Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
If you've played a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons--or one of the many games that takes influence from D&D--you're likely familiar with the concept of classifying characters along a two-axis alignment system. In the context of D&D, characters are placed along two axes: lawful-neutral-chaotic, and good-neutral-evil. There are nine total classifications that result from this, each taking one descriptor from the first axis and one from the second to create labels such as "Chaotic Good" or "Lawful Neutral." This is often somewhat of an oversimplification, but it can serve as a nice (or at least interesting) heuristic when looking to understand the motivations and behaviors of fictional characters. Villains, in particular, are usually pretty easy to place, falling under Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, or Chaotic Evil. Lawful Evil characters operate within or make use of an existing organizational framework in order to accomplish selfish or corrupt ends, which may be because the person is evil and is taking advantage of an otherwise-neutral system--if you've played Ace Attorney, think of Edgeworth's mentor, the corrupt prosecutor Manfred von Karma--or because the system itself is corrupt (for which the textbook example is Darth Vader). Neutral Evil characters are the Moriarty figures, villains who will do whatever they need to do in service of their selfish objectives, first using the rules of society to their advantage and then ignoring them when they become inconvenient. Chaotic Evil characters are the traditional destructive villains who are enemies of society and often kill indiscriminately--think the Joker, from Batman.
The most intriguing villains, though, tend to be those who don't fall along the Evil spectrum. Sometimes you have situations, like in The World Ends With You, where most of the "antagonists" are actually good people who just happen to be brought into conflict with the protagonists due to situational factors. Sometimes you have antagonists who fall under the umbrella of Lawful Neutral who only fight against the heroes because the heroes are trying to bring about change or rebel against established norms. These sorts of villains often offer a richer complexity than the typical straight-up-evil baddies, which tends to make them more compelling overall. This isn't to say, of course, that evil characters can't be engaging--there are countless examples of great evil villains--but non-evil antagonists take a bit more thought to write and often end up with more meat as a result.
My personal favorite subtype of the non-evil villain is the Chaotic Neutral criminal mastermind character, exemplified by Durarara!!'s Izaya Orihara and 428: Shibuya Scramble's Alphard Alshua. These characters draw some influence from the popular conception of James Moriarty--Sherlock Holmes's arch-nemesis--in that their activities center around unreasonably complex webs of scheming and manipulation that only at the end of the story unravel and become apparent (meaning the stories in which they appear often have mystery elements even if they aren't truly mysteries). The key difference between an Alphard and a Moriarty, though, is that the Alphard-type character is not necessarily operating strictly in his or her self-interest. Where a Moriarty has some clear self-interested motive behind his scheming--usually monetary gain, though sometimes acquisition of power or the elimination of a threat--an Alphard's goals are more complex and often involve a mix of outcomes that can be seen as either positive or negative depending on perspective. Alphard herself, for example, is working for the CIA during the events of 428, trying to gain possession of a newly developed antiviral and to destroy a stock of a virus that the CIA fears will be used for of bioterrorism purposes. Alphard is not concerned with the morality of her actions or goals so much as with her own perfectionistic desire for success, so while her goals are arguably good, the brutal efficiency of her planned methods involves a few specific innocent casualties, which is what ultimately draws her into conflict with the game's heroes and casts her as a morally ambiguous antagonist.
Essentially, where the Neutral Evil antagonist is self-interested, the Chaotic Neutral antagonist is Machiavellian. From the perspective of an Alphard-type character, the ends always always justify the means. The ends may be good, bad, or neutral--and will often be a mix of all three in the course of a single narrative--but the means employed will invariably bring the antagonist in conflict with the heroes. It is the antagonist's methods rather than their goals that make them a villain, as opposed to the traditionally "evil" villain whose methods are meant to lead to an inherently unacceptable end. This distinction produces a number of fairly consistent (and highly interesting) dynamics in stories involving these characters.
