Serenity and the Dungeons & Dragons guide to character development
We watched Serenity last night. As usual, Jake walked in well after the movie had started and wanted to know what was happening. I found myself falling back on Dungeons & Dragons alignment terminology to explain the characters and their actions: "That's the captain of the Serenity and his crew. They're all unlawful neutrals. That guy there? He's an assassin for the Empire, or whatever they're called. He's lawful evil. If this movie runs true to form, before the movie is over the unlawful neutrals will be forced by circumstances to become unlawful goods . . ." Or that's what I would have said, if it weren't for Jake saying, "Huh? What? I don't know what you're talking about." Which is a shame, really, because the Dungeons & Dragons alignment scheme provides a fast and accurate means of typing a character. Moreover, for writers, it's a convenient way to get a quick understanding of a newly created character. For those of you not wise in the ways of D&D, here's how it works. Alignment involves two variables, each of which have three possible values. A character can be lawful (law-abiding), neutral (self-serving), or chaotic (or 'unlawful,' actively seeking to overturn the social order). A character can also be good, neutral, or evil. By combining these parameters, you have nine possible character types. Quick quiz: Han Solo is . . . ? Getting old and paunchy, yes, but he's also unlawful neutral at the beginning of Star Wars. Just like the crew of the Serenity, Han is forced by circumstances and a freeze-drier to become unlawful good. Luke Skywalker is . . . ? Unlawful good, but he's really weak on the "unlawful" part. In a marginally not-bad Empire, you just know the little priss would be lawful good. The only reason Luke is unlawful is the fact that the law -- the Empire -- is so damned eeevil. Back to character creation. This website provides a 36-question quiz to help you determine your character's alignment. I took it with one of my main characters in mind, and came up with "Neutral," which is just about how I think of him. Tui cares more about an abstract (the Truth, capital T and all) than his own family. He's not evil, but neither is he good. I haven't tried taking the quiz with my rogue, Boron, in mind, but he'd better turn out unlawful neutral, or I don't know my Boron. Why is this a worthwhile exercise? Because two of the things that make a novel fun are characters who change, and characters in conflict. If you want your characters to change, you need to make sure the change isn't too drastic. When I analyze my NiP, most of the changes are plausibly close. Like Han Solo, Boron must become unlawful good. Tui stays doggedly neutral, but it takes him a mammoth effort to do so. Tui's wife Sul is my biggest problem child. In the rough draft, she was lawful evil all the way. When I wrote the novel, though, I became more and more fond of her. My villain became a tragic heroine. I asked her to change from lawful evil to unlawful good. Well, as Maureen and my wife will tell you (Jona has been more forgiving), this proved to be too great a leap. I had major motivation problems. Sul's transformation feels artificial, forced. I was asking too much of her. Now that I'm editing, I'm toning the evil way down, mostly by making Sul's initial alliance with evil seem far more innocent and plausible. The reader should think, "Yes, in those circumstances, I might make a deal with the devil, too," particularly since the "devil" seems eminently reasonable (although scary, just the same). Sul is, after all, a powerful female willing to fight beak-and-talon for her family's best interest. Sul wouldn't go to a male authority figure with her problems; no, she'd go to the most politically powerful female in the land. Thus, instead of "lawful evil becomes unlawful good," Sul's transformation will be "lawful good to unlawful good" -- which is a much more believable change. How about conflict? As Star Wars and Serenity demonstrate, Lawful Evil vs. Unlawful Good is an entertaining pair-off. I think audiences today like a little ambiguity in their heroes and villains, and that's what LE vs. UG provides. If you want Unlawful Evil vs. Lawful Good, you'll have to mine the videostore shelves for some old Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne movies. (And not all of Wayne's characters were Lawful Good -- not by a long shot.) As for Serenity, I guessed right. The captain has a change of heart, becomes Unlawful Good, and defeats the Lawful Evil forces of the star system. There, I ruined it for you. The movie had one other surprise -- Hello Kitty videos are evil -- but you knew that already. D.