What was once a nerdy niche hobby, Dungeons & Dragons has become a mainstream phenomenon. With the success of shows like Critical Role and Dimension 20, ties to the Netflix series Stranger Things, and a recent theatrical release, D&D is more prevalent now than ever before.
At the core of Dungeons & Dragons’ popularity is the characters players create. Each player is given a wealth of options to build a unique avatar with their own skills, talents, and traits that determine how they experience the fantasy world created by their Dungeon Master.
Writing a book is, of course, different than a D&D campaign. Authors control the world, but they also pilot every character in the story. Even if your book isn’t a fantastical jaunt through Faerun or Exandria, there are still lessons you can take away from Dungeons & Dragons that can bring more depth to your character-building.
Dungeons & Dragons Alignments
Character creation in Dungeons & Dragons is not just about spells and skills. A character’s personality is established through multiple steps of the process, and that starts with alignment.
A character’s alignment expresses their relationship with morality and society. In Dungeons & Dragons, this places your character on a two-axis nine-by-nine grid. On one side of the grid, you have your classic moral split between good, evil, and the more ambiguous neutral between them. In contrast, the other half of your alignment is split between lawful, neutral, and chaotic.
Before discussing the nine unique combinations that can define a character, we should ask what they mean for your characters.
A good character acts selflessly, prioritizing the greater good over their own mission or benefit. A good character should be defined by their empathy. With respect for life and the dignity of others, a good alignment means never choosing to be cruel.
Being good does not mean being a pacifist. Many good characters have to take up arms in the face of oppression or harm toward the innocent. This sense of communal justice is why most heroes are defined as good characters.
Remember that some characters may think their end goals are good, but believing you are right and being good are two different motivations.
Evil is your classic villainous alignment. An evil character is willing to bring harm and oppression onto others to get what they want. Many evil characters are even cruel, either to send a message or to satisfy a dark need for power.
Some evil characters may be aware of their role as a villain, while others might see themselves as the hero of their story. If the good alignment is defined by empathy, evil is defined by selfishness. If your character sacrifices others for their goals, they may not be the hero they think they are.
At a glance, most people see lawfulness as a sign of goodness, but they are separate ideals. When you are creating a character, you should think about them in the scope of the society in which they exist.
Each world has its own cultural expectations, rules, and laws. If your story is set in the real world, you can attribute real-world social expectations to your character. In foreign worlds, the laws and cultural norms might be different, so give them thought when you are world-building.
A lawful character upholds the laws and standards of their world. These characters believe in the systems the world has in place and strive to uphold them. Whether they are acting in good faith or with malicious intent, a lawful character will prioritize acting within the expectations of society.
Remember that all laws and rules in your world might not be inherently good. Being lawful might mean choosing to never kill, but it also might mean enforcing oppressive laws. Laws are a reflection of your world, which makes your character’s relationship to them so important.
A chaotic character has no regard for the laws of the land. This relationship with society can brand your character as an outsider in different ways. Criminals, rebels, deviants, vigilantes; each archetype has different goals and ideals, but they share a willingness to break the rules to accomplish them.
In D&D, chaotic characters are often the wild cards in any given scene. Lawful intentions are more predictable because they exist within the systems of law and expectation. When your character is willing to disregard the systems surrounding them, there is no limit to how they address a challenge.
It would be easy to dismiss neutral as the middle ground between good and evil, law and chaos. Neutral characters have their own depth worth considering.
A morally neutral character has a live-and-let-live attitude. They are not driven by a need to serve others, nor will they go out of their way to harm others to get what they want. Moral ambiguity can give you, as a writer, more flexibility to explore your character’s boundaries.
On the other axis, a neutral character might work to stay within the bounds of the law, but they aren’t beholden to them. Some people follow laws to avoid consequences, but they do not see this as a moral imperative. If doing the right thing (or saving your own skin) requires breaking the law, a neutral character may be willing to cross that line.
A neutral character may end up becoming the bellwether of your story. If they embrace goodness, a need for optimism and kindness might be the driving force of the narrative. If your neutral character begins taking a stance for or against the systems in place, this says something about the role of the law in your society.
The Nine Character Alignments
With three moral positions and three societal roles, any character can fulfill one of nine alignments.
Lawful Good (Crusader)
Crusaders are your paladins and lawmen. Defined by justice, they represent the best of what society can be. They may also be rigid in their morality to a fault.
Examples: Superman, Ned Stark, Aragorn
Lawful Neutral (Judge)
More concerned with the law than morality, Lawful Neutral characters are impartial judges. They may ultimately harm or help people, but in either case, they’ll do it by the book.
Examples: Judge Dredd, Stannis Baratheon, Nick Fury
Lawful Evil (Dominator)
Some people bend the systems of society to their will. A Dominator will expose the inequity of society, through complicity or authority. Most despotic rulers and authoritarian villains fall under this umbrella.
Examples: Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, Cersei Lannister
Neutral Good (Benefactor)
If doing good is more important than being seen as right or wrong, your character is a Benefactor. They aren’t looking to uphold justice or make a statement of defiance; they just prioritize the wellbeing of others.
Examples: Spider-Man, Buffy Summers, Jon Snow
True Neutral (Undecided)
Some people have no strong feelings about law or morality. Truthfully, many people just want to live their lives without bothering or going out of their way for others. This may also be a good starting point to develop your character. As a story progresses, they may develop new stances that move them to action.
Examples: Sherlock Holmes, The Watcher, Lara Croft
Neutral Evil (Malefactor)
It can be perversely fun watching a character motivated by selfish self-interest. A Malefactor’s relationship with society is secondary to their personal goals.
Examples: Mystique, Gaston, Littlefinger
Chaotic Good (Rebel)
Sometimes, doing good means breaking the status quo. A rebel sees the system standing in the way of progress and hurting the innocent and decides to do something about it.
Examples: Robin Hood, Daredevil, Mulan Fa
Chaotic Neutral (Free Spirit)
If you want an unpredictable loose cannon, you should write a Free Spirit into your story. Chaotic Neutral characters march to the beat of their own drum and won’t let rules or laws stop them from being themselves.
Examples: Deadpool, Bender, Captain Jack Sparrow
Chaotic Evil (Destroyer)
When you picture a crazed madman who gains joy from breaking laws and causing pain, you’re envisioning a Chaotic Evil character. Destroyers have little to no empathy and are disinterested in any code of conduct.
Examples: The Joker, Ramsay Bolton, Freddy Kreuger
It is important to note that the alignment chart is considered antiquated in some D&D circles. Your characters should have the capacity to act outside of their alignment, and they may even blur the lines between archetypes.
If you give your character an alignment when you plot your story, consider it a starting point to see where your character grows.
Join us in Part 2 when we look at how you can craft character personalities using the guidelines provided by Dungeons & Dragons.