The Seven Deadly Sins

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So last time we were here together, we were talking about flaws, and how they serve to make characters believable and even likeable.   The point of flaws is, of course, to give the reader something to share with the character, an aspect that graduates him from two dimensions to three.  As much as we want to read exciting stories that take us far from our ordinary lives for a little while, we also want to feel a connection to the characters, a connection that allows us to enjoy the adventure as if it was our own. 

But what makes a flaw right?  And how do we tell the difference between a flaw and a bad habit?  Isn’t a bad habit a flaw?  Not necessarily.  The trick is to burden your character with some unpleasant personality trait, fear or weakness that must be overcome before the character can succeed.  You’ve got to know your character well in order to understand the difference between his flaws and his bad habits.  A gunslinger, for example, might be hired to hunt down the man who stole the Wizard of the West’s magic mirror.  Let’s say our gunslinger has a terrible desire to play cards whenever he rides into town, sometimes blowing every dime he has on the game.  Gambling stupidly is a bad habit, indeed.  But the loss of his money doesn’t guarantee he can’t ride out of town in the dark, continuing on his way to find the thief.  So his gambling is not his real flaw.  On the other hand, the gunslinger has a horrible revulsion to blood.  He can shoot a man in the street, but he doesn’t stick around to watch him die, and he certainly never gets close enough to smell the blood.  Part of his deal with the Wizard includes bringing the thief’s heart back to the Wizard, and that’s going to mean carving it out of his chest.  How is the gunslinger going to manage that, when the sight of blood makes him pass out?  That’s a flaw. 

If you’re not sure what your character’s flaw might be, it’s probably just because you haven’t gotten to know each other that well yet.  Or maybe you’ve made the beginner’s mistake that I made – you haven’t allowed your character to be flawed at all.  If that’s the case, and you’re not sure how to proceed, you might want to familiarize yourself with the Seven Deadly Sins. 

The Seven Deadly Sins are the capital sins of Christian belief, the ones that lead the sinner to other sins, and a life of ultimate ruin.  Because they’re the originators of other sins, you can begin with one and work down until you determine your character’s particular flaw.  Let’s start with Lust.  Generally lust is an uncontrollable desire for sexual contact.  Your character doesn’t have to be a total lech, of course.  Perhaps he’s seen a woman he can’t live without.  He doesn’t know her, so he can’t claim to be in love, but his lust drives him to find reasons to cross her path in the market or loiter in a doorway near hers, just for the chance to see her.  Lust shifts the character’s thoughts from his job to his desire.

Gluttony is next.  Gluttony isn’t so much overeating, as it is the overindulgence of food or drink to the point of wasting it.  If your mama was anything like mine, you were told many times to finish your beets because there were starving children in Lower Slobovia.  She was warning you against the sin of gluttony.  Have you ever seen the remake of “Ocean’s Eleven”?  Brad Pitt’s character, Rusty, is almost never seen without food in his hand.  According to the DVD commentary, Pitt added that because Rusty was never sure if he’d have a chance to eat.  In the movie’s case, gluttony is more of a vice than a flaw, because his eating doesn’t keep him from performing his job.  Your character, though, might be from a severely poor background, in which case he can’t walk away from food when it’s offered. “Pan’s Labyrinth” has a terrifying scene in which Ofelia has been warned not to eat anything from the Pale Man’s table, but she can’t resist. 

Most of us know exactly what Greed feels like.  When the MegaMillions jackpot climbs to 200 million, suddenly it seems more important to buy a ticket than it was when there was only 50 million in play.  50 million dollars is more than enough for anyone to live the rest of her life on, but somehow 200 million is better.  We want more.  Your character is no different.  Your thief has just stuffed his pockets with gold coins, when she spots a huge emerald the size of a cat’s head.  The gates are closing, the guards are yelling, and the emerald probably weighs ten pounds, weight that will cause the thief extra trouble trying to climb down the wall to freedom.  But she has to have it, and she ends up captured because she couldn’t combat her own greed.

Sloth is usually defined as laziness, but it also means indifference.  Someone who squanders his talent by not bothering to try to succeed is guilty of sloth.  Perhaps an illusionist apprentice is depressed, believing that he couldn’t possibly ever reach the level of skill his master requires of him.  Let’s say he runs away before he truly understands how to control his power, refusing to use his magic for fear of making mistakes.  He’s starving and afraid, living in a hovel in the woods instead of facing his fear. 

Wrath is the uncontrolled feelings of rage and anger.  A character can hate the world, or someone or something specific.  A character played by a friend of mine in a recent gaming campaign had inordinate anger against all people who used magic, because a magic user had killed her mother when the character was a child.  The reasons were understandable, but her anger was consuming, making her reactions disproportionate to the individual she was encountering.  Sometimes the magic could be used to her advantage, but she couldn’t accept it because of her wrath.

Envy comes next.  We’ve all felt it.  It’s the desire to have the material goods others have, and it’s also the need to deprive them of the goods if we can’t have them ourselves.  When our neighbor buys a new Corvette, or our friend achieves a work success we wanted for ourselves…that’s envy.  But if I take my friend’s Corvette for a spin and wreck it, that’s also envy.  Think about Gollum.  He had the Ring, but he lost it to Bilbo, who eventually gave it to Frodo.  Gollum didn’t help Frodo along his way because of any goodness in his heart.  He wanted that Ring again.  He’d have done whatever he had to in order to get the Ring back, including biting Frodo’s finger off. 

