Welcome to Part Four 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, and I did the same for the Neutral alignments in Part Three. In this installment, I will be examining the Evil 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. As this is the last installment, I’ll also be closing out the series with some concluding remarks.
It’s time to party!
I’ve been waiting to write this part for a while now, because despite being in my 30s, I’m still the sort of dopey edgelord who thinks Evil is fun. Truly, high school never ends. Anyway, here are a couple of qualifiers for everything I’m about to say, copied verbatim from Part Three:
“[A]lignment 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 Evil Alignments
Evil seems like a pretty straightforward concept, until you start unpacking it. Once that work begins, it quickly devolves into a parade of questions, followed by inadequate answers to those questions, that would be right at home in one of Plato’s dialogues. What does it mean to be Evil? To be Evil is to commit Evil acts. Perhaps that’s technically true, but it doesn’t even scratch at the real question, here. What is the substance of Evil itself? Is it selfishness? Malice? Greed? Lack of empathy? Hatefulness? Violence? Irredeemability?
You could highlight any of those qualities above as an example of Evil, and immediately think of reasons that particular quality is not what Evil is. Just about every character acts selfishly from time to time; hell, Good characters that are narrowly focused on their quest are often quite selfish, in their own way. Characters of all alignments act in order to hurt others physically and/or emotionally, and it’s not presented as a problem as long as those actions are justified (itself a concept that would take all day to attempt to unpack). Lots of characters want money or power, which is understandable, and that makes wanting more money and power understandable, too. The Hall of Heroes is stuffed with aloof, emotionally closed-off weirdos, and there are plenty of protagonists who are full of anger and don’t know how to handle it. So too are there characters that have acted like complete monsters, only to find some measure of redemption before the story’s end.
Perhaps Evil is best defined in opposition to Good; if Good characters are those who work to make the world a better place, then Evil characters are those who work to make the world a worse place. That’s a perfectly good philosophical criteria in a vacuum, but this isn’t a vacuum. Evil characters are damn near always the antagonists, and the true intentions of antagonists in fiction are often concealed for most of the story, if not all of it. If determining moral alignment is a question of intent, how can you tell if an antagonist is truly Evil if you don’t know that character’s true intentions?
There is no hard and fast answer to this question; context is of the utmost importance, as is considering the sum total of the characters actions. Evil may not be any one of the qualities listed above, but all of them together (or even some in the right combinations) are pretty damn evil. Aloofness and selfishness may not be inherently Evil, but a character that is utterly unwilling to consider the feelings, needs, and desires of others probably is. Even if it’s okay to be angry, and even if it can be acceptable to hurt others, it’s not okay to act solely out of anger, or to cause suffering for its own sake. Wanting power and riches may be understandable, but doing anything and everything to obtain either is monstrous.
There are a few of other things to keep in mind, as well. First, Evil does not mean unsympathetic; many Evil characters have tragic backstories, and while that may give them some measure of sympathy, it doesn’t make any of their horrendous actions okay. Second, as with the Good alignments, none of the three Evil alignments is inherently more or less Evil than the others. Finally, this is a reminder that Evil is not the same thing as antagonistic. There are a tons and tons of Neutral characters out there that are complete and utter assholes, so if you think a character may be Evil, take some time to consider other possibilities before making a final conclusion.
When I was first introduced to the concept of alignments, Lawful Evil seemed like something of a contradiction. Perhaps that says more about me than it says anything at all to do with alignments, but stick with me for a second. What do Evil characters do? They kill without mercy, and often on impulse. They lie and they steal and they don’t feel the least bit sorry about it, regardless of the consequences. Even when they feel bound by the rules of a society, they look for loopholes and other methods of circumventing those rules in order to cause harm. Their actions invariably seem to exist outside the bounds of reason, let alone law. Just how Lawful could such a character possibly be? How ordered could such a character’s mental states or thought processes be?
But law and order are not equivalent to reason, nor are they necessarily on the same conceptual plane as reason. If a Lawful Good character is one who looks to laws and rules in order to determine how to do Good, a Lawful Evil character is one who looks to laws and rules in order to enable Evil actions. To the Lawful Evil character, law, order, and structure exist for the explicit purpose of making Evil actions easier. It gives a facade of legitimacy to the regimes of tyrants, despots, and fascists. It provides remorseless killers and criminals with the means to organize, and therefore normalize and extend, their operations. It allows xenophobes, racists, and other hateful individuals to rationalize their hatred, thus giving those individuals a way to justify anything done out of such hatred. In short, Lawful Evil characters take whatever relationship the concept of law and order may have with the concept of reason, then stretch, twist, and altogether mangle that relationship beyond repair.
