How easy is it for us to be tempted by the things that we want to be true?
In Mary Howitt’s poem, a cunning Spider ensnares a Fly through the use of flattery, seducing the poor creature to its ultimate doom. Despite her better judgment, the Fly wants to believe that she is beautiful and desirable and ultimately ignores the dire warnings she’s been given about the Spider.
Whether it’s Eve being tempted to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden or Odysseus hearing the Siren’s song, the struggle to resist temptation or to give in to desire is a classic heroic conflict dating back to early literature. It’s an experience that we’re all familiar with, even if our temptations and their consequences aren’t quite as epic as those in our favorite stories. We all have things that we want, things that would be impossible for us to resist. For a story’s protagonist, these desires can have serious consequences. For them, facing down temptation is often one of the many challenges that they must face on the road to proving their worth. As a writer, it’s important to consider the cost to your character: What did it cost them to refuse? Or if they gave in, what did they gain? Either way, was it worth it?
And remember, refusing temptation might be satisfying but the cost of failure can often be far more interesting. Think about Hansel and Gretal. Two starving children, lost, alone in the woods, stumble across a house made of gingerbread. They know they shouldn’t eat it, but their empty bellies drive them to begin nibbling pieces off the house. It’s not greed but desperation that causes them to give in, but it matters little to the witch who designed her house to lure in hungry children for her dinner. Her trap sprung, the witch invites the children in for a proper feast, fattening them up until they’re ready to be eaten. Realizing the trap they’re in, the children manage to outsmart the witch and kill her before taking her treasures and finding their way home. If they hadn’t been tempted to eat the gingerbread house, they wouldn’t have met the witch or had the means to reunite with their father and live prosperously.
The morality of the story might be a little mixed, but overall, Hansel and Gretal being flawed characters who needed to learn from their mistakes makes them much more believable than if they had been perfect, innocent angels who can do no wrong.
When a protagonist succumbs to temptation and faces a series of trials because of it, by the end of the story they are better for having learned their lesson. It’s a familiar formula but it works because it’s relatable. Your audience wants to see your characters struggle against obstacles, not simply hurdle over them effortlessly on their way to being even better heroes than they already are. That’s boring and hard to identify with.
So don’t be afraid to force your character to make difficult choices. Whether they make the right one or not, both you and your story will be better for it.