• Andrew Johnston

The Seven Virtues of Fiction Writing

Updated: 3 days ago

We spend too much enough on negative talk, I think. There's a tendency to focus on failure over success, on the worst over the best, on don't over dos, monsters over saints, and sins over virtues. Blame the culture or blame psychology, but either way it's just how things are.


Have you ever stopped to think about how many works reference the Seven Deadly Sins? It's one of the go-to tropes when someone is completely devoid of original ideas - find seven things and map them onto some cultural memory of a Catholic doctrine. I've done it, and I'm guessing that many of you have as well, in one way or another.


By contrast, how many works reference the Seven Heavenly Virtues? Okay, let's put it another way - how many of you knew that there were Seven Heavenly Virtues? Any of you who are big fans of Crusader Kings, perhaps.


I bring this up to introduce my contribution to what, I hope, will be popular enough that it one day becomes a creatively barren cliche all its own: Lists of Virtues. There are seven of them (per tradition) that can apply to any craft, really, but which I designed with writing in mind. The first section is more poetic, while the end will give you the meaning behind each of these virtues.

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The Seven Virtues of Fiction Writing


Humilitas, the Virtue of Humility


I am not alone in my craft, there are many others who strive like I do. Some are newcomers to the field, others have labored longer than I; they are youthful and aged, wealthy and poor, and drawn from all corners of the Earth. Yet we begin as equals, unknowns in this field, and each of us must seek out our own fortune. I believe in my own work, this is true, but nothing is owed me that is not owed to all others.


Superbia, whose nature is vanity, will seek to convince me of my own superiority. It tells me that I am, by nature of my craft, better than others whose skills lie elsewhere, and as well that I am better than others who share my craft. It whispers to me that a superior soul ought not endure the struggle, but instead is owed entitlements to account for my talents. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the first virtue and pledge is: I will acknowledge that I must prove my worth.


Industria, the Virtue of Diligence


So too, I must acknowledge that my skills are yet undeveloped. For this is a craft of journeymen who never reach mastery, and yet I must always hone my skill. I may never pen my own masterwork, but in every lesser work I make, I must attend to every detail, and offer only the finest