New Year Resolutions and the Seven Deadly Sins
It’s that time of year again – when we all promise we will rid ourselves of bad habits and become better people. But for writers, good people can be poor characters: it’s the flaws we’re all interested in. All crimes, for instance, can begin with one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and they may make a good basis for a story.
The worst sin of all, which may be a bit of a surprise. In this context, pride is defined as irrationally believing that one is better, superior, or more important than others, and, in addition, failing to acknowledge or belittling the accomplishments of others. It’s an excessive admiration of yourself, because it might look as though you’re competing with the divine. Run yourself down, folks, and demonstrate your humility. Not an easy one as a plotline – but a good one to bear in mind when creating characters.
Aristotle defined envy as pain at the sight of another’s good fortune, stirred by “those who have what we ought to have.” Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement of economies and must be endured to achieve the “keeping up with the Joneses“ system. It’s what fuels progress. How might envy drive your character’s actions?
The overindulgence and overconsumption of anything, but especially food. It’s no surprise that we often start a new year with a new drive to cut back on eating and drinking. Medieval church leaders took a slightly expanded view of gluttony, arguing that it could also include an obsessive anticipation of meals, and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods.
These days, many people are the victims of advertising, which sets out to encourage over-eating to increase profits. Sensible eating requires far more self-discipline than in the past, when food was not so abundant. Food obsessions, dieting obsessions and drink issues can all cloud our characters’ judgements. Gluttonous characters can be figures of fun – think of Billy Bunter and Bruce Bogtrotter – or they can be tragic.
Greed is, like lust and gluttony, a sin of desire, and is a good one for writers. However, greed is not just about food – it can be applied to an artificial, rapacious desire and pursuit of material possessions. In Dante’s Purgatory, the penitents are bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated excessively on earthly thoughts. Hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that may be inspired by greed. However, greed’s opposite is putting yourself last, which can damage other people as well, if they rely on you. How many greedy characters can you name? There are many in literature and film. And where might this failing lead?
Lust, or lechery, is intense longing, usually thought of as sexual desire. And yet without sexual desire we’d die out as a species. What might happen to a character when lust turns their head?
Another good one for the writer. Uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage, hatred and a wish to seek vengeance. It may persist long after the person who started the ball rolling is dead. A feeling of wrath can manifest itself in different ways, including simple impatience, misanthropy, revenge, and self-destructive behaviour. A challenge: think of ways of showing a character is angry, rather than telling the emotion to the reader. How does anger show itself in actions and body language?
The scope of sloth is surprisingly wide. To begin with it referred to monks, when they became indifferent to their duties. Mentally, it consists of a lack of any feeling about self or other, a mind-state that gives rise to boredom, rancour, apathy, and a passive inert or sluggish attitude. Physically, it’s associated with lack of motion and an indifference to work. Put it alongside gluttony and there’s a New Year’s resolution that’s set to fail.
Whatever your views on religion and sin, what we have here are character attributes or flaws. Why to try using one of these as a writing prompt? Or give one to a character who’s not exciting enough to earn their place in your story, or whose motivations are not clear?