As with Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral characters, a Lawful Evil character’s relationship to Lawfulness can take a variety of forms. In a tyrannical or fascistic society, or an ‘Evil Empire’ of some other kind, he/she may be working as a willing agent of that government and acting toward the same Evil goals as that of his/her superiors. Perhaps he/she is a member of an organized crime outfit or similarly clandestine organization; one that operates in a structured, Lawful fashion, but is not part of the mainstream social structure. Or maybe he/she has certain scruples that prevent him/her from carrying out certain Evil actions while also enabling him/her to carry out others; for example, consider an assassin who refuses to kill children as a matter of personal ethics but will otherwise kill just about anyone else. Note that whatever the source of the character’s Lawfulness may be, it always fulfills the same purpose – it normalizes and legitimizes the Evil the character does in his/her mind.
Please note that just because a character is Lawful Evil, that does not preclude him/her from plotting to gain power or overthrow his/her superiors; on the contrary, just about every Lawful Evil organization in fiction is a den of snakes that none of the dedicated members would hesitate to seize power over by whatever means necessary, if given a chance to do so. As with Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral characters, being Lawful does not mean abiding by the relevant rules flawlessly and without variation, rather, it describes the character’s preferred method of viewing situations. Also, the ability to hatch, plot out, and execute an Evil scheme is not in and of itself evidence that a character is Lawful Evil – characters of all Evil alignments are perfectly capable of devising master plans.
A character that works for a Lawful Evil organization but does so primarily out of a sense of general duty, or otherwise works for such an organization without necessarily sharing its goals, may be better categorized as Lawful Neutral. If that’s too vague to be helpful, consider the low-ranking henchmen, rank-and-file troops, and other goons Evil organizations employ; when in doubt, refer to the framework of simply doing one’s job vs. actively seeking to make the world a worse place. A character whose reasons and/or excuses for pursuing Evil lack reference to any sort of rules or structure is better described as Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil.
Examples of Lawful Evil Characters
Darth Vader (Star Wars): The most iconic member of the most iconic Lawful Evil organization in all of fiction, Darth Vader’s commitment is twofold. He oversees many of the day-to-day operations of the Galactic Empire, and like the Empire itself, he exerts his control through fear. If Darth Vader gives you an order, and you fail to carry it out for any reason, you’re gonna get the life choked out of you. And that’s if you’re one of his allies! Vader’s commitment to the Dark Side of the force is his primary motivation, and the source of his boundless hatefulness. The lure of the Dark Side of the Force is not tied to the lure of Evil itself, rather, characters who are in danger of being turned to the Dark Side are in that danger because the Dark Side is very, very good at telling people what they want to hear. The prequels mostly suck, but they at least did a decent job of showing Anakin Skywalker to be a lost little kid searching for a sense of stability and purpose. The Dark Side offered both of those things, and Anakin accepted. The newly christened Darth Vader then made it his mission to bring this twisted version of order to the galaxy.
Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Breaking Bad): Crime dramas, by and large, are morality plays, and as such they depend on black-and-white moral underpinnings. Even when the criminal characters in such dramas are presented with nuance, sympathy, and sophistication, in the end those characters have still done terrible Evils which they must inevitably reckon with and atone for. Both Walter White and Gus Fring fit the description of Lawful Evil quite well, but since too many of the example characters in this series have been dudes, let’s talk about Lydia, who, in her capacity as an employee of barely-disguised criminal syndicate Madrigal, willingly enables and actively oversees a host of horrors. Yes, one could argue that Lydia is merely doing her job, but Lydia is routinely shown to have full knowledge of the extent of Madrigal’s operations, and she also appears to have internalized and normalized the consequences of her work, without ever showing the barest hint of remorse for the Evil she enables.
