The Seven Virtues

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“The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps, oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me…”  — Mordred, Camelot

Last week we talked about mining the seven deadly sins to flesh out your character’s flaws.  It’s pretty simple to create flaws based on bad behavior, but what about flaws born out of good behavior?  Oh yes, those sorts of flaws exist.  In fact, giving a character a flawed sense of goodness is probably even deeper and more interesting for the reader.

The Catholic church teaches two sets of virtues – four cardinal and three theological.  The list I’m going to work with today, though, was derived from the Roman Christian poet Prudentias’ epic poem Battle for the Soul, written around 400 AD and considered to be the first of the medieval allegories.  The poem describes conflict between virtue and vice as if it was an actual battle, with a cheering section of 1000 Christian martyrs.  The virtues in his poem were designed to be direct opposites of the seven deadly vices, so it’s a simpler list to use for our purposes.  Just as the sins were determined and then shared by the church as behaviors to avoid, the virtues were shared as behaviors to encourage.  Merely  looking at the list, one might see the virtues as combining to form the perfect human.  But even good behavior, taken to extremes, can become a problem for the character and the people around him. 

Let’s begin with Chastity.  Most people see this as abstention from sexual contact, but chastity more accurately means wholesomeness.  Not only does the chaste man avoid the naughty temptation of wicked women (or men), but he also steers clear of gambling, drugs and lying.  Sounds like a good man to have on your side, since he won’t be getting drunk and stealing your money while you sleep, nor will he make any unwelcome moves on your gorgeous cousin in the next room.  Take chastity too far, though, and suddenly no one wants to be your character’s friend.  Say the group’s been hired to dig up some reasonably useful dirt on the vicious new gangleader, dirt that the head of the merchant clans hopes will be enough to put an end to the gang’s power.  Unfortunately the gang’s scouts capture the group, drag everyone in front of the leader, who demands an explanation.  The silver-tongue of the group spins a yarn that seems to be working, and the leader’s about to release everyone, when the chaste man steps forward.  He cannot lie, or allow a lie to benefit him.  The group is now fighting for its life and not a man of them is going to step in if the chaste man is in trouble. 

Charity, as a virtue, can refer to being loving to all one’s fellows, but it can also refer to material generosity.  Giving is a noble act, especially when one gives while expecting nothing in return.  Giving can spiral out of control, though.  Hetherump is a cleric of Daezee, the deity of spring who demands that all her clerics give what they can to others.  Hetherump, however, has taken the giving too far.  Almost every evening she finds herself sitting in a tavern, her stomach empty, hoping that someone else will take pity on her and buy her a meal, because every cent she had went into some poor soul’s begging bowl.  Most people aren’t as generous as Hetherump, though, and she’ll often have to fight off the unsavory attentions of men who think the meal included the woman. 

The opposite to Sloth is Diligence, which includes persistence, integrity and an unwavering work ethic.  One of my favorite characters, and a wonderful example of diligence gone horribly wrong, appears in Tim Powers’ novel “The Drawing of the Dark.”  The character was an old painter, who, in the waning years of his life, had started a huge mural depicting the death of Saint Micheal the Archangel on one wall of his lodgings.  He worked on it every day, without fail, adding shading here and there, determined that it be perfect.  Unfortunately, by the time the main character of the story realized he needed to see the mural, that certain questions might be answered by what the old man had painted, he’d shaded it into utter blackness.  He worked so hard and so long that the whole wall was black. 

Temperance, another of  our virtues, means restraint and self-control in all areas of life.  Controlling one’s behavior is good, until it starts to hinder personal relationships.  Roger loves Darlene, but he is a palace guard, and she is the oldest daughter of the baron of Linhaven, the man who stands at the king’s right hand.   Darlene tries to make Roger understand that she loves him as well, and is willing to run away with him.  She’s even saved enough money to set them up in a small business somewhere, if Roger will just unbend a little.  Roger can’t relax his self-control for even an instant, though, telling Darlene that it would never work.  His temperance ends with him standing guard at the church door while his true love marries a noble man her father chose instead.  

