Leliana's Development & Why It Is Natural (DA:I spoilers)
Alright, fandom, we need to get square on the character development of Leliana, because an astounding amount seem shocked at how she is presented in Inquisition, when in fact hers is one of the most genuien and smoothest transformations I have seen in any character.
Now the most common reactions I see to Sister Nightingale are;
- “What happened to Leliana?! She was so sweet and innocent!”
- “That’s the real Leliana! Badass and ruthless, she was just acting before!”
So neither of these are entirely wrong, but neither do her character justice.
I feel like I have to begin from scratch, meaning Leliana’s Song and up Inquisition for this to be conveyed understandably. So head’s up for spoilers on both (and Origins).
First and foremost; what we see in Leliana’s Song is the start. She is not innocent from the start (, in fact she’s never truly that). What you see in Origins is a result of everything that happened in Leliana’s Song, which although released after Origins was already a part of her character through an edited version of the events told by Leliana herself.
The ‘everything’ is important here, because Leliana’s lessons from LS was not only that the Grand Game is dangerous and hurts people (which notably was something she had carelessly ignored because she had fun tricking and killing people) and that Andraste will guide her. The probably most defining change in her character is from when she trusts Marjolaine to remove the incriminating documents that would pin them both as traitors to Orlais and potentially start a war, to Marjolaine instead stabbing her in the guts and leaving her and her friends to take the blame and (unecessary and excessive) punishment.
Leliana has lived a careless life of adopted nobility most of her life up until now, and when the Game suddenly isn’t as fun as its name makes it out to be Leliana is shocked. She now realises she had been blindly trusting,putting not only her own life but also her friends’ lives and the stability of two nations in danger. The fact that this realisation shakes her is what splits her and Marjolaine apart in personalities. (In the last paragraph you will see how she learnt from this and does not trust blindly in even the Chantry’s teachings.)
Now after Dorothea gives Leliana the key to escape (which in Inquisition Leliana phrases something like 'she showed me that I could save myself’) we see a beaten and apathic Leliana. She’s lost, she doesn’t have a purpose, she doesn’t even want vengeance on Marjolaine because she doesn’t know who she is anymore. A recurring theme for Leliana is doubting her identity. When she was young she sought fun and danger, now she feels guilty for ever having wanted that because the idols she had were people like Marjolaine who are ultimately egoistic and unsympathetic.
Leliana stubbornly refuses any similarities with Marjolaine, and leaves her for the new guidance of the Chantry. When Leliana is lost she goes from one guide to another, to reveal but not create her core. This is later seen as the Warden and Inquisitor can influence how she acts upon her morals.
Back on topic, however; Leliana refuses Marjolaine’s comparison of them because they do not share the same purpose. Leliana’s Song concludes with Leliana reflecting how her finding purpose is the heart of her story. She has found what she truly wants to dedicate her life to – the greater good, not the Game’s egoistic agenda, showing a great divide between Leliana and Marjolaine’s otherwise similar characters.
(A fun addition to this is the psychologist Søren Kirkegaard’s interpretation of mental development, in which a human goes from being satisfied by a life of aesthetics to a life dedicated to (religious) purpose and service.)
She now spends the next five years being taught how to be idealistically good. Desperately, we see her cling to this ideal way to be when she joins the Warden. She acts overwhelmingly innocent despite her natural contradictions because she needs to convince both those around her and herself that she can. But what gives her away is when her grey morals show, as in a few out of many examples here;
- She happily accepts Zevran, an assassin of an organisation with legendary loose morals (to put it mildly) and deadly efficiency, in joining their quest as he will be a tool to help the greater good.
- In conversation with Alistair, we also hear her saying that she does not fully regret leaving the people in Lothering to die at the hands of darkspawn as their effort overall will be worth more than she could do there.
Both in Origins and Inquisition we see her willing to be merciless if it benefits a greater cause. This is also why I believe that some/most of her positive attitude in Origins is genuine; she is happy that she can lead a life of both elements of what has defined her so far, and she belives she is utilizing that for everyone’s best. Leliana has both idealistic and pragmatic sides to her. (This is likely why your Warden will get negative reaction from her when they can be helpful, and why she didn’t react as strongly to choices in Redcliffe as Alistair did
among other reasons).
What Origins and Inquisition does, however, is show the doubt even now (yes, with a ten years gap and further adjustment of her character to the dark side of good). As stated earlier we are able to guide Leliana in both games because she lives a life of such conflicting morals, and the fact that this is believable is what makes her a well-written and strong character. The fact that she is doubting herself is why the Warden and Inquisitor can influence her – and fear not, dear gamers! Both unhardening and hardening Leliana is true to her character;
- Hardening Leliana makes her embrace her more morally grey side, that she can act bad on behalf of good and that does not automatically make her an evil person. Hardening her does not rob her of her faith in the Maker and that she is doing His work.
- Unhardening Leliana as well makes her content that she is doing what she does for others’ sake, that the Maker approves, convincing her that she is therefore not like Marjolaine (in Origins, in Inquisition this doesn’t bother her because she has matured). Unhardening her does not rob her of her willingness to kill and cheat.
Either path shows that ultimately, Leliana does not only believe in the Maker no matter what but also in herself, which convictions are now so intertwined it is hard to say where one begins and the other ends.
This is why she does not hesitate to become the Left Hand of the Divine, knowing what shady work it entails but also that she is doing it for the people of Thedas.
This is why she is shaken seemingly out of her faith after the Conclave, but bounces back soon after.
This is why, when she realises her socially-imposed ignorance towards the oppression of elves and mages, that she takes a stand for them because she believes without being told so that it is right.
This is why her goal as Divine, no matter what, will be for the betterment of the oppressed and the inclusion of the excluded.
Even in Origins you hear her contradicting the Chantry with her own interpretations of what is important, and as Left Hand and Divine she continues on this path by working towards conversion. No matter what paths she takes, she stays true to herself.
Leliana’s strength lies in her faith and doubt in herself, in others, in the Maker and everything. With both factors the writer has made a balanced, believable and still surprising character, who can genuinely be both merciful and merciless.
“Sometimes it takes another to show us the truths we hide from ourselves.”
- Leliana, Dragon Age: Origins.