps she/he is a drug addict, alcoholic, compulsive gambler, etc., or maybe she/he is just a rude slob. Another possibility is that she/he is a member of a band or team, but frequently resists the authority of her/his superiors, and not always with cause. However it is that such a character’s tendency towards Chaos manifests, it’s often liable to make her/him unsympathetic.
Chaotic Neutral is often viewed as the alignment of inscrutable insanity, but, as it is with many of the other alignments, the popular conception is a slice of what the alignment is, not the whole. Chaotic Neutral characters still do the things they do for reasons. Some Chaotic Neutral characters are crazy, sure, but a great many of them have clearly defined motivations. Those who work as mercenaries, thieves, pirates, and the like are often shown to have a real talent for their profession, to the point that their job chose them. If a Chaotic Neutral character is working for the bad guys (or, for that matter, the good guys), they are often shown to be in it strictly for the money and willing to switch sides for the right price, or shown to be doing so under duress. Those who do struggle with addiction, other forms of compulsory behavior, and/or mental illness are usually made sympathetic insofar as they are shown to lack full control over themselves at minimum, and sometimes more sympathy is given.
When a Chaotic Neutral character’s motivations are inscrutable, it is often a narrative device meant to keep the reader/viewer (and often the protagonists) themselves guessing as to her/his true intentions; note that this is quite the opposite of inscrutability for its own sake. A main protagonist that is Chaotic Neutral is almost always an anti-hero of some kind, and Chaotic Neutral protagonists in general are likely to be primary sources of comic relief, as a way of smoothing over their rougher aspects; plenty of Chaotic Neutral characters fit both descriptions. It’s also important to note that while many Chaotic Neutral characters have trouble getting along with others, they are often depicted as fiercely loyal to whatever friends they do have.
A character that is impulsive, individualistic, anti-authoritarian, etc., but also has a demonstrated tendency towards doing the right thing or a stated or implied belief in doing the right thing is best described as Chaotic Good. A character that is similarly impulsive and individualistic, but who is driven by greed, lust for power, or even destruction and causing suffering for its own sake is best described as Chaotic Evil.
Examples of Chaotic Neutral Characters
Han Solo (Star Wars): When we first meet Han Solo, he’s a selfish and self-aggrandizing smuggler with a mountain of debt, a skeptical attitude to the Force, and no loyalties of any kind to the Rebel Alliance, or to anybody except Chewbacca. He’s helping them out for the money, and when he gets his money before the Death Star attack, he bails. Even when he swoops in to save Luke at the last second, it’s not clear how much he’s fully come around to the Rebel cause. Maybe he just thought Luke was a decent dude. In The Empire Strikes Back, he’s clearly more involved with the Rebels and has strengthened his ties to Luke and Leia, but he is still under pressure to leave the Alliance in order to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt. After he’s freed in Return of the Jedi, Han is probably better described as Chaotic Good (or arguable Neutral Good) for the rest of the movie, and in Jedi this is meant to indicate the completion of his transformation. Yet, once The Force Awakens begins we see that he, like Leia, dealt with Ben’s turn to the Dark Side by falling back on the life he new best, implying that his nature never really changed that much.
Catwoman (DC Comics): The ultimate wild card, Catwoman has a tendency to be either a protagonist or antagonist as the story demands, at least in modern depictions. (She’s pretty unambiguously a bad guy in the Adam West Batman, and given what I know about the Silver Age of comic books I’m guessing that was true of the comics of the time as well.) She mostly operates outside of the law, but isn’t as actively malicious as most other Batman villains, and will occasionally act as Batman’s ally. The will they/won’t they nature of her relationship to Batman doesn’t help clear up these waters, and perhaps that’s appropriate, since Batman himself is known to swerve all over the damn place, alignment-wise.
Stone Cold Steve Austin (WWE): As much as I resent going back to the well of pro wrestling already, there’s no denying that, for a wrestling fan of a certain age, few characters in all of fiction were as instructive of what an anti-hero is than Stone Cold Steve Austin. After a celebrated heel run (which itself is quite demonstrative of the tropes endemic to Chaotic Evil), Steve Austin was turned face in order to continue his feud with newly-christened heel Bret Hart, and later with asshole boss Vince McMahon and his cohorts, yet despite his status as a mega-popular face almost nothing about his character changed. (If this sounds suspiciously similar to Becky Lynch’s turn as described above, know that they were in fact very comparable situations.) He was still a drunk, violent redneck, armed with an inherent distrust of absolutely everyone and driven primarily by a desire to look out for himself; his enemies simply tended to be much worse. Austin almost never helped anyone else out, either, and if he did, it was typically explicable as acting more out of spite for common enemies than any solidarity with, well…anybody. Austin was a hero to millions, but absolutely no one in their right mind would’ve called him a good guy.
That’s it for Part Three! Part Four will arrive towards the end of this week and will tackle the Evil alignments, and also wrap up the series. See you then!
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