Balance the Party—Warrior Writer Guide to Creating Legendary Characters

Sparrow

Warrior Writer Boot Camp was created to fill a glaring hole in the world of critique by blending the insight of a beta reader with the world of the critique group. It has been an effort to steer writers away from the comfort of line-edit, and stretch their skills in innovative ways that develop great storytellers. The last WW blog gave a brief introduction to WWBC, and this week’s blog continues our journey.

One of the greatest goals of WWBC is to help writers create multi-dimensional characters. As mentioned in the last blog, participants are asked to create their story’s antagonist first. Why? Because the antagonist is the impetus for disrupting the protagonist’s happy-happy-joy-joy life. If Sauron never created a Ring of Power designed with the sole purpose for ruling Middle Earth, Frodo would have just continued goofing off with his buddies and being bored with Hobbit life. If Wild Bill didn’t have a fetish for size 14 Chick Skin Couture then Clarice Starling wouldn’t have a job very long at the FBI. If the Wicked Witch of the West….

…you get the idea, :).

Yet in my years of being an editor and running critique groups, there is one character that makes an appearance in virtually every new writer’s manuscript…the Born Evil Bad Guy (Antagonist).

Of course, along with Born Evil Bad Guy, I tend to see the Born Noble Hero, and the Born Loyal Minions and the Born Wise Mentors—all in the same book. And these characters can be interesting, but they are only one part of a highly complex and dynamic psychological gamut. That’s like using only two colors of the entire spectrum to create art.

WWBC helps writers get away from the cardboard caricatures by exploring the entire psychological continuum then mining it for attributes that breathe life into any character. How? We do this using a most unique resource from my painfully awkward youth.

Dungeons and Dragons.

Growing up it was not uncommon for me to switch schools twice a year—22 schools by end of college. As the perpetual new kid and object of torment, I used to be excruciatingly shy. Shy to the point of being invisible. For years, I played Dungeons and Dragons (ok…stop laughing). And though my mother called it a waste of time, I have come to believe that D&D has a simple brilliance that can help any fiction writer create multi-faceted characters worthy of legends.

How?

I’ll tell you in a second. But for the benefit of those who were not social outcasts, a quick overview.

Before any game play, one is requires to basically build a character using a D&D Compendium. Everything is included—race (Moon Elf), class (assassin), physical attributes, skills, gods, feats, weapons, etc. Not too dissimilar from the Character Sheet we use for Warrior Writer Boot Camp (taken from Novel Writers Toolkit by Bob Mayer) and use as a template for creating characters.

Yet, as leader of WWBC, I have to bring my own unique insight to the table, right? Thus, I added to Bob’s guide. I think Dungeons & Dragons ™ offers one additional qualification that is HIGHLY useful in creating great characters.

Alignment.

I often ask the WWBC participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc.  breaks down character alignments into the following:

 

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

 

These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.

***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me :).

We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing creatures. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”

Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.

For convenience, the following definitions/excerpts/examples are taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alignment_(Dungeons_&_Dragons) in compliance with the Terms of Use as stipulated by Wikipedia. This hyperlink will take you to the complete article, where you can learn more about alignments in greater detail. As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.

Lawful Good

“Saintly” or “Crusader” alignment. A Lawful Good character typically acts with compassion, and always with honor and a sense of duty. Lawful Good characters, especially paladins (knights), may sometimes find themselves faced with the dilemma of whether to obey law or good when the two conflict – for example, upholding a sworn oath when it would lead innocents to come to harm – or conflicts between two orders, such as between their religious law and the law of the local ruler.

Literary Examples—Superman, Joan of Arc, Olivia from Law & Order.

Neutral Good

Neutral Good is known as the “Benefactor” alignment. A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would. A doctor who treats soldiers from both sides in a war could be considered Neutral Good.

Literary Examples—Zorro and Spiderman.

Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They have no use for those who would try to push them around and tell them what to do.

While they do not have evil intentions, they often do bad things (even if they do not necessarily enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people if it benefits their goal of achieving a greater good.

Literary Examples—Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica , Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, and Robin Hood

Lawful Neutral

Lawful Neutral is called the “Judge” or “Disciplined” alignment. A Lawful Neutral character typically believes strongly in Lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules and tradition, and often follows a personal code. A Lawful Neutral society would typically enforce strict laws to maintain social order, and place a high value on traditions and historical precedent. Examples of Lawful Neutral characters might include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer who adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, a disciplined monk, or a cowardly commoner.

Characters of this alignment are neutral with regard to good and evil. This does not mean that Lawful Neutral characters are amoral or immoral, or do not have a moral compass; but simply that their moral considerations come a distant second to what their code, tradition or law dictates. They typically have a strong ethical code, but it is primarily guided by their system of belief, not by a commitment to good or evil.

Literary Examples—James Bond & Odysseus.

