Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Distinguishing Character Alignment

My partner Doug watches more entertainment than I do.  Often when I walk through the living room, something is playing on the television screen.  Fight scenes are pretty common.

It occurred to me that I can't always tell which side the characters are on from a quick glance.  That is, the characters assigned as "good guys" and "bad guys" aren't readily distinguishable by fighting style.  If they're not flagged as Obviously Evil or Obviously Good with costuming or other features that designate their politics, it's difficult to detect.  Even some of the historic trends are fading somewhat -- the costumes used to be much more distinct.  Now it's pretty common to have both sides dressed in black urban combat outfits or something similar.  Distinctions between fighting styles are long gone in most cases.  About the only thing that commonly remains is color-coded blaster fire.

I think it's an effect of the slide toward Grey and Gray Morality.  That is, the primary distinction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" is not their ethical framework, goals, methods, or other objectively observable aspects.  It's which team the author is rooting for.  In which case, you know, they really should use different-colored shirts so viewers can tell the teams apart.  I wind up thinking that many contemporary entertainers are lazy, sloppy, ignorant, or all three.

As a consumer of entertainment in any form, I find it unfulfilling when I can't really relate to or sympathize with any of the characters, when they all seem pretty much the same.  They're just some jerks I don't know smacking each other around. It's not my idea of fun.  Conversely, when both sides are sympathetic but they're too  balanced, I don't enjoy that either.  It means the only way I'll be satisfied with the ending is if both sides somehow win, and very few writers are creative enough to resolve that kind of conflict without it being obvious from the start and therefore pointless.  If a side I really sympathize with loses, I am unhappy with the ending, even if another side I also sympathize with has won.

I do love complexities, though.  I like exploring how messed-up people still have things they care about, and how well-meaning people can screw up.  Most of life is complicated; few issues have simple solutions.  Most people have a mix of positive and negative traits; it's the balance  that matters.  Figuring out which way someone tilts is vitally important to surviving and thriving in life.

So then, if you're writing characters, think about why they have the ethical framework they do and how they show that.  What are their good or evil traits?  What will they do, what won't  they do, and why?  How long do you have to watch them before you can peg their alignment?  The closer to the middle of the spectrum, the longer it tends to take.  The farther toward either extreme, the faster and easier it gets to clock them as Good or Evil -- or Lawful or Chaotic, or Superhero or Supervillain, or whatever other spectrum you choose.  The gray hats may look white or black depending on context, but an Unsullied Hero or Diabolical Villain should pop out pretty quick.

What do you think?  How easy is it for you to distinguish characters based on traits and behaviors?  How well do you think authors convey alignment through action?  What are your preferences in entertainment?
Tags: entertainment, meta, reading, writing
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