Queen Zeal (Chrono Trigger): Some video game villains seem to be villains simply by default. They politely antagonize the player, but make no concerted effort to get under the player’s skin. What has King Bowser done that was all that wrong, really? Okay, fine, kidnapping is bad, but still, when was the last time you played any Super Mario game and you were just so friggin’ pumped to stick it to that guy? It’s probably been a long time, because beyond the aforementioned kidnapping, Bowser does very little to make the player actively hate his guts. Not so with Queen Zeal, who is harvesting the power of world-destroying super-Evil space parasite Lavos to gain infinite power for herself and power her faux-utopian magical society in the sky, while condemning all non-magic users of her time period to live on the planetary surface during a time of perpetual blizzard. In her dealings with Crono and his friends, she is also a colossal asshole. By the time it’s time to storm the Black Omen and defeat Queen Zeal once and for all, trust me, you will want to make her super, super dead.
The ethically Neutral alignments are always the trickiest to pin down, and Neutral Evil is no exception to this. What makes isolating a characters as Neutral Evil, as opposed to Lawful or Chaotic Evil, is that most of the qualities that seem indicative of Neutral Evil are indicative of the other Evil alignments, at least to some extent. Neutral Evil characters are amoral and insane. Well, so are Lawful and Chaotic Evil characters. Neutral Evil characters are impulsive and narcissistic. Yes, well other Evil characters are often both of those things – deciding to do Evil for the hell of it is a hallmark of Chaotic Evil too, and hell, Darth Vader probably didn’t go into every meeting where he choked someone knowing he was gonna choke someone, you know? And narcissism can easily lead to Evil, but it can also describe plenty of characters of all alignments, even Good ones – it’s a character flaw, not an inherent Evil.
Here are a couple of different ways to think about what Neutral Evil is, each expressed relative to the other two ethically Neutral alignments. Neutral Evil is like Neutral Good in that the Neutral Evil character will work within the law to achieve her/his goals when the law allows, but will ultimately disregard the law when it impedes those goals. As with Neutral Good, this is not say that Neutral Evil is the purest form of Evil, exactly, but rather that a Neutral Evil character’s commitments to do Evil are not tied to one methodology or another. A Neutral Evil character may work alone or may work within an Evil organization; in fact, sometimes the ultimate head of a Lawful Evil organization is better described as Neutral Evil, in that she/he guides the ideology of the organization without instilling structure or otherwise participating in its normal operations. If the laws of a society don’t enable or endorse a Neutral Evil character’s actions, she/he may still use the law as a way of protecting herself/himself from the protagonists.
Neutral Evil is also like True Neutral in that both alignments share a certain Nietzschean element. In the same way that a True Neutral character’s concerns can be fundamentally outside the concerns of morality that characters of more ‘committed’ alignments seek to address, a Neutral Evil character often demonstrates this same lack of concern. However, when a Neutral Evil character exhibits this kind of indifference, it manifests in spiteful, hateful, and destructive behaviors, the consequences of which she/he simply can’t be bothered to care about. To put it another way, Neutral Evil characters often have delusions of grandeur, and tend to view themselves as the protagonists in their universe’s story, and by adopting this view make themselves psychologically capable of doing just about anything. If a Neutral Evil character does demonstrate having a personal code, it is often an ad hoc justification for actions she/he would’ve taken anyway, not a philosophical grounding that enables those actions in the first place.
The types of characters best described as Neutral Evil is a diverse lot indeed. A Neutral Evil character might be a low-level mercenary who simply enjoys killing too much; she/he could just as easily be a mad scientist bent on causing terror, creating abominations, enslaving the world, and so on. Speaking of abominations, Neutral Evil is also something of a default alignment for any Evil creature regarded as a thing that should not be – many Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-inspired creatures fit this description, as do many kinds of undead creatures and other beings who are obviously Evil, but also alien enough to make their motives indiscernable. As with Neutral Good, any creature that is meant to stand in for some Evil characteristic, such as Wrath, Anger, Greed, Hatred, and so on, is best described as Neutral Evil, absent other characteristics.
A character that does Evil actions primarily through laws and rules, or whose Evil actions are otherwise dependent on some sort of structure, is better categorized as Lawful Evil. A character that does Evil actions but also believes that structure is an impediment to doing Evil is better categorized as Chaotic Evil. A character that is indifferent to concerns of situational ethics but is not primarily motivated by malicious or hateful desires is best categorized as True Neutral.
