Convictions form the heart of anyone's power. Though conviction alone is not enough to accomplish one's goals, nothing matters without conviction. All the ability in the world will come to nothing if the person with the power has no impetus to use it. Therefore, when discussing power, one must discuss conviction. My favorite language for doing so comes from Dungeons and Dragons: The game separates the characters well, while still leaving them leeway enough to be as dynamic, static, round or flat as the character demands.
In Dungeons and Dragons, there are nine alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic pair off with Good, Neutral, and Evil. These define the basics of a character’s morality, and most characters fit the alignment one would expect: a knight in shining armor would be Lawful Good; Robin Hood would be Chaotic Good; most flat villains would be Chaotic Evil; Lex Luthor would be Lawful Evil. The interesting part comes from working out what each alignment means. What makes a character an alignment is the character’s motivation—so what motivates Robin Hood that sets him apart from a knight? What makes Lex Luthor different from the sort of villain who twirls his mustache?
A character need not be intelligent or stupid to be a specific alignment—and so an Evil character does not need to go around kicking puppies and distressing damsels. That could lose valuable allies! An Evil character simply thinks only of his or herself. Evil is selfish. On the opposite side, a Good character can be an idiot who accidentally harms people left and right—selflessness defines goodness. Lex Luthor, like most stereotypical villains, puts himself first. Where Robin Hood or the classic knight in shining armor regard people as ends, as reasons to fight in themselves, Lex Luthor or the cackling villain see them as means, stepping stones along the way.
Similarly, a Lawful character need not follow the laws of the land—indeed, that Lawful Good knight would need to work against an unjust law. Anything else would go against her convictions. A Lawful character believes in reacting to situations as an example of the general: that a specific situation is best dealt with by thinking of similar examples and what turned out to be a good or bad idea in those situations. Similarly, a Chaotic character does not disobey laws randomly. Chaotic characters believe each event should be judged unto itself. Though laws matter less to a Chaotic individual, this fact is because law reflects a mindset that a Chaotic individual disagrees with. The law of the land usually lines up with what intelligent Lawful individuals would agree with, but the fact that something is the law is orthogonal to whether a Chaotic or Lawful character would do it. Neither Robin Hood nor a Chaotic Evil villain particularly factor the law into their convictions, because they do not care. Lex Luthor or a shining knight do care, the former for convenience and the latter for the sake of doing what is right. Just as Evil characters will not factor other’s well-being into their motivations, Chaotic characters need not factor in the law.
Raskolnikov demonstrates all four of these convictions in his two competing halves. One half—the half which kills Litzaveta—is convinced rightness lies in Chaotic Evil, taking each situation selfishly and as the only comparable example—the selfish superman. The other half wrote the paper justifying the killing—explaining that an “extraordinary man…[has] an inner right to decide” what right and wrong mean, and does so for the common good—the egotistical superman (242). That half believes in being Lawful Good. The heart of Raskolnikov’s split is that he believes he should be and is Lawful Good, yet the patterns he seeks to follow are closer to Chaotic Evil. In the end, Raskolnikov is True Neutral—he cares for his family, but not for people in general, and he takes events as things unto themselves or as parts of a whole as suits him. He remains True Neutral to the very end—finally coming to his senses for Sonia’s sake, rather than his own or everyone’s, and understanding that the law has its place.
Hamlet of Oz
Hamlet, like Raskolnikov, is split down the middle. Hamlet, however, evens out to Lawful Neutral. Hamlet finds the idea of allowing his father’s murder to go unavenged unconscionable, and killing his uncle and king without adequate proof similarly awful. Hamlet’s split originates from his lack of relevant conviction—though he may have known who he was at university, upon coming home, he is unsure of his rightness, his birthright, and even his parentage.
The hardest times for Hamlet are when he believes he is “alone.” During those times, Hamlet not only doubts his father’s ghost, but believes firmly that he lacks the power to act. His first step towards action, therefore, must be working around this conviction. Where Raskolnikov performed the same action by shutting himself off from everyone, Hamlet reaches out. Horatio helps Hamlet much, partially because any back-up helps, partially because Horatio’s agreement about the ghost and Claudius’s guilty appearance begin to convince Hamlet that he is right. Having a second opinion lends him the motivation to move forward.
