Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character Virtues Become Vices - Extremes, contexts, and differing values

When I was in my 20s, someone accused me of being so broad-minded that I was flat headed. I was reminded of this as I attended a workshop with Donald Maass, based on his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He went through a series of positive traits that, when taken too far, became questionable. One that struck me in particular was a protagonist who would go from being helpful to interfering with others recklessly.

These progressions seemed natural to me, and perhaps provide alternative solutions to advice I've given about giving main characters important flaws. So I decided to explore it further.

    •    What happens when a confident protagonist becomes egotistical or narcissistic?
    •    What about a carrying character who becomes indulgent or spoils someone he or she loves?
    •    When does a trusting person become so naïve it threatens the welfare of those around him or her?

I was reminded of a man who spoke at my church about tithing. He had made this a priority for himself and his family, to the point where, despite he and his wife having jobs, the family often became dependent upon social services. His generosity had, to my mind, gone so far he put his children at risk. It's an interesting thing to think about of virtue that would be admired in a monk becoming a threat to offspring.

I know many people whose humility made them self-effacing to the point where they did not fully share their gifts and talents with society. Perhaps this is another case where what is good for the individual can get so big that society loses.

    •    Can a protector become a bully?
    •    At what point does a courageous person become foolhardy?
    •    What stops a man with an iron will from treating others with disdain?

Can someone absorb with curiosity damage others in seeking answers? Certainly there were people who worked on the atomic bomb who concluded their session with knowing had led to a turn in history that put humanity in jeopardy.

I've been fascinated for a long time – and not in a good way – by the idea that a true friend will take your call in the middle of the night and go out to bury a body, no questions asked. To me, this is loyalty taken to extremes. To others, the value of friendship trumps other values. The concept of omertà – the Mafia code of honor – does not allow for ratting on a family member, no matter what crimes have been committed. My values differ.

An empathetic person can become a busybody. A funny person can become bitingly satirical and verbally abusive. A respectful person can become a toady.

Some virtues can, when amplified or twisted, can become bad in any context. Some reflect differences in values as they are transformed (corrosive to individual morality or relationships or society or humanity or future generations). Some people become possessed by their virtues and go out of control, acting without thought, deliberation, judgment, or prudence.

Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions? For writers, virtues and good intentions can be pushed to create stories when sharper conflicts and more interesting character arcs.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, yes, echoes of William Sloan Coffin. A very practical explanation of a very important point. Valuable insights, as always.