Examples of Neutral Evil Characters
Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars): Emperor Palpatine is less a fully realized character than he is a physical manifestation of the Dark Side of the Force itself. While he is the leader of the Galactic Empire, a thoroughly Lawful Evil organization, the work he is shown to do in the Star Wars movies is concerned with spreading and increasing the Power of the Dark Side; the infrastructure the Empire provides Palpatine with is incidental; a means for Palpatine to pursue his own goals, not an end in itself. His arrival at the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, while an effective excuse for Darth Vader to instill a little extra fear in his subordinates, is primarily a way for Palpatine to do the real work of luring Luke Skywalker to the Death Star, thus giving him an opportunity to turn Luke to the Dark Side.
Shayna Baszler (WWE): For the entirety of her tenure in NXT, Shayna Baszler has been a colossal asshole. Every wrestler’s ring style tells the story of what the character is about; Shayna Baszler’s ring style is informed by , and she uses her knowledge of her MMA background, tapping into her knowledge of how to hurt people for real in order to, well, hurt people ‘for real’ in story. Baszler does the most violent thing possible to her opponents, even when it’s not necessary. She mangled the ever-loving bejeezus out of Dakota Kai’s elbow through nothing but the power of one really gnarly-looking stomp, and then used that incident, as well as every other instance of her using more than the amount of necessary force (and there’s been a lot of those), as psychological ammunition against the entire rest of the women’s division. Later she added actual henchwomen to her arsenal, in the form of Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke. Again, she doesn’t need to be doing any of this to be dominant – she’s had the NXT Women’s Championship on lock for most of the last year, and a lot of her defenses have ended with clean wins (meaning she didn’t cheat to get the W). She only hurts her competitors to be an asshole, and to inspire fear.
Basically Every James Bond Villain (Various): Call this a cop out if you must, but the many Bond villains through the years have all had a lot in common. They tend to be middle-aged white guys with improbable amounts of wealth, which is usually spent in the service of constructing impractical secret lairs in even less practical locations. Because of their tremendous wealth, they also tend to have integrated themselves into high society, but those who work directly for any government or other sort of mainstream establishment are few and far between. They all have the means to finance their own independent operations, and they seize that opportunity. Despite generally being among the societal elite, their goals tend to be increasing their own power at the expense of established political institutions. Most of their plans are based around using nuclear weapons in some truly bizarre ways. (Irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox? Really?) The common thread is clear – Bond villains are willing and able to participate in society when it suits their interests, and then cast off its mores once they get in the way.
There is a certain temptation to view Chaotic Evil as the most Evil of all alignments. A character that expresses the traits common to all Chaotic-aligned characters – resistance to laws and authority, impulsive behavior, and the like – tends to express a few antisocial behaviors every now and again under the best of circumstances. When those traits and tendencies are applied in the service of Evil acts, you end up with a character who murders and destroys for seemingly no reason whatsoever, and occasionally without warning. This is not to say that Chaotic Evil is, in fact, the most Evil alignment; at best, which alignment is most Evil is a matter of opinion, and it’s possible to construct arguments for all three. But it does highlight the terror that Chaotic Evil characters are capable of creating. Evil in and of itself is scary enough, so what does that make unpredictable Evil?
Chaotic Evil is best described as the alignment of the unhinged. All Evil characters are some degree of insane, but a Chaotic Evil character’s inherent rejection of authority and general inability to play nice with others means that his/her motives are often directly selfish; whatever a Chaotic Evil character wants, he/she wants it sole for himself/herself. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s power, sometimes it’s anarchy, and sometimes it’s a combination of those things, or perhaps it can only be explained as a compulsion to hurt others. In addition, a Chaotic Evil character is more likely than characters of other alignments to consider violence the first option. He/she will resort to violence to get what he/she wants or just to prove a point, regardless of any social constraints that would deter violence, even violence by characters of other Evil alignments. Because of this, Chaotic Evil characters are less likely to be presented as sympathetic, although when a story does delve into a Chaotic Evil character’s background, it’s quite horrifying indeed.
