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Making Lawful Good Compelling

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DissinYoSandwich Lover of Bread Dishes from Kentucky, bourbon capital of the world Relationship Status: Hounds of love are hunting
Lover of Bread Dishes
Oct 25th 2021 at 10:10:17 PM

In a lot of more modern popular media, the hero of choice is often the archetypal “maverick who plays by their own rules” or anti-heroes. There is no problem with this, as they’ve produced many compelling characters and is more a result of the culture at our time.

However, this seems to be motivated by the general consensus that by-the-book moral types are rather... BORING. In spite of this I’ve been wanting to write more of these protags/heroes in my personal works. More classically ‘moral’ individuals bound by codes of justice, compassion, and protection of the innocent rather than destruction of any ephemeral evil through their own brand of vigilantism or ‘eye for an eye’ revenge. Characters that come to mind include Superman, Galahad, Phoenix Wright, or basically anyone who focuses more on establishing a stable lasting Good through just means rather than the punishment of the worst in others.

How could I create such a morally upstanding character while still keeping them interesting and compelling?

Arguing about what counts as a sandwich and what counts as a pizza since 137 AD!
ArsThaumaturgis Relationship Status: I've been dreaming of True Love's Kiss
Oct 26th 2021 at 12:53:29 AM

Another work that might be worth researching is The Deed of Paksenarrion. Indeed, I've seen it mentioned before as an expression of a classic D&D "Lawful Good" paladin portrayed well, I believe.

My Games & Writing ~ My Twitch Streaming (mostly retro-games)
Synchronicity Relationship Status: -not set
Oct 26th 2021 at 9:43:23 AM

I will admit that the specifics of character alignment often go over my head, but I also tend to push back against the frequent comic book mentality that Good Is Boring. Empathy goes a looong way in storytelling.

One way to raise the stakes is to put the "good" in contrast with the "lawful". If these characters are good people who believe in societal order, what happens when it turns out the order of things isn't very moral? Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great modern and accessible example of this; a paragonal and inspiring fighter discovering the system he works for is rotten to the core, but not giving up on his values to fight against it.

The fulcrum of Superman's character isn't that he is super strong, can fly, and shoot laser beams from his eyes, it's that he is a fundamentally kind and nurturing person who happens to be super strong, able to fly, and shoot laser beams from his eyes. And there is a lot of storytelling mileage that can be mined from that. Sometimes it is easier to throw down with a monster than it is to do the right thing for the common man, but Superman wants to do the latter, and will do the former because it is in service of it. (I recommend the ending of Superman/Shazam: First Thunder as a quick example of how to write his empathy very effectively.)

Edited by Synchronicity on Oct 26th 2021 at 11:43:50 AM

AnchorNNW Gust Jive Meason Re from Hurricane, Utah Relationship Status: Non-Canon
Gust Jive Meason Re
Oct 26th 2021 at 10:50:39 AM

Give them the trolly problem (specifically the version where the single person is a loved one).

By the Power of Grayskull, I HAVE THE POWER
HandsomeRob Leader of the Holey Brotherhood from The land of broken records
Leader of the Holey Brotherhood
Oct 26th 2021 at 3:00:56 PM

I think you just have to give them aspects to their character beyond being Lawful Good.

Maybe make them nerds like the rest of us, or something like that.

Or give them something sympathetic in their backstory....or perhaps put a bit more emphasis on the good part, since it might be the lawful aspect of their characters that people don't care for.

One Strip! One Strip!
TitanJump Relationship Status: Singularity
Oct 26th 2021 at 9:00:46 PM

Show the pain and the price they have to pay every day in order to maintain their Lawful Good-alignment in their work as heroes.

QueenoftheCats Relationship Status: Shipping fictional characters
Oct 27th 2021 at 3:36:57 AM

If you're aiming for Lawful Good, specifically, you should probably first think about what it means to be Lawful.

I'm a big fan of Order of the Stick, which is based off of Dungeons and Dragons and thus has character alignments, and Burlew, the writer, has some things to say about Lawful alignments you'll probably find helpful here

To sum up some of what he says: Lawful characters either follow an external code (think a code of a church, or the laws of a place, so on so forth) or follow an internal code, such as a code of honor. It'll probably help if you decide not only which your character is, and whether they prioritize their own code or the law/some external code.

Part of the problem with Lawful Good characters is that they have it put on them to be the paragon, lifting everyone else up. Think Superman. Awesome character, no doubt, but he's considered boring because he often works to lift other people up, rather than struggling himself. The other Lawful Good characters often fall into the Knight Templar side of things.