Patience, the refusal to succumb to violent outbursts, is a beautiful thing.  When an angry customer is screaming, red-faced, across the counter, a calm, careful response goes a very long way to quieting the situation.  It’s not easy for everyone, but some people seem to have saintly amounts of patience.  Which isn’t always a good thing.  Mrs Anderson is a hedge witch, a kind woman who never raises her voice or loses her temper.  One day the  local gossip comes along, telling tales about Mrs Anderson, tales people shouldn’t believe but do anyway.  Instead of standing up for herself, Mrs Anderson sighs and tries to ignore it.  But the tales grow, until the townsfolk are in a panic.  Mrs Anderson has the power to defeat her enemies and rescue herself, but she continues to patiently wait for everyone to come to their senses.  Her patience runs out about the time the noose tightens around her neck, but by then it’s too late.

It’s rare for kindness, compassion without prejudice, to go wrong, but when it’s not tempered with caution, kindness becomes a weakness.  On an episode of “Wire In The Blood” I saw recently, criminal profiler Tony Hill was desperately arguing against a serial killer being released, even though the killer claimed to have had a spiritual epiphany.  The prison priest was determined to treat the killer with kindness no matter what Tony said.  Despite hearing that the killer was too smart not to use his kindness against him, the priest continued to meet with him, until the day the killer choked him with pages of his own Bible, switched clothes with him and escaped from the facility. 

And last we come to humility, which covers modesty, bravery and the keeping of promises, no matter what.  Kelbert, a mighty warrior, is kneeling by the side of his friend, Leo.  Leo has been mortally wounded, and as the breath slips from his body, Leo urges Kelbert to promise to destroy the man who killed Leo.  Kelbert promises.  But now he’s trapped by that promise.  He was busy fighting his own enemies during the battle, and didn’t see the man who struck Leo’s killing blow.  How does he find the man, if the man even still lives?  And what if finding that man interferes with Kelbert’s duties as a warrior?  Does he break the promise to his friend or the vow to his king?  

Again, these are just starting points for you to use in creating characters with flaws and idiosyncracies that make them come across as fully developed characters whose lives matter to the readers.  Have fun!

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8 comments to The Seven Virtues

  • One great example that popped into my mind when you mentioned Chastity as a dangerous virtue, is Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files. He’s the paladin-like character who always does the right thing to a fault. In Grave Peril, he and Harry have to go headlong into a nest of vampires without starting a fight. Michael’s over-whelming sense of chastity had him wanting to go charging in with holy sword blazing even if it meant certain death.

  • On a personal level, I have never, ever had problems with overdoing a virtue. Not in the least….

    My lead characters in the LonTobyn books were Too Good. They were so Good that they bored me to tears. They were generous and honest and brave and kind to strangers and gentle with puppies and baby ducks and I grew to hate them. It’s one of the reasons why I have resisted requests to go back and write more in that world. My characters since have been drawn in varying shades of gray, and as a result, they have been far more interesting to me, and, I believe, to my readers as well. These have been fun posts, Misty. Thanks!

  • Megan B.

    I was waiting for this post since you hinted at it last week! Thanks. I especially like the part about how keeping a promise can become a problem. I have a character in my WIP who allows her friend to get himself (and her) into big trouble because of a promise she made to him. She does not intervene when she could (and should), while he makes a huge mess of things.

  • After reading this and about the seven deadly sins, I started thinking about a character who tries to cover up a deadly sin with a phony virture–maybe shows the world humility, but actually is too proud, and is inwardly raging at all those who don’t recognize or respect her power. May have to think about this some more. Thanks for the thoughts!

  • Again, I’m really enjoying this series! Thanks for the break-down, Misty. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    I can see I’ve missed a lot while my internet was down for a week 🙁
    I like this post, it gives me a lot to think about. My characters are definitely flawed, but I never looked at those flaws from the point of view of “virtues gone wrong.” Hmmm…

  • TwilightHero

    This reminds me of Galad, one of the more interesting characters in the Wheel of Time. A prince who just happened to be tall, slender, handsome, and, oh yeah, he could kick your a** in a sword fight, Galad was clearly written to be as close to perfect as possible, embodying every single one of these virtues. Because his view of the world was so very black and white, and accordingly – minor spoilers! – becoming more flexible was a key part of his storyline. I always liked how perfection was his flaw. Great post, Misty.

    For me, the only time I’d make someone Too Good would be if I was about to corrupt them beyond all hope of recovery 🙂

  • Excellent post, Misty. It reminds me also of the difference between Nice and Good. JK Rowling did it really well with Umbridge and her relentless niceness which isn’t a cover for her evil, but an outgrowth of it. People who refuse to look reality in the face are often very nice. Ditto people who want everyone to “get along” even if it means suppressing all awareness of a real and meaningful problem.