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Lessons from the Past for Fiction Writers

November 22nd, 2016

colin's-book-blogLittle read today, Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular and bestselling authors of novels and short stories in the 20th century. He once challenged himself to write a short story about a totally good man. It is probably his least successful story.

There is a good reason for this. While most people are not villainous, neither are they perfect – or totally good. And characters in fiction are more interesting if they have weaknesses and, occasionally, are very bad. They don’t come much nastier than Hannibal Lector in Thomas Harrison’s The Silence of the Lambs, yet the character and the novel have been immensely popular. Regrettably, perhaps, goodness can be boring.

In crime fiction there is usually a balance. The criminal, obviously, is villainous but the detective provides a foil in that he or she is on the side of justice and good, although the modern detective is often portrayed as having considerable flaws.

It’s not a bad idea to have your “bad” characters demonstrate one or more of the features which the Italian writer Dante Aligheiri (1265-1321) called the Seven Circles of Hell. They are: Lust, Gluttony, Pride or vanity, Envy, Anger, Avarice and Covetousness. They incorporate what was later called the Seven Deadly Sins.

If you think of the novels you have read which contain major “bad” characters or villains, ten to one, they will demonstrate one or more of the “sins”. Your hero or heroine may equally demonstrate one or more of the so-called Seven Virtues: Love, Kindness, Humility, Temperance, Generosity, Diligence and Patience.

It is the interplay between characters demonstrating these different personality traits which enable the writer to utilise the technique required in almost all successful fiction: conflict.

A few years ago the BBC surveyed a large group of people to find out what they thought of the Seven Deadly Sins and what they regarded as their modern equivalents. The following are the top seven chosen by the respondents to the survey: Cruelty, Adultery, Bigotry, Dishonesty, Hypocrisy, Greed and Selfishness. The same people were also asked which of the Seven Deadly Sins they would most like to commit if they could get away with it. Ironically, in view of the fact that adultery was regarded as a modern “sin”, lust came out top of the list.

Going further back in history than Dante, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in his writing on literature said, “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion or desire.”

So, the modern story teller can learn quite a lot about how to get ideas for fiction from some of the old theorists on literature. Take one or more of the “sins” or “virtues”, add appropriate characters and weave your story.


Colin Bulman’s latest books are Fiction – the Art and the Craft (Compass Books) and Creative Writing: a Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing (Polity Press). He has also written books on literature, the media, and has published numerous articles and stories.



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