How to avoid this? Part of it is just averting Incorruptible Pure Pureness. Who gets under your character's skin? That they always give snide comments to and will save with gritted teeth? Try to give them flaws unrelated to being Lawful or good, too, or else it seems like their character will revolve too much around their alignment. Knight Templar is easier to avoid; just have your character be reasonable about things, rather than demonizing everyone. It helps if you write a Lawful Good character that prefers to talk things out; that reduces the risk of Knight Templar, because then the character won't resort to violence first.

I'd also let your character invoke Honor Before Reason, but also, remember that honor doesn't always mean what people says it does. I remember reading the Count of Monte Cristo, where Albert forfeited a duel. It was called dishonorable by the onlookers as it seemed evidence in cowardice, but in truth Albert knew the man he was challenging was right about his father's dishonor and so withdrew. The greatest honor is What You Are in the Dark, and it's there where honor is proven or broken.

I hope this helps. I've been trying to write a Lawful Good character myself, recently, so I do have some experience with it.

ECD Relationship Status: -not set
Nov 29th 2021 at 7:01:33 AM

So, three thoughts, all of which are obviously just opinion.

First, speaking only for myself, I've reached saturation to the point of boredom with 'lawful good character discovers that the law itself is evil/corrupt/powerless,' as a plot point. Thinking back to like the MCU, I struggle to think of any actual organization (as opposed to ad hoc group of individuals) that doesn't fall somewhere on that scale. Now, these stories remain more widely popular, so take this with a heaping mound of salt.

Second, personally, I'd find it a far more interesting question of 'how do you bring law to a region/people who don't follow it?' This might be literal aliens immigrating to a new planet which already has its own laws, or the Sherriff of Notingham's replacement trying to clean up the mess that is Sherwood and having to deal with all the problems left behind by his predecessor.

Third, how should the law change to reflect changing circumstances? There's a tendency to treat a lawful good character as inherently static, but from a character viewpoint, what is good should change based on their experience and knowledge. From a society viewpoint, what is lawful changes with the culture and laws. So, put your character at a point of change. The lawful good judge who has to decide 'is this new AI actually a person, or just a fancy chatbot?' Or maybe the lawful good legislators who are trying to decide 'okay, if AI are people and any AI can copy itself essentially infinite do we have elections?' Or in a fantasy setting, newly discovered magic resurrected the king, it's been three years since his death and the coronation of his son, I swore oaths of loyalty to both, who is actually owed my service?

QueenoftheCats Relationship Status: Shipping fictional characters
Nov 29th 2021 at 8:12:02 AM

[up]Ooooh, I like those ideas.

The second one is relevant to me, because my Lawful Good character is in a lawless wasteland sort of environment. She hasn't really set her sights as high as actually bringing law to the land, though, because she's an outsider and therefore doesn't consider it her place to do so. (Perhaps that'll change as the story continues. Who knows? Certainly not me. Listen, I love you, my character, but I absolutely hate writing you because you keep piping up and changing what I'm writing. Never before have I had such a troublesome character. Please, stop.)

Anyways, I like the idea of dilemmas focusing on what it means to be lawful, like your second and especially third ideas. In terms of my character, I've been wondering how she would deal with crimes in the absence of an actual legal system. Doesn't count as vigilantism in said absence, but it doesn't feel particularly lawful to have her do it herself, especially if she's going after a criminal rather than acting in defense of others.

Thanks for your ideas, I'm going to think about them in terms of my own story (I'm not OP, but really, thanks anyway.)

Ramidel Relationship Status: Above such petty unnecessities
Dec 1st 2021 at 12:44:07 PM

There are a lot of examples of really compelling Lawful Good characters in fiction. Commodore Norrington, Akane Tsunemori, many of the better Captain America stories, and Roy Greenhilt all come to mind. The trick to keep them from becoming a caricature is to show them as flawed. Which is good advice for any character, but it's doubly important for an Ideal Hero. In fact, you need to establish the flaws early so that their virtues come across as cool instead of boring.

And then, you have to flip it, contrast them with the Chaotic Good character, and show just how totally badass Lawful Good can be. My go-to worked example for this is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Commodore Norrington. He isn't a pirate, he's a White Male Authority Figure in a Disney movie, he's got a stick so far up his ass it ought to paralyze him...and then Jack asks him how he can turn down the prestige of capturing the Pearl.