Having gained the necessary conviction, Hamlet moves in pursuit of his goal—revenge—however he can. Despite disliking sneaky tactics for being closer to his father’s murderer than his father, Hamlet uses them: “the play’s the thing”, or sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death by sending a false message with them. The prince’s conviction gives him permission to use less savory tactics. As Glinda said to Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power,” but Hamlet had to “learn it for himself.” As soon as Hamlet gave himself permission to focus on one goal and use whatever tactic presented itself to avenge his father, the task became easy.
It is a testament to the importance of conviction that Shakespeare created a compelling play out of a character’s shifting convictions, with only the last scene showing Hamlet accomplishing anything pertaining to his vengeance.
Antigone’s conviction takes her so far that she no longer feels she has a choice. She is, depending on interpretation, Lawful Neutral or Neutral Good—she believes that the gods’ law is the only important one, and needs to be followed, come what punishment may. If she follows that law out of moral belief that the gods’ law is just, then she is Neutral Good; if she follows out of a belief that the gods’ law defines what is makes sense to do, then she is Lawful Neutral. Antigone herself would not care in the slightest. She believes that the gods’ law is more important than her relationship with her ruler or her sister, and acts accordingly. Where Hamlet and Raskolnikov convinced themselves that their actions were justifiable, Antigone starts with the conviction to complete her goal, to satisfy the gods’ law.
Were Antigone’s goal to bury her brother, she would be going about it poorly. Her ruler’s guards catch her, and she is punished and prevented from properly burying her brother, almost before she can even cover him with a proper layer of dust.
But simply burying her brother is not Antigone’s goal. She believes in the gods’ law, and absolutely refuses to hide. When her sister offers to keep her secret, Antigone reproves her: “Shout it from the rooftops.” Where Hamlet was uncomfortable with sneaky practices because they reminded him of his uncle, Antigone actively hates them, because she feels certain she is doing nothing wrong. The only wrong, she feels, is in those who would bow their heads to such injustice.
This being the case, Antigone’s actions all fall into place. She will not make a fool of herself shouting against Creon, nor will she remain silent at his injustice. When she steps forward to bury her brother, the burial itself is incidental. She wants her brother to go through the proper ceremonies, just as she wants Ismene to join in her fight, but nothing will deter her from showing that Creon’s choice was wrong. She is so certain of that fact that, even though she loses her family, she does not go uselessly insane like Raskolnikov did. Her conviction is strong enough to push her forward in her goal and keep her feet firmly planted on the ground, even with every human in her world turning against her.
Where Raskolnikov had no one, and Hamlet had Horatio by his side, Antigone stands firm by the gods, and so no mortal power can dissuade her.
State of Wonder
Where Raskolnikov was True Neutral for being too split to fall anywhere else, True Neutral Dr. Swenson simply does not fit anywhere along the alignment spectrum of a normal person. She could have loyalty to her funders, but treats them more like a nuisance. She could be protective of those under her care, but, again, treats them as a nuisance, except occasionally when they make good test subjects. She protects the Lakashi tribe she studies, but that, again, seems more out of the annoyance that visitors would bring to her lab than any real protective instinct for the people. With her being so uncaring about what anyone else does, it would be easy to peg her as Chaotic Evil—caring nothing for tradition, and for no one except herself.
Yet Dr. Swenson does not even care for herself in the traditional way. When an experiment is dangerous, she considers her body just another available test subject. She tests a fertility drug on herself and becomes pregnant at a post-menopausal age, when pregnancy in a perfectly healthy woman could be dangerous in her environment. And, though she appears to care for no one, she is focused on synthesizing a malaria vaccine, because she knows it would save millions of lives. Dr. Swenson’s motivation does not fall neatly onto Good or Evil, and her methods do not fall neatly into Lawful or Chaotic. She is a thing unto herself. She refuses to be anything else.
Most importantly, Dr. Swenson is a thing certain of itself. Though her motivations are (nearly) incomprehensible to those around her, she will do everything in her power to make that malaria vaccine. The fact that she is good at manipulating people helps, but the impetus for all this is her being certain that she is doing what she should be doing. And, unlike Hamlet or even Antigone, she needs no one, mortal or god, to tell her so.
Protector of the Small
Keladry, knight of the realm, is Lawful Good. She is one of the most solidly Lawful Good characters I have ever interacted with in any format. When her friends are in danger, she puts aside her own fears, embarrassment, and well-being to protect those in her care—and ‘her care’ includes just about everyone. When she goes on a trip while training to be a knight and the group she is with is attacked, she takes the lead, not because of any given authority, but because she can and she is best for the job. No one ever asks Kel, and no one ever has to. Like Dr. Swenson, Kel pursues her goals with the single-minded determination of someone who knows she is right—though Keladry “Knight in Shining Armor” of Mindelan has a more archetypal and understandable worldview.