As with Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral, characters that are Chaotic Evil aren’t necessarily so antisocial that they are incapable of working for organizations. However, a Chaotic Evil character is rarely talented at being subservient. If he/she is working for an organization, expect the other members of the organization to regard him/her with fear and suspicion, particularly when he/she works for a Lawful Evil organization. Since a hallmark of Lawful Evil is the organized, methodical execution of Evil acts, and a hallmark of Chaotic Evil is the rejection of such constraints on Evil, a Chaotic Evil character working for a Lawful Evil organization will often disregard orders in order to do the Evil acts as he/she sees fit, causing tension within the organization.
It’s also common for a Chaotic Evil character in an organization to conspire to overthrow his/her superiors and seize power within that organization. When a Chaotic Evil character is head of an organization, discipline is accomplished through violence and whatever order exists is maintained solely with fear. To Chaotic Evil characters, power and the capacity for violence are one and the same. As a consequence, a band of Chaotic Evil characters ruled by a Chaotic Evil character is subject to constant upheaval, since in many cases an underling who wishes to seize power can legitimately do so solely by killing the leader. Even when such power plays aren’t common, members of such a group use violence as their first and last method of dispute resolution.
A character that also engages in acts of unprincipled Evil but demonstrates an ability to follow orders, get along with others, or otherwise work within constraints, is best described a Neutral Evil. A character that acts in selfish, compulsory fashion, but does not willingly do anything explicitly Evil is best described as Chaotic Neutral.
Examples of Chaotic Evil Characters
The Joker (DC Comics): The Joker is the most iconic Chaotic Evil character in all of pop culture. Like The Doctor from Doctor Who, The Joker has had a variety of characterizations over the years, but the essence of what he is never strays from the essence of Chaotic Evil. His motives may be somewhat sophisticated; Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight seems to working towards the dissolution of the state and its philosophical underpinnings, as well as the structural integrity of the organized crime outfits that have thrived within that state, but other versions of the Joker through the years seem to want nothing more than to screw with Batman, the police, and the people of Gotham City. No matter what methods he uses, or what quirks of personality each portrayal brings to the picture, the Joker seems to be striving towards some kind of anarchy, whether it be actual anarchy or a state of affairs where he is so feared for his ability to cause terror that it trumps any reason or decency. Regardless of his motivations, when the Joker does Evil, he does so because he thinks it’s funny.
Kefka (Final Fantasy VI): From his introduction, Kefka is shown to desire nothing more than power and destruction. He truly enjoys killing, for reasons that are never quite clear. In the game’s first act, when he works as an agent of the Lawful Evil Empire, he is shown to be loathed even among the Imperials, kept around only because his talent with magic makes him useful. He defies his orders and murders the residents of an entire castle, for no other reason than he thought it would be fun. Later, he harnesses the powers of godlike magic statues to overthrow his Emperor and destroy the world, because that’s a sensible thing to do when you’re as crazy as Kefka is. For Kefka, power is both equivalent to the ability to destroy, and the only thing worth pursuing.
Glory (Buffy the Vampire Slayer): A good many of the villains in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are best categorized as Chaotic Evil, but given the show’s propensity for giving even lesser characters sympathetic backstories and moments (or entire arcs) of redemption, not all of those villains stay Evil for the duration. Glory, however, has no redeeming qualities. She is violent, impulsive, and spiteful, motivated by nothing other than malevolence and a desire for absolute power. There are no other guiding principles to her actions, no meaningful backstory to contextualize them, and nothing that would lend her even the barest hint of sympathy. She employs underlings, but rules them solely through fear, and she certainly doesn’t care what happens to them, especially when they fail her in some way. Her desires are Evil, her actions are Evil, and she seems incapable of thinking about anything other than herself.
First and foremost, special thanks to the always useful TV Tropes for helping me think about what exactly I wanted to say about each alignment, and also providing me with some example characters that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own; in particular, I wouldn’t have thought to list Gaius Baltar and Catwoman without their assistance. If you’re looking for further reading on the alignment system, all nine alignments have their own page on TV Tropes, and while my descriptions of each were meant to suss out the abstract nature of each alignment, the descriptions on TV Tropes are more concrete.
Also, special thanks to Sarah for providing ideas and encouragement when I needed them.
FInally, I cannot stress enough that everything in this whole entire series is subjective – you could reasonably disagree with just about everything in this whole series. Feel free to do so! It’s the whole point! Alignments are a world unto themselves, so do your own exploring!