Stories are life experienced from a distance, from the safety of paper, screen, or voice. Time and time again writers have, through characters, explored the tension between good and evil, between vice and virtue…but what is that? How can we work it into our own story telling?
Naturally most of us are learning to write at an earlier stage of life, still fresh to the trials and troubles that later blossom into the wisdom and insight needed understand, internalize and live by these philosophies.
Luckily for us, we have the safety of paper and pen. From a distance we may experience the balance of these ideas and consider the underlying philosophy handed down by philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. These ancient writers created a separation between hero and villain, each representing vice and virtue respectively. These lines are often blurred in modern story telling but it is important to remind ourselves of the wisdom in discretion and clarity of what they represent. A more interesting story and character can be built from showing the journey to virtue rather than just the purity of virtue in itself. Superman, for example tends to be out of reach, and inherently boring as a pure paragon of virtue.
Heroes are held as a paragon of virtue and villains a paragon of vice, played out through their intentions, actions and habit. Virtue and vice are not immutable characteristics or how a character was born or the hand they were dealt, but how that hand is played.
“Watch your thoughts, for they will become actions. Watch your actions, for they'll become... habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.” - Margaret Thatcher
All characters exist in potential, ready to act, and that action once taken (or not) should be built on actions and behaviors that, portrayed over time form a habit. This habit can be expressed through training or personal philosophy, and will ultimately inform, when challenged by plot, their response.
Ultimately character is revealed through action and the consequences of how they respond is often an opportunity for character growth and development. Through this growth and development a story, a heroes journey is born.
So…what is vice and virtue, what are we working with here?
Plato first discussed cardinal moral values in The Republic and were furthered by his disciple Aristotle.
There are four key virtues that underpin natural morality and they stair step into each other: Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Prudence: Sound decision making based on right reason, that is to say in accordance with reality. usually shown with a book, a scroll, a mirror, or crushing a serpent.
Justice: giving everyone what is their due, determined through prudence. usually shown with a sword, a balance and scales, or a crown.
Fortitude: the courage and strength to pursue that justice through adversity. usually shown with an armor, or a club, or a lion, or a a palm, or a tower, or a yoke, or a broken column.
Temperance: restraint, moderation of thought, feeling or action. To achieve justice without spilling into revenge.
Usually shown with a wheel, or a bridle with reins, or vegetables and fish, or a cup, or water and wine in two jugs.
Vice is not necessarily the opposite of virtue, but the excess or deficiency in each and can be both action and inaction. Too much, and too little, extreme sacrifice and quenching greed. Exploring the things Plato considered to be vices make for not only interesting villains, but challenges and failures for the growth of our hero. Day to day, yielding to the desire at hand, abstract forms of hunger and a sliding scale of depravity. There is neither order nor necessity and even a pull to transgress natural boundaries …to paraphrase an extreme, but potent point by Aristotle
” there's no such thing as sleeping with your mother at the right time, in the right way, for the right result”.
However, vice doesn’t narrowly mean tyranny, luxury, lawlessness, debauchery and depravity, though it tends to lead that way. It can be far more chaotic and elaborate than virtue and it’s easy to get lost in the dark possibilities. At which point it helps to come back to the idea of balance. Virtue in the center, with vice on either side.
For example, courage hangs between rashness (excess) and cowardice (deficiency). Modesty lies between shyness and shamelessness. As we follow a character on their journey, we see them strive for the balance of virtue but slipping into vice as they go.
As writers and storytellers, we create this journey for our characters, our selves, and in turn , our readers. Forging the path to wisdom through a physically safe exploration of the tension between vice and virtue, the results, and consequences of each.
How will you test and mold them, will they become heroic and head towards the good , flourishing in happiness and peace? or to the unstable extremes of vice, falling to tyranny and regret?