Neutral

Neutral alignment, also referred to as True Neutral or Neutral Neutral, is called the “Undecided” or “Nature’s” alignment. This alignment represents Neutral on both axes, and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment. A farmer whose primary overriding concern is to feed his family is of this alignment. Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment. Many roguish characters who play all sides to suit themselves are also of this alignment.

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Literary Examples—Lara Croft & Hans Solo.

Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic Neutral is called the “Anarchist” or “Free Spirit” alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, and generally shirks rules and traditions. Good and Evil come a distant second to their need for personal freedom, and the only reliable thing about them is how totally unreliable they are.

They typically act out of self-interest, but do not specifically enjoy seeing others suffer. Many free-spirited adventurers are of this alignment. Alternatively there are madmen whose actions are chaotic, but are not themselves inclined towards evil.

An unusual subset of Chaotic Neutral is “strongly Chaotic Neutral”, describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change, and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful construct.

Literary Examples—Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean. Al Swearingen, Deadwood.

Lawful Evil

Lawful Evil is referred to as the “Dominator” or “Diabolic” alignment. Characters of this alignment see a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit, and show a combination of desirable and undesirable traits; while they usually obey their superiors and keep their word, they care nothing for the rights and freedoms of other individuals. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct, and loyal soldiers who enjoy the act of killing.

Literary Examples—Boba Fett Star Wars & X-Men’s Magneto

Neutral Evil

Neutral Evil is called the “Malefactor” alignment. Characters of this alignment are typically selfish and have no qualms about turning on their allies-of-the-moment. They have no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit to it. They abide by laws for only as long as it is convenient for them. A villain of this alignment can be more dangerous than either Lawful or Chaotic Evil characters, since he is neither bound by any sort of honor or tradition nor disorganized and pointlessly violent.

Examples are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind his superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer.

Literary Examples—X-Men’s Mystique. Spike Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Series).

Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil is referred to as the “Destroyer” or “Demonic” alignment. Characters of this alignment tend to have no respect for rules, other peoples’ lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have any regard for the lives or freedom of other people. They do not work well in a group, as they resent being given orders, and usually only behave themselves out of fear of punishment.

It is not compulsory for a Chaotic Evil character to be constantly performing sadistic acts just for the sake of being evil, or constantly disobeying orders just for the sake of causing chaos. They do however enjoy the suffering of others, and view honor and self-discipline as weaknesses. Serial killers and monsters of limited intelligence are typically Chaotic Evil.

Literary Examples—Riddick from Pitch Black. Joker from The Dark Knight. Stargher’s evil half in movie The Cell (2000).

An author’s task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context. Once we understand their moral compasses, we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations.

Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer Workshops teach authors to think in unconventional ways, and to learn from the successes of others. Dungeons & Dragons may seem like a strange writing resource, but Role Playing Games (RPGs) are addictive for a reason. Gary Gygax (creator of Dungeons & Dragons ™) literally fashioned a standardized method for crafting and populating other worlds so real that it was easy for participants to be drawn in and become utterly lost in fantasy, for them to venture into a new world and never wish to leave.

Isn’t that what all of us writers aspire to create with our stories? To create something so rich that the reader is utterly captivated? Don’t we desire to leave readers forever changed for having joined our characters in adventure? I don’t know about you, but THAT is the kind of story I want to write.

Until next time…

**************************************************

Additional references:

For a Warrior Writer Workshop near you, go to www.bobmayer.org

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  1. #1 by sniffits on October 5, 2009 - 6:23 pm

    I’ve always thought DnD alignments were a great starting point. I had fun making characters (nerd) but had no idea they got it down the five now, hmmm. On topic, great breaking down on their meanings and a very enjoyable and simple explanation. An important part of character development (especially with antagonists, in my opinion) is motivation. So many people seem to forget that motivation is what sets people apart and often makes them interesting. Anyway, looking forward to more.

    • #2 by warriorwriters on October 5, 2009 - 6:34 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! It is really appreciated. How they got it down to 5 was that they eliminated the neutral categories and lumped into Unaligned. But I think the neutral categories are the best place for fascinating characters.

      • #3 by sniffits on October 5, 2009 - 11:43 pm

        I find that kinda disappointing that they did that D:

        Neutral categories are when you really get into the fun stuff. You’re not sure how they’ll react, they’re unpredictable but in a mysterious way. Bah, that’s why I stick to 2.5 ED

        There was this characterization sheet I had (I really need to find it) where it basically broke down the character profile and asked you (the author) to explain psychology and motivations as pertaining to the politics and sociology of their world. It really helped me shape most of my characters into what they are today.

  2. #4 by Bob Mayer on October 5, 2009 - 6:42 pm

    Character is the hardest part of writing for me. I am currently outlining my next WIP and my focus is on character arc in every scene. I used to be concerned about what happened in each scene, but over the years I’ve turned more and more to focus on how the characters are affected and how the reader identifies with each character.

  3. #5 by Jason Black on October 5, 2009 - 9:59 pm

    Great tool for matching–or anti-matching–protagonists and antagonists. However, I disagree strongly with the classifications of many of the examples in the article.