By the end of the book series, everyone who knows Kel knows she will do anything to protect those in her care. Those fighting on the other side of a war against Kel’s Tortall do not know this, and so are surprised when Kel goes against her king and commander’s orders to save a group of children. Though her tactical skills help, she succeeds in saving the children because she never hesitates: Had she waited for orders, she would have been too late; had she doubted herself, she would have scared the children into crying more loudly and the guards would have set off the alarm. Kel’s conviction, like Antigone’s and Dr. Swenson’s, not only moves her to act, but pushes her beyond the bounds of ordinary people. Kel could not do what she does with only conviction, but her conviction lends her the ability to focus entirely on what she does.
Dounia and Sonia: Planted Firmly
Dounia begins the tale with conviction, enduring insult and marrying or not marrying someone for her own reasons—and only for her own reasons. From the first page, no one can dissuade her from her own judgment. New information may change her mind, but Dounia is devoted to her brother and her mother, and will not be moved by offers of money or her own security from Luzhin, nor by possibilities even from Raskolnikov himself, until she has rational reason to change her mind. Dounia is Lawful for her rationality and practicality, and Neutral because she works for her family, rather than on a grand, charitable scale. Dounia differs from Kel mainly in scope. Dounia’s mother is also Lawful Neutral, but finds it difficult to make a stand for herself, because her ideals, though identical to Dounia’s, are beneath a layer of worry at going against the grain. Growing up in a house with such a worrying mother likely gave Raskolnikov his split, for lack of a role model, and Dounia her conviction, as she needed to hold up the family.
Sonia, similarly, stands firm in her beliefs to protect her family. Her power is a touch subtler than Dounia’s, and much subtler than anyone else’s I have listed in this paper. Sonia is sure of her faith in God. This first manifests in a steadfast protection of her family by keeping them fed: she has little choice, but she has the choice to leave them, and does not. Her most important action in plot terms employs an oft-overlooked power: forgiveness. Sonia believes no one is beyond saving, including Raskolnikov, who killed her friend Lizaveta. Sonia’s belief in God and forgiveness pushes Raskolnikov to confess.
Neither Dounia nor Sonia do anything as grand as marching across enemy lines, or curing malaria, or killing someone wicked. But what they do is find what they believe to be right, and stand by it, come what may. Lawful Neutral Dounia will sacrifice herself for her family, and will not give in to an evil person, and Lawful Good Sonia redeems Raskolnikov. No death, no blood, yet each makes the world that much better.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
Chaotic Good Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality often embodies how far guile and flexibility can get one. He takes each situation, looks at every angle, and helps all the people he can, as much as he can. Almost nothing can hold him back, and his classmates are under the impression that he can do impossible things. For a given definition of ‘impossible,’ this is even true. Harry outright says, “If you think hard enough you can do the impossible,” and believes every word with good reason—the average person’s definition of ‘impossible’ does not apply to him. Harry knows that he can move Heaven and Earth. All he has to do is find that one immovable spot to stand and one particularly long lever.
One day, Harry finds his best friend Hermione in danger of a fate worse than death, because she has been accused of a crime she did not commit. Nothing in his life has been clearer: Hermione cannot save herself, so Harry must find a way, some way, to save her, before the next day’s trial. It would not matter how. His conviction reached the point where any and every option is viable, be it new evidence, morally questionable scheming, self-sacrifice, or all of the above.
And Harry learns, first-hand, a lesson he already knew.
If you think fast enough you can sometimes do the impossible quickly...
Conviction spurs people into action. Having conviction as solid as bedrock can make the world appear as if the character gained new strength, because unthinkable options become thinkable when the alternative is worse. But conviction cannot make something from nothing. Conviction is a push. If there is nothing to push, all the conviction in the world will never come to more than a zephyr.
The Dungeons and Dragons alignment system is made for powerful characters, whose conviction will be readily apparent. No matter how strong or weak a character’s conviction, sufficient power will illuminate it—the knight strikes down the dastardly villain; Batman takes down pickpockets, muggers, and murderers. Conviction spurs a character to action, and grants them the strength of doing what another person might believe impossible, or unconscionable.
Though all the conviction in the world cannot make up for a lack of strength or knowledge, it extends power, and power is useless without it. If a character finds no reason to do anything, then there is no point, and the character would not do anything.
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