Understanding A Complex Cast of Characters

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grid of icons styled from iconic movie characters

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There are many lenses through which to understand personality types and people’s motivations, from Myers-Briggs to Values Modes to archetypes.

In my novel-writing research, I’ve discovered one which I thought had interesting parallels with any ‘cast of characters’ one might find in change work – that of Character Alignment.

Just as change work requires understanding of people’s motivations and values, defining those same things in works of fiction is integral to creating a robust, believeable character.

Incorporated in early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, Character Alignment enabled players to choose between three alignments when creating a character – lawful, neutral or chaotic:

Lawful characters think having an ordered society is important and beneficial
Chaotic characters don’t necessarily oppose this but think the freedom of the individual comes first
Neutral characters tend to judge such situations on a case by case basis

This is known as the ‘ethical’ axis, or where characters sit on the spectrum of order vs chaos.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a second ‘moral’ axis of good, neutral and evil was introduced, creating a nine-alignment matrix as follows:

lawful neutral chaotic (y axis) good neutral evil (x axis) colour character alignment matrix

Indiana Jones would be considered Lawful Good, James Bond Lawful Neutral. The Joker in Batman and Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter series would be considered Chaotic Evil; the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood would be considered Lawful Evil (or maybe Lawful Neutral) and Robin himself Chaotic Good; Pirates of the Caribbean’s Cap’n Jack Sparrow is Chaotic Neutral.

Applying archetypes to this matrix helps illustrate what each is about, and might help you begin to relate the kinds of ‘characters’ to people around you:

matrix with archetypes included (eg. rebel, dominator, crusader)

The best way to illustrate these archetypes is to use examples of well known casts of characters.

There are different versions created by different people based on their interpretation of the character(s) and the meanings of each different part of the matrix, but you can grasp the idea regardless (don’t worry about the text underneath each picture, just which character has been placed in which alignment).

Below are character alignment matrices for The Muppets:

visual lawful neutral chaotic good and evil matrix with muppet characters as examples

…and Alice in Wonderland:

character matrix for Alice in Wonderland

Now while this is all very interesting (and good for a giggle), what’s it got to do with creating change?

Everything, because these characters can be found in any group or organisation.

They won’t be brandishing swords, blowing things up or unleashing magic, yet the same basic motivational forces are there, in a 21st century guise. The Crusader, the Rebel, the Judge, the Dominator – and if you are truly unfortunate, the Destroyer – are all character types most of us have encountered (or been) at one time or another.

No person is completely one alignment, and people may shift in and out of alignment types depending on the situation. But being able to identify people’s typical alignment(s) will help you understand their motivations, how they will or won’t work, and offer insights into what they may do in a given situation:

Lawful characters tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition…On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.

Neutral characters have a normal respect for authority and feel neither a compulsion to obey nor a compulsion to rebel.

Chaotic characters follow their consciences, resent being told what to do, favor new ideas over tradition, and do what they promise if they feel like it. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.

What can you tell about the alignments of people around you? Do they act in accordance with the rules, or do they subvert authority? Do they act to secure their own interests, or those of the wider group?

Armed with this insight, you will know that appeals to uphold process may not work with neutral and chaotic types, of whatever flavour; that neutral types may be more difficult to predict than the others; that you may be able to work with a ‘lawful evil’ if you can frame things in a way that suits that person’s interest.

If this way of looking at people’s make-up and motivations has resonated with you, you can extend your knowledge of this approach by delving deeper into each of the nine elements of the ethical-moral matrix on Erick Edwards’s excellent site:

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

While some of the content is more applicable to game-playing character creation (such as references to whether or not a character is likely to kill) as distinct from how a character’s alignment affects their worldview or likely actions in organisations or groups, the overall characterisation is still relevant.

In each of the nine areas, he includes a chart about how that particular alignment sees all the others, which could be hugely helpful if you are trying to broker co-operation or understanding between different ‘characters’. For instance, Lawful Good aligned characters see Neutral Good as ‘humane but unreliable’; Lawful Evil characters see Lawful Good as ‘honourable but self-righteous’.

Understanding what makes yourself and others tick is often a learning curve in itself, but being aware of how different people see each other is a challenge on a whole new level.

Edwards also overlays the character alignment chart over that of the extensive values research undertaken by psychologist Professor Shalom Schwartz at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Schwartz developed the Schwartz Value Inventory (SVI) based on an extensive survey of over 60,000 people. The survey identified common values that acted as ‘guiding principles for one’s life’.

These ten common values grouped multiple values into a single category, which sit along two major axes – openness to change vs conservation, and self-enhancement vs self-transition:

schwartz's values model

One realisation I have had as a result of investigating character construction is that there is a wealth of psychological insight out there in the RPG community that people working in sustainability and other change areas could benefit from – so if you turn up to your next training session and there are some folks kitted out in Dungeons & Dragons gear, you’re probably in good hands!

group of live action role playing gamers, with bows, swords shields and costumes

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This post is for ‘Tim the Enchanter’ – not the Monty Python character, for whom he is named, but in-joke about a particular person who played a key role in scuttling more than one initiative that I’d worked for years on and cared about. I still haven’t worked out whether he was lawful evil or chaotic neutral. But stripped of his sword, he is not an influencer.

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Comments

  1. Hi Sharon,
    I really enjoyed this post. A couple of days ago I attended a Local Government “Change Management” workshop where the “North, South, East, West” personality typing was used to determine how to work with individuals when they are confronting change. Your article and the link to Erick Edwards site has provided me with additional information to keep in mind for later this month when I will be attending a workshop for people who have been affected by the January Floods.

  2. Thanks for another fun & insightful post, Sharon. I really like this as a continuous, organic framework for personal motivation. You’re on to something here; this definitely could be a better framework for change management & stakeholder buy-in, as it focuses on motivations, not just personality measures. The Erick Edwards post is fascinating – thanks for surfacing it!

    • Thank you for the feedback and glad you enjoyed the post, Fred!

      Like any framework, it is not absolute or perfect in any way, but it did lead me to wonder how much insight and expertise is being carried around by people creating and enacting characters which could be brought into organisational sustainability thinking.

      I wholeheartedly agree that Edwards has created a very useful resource, applicable to far more than D&D or gaming, such as people working in change management.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful comment Steve – you’ve raised some insightful points about the nuances around this framework, how we define the labels, what kind of ‘lawful’ is it when laws are unjust etc. This has also been a topic of debate in the gaming community for decades, according to Erick Edwards’s site:

    http://easydamus.com/alignmentreal.html

    If you scroll down to the bit with the heading New Names for Old Alignments, he discusses this issue eg. ‘…the old alignment names just won’t do anymore. A pleasure-loving thrill-seeker cannot be called “chaotic evil.” There’s just too much baggage associated with that description…’.

    It’s true to say people are never purely one or the other of any kind of character, or any other typology, and can change as context changes, or as they develop personally.

  4. Sharon,
    good informative article… keep churning them out.
    I’m not really keen on the idea that the opposite of lawful is chaotic… it sounds negative and I don’t think it is when our laws are made by people concerned only for their self-interest.

    We should expect that laws should be good and therefore that lawfulness should align with goodness… The reality is that laws are made to serve the lawmakers and over time they align less and less with what is good… so the law-makers are regarded as lawful evil.

    The rebels (chaotic good) continually challenge them, initially through art and other creative outlets but when this doesn’t work and the lawmakers are not displaced, the rebels become destroyers (chaotic evils).

    My view is that we should aim for the true neutral or the ‘middle way’ (Buddhism), the ‘Golden Mean’ (Confucianism), balance, moderation and Justice (Socratic philosophy) … all else is extremism.

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