Always at Center Stage
The inherent complexity of Chaotic Neutral characters means they require a great deal more narrative attention than traditionally evil villains. In a Sherlock Holmes tale, for example, Moriarty may be the source of the mystery, but Sherlock (or sometimes Watson) is always the central focus. The story revolves around how the detective or the hero unwinds the villain's plot and saves the day. Chaotic Neutral antagonists also often have a "Sherlock"--a mortal enemy of sorts--but that enemy is rarely the focal character. When a story is built around an Alphard, that character tends to be the central figure. These sorts of stories often have not one but multiple heroes who shift in and out of focus as the antagonist's scheming impacts different groups. 428, for example, is told from multiple different perspectives, switching back and forth as the game goes on. At the center of each of these otherwise-disconnected stories is Alphard, manipulating the events of the game from the shadows. Even the final stretch of the game, which ostensibly focuses on Canaan, the Sherlock to Alphard's Moriarty, provides much more characterization for Alphard herself than for Canaan. In Durarara!! as well, the novels feature very large casts pursuing disparate goals, but at the center of each character's story is Izaya, directing everything to come together to a single point.
This is not to be confused with stories that feature an antagonistic hero--think Death Note or (for a Western comparison) House of Cards, which tell their stories from the perspective of the bad guy and document the character's rise and inevitable fall. An Alphard-style antagonist is truly an antagonist, and although the character will often narrate portions of the story (usually toward the end, when the plot is being unraveled for the reader), most of the narrative is told from the perspective of those combating the antagonist's schemes. This dichotomy, in which the central and most important character is not the narrator and in fact gets very little true "screen time," tends to make for highly engaging reading, as the key figure is characterized primarily indirectly and in bits and pieces, forcing the reader to draw conclusions and piece the overall story together on his or her own. It takes a seriously skilled author to make this work well, and when it does work it's a ton of fun.
Ambivalence and Mixed Success
An important outcome of the Chaotic Neutral antagonist's goals being truly neutral rather than evil is that the antagonist does not necessarily have to lose. The appeal of the manipulative villain lies in uncovering his or her brilliant plans and discovering how seemingly irrelevant events or details play into the antagonist's hands. When the antagonist is evil, this almost always ends with the detective solving the case and stopping the antagonist right at the last moment, as the villain's goals cannot succeed if the ending is to be satisfying to the reader. While this is a staple of detective fiction, it does slightly undermine the charisma of the antagonist. We expect the bad guy to lose, and he usually does, but it weakens his characterization as a brilliant, nigh-flawless tactician.
With a Chaotic Neutral antagonist, however, some or all of the antagonist's goals may be allowed to succeed. It is fairly typical in this sort of story for a scene or two of falling action to be devoted to the antagonist detailing which aspects of his or her goals were successful and which weren't, and in almost every case the antagonist is partially successful. This strengthens the argument that the antagonist is a notch or two above the rest of the cast. The parts of the antagonist's plan than would have had devastating human consequences fail, but the core goals tend to be successful. Amusingly, this means stories with Chaotic Neutral antagonists tend to have win-win endings as opposed to the win-loss endings necessitated by evil villains. The heroes win by averting whatever disaster the antagonist would have caused, while the antagonist also wins in that he partially accomplishes his goals. It becomes possible in this way for the reader to root for both the heroes and the villains, looking for ways the bad parts of the antagonist's schemes can be edited or averted without losing the potential good that might be brought about. This is something that's highly unusual in the genres in which these sorts of villains usually appear--mystery, sci-fi, and the like--as these genres tend to present their stories as zero-sum games in which either the heroes or the villains will win, and in which either side succeeding means the other fails. The idea that everyone can come out ahead is a surprisingly hopeful one in a type of story that tends to focus on the darker sides of human nature.