    Batman as an archetype of _lawful_ good? Come on! The guy’s a vigilante. He acts to support the lawful framework of society, but he is himself usually acting _outside_ the bounds of strict lawful behavior. He is NOT lawful good. He is at best neutral good. Superheroes almost all fall into this same mold.

    An archetypal lawful good character would be a police officer who acts to support the lawful framework of society, but also voluntarily acts within the bounds of the law he claims to uphold. Ok, so a lot of actual cops don’t themselves behave lawfully, but in an ideal world they would. That’s lawful good.

    Neutral good? Gandhi. Total benefactor type, always acted under the strict direction of his moral compass, which was aimed ever-true towards that which would bring freedom and justice to the oppressed. He had no problems violating or opposing laws which he felt were not good, but did not advocate that people resort to chaotic (wantonly destructive or violent) behavior in order to achieve their aims, either.

    Chaotic good? Misguided domestic terrorists like _The Weathermen_ who sought the greater good (a fairer social order) but resorted to bombings and other chaotic acts in furtherance of those goals. Naturally, that didn’t work out so well for them.

    True lawful neutral examples are hard to find in fiction, because such people aren’t very dramatic: they aren’t making their own decisions, they’re allowing all their decisions to be effectively dictated to them from outside. That’s a yawn. James Bond, however, is in no way lawful neutral. Chaotic good, maybe: willing to act inside or outside of the law in the furtherance of arguably amoral political goals.

    Anyway. If you’re reading these comments, take the D&D character alignment chart for what it is: a useful tool, a useful framework, for thinking about your characters. But if you find some of the examples in the article to be confusing exemplars of the descriptions, well, you’re not wrong.

    • #6 by warriorwriters on October 5, 2009 - 11:56 pm

      Thanks for other examples. Those weren’t my choices, and I had issue with a few myself. Batman, for instance, was tricky, because was this contemporary Batman or Batman of the 1950s? However, I do think the descriptions of each were excellent, and most of you guys are clever enough to insert your own literary counterparts. To avoid further confusion, though, I will go change a couple, ;).

  4. #7 by jasonamyers on October 6, 2009 - 4:09 pm

    HA! You’re a total dweeby geek! Awesome! Let me use my +4 dagger to attack the mage! Genius. Why aren’t you writing fantasy!?

    I like how you bring up LOTR. It actually has no Climactic Scene! Sauron never is on stage, and when the final battles happen, he’s no where! I hated that part of the books. I wanted Gandalf (who was sent by the gods to defeat Sauron) and Sauron to actually be on stage at the climax, battling it out for Middle Earth. But alas.

    Kristen, you’ve helped me, in the less-than-a-year I’ve known you, create such realistic characters. I think when I am working on new stories in the future, I want to pick your brain as part of my plotting. For characters, story, etc.
    And I can’t wait to read your stuff. I bet it will knock my socks off!

  5. #8 by KJames on October 9, 2009 - 2:02 am

    Kristen, this really is a unique approach. I can honestly say I’ve never heard of anyone using D&D to create characters. I’ve never played the game, but it makes a lot of sense to use that template.

    That being said, this kind of stuff makes me want to bash my head against the wall. I know writers who swear by this kind of profiling technique but it makes me crazy. I tried using enneagrams (sp?) once to type my characters and ended up wanting to kill all of them immediately because they no longer felt “real” to me. This is one aspect of writing that does come naturally and easily for me. I know who they are and what motivates them and how they’re going to react and why. Getting all that onto the page, well, that’s another issue and remains to be seen.

    I’m pretty sure I’d get kicked out of WWBC for insubordination or refusing to do homework or something along those lines. ;) I’ve learned the hard way to take what works and leave the rest alone, while appreciating there will always be someone who can use a method that you can’t. Good for you for presenting us with unique options.

  6. #9 by Shannon Delany/Saoirse Redgrave on October 24, 2009 - 8:34 pm

    Very cool post. My husband and I actually discussed alignment of my characters when I was working through my second book because I worried about keeping the character evolution absolutely correct. Alignment’s definitely something to consider (and again we nerdy types have a strange advantage ;-). Thanks for sharing this!

  7. #10 by Jami Gold on September 11, 2010 - 6:42 pm

    Oh, Yes – Love this! Of course, I’m a former (only because I have no time) D&D/gamer. I’ve used many of the character-creating techniques I learned from those days in my stories.

    And I think what’s interesting is that you can use these alignments to create even more layers by contrasting what a character thinks they are with what they really are. Imagine a bad guy who thinks they’re Chaotic-Good, but in reality, they’re closer to Chaotic-Neutral or Chaotic-Evil. Or the good guy, who thinks they’re Neutral-Evil because of their shady past, but they’re really closer to Neutral-Good.

    Great thoughts!

    • #11 by Kristen Lamb on September 11, 2010 - 7:42 pm

      Ooooh, I LOVE that idea. I didn’t think of that. I will have to revise this and add. I will give credit, of course *courtier bow* :D. Thanks so much for sharing.

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