And last is Pride.  It’s the feeling of superiority over others, and sometimes even over the gods themselves, although at that point it changes to hubris and becomes a whole new level of sin.  The gods really don’t like it when you walk around claiming to be cooler than they are.  Remember Lucifer?  For your character, perhaps he’s travelling with a group of adventurers who’ve been hired to traverse the Resigned Waste, dig down into the former lair of Theo the Thaumaturge and retrieve an ancient book of spells.  Except your character always runs ahead of everyone, leaps into battle first, tells overblown stories of how he alone killed the horde of giant bloodthirsty desert hamsters and then gets himself in more trouble when the book is found by insisting he can read magic (even though he can’t.)  If he’s lucky, the adventurers will carry him back in someone’s pocket for resurrection later. 

So these are just a few general ideas, a place to start.  Remember that your character does still need to be someone that readers will identify with, so the sins and flaws can’t be so overdone that no one wants to be around them.  But an extreme level of flaw can give you a starting point, and as you define it to your character’s individual needs, you’ll find you know your character better than you thought.

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14 comments to The Seven Deadly Sins

  • What a great idea for a post, Misty! I can so relate to this and not only, like Faustus, I can glimpse bits of all of these in myself! A great way to think about character. Thanks.

  • Ohhhh…(rubs hands together) I can use this! What a great addition (to me) to the flaws concept. I always thought of flaws as fears (of commitment, clowns, spiders, etc.) and never put flaws together with the 7 seven deadlies. This works, and gives me an added something extra. Lovely!

  • Such a great post! In my current WIP, my character’s flaw is anger (wrath, I suppose in the language of the seven deadlies), and the guilt that she feels from the anger (that was expressed as, to her, horrific violence). The demonic powers she got from murdering her sister in law she sees as a curse (even as other people tell her they’re a gift to be used for good). She’s terrified (ah, there’s the fear) that if she uses the powers, they’ll get out and burn innocent people–and then she’ll have more guilt than she can bear. And she is, deep down, really afraid that she’ll lose herself in the powers, too, both physically (she’d burn to death) and in identity (be totally taken over). So, of course, the big choices for her come down to “will I use this or not?” to help people.

  • Oh, I never thought to consider sloth as indifference. Could you argue that indifference could be a form of selfishness, too (e.g., a character avoiding something, choosing *not* to care about something or get involved in something because they care more for their own safety/skin)? Or is that another sin entirely?

  • Wonderful post- it really narrows in on a great place to begin the “what is wrong with my character” conversation. I love the detail and description for each sin- and yes, I will be printing this out and keeping it right by my desk :).

    Thank you!

  • I’m glad you guys enjoyed the post! Laura, sure, if you look at it from the point of view of the early church, who came up with this list of sins in the first place, sloth can be considered a selfish behavior. The person guilty of sloth is denying the gifts and talents granted him by his creator, gifts and talents that the creator expects to see used to their greatest advantage. Selfishness is probably more of a prideful sin than a slothful one, but it works in both respects, depending on how it manifests.

  • Wonderful stuff, and like A.J., I can find traces of all seven within myself. Maybe we all can, and maybe that’s the point. What makes these flaws and others so valuable in writing, as you say, Misty, is that they humanize our characters and close the gap between reader and protagonist (and antagonist). Great post.

  • sagablessed

    Wonderful post. Really get the brain-juices flowing.
    I wonder where…well if sloth is also indifference, but what about grief? Hmm. Meditate on this, I must.

  • Megan B.

    Nice post. And it reminds me of another that I seem to recall here not long ago, about how good qualities taken to extremes can become flaws. I think this post compliments that one nicely. It’s got me thinking a lot about my characters. In one of my WIPs, the main character is very meticulous and likes to plan things out. This can be good, but she takes it so far sometimes that she can be insensitive to other people’s needs if they don’t fit her plan. So it’s also Pride (thinking her way is the right way, without considering other people’s side). Another character is kind and often selfless, but to the point that he can do himself harm by not attending to his own needs. Hm, which deadly sin would that be?

  • Saga, there was actually another couple of capital sins, although they fell away from the more well-known seven, the two being acedia and vainglory. I’d say debilitating grief as a sin would probably belong in the category of acedia, which is listlessness, joylessness and depression. I think acedia fell away from being considered sinful once people began recognizing that depression is a medical issue and isn’t something one does on purpose.

  • Megan, you must be psychic – I’ll be covering that next week!

  • You’ve got me stroking my nonexistent beard on this one. Awesome post, Misty! This has actually given me something really good to think about as I’m revising my WIP–a way to exploit a flaw that’s already there and needs to be brought out more. :)

  • I really liked this post–gave me lots to think about with my main character. She had flaws, but I wasn’t really happy with them. They seemed too much like a list of flaws with no real depth. After thinking about it in terms of the 7 deadly sins, I realized that her flaws are all rooted in pride, the belief that she could just ignore her past and change her life without any help from anyone. That works nicely with another flaw she has–she wants others to trust her, but she isn’t willing to trust others, which I think is another sign of pride. I feel like I’ve got a better understanding of the character now, which can only help as I write her story. Thank you!

  • JJerome

    Misty – terrific post. There is something so fire and brimstonish about the 7DS. It makes me want to get to my next novel. Where were you last summer? I could have used this list. My favorite part was … “she spots a huge emerald the size of a cat’s head. The gates are closing, the guards are yelling, and the emerald probably weighs ten pounds, weight that will cause the thief extra trouble trying to climb down the wall to freedom. But she has to have it, and she ends up captured because she couldn’t combat her own greed.” Her greed is more than a character flaw, it is conflict, and the reader will love to read how she solves that problem.