Character Motivations and the Seven Sins

Welcome to Fiction Friday! We are currently in the middle of the Character Series. Last week I posted the Character Worksheets and included a little schpiel on the Cardinal Sins (Seven Deadly Sins). Today I’m going to go into each with a little more detail to illustrate how they can be used as a way to view character motivations. Why the Cardinal Sins? No, I’m not trying to prognosticate here. Two reasons I like this method of summarizing motivations: 1) as a part of popular culture, the idea of the seven sins is familiar to many people, both religious and wholly secular. 2) It’s a reminder that no character is a saint. Few things are more yawn-inducing than a character that is perfectly perfect.

As long as you consider the motivations of your characters, and as long as their actions come about because of what motivates them on the inside, then you can plot all you want. The problem with plotting comes when the writer plots out a story and characters start doing things because the almighty Plot told them to, not because their actions were determined by their goals, motivations, and desires.

The Seven Cardinal Sins are one way of summarizing a character’s motivations into one recognizable word. Using one of these “sins” as your character’s motivation will not limit your character or make him or her trite. The Cardinal Sins aren’t cliches, they are categorical distinctions of human nature. Any one person can have any combination of those motivations. Any one “sin” can be made manifest in a character at varying degrees of intensity.

I think it’s best to summarize each cardinal sin by its motivation and its fear. If you’d like to read more about each in detail, there’s always Wikipedia.

Pride

Motivated by self-promotion.

Afraid of ridicule and public humiliation.

CEOs, the manager with a desperate need to be promoted, narcissists, the achiever, the nuclear scientist, the know-it-all, the self-righteous clergyman.Don’t forget that Prideful people can still be introverts. They just aren’t as obviously prideful.

Greed

Motivated by wanting more.

Afraid of losing everything.

The possessive girlfriend, the power-hungry lawyer, the millionaire who’s never satisfied, the gambling addict, the obsessed fangirl.

Envy

Motivated by putting down others or self.

Afraid of no one liking them.

The person with an eating disorder, the codependent boyfriend, the host of the pity-party, the clingy friend, the girl with the lowest self-esteem, the guy who bases his self-worth on what others think, the psychological bully, the teenage frienemy.

Wrath

superman

Motivated by physical exertion (not necessarily out of anger).

Afraid of physical weakness.

The one-dimensional superhero, the jock, the Skipper, the abusive ex, the bodybuilder, the humble knight, the roller-derby champion, the gymnast.

Lust

Motivated by sexual attraction / physical appearance.

Afraid of being repulsive or unattractive.

The model, the hottest girl in school, the girl that wishes she was the hottest girl in school, the guy who loves the hottest girl in school, the porn subscriber, the Rom-Com addict, the sexual offender, the playboy, the beautician, the soap opera fan, the Chick Lit reader. (Note the varying degrees from normal to psychological disorder).

Gluttony

Motivated by an indulgence in physical or emotional pleasures.

Afraid of emptiness or depression.

The rock star, the party animal, the class clown, the over-eater, the drunk, the funny guy, the yacht club member, the extreme sport enthusiast, the drug addict, the masochist, the socialite.

I define gluttony pretty broadly. One can be a glutton for food, for pain, for fun, for adrenaline. The glutton has a constant need for enjoying the pleasures of life. The difference between Gluttony and a few other sins can be pretty gray. Lust and Gluttony both deal with pleasure. If the pleasure is sex or physical romance, then the motivation is lust. Everything else is probably gluttony. Greed wants to have more. Gluttony wants to enjoy more. A greedy person buys a yacht because it’s something else to possess. A glutton buys a yacht because it’s something else to enjoy. Subtle difference.

Sloth

Motivated by ease or leisure.

Afraid of having too much responsibility.

The cliche TV dad, the couch potato, the unemployed 30-year-old who still lives with his mother, the heiress, the basement gamer, the fry-cook with no ambition, the commitment-phobe, the hesitant person afraid of taking risks, the housewife who never gets out of her sweatpants (guilty…), the sun-bather.

Consider the fears for a moment. They might come in use for you if you want some poetic justice for a character, a humbling moment, or a chance for the character to overcome those fears and mature into a new person. Draco Malfoy’s sin would likely be pride. And sure, his racist attitudes suggest envy, because he constantly puts down Hermione to feel better about himself. But his greatest fear is humiliation. So if he were helpless and Ron and Harry happened to save his life, then Draco would be humbled and we might see a change in his character.

I’m limiting posting to once or twice a week as we prepare to move cross-country. Next week we will talk about conflict, unless y’all have any other questions about characters and motivations. Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Character Motivations and the Seven Sins

  1. Lara says:

    Reblogged this on Lara Willard and commented:

    Following the superhero theme from last month’s posts on Batman and Harvey Dent, I wanted to revisit fear and motivation with Tony Stark A.K.A. Iron Man as the character study.

    This is a man of many vices, but Tony Stark’s cardinal sin is sloth. He is afraid of failure, so he doesn’t apply himself. His goal is to be “safe” and comfortable. Some people might say he’s afraid of losing more people (like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark is a billionaire orphan), so he wants to be in control (greed).

    But he doesn’t actively try to be in control.

    He wants Pepper to take over the business so he can tinker in his basement.

    Tony is afraid of committing to her, and he’s afraid of committing to others, which is why his coming out and saying “I am Iron Man” is the conclusion to his first arc. He’s finally committing himself, and he’s committing himself to the entire nation.

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