by Michael Dymmoch
Pride. Avarice. Lust. Anger. Gluttony. Envy. Sloth. Shakespeare may have cribbed his plots from history, myth, and lesser writers, but his plays are still staged because his characters were driven by the urges that trip us up today. The seven cardinal sins are great inducements to villainy.
Change is the essence of story, but conflict is its life-blood. Not only are the vices terrific motivators for an antagonist, they're a perfect source of conflict--internally for the protagonist, and between him and his significant others. (In a pinch, insanity is useful but it's used overmuch of late, and it’s difficult to portray convincingly without specialized training or major research.) Vice is something every writer has experienced, every reader can relate to.
It's a cliche that sin is more interesting than virtue. Almost nobody says why. One reason is that right conduct and good habits are so boringly predictable. Sin, on the other hand, is exciting. Someone who'll break the rules, has unpredictability in common with madmen--either might do anything. (We all like to be frightened a little--but only a little. We like the adrenaline high, but walking the mean streets in a character's head is so much safer than doing it in a bad part of a real town.) Vice speaks to the dark side of emotion. And emotion is what makes a story lift off the page and strike the reader's heart.
The variations and combinations are limited only by the writer’s imagination. Check out Law and Order, or 24, or Shark. What drives the villians if not pride, lust, greed, or rage? Even the “less interesting” vices have plot potential—what is obsessive hoarding but a form of gluttony, whether it’s Imelda Marcos collecting shoes or some crazy old lady with 200 cats? Didn't they both start out with one? Didn't they fail at some point to rein in their appetites? And before you decide that sloth doesn’t motive malfeasance, remember what Edmund Burke said on the subject: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.