"By remembering that I serve others, Mr. Sparrow, not only myself."

Boom. Suddenly you're looking at even his stickliest behavior in a new light, yeah?

Edited by Ramidel on Dec 1st 2021 at 11:44:33 AM

I despise hypocrisy, unless of course it is my own.
Dec 24th 2021 at 11:56:38 PM

There’s the fact that the law covers things like human rights. The possibility of someone who shows mercy because it’s what’s expected of them and acts as a group’s conscience when the rest try to take justice into their own hands and do things some people consider morally questionable. Although I’m not completely sure if this fits into the discussion.

DeMarquis Who Am I? from Hell, USA Relationship Status: Buried in snow, waiting for spring
Who Am I?
Dec 25th 2021 at 1:29:14 PM

And then there's those characters who uphold the law because the alternative is a violent chaos. The governor of a frontier territory, for example. You shoot someone, you hang, regardless of any extenuating circumstances, because otherwise the families of the victim will start a blood-feud. This depends on a setting that is only semi-civilized.

"Respond to demands with silence, respond to challenges with questions."
Twentington Relationship Status: Desperate
Dec 27th 2021 at 9:14:24 PM

I seem to have the opposite problem in that I can't make any other alignment work.

Feb 5th 2022 at 12:33:14 AM

Show us why they love the society they trust so much. Good characters only seem generic until they're sketched out- I'm sure we've seen a million "kind mother" characters in fiction, and yet few people with loving families will consider their mother boring.

Bornstellar Relationship Status: Complex: I'm real, they are imaginary
Mar 21st 2022 at 3:16:55 PM

I feel like Optimus Prime is this. He's very much a stickler to the rules and has strong principles that he follows. Yet, I don't think he's ever really considered boring (At least for me). I think it helps he's always leading a team that doesn't have him as first among equals, but really as the leader.

By contrast, Superman and especially Captain America are too boring for me.

Mar 23rd 2022 at 3:40:32 PM

The thing that is often forgotten about 'Lawful Good' is that is does NOT mean 'nice'. Sam Vimes is LG (for a certain definition of Lawful!) and yes, he does have a nice side. It's not a side of him he is happy with though.

As I posted on Twitter a few years back, LG character can do things that are both Lawful and Good but are also nasty. The example I gave is that old 'Well I'm chaotic, so I can do anything I like' character the LG responds to.

Somebody said that a CN character had a magic ring that caused some sort of nuisance to the party - it was a major annoyance to the party.

How could a LG character respond? All cultures have an idea of self defence (though this varies with the status of the parties depending on culture). Even today in the UK it is lawful to kill someone as long as that is a reasonable and proportionate response to the threat they display. SO if someone is waving a shotgun around and I stab them once and it kills them, the defence to the killing is the life and limb of those protected - even if it turns out the gun is not actually loaded, but I didn't know.

Back to the ring; It is perfectly lawful for the LG character to pin the CN character down and give them a choice - Give up the ring, or I cut your hand off. It is an action that is stopping a person harming others. It is good - it is an action that is stopping a person harming others.

I'm not saying this wouldn't cause problems at a player level! It is, however, a reasonable action in-game.

Lawful Good is not Stupid Nice.

Edited by Last_Hussar on Mar 23rd 2022 at 10:40:53 AM

HandsomeRob Leader of the Holey Brotherhood from The land of broken records
Leader of the Holey Brotherhood
Angelspawndragon Relationship Status: YOU'RE TEARING ME APART LISA
Jun 24th 2022 at 3:29:32 AM

Apart from the obvious fact that it’s a good idea to make sure that the character has a personality and characterization outside of being just Lawful Good, generally speaking, having them doubt themselves is the easiest way to make a Lawful Good somewhat more interesting and compelling, including pitting them against an antagonist and/or villain who is so utterly unrepentantly monstrous that the Lawful Good genuinely considers going to extremes themselves to take them down.

Something that might be worth exploring though is exactly how much of an inspiration a Lawful Good character can be to other characters, even going out of their way to inspire the villains and/or antagonists of the story to become better people. It’s more than just them being empathetic to the plight of others, it’s them doing whatever they can to actually address the root of the problem, and how they go about it could be a great source of personal and plot relevant conflict for the Lawful Good character.