A side-effect of this is that in some cases there's room to wonder whether the ultimate win-win outcome was intentional on the part of the "antagonist." 428's Alphard makes it pretty clear at the end of the game what she did and didn't intend to happen--and her ideal outcome would have been worse than the game's actual ending--but with Durarara!!'s Izaya there's a bit more room for interpretation. Izaya's motivations are often (though not always) left somewhat ambiguous, with the best insight we're given into his motives usually being his self-professed love of humanity, which manifests itself in odd ways. Izaya's introduction--the first scene in the novels in which he appears--takes the form of a vignette highlighting one of his "hobbies." He prowls message boards frequented by suicidal individuals, offers to meet up with them to encourage them to act on their ideations, and then, on meeting them, talks them out of their suicidal impulses by describing in excrutiating detail what the likely outcomes of their suicides would be, all while claiming to support them in the endeavor. The scene itself is irrelevant to the actual plot of Durarara!! (which is fairly rare--most of Durarara!!'s seemingly-irrelevant scenes fold back into the main plot), but it characterizes Izaya perfectly. He's highly manipulative, his methods are highly questionable, and he exhibits a deep understanding of but a callous disregard for what other people think and feel--and yet, his scheming almost always results in a net positive for those involved.
Izaya is clearly the primary antagonist in Durarara!!, as most of the series' problems can be traced back to him, but he simultaneously serves as the series's hero in some respects. The bad things that happen would not happen were it not for Izaya, and yet the same can be said of most of the good things that occur. The question becomes how much of this is intentional, and you can make arguments various ways, but regardless of what you conclude, the ambiguity makes Izaya a highly interesting character. Reading the novels, you sometimes want Izaya's plans to fail, and you sometimes want them to succeed--and often those feelings arise at exactly the same time. He is the driving character behind the plot, and while it's hard to identify which of Durarara!!'s many characters is meant to be the protagonist, it's very easy to identify which has the most impact on the story.
Characters like Izaya and Alphard are appealing largely because they are rounded enough as to be open to interpretation. In a typical good-versus-evil story, the plot focuses on how the hero foils the villain's plan. In a bad-guy protagonist story (like Death Note), the plot focuses on how the protagonist's plan is foiled. Chaotic Neutral mastermind villains force a hybridization of these two approaches in that the plot remains focused on the antagonist figure rather than on the hero or heroes, and yet most of the story is not told from that character's perspective. This challenges the reader to reconcile different (and often conflicting) pieces of information about the antagonist, and it often blurs the line between "action-thriller" and "mystery." Like in the Death Note style, the story progresses as the antagonist reacts and adjusts his intricate plan in order to achieve his goals, but like in the traditional mystery style, the reader only sees the outline of this plan as it evolves and changes, forcing the reader to develop his or her own theories as to what's going on until it ultimately becomes clear.
In 428, Alphard describes her plans as "perfectly imperfect," noting that she plans around having to adjust on the fly and leaves wiggle room in her schemes to allow for an intentional degree of error and surprise. Not only does this make her less susceptible to the unexpected, but it also makes it difficult for her enemies to determine what is and is not part of her plan. Most of what happens in 428 is planned by Alphard, but not all of it is, and the faulty assumptions that result from incomplete data make piecing together Alphard's plan a much more involved--and fun--process than solving your typical murder mystery. While this perfect imperfection may be Alphard's calling card, it really does encapsulate the modus operandi of the Machiavellian Chaotic Neutral villain. The same sort of thing happens with Izaya's plans in Durarara!!, and the resulting fuzziness leaves a lot of room for interpretation and contributes to the charm of this type of antagonist.
The Chaotic Neutral villain is simultaneously brilliant and flawed, superhuman and human, threatening and magnanimous. They are just as likely to cooperate with the heroes as to kill them, shifting allegiances quickly and misdirecting the reader time and time again, but always they work towards clear and sometimes well-intentioned goals. While their degrees of antagonism and degrees of success vary wildly by work, they are almost always highly compelling characters, generally standing out as the most engaging members of their casts.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition