Give your character some good old fashion vices

My degree was Classical Studies – Ancient Greeks and Romans. And a lot of what I learned shaped my understanding of literature. You’d be amazed at how much influence 5th-century Athenian literature has had on us, from tragedy to comedy. And probably the most famous know-it-alls of all time, Aristotle, still has a lot to teach us. That might be a surprise if you vaguely remember him from history class as being a philosopher and mentor to Alexander the Great. Back then, philosophy meant terminal curiosity about literally everything.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, his analysis of contemporary literature is still an important work. I might do a post on it because it deals with some really interesting concepts. But today, I want to look at another of his works, The Nicomachean Ethics.

If Poetics is Aristotle detailing how he believes all literature should be judged then Nicomachean Ethics is his verdict on how people should behave. It’s clear Aristotle was not only a know-it-all but had a real ego. Judgemental too, I imagine.

Unknowingly, however, he blessed future writers with the guide to virtues and vices.

EXCESS

MEAN

DEFICIENCY

Rashness

Courage

Cowardice

Licentiousness

Temperance

Insensibility

Prodigality/

Wastefully extravagant

Liberality

Illiberality/Intolerance

Vulgarity

Magnificence

Pettiness

Vanity

Magnanimity

Pusillanimity/Timidity

Ambition

Proper Ambition

Unambiguousness

Irascibility

Patience

Lack of spirit

Boastfulness

Truthfulness

Understatement

Buffoonery

Wittiness

Boorishness

Obsequiousness/flattery

Friendliness

Cantkerouness

Shyness

Modesty

Shamelessness

Envy

Righteous Indignation

Malicious enjoyment /Spitefulness

For Aristotle, we should aspire to the mean or the middle way between a ‘lack of’ and ‘too much of’. For example, you should inspire always to be truthful. If you give too much information, you’re boastful. Too little and you’re just understating the facts.

This is an amazing tool to create our characters with. No hero or villain should escape our clicking keyboards without having a few of the negative traits. But we can go further than that. We can use this sliding scale to highlight the conflict between the hero and the villain.

Let’s say our story has a hero who’s shy and retiring, but has the best ideas to push the company forward. He’s timid. The antagonist is loud, obnoxious with no ideas but an ability to whip up a crowd. She’s vain. You see the hero on the deficient end of the virtue magnanimity. The antagonist on the excess, vanity. They are both similar and yet different. The story becomes their choices and how they’re shaped. The hero will choose to embody the virtue and the antagonist remains unvirtuous.

That’s a simple example, but it shows you how you can use this to shape complex characters. You should never have a character, whether hero or otherwise, who just ticks the virtues. You will end up will a character as dull as ditchwater. While I hate to point fingers, Steve Rogers from Marvel’s Captain America doesn’t seem to have a single negative trait and in consequence, is the true, brave, bold and boring American hero.

tenor.gif

And that’s why I’m a Tony Stark, Iron Man kind of girl.

Literature is littered with Aristotle’s virtues. He influenced historical writers who have, in turn, influenced us. Both Shakespeare and fairy tales use these traditional vices. Macbeth and Cinderella’s stepmother embody ambition. Iago and the Snow White’s evil Queen embody envy.

On the deficient side, I tend to picture literature’s wretches. Not strong enough to be the main villain with their lack of evil ambition, but definitely unpleasant. Picture J.K. Rowling’s Wormtail and Tolkien’s Wormtongue. Their cowardice is the deficiency of courage.

This will be a pretty obscure reference, but there was an American-Australian neo-noir sci-fi film movie called Dark City which had, for me at least, one of the perfect examples of a virtue deficient character.

Without giving too much away, Dr. Schreber, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is a scientist forced to work for the bad guys, the Strangers. He wants to go against them, but he’s partly crippled and an infinite coward. He’s intelligent though and manipulates the hero into a position where he can defeat the Strangers. However, despite his assertions he’s trying to help, his actual intentions and loyalties are continually in question. The writers of Dark City compared Schreber to ‘the Jew in the concentration camp that sells out and helps the Nazis.’ It’s an unpleasant and vivid image which sums up a deficiency in virtue.

Do give the movie a go if any of that interested you. It’s dated now and has a ridiculous amount of exposition all over the place, but it has an amazing cast and some fascinating characters. It’s actually one of my favourite movies.

Of course, slight adjustments have to be made for a modern audience. Here in the 21st century, we’re far more lenient on vices. Some vices are even celebrated. The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo Dicaprio not only glamorises drug use, but doesn’t even feel the need to morally justify it with a comeuppance for the hero.

We seem to have gone through a sway of the pendulum and now deficiencies seem to be a far more popular negative trait. Excesses are almost aspired to. Ambition, licentiousness, irascibility, vanity and boastfulness are celebrated in movies. But cantankerousness, pettiness and cowardice are still vices. So choose your character’s vices carefully.

All things in moderation is a lesson as old as Aristotle. But for us in the fictional world, moderation is boring. Throw in a few vices from either column and you’ll have yourself a complex character people can relate to.

What vices in your character do you find most interesting to write, or read? What about deficiencies?

4 thoughts on “Give your character some good old fashion vices

  1. Wow, this is such an amazing post! I had no idea that all these character traits could be linked all the way to Aristotle. I agree that there is definitely a shift to deficiencies when compared to the past.
    Umm I guess a continuous deficiency I like to use in the characters I create is malicious enjoyment or spitefulness. I just love a character that is very twisted and callous, they can appear normal on the outside but to the reader the dark-side of their nature is very apparent. Cowardice is also a vice I like to give to my characters, simply to humanise them, as cowardice is a trait that we all have. I think by adding vices the reader can empathise with the characters created.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you love a complicated, twisty character – same here! Malicious enjoyment and cowardice are two very strong traits, as you say, we all have it but we want to pride ourselves we could rise above it. Seeing characters descend into creates a powerful response. I always think of Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings, both his malicious enjoyment and cowardice come from his own perceived powerlessness. I suppose that’s what makes a hero different; her ability to stand up and take action?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes exactly I couldn’t agree more. I believe the main difference between a protagonist and antagonist is their ability to stand up and take action. A protagonist would be more capable then the antagonist thus their vices and deficiencies would appear appealing in contrast.

        Liked by 1 person

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