Dimensions of Good and Evil

Alignment has been on my brain of late. If you’ve never gotten into role-playing games, alignment is the scale by which the game identifies the moral and ethical stance a character is supposed to take. There are two basic axes: lawful vs. chaotic and good vs. evil. Characters tend to get grouped into these quadrants, with neutrality being a viable possibility on both axes:

Classic Alignment

The system is pretty good for your standard hero journey or typical high fantasy, and it definitely works in the structured boundaries of game play, but it breaks down faster than cheap make-up on the fourth of July when you try to apply it to real people. I think, in fact, that it breaks down nearly as quickly when you apply it to good fiction. I don’t believe this system was ever intended to be an informative or analytic tool for fiction, but I think that trying to design an alternative system for alignment opens up an interesting discussion about the nature of good and evil as well as the kind of paths characters can take to acting on their convictions of good or evil. For the fun of discussion, allow me to propose the following:

Facet 1: Self Interest vs. Greater Good

Self Interest vs Greater Good

Putting self interest and a commitment to the greater good on opposite points of the same axis would rob us of the opportunity to tease out some depth in the way these two critical concepts interact. When characters have the opportunity to experience both intense self interest and intense care for the greater good, you get great hero vs. self conflict, which is not the same as being well-balanced, or neutral, between these two sometimes conflicting notions, which is what that conflict would look like if self interest and the greater good were on the same axis. Constructing them as intersecting axes is more useful for asking, “If I plot out the relative values of these two ideals, what is the shape of the line between them going to look like, and what does that mean for my plot?

Facet 2: Efficacy & Decision Making

Efficacy and Decision Making

Lawful versus chaotic is such a complex concept that I had a hard time teasing out just a few data points worth looking at to try to arrive at a useful metric and I’ve left off a third dimension which probably lines up better with the traditional notion of chaotic vs. lawful. I think the fundamental question behind that dichotomy is whether characters derive their code of behavior from a top-down, external force, or from a bottom-up, internal force. I’m not  yet entirely sure how separate that question is from whether a character is more motivated by self interest or the greater good, however, so I’ve decided to keep that on the back burner.

The aspects of decision making and situational response protocols that I do find incredibly useful to think about are whether a character is more of a gung-ho, intuitive thinker or a “Let’s step back and make a plan” sort of thinker. It’s also important to ask just how active a character is, primarily because this is one of the most critical places where character growth happens. In my reading experience, I have seen far fewer heroes move from evil to good than from running scared to empowered.

That brings up yet another dimension of alignment that matters much more for writers than it does for role-players: change over time. If some part of your hero’s alignment doesn’t shift over time, you’re missing out on a great part of their story that’s waiting to be told.

Trying to categorize the responses is mostly a philosophical exercise, I know. Whack me with a balloon. As a writer, I do still find it interesting and even useful to step back from time to time and ask myself. “What is this character’s alignment?  Are they acting in accordance with their alignment? If they’re acting outside of alignment, do I know why?” Changing up the axes by which I’m classifying my characters has, for me, blown open my thought process about what constitutes good and evil or law and chaos. I suppose that is what happens when you move from 9 possible rough permutations to 81…

What do you think? Any other key concepts you think I’m missing? Am I complicating the question without good cause? Discuss.

p.s. John pointed out that organizing the scales as intersecting axes is deceptive because these variables are all independent, and that it would be much more sensible to display the information as a set of sliding switches. He’s probably right, but I already had the charts made and put it, so hopefully that visual will work well enough for the moment. :)

2 thoughts on “Dimensions of Good and Evil

  1. Selfish acts can still work toward the greater good (I won’t kill that guy because I don’t want to go to jail. I feel good when I’m around that person, so I’m nice to them in the hopes they’ll stick close to me). Maybe replace “greater good” with “altruism”?


    1. That was the argument for not putting self and great good on opposite sides of the same axis–might have been less confusing if I’d labeled the graph “High/Low Self Interest” and “High/Low Greater Good.” Altruism is less of a mouthful than “greater good” and does a better job describing a characteristic, so I like it for that reason.


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