If that makes any sense [lol]

Creator of the God Is Displeased, Nature Is Not a Toy, and Takes Ten to Hold tropes
MorningStar1337 Diamond Princess from 🤔 Relationship Status: -not set
Diamond Princess
Jun 26th 2022 at 8:00:37 PM

I would prolly go deep into To Be Lawful or Good conflicts. A Trolly Problem esque example would be a scenario where the hero is force to either let the bad guy escape to prioritize saving civilians that would've died due to said crook's actions (the Good option) or forgo their lives to apprehend the crook at the cost of potentially dozens of lives depending on scale (the Lawful option)

less lethally would be scenarios where the hero is forced between turning in a sympathetic criminal with a noble goal (lawful) or helping them achieve their goals despite it entail going outside the law (Good), for this example, lets say there is a dude stealing money to pay for a medical operation for an Ill Girl (little sister, childhood friend, etc) in a society that prevents legal means of fundraising from working (Bystander Syndrome, systemic bigotry, being the victim of another thief, red tape, etc). However I would also use this to explore why these choices had to be made in the first place as well.

As above, so below.
QueenoftheCats Relationship Status: Shipping fictional characters
Jun 27th 2022 at 4:31:45 PM

I feel like there's this reluctance to let Lawful Good characters be Lawful Good.

Look at this thread itself. There's lots of suggestions about how Lawful Good characters ought to face moral dilemmas about the law of their society. And I remember when I tried looking up being a paladin, about how paladins might consider their Oath rules holding them back from bringing justice to people or how you just shouldn't play a Lawful paladin since you can play Chaotic paladins now. I get why, but if you draw attention to the LG aspect of your character, then that aspect needs to hold up under scrutiny. If not, it would probably be better to focus on other aspects and let the LG alignment fade into the background. Letting a Lawful Good character be LG without particularly remarking on it is fine, though the alignment you wanted will probably not be clear to the audience. Truthfully, most alignments aren't clear, though. There's a reason we can't add them to trope pages, so I wouldn't worry too much about that.

Moving on past that, I want to talk about focusing on being Lawful Good. First, I would like to specify that if you're writing a Lawful Good character, you are not writing a Lawful Neutral character. Lawful Neutral people believe that the rules are the rules, that they shouldn't be bent or broken, and that order should be upheld above all else. Lawful Good people don't. They believe that rules work for the betterment of society, that they ought to benefit the people. They would not enforce a rule simply because it is a rule, but they would enforce that rule because they believe it improves people's lives. They also believe that no one are above those laws, not even themselves, and they ought to apply fairly to everyone. They believe in authority, yes, but only authority they consider just. They could rebel against a tyrant just like anyone else, but while a Chaotic character might do because the tyrant is getting rid of freedom, the LG character would do it because the tyrant isn't doing what's best for the people, making him unfit to rule. (What authority your particular LG character considers just is an exercise for you.) Whether or not you agree with that mindset, well, that's up to you, but that's what I keep in mind when writing my LG characters.

So onto To Be Lawful or Good. Okay, I understand that other people have suggested that, but I have to respectfully disagree. I find situations like that always feel contrived to me. Like ooh, the hero has to break his moral code or let something bad happen! And there's absolutely no way of taking a third option! For some reason? One example that comes to my mind pretty quickly is Daredevil, who's forced into the choice of either killing the Punisher with a gun taped to his hand or letting the Punisher kill someone else. This situation is literally designed by the Punisher for this purpose, giving it an in universe justification. That situation is literally designed in universe as a moral dilemma. Others also feel designed, with villains as convenient tools for the author. The dilemma also has an easy obvious answer in Good, duh. It rarely presents an actual dilemma, just the same old 'oh you've gotta do bad things for good ends' idea I've gotten tired of in media.

Instead, I'd suggest Lawful versus Chaotic. It's easy for a situation to come up where a character is faced with being honest or lying, or following her duty or going renegade, or keeping a promise or breaking it. All of those things wouldn't feel forced if they came up. But, and here's the thing, the outcome should not be clear to the character. I'd make the Chaotic outcome the better one, and perhaps have the character question the Lawful choice later on and wondering just what would have happened if they had lied or broken their word, but they wouldn't know. It criticizes some of the inflexibility of Lawful alignments without condemning them. It also avoids making your character look stupid or malicious for sticking to rules in defiance of common sense or of what's right. And you can have plenty of moments where the Lawful one is the right choice. In my opinion, choices like the ones I laid out are better for showing both the benefits and the shortcomings of being Lawful.

HandsomeRob Leader of the Holey Brotherhood from The land of broken records
Leader of the Holey Brotherhood
Aug 27th 2022 at 7:13:45 PM

Fuck. That's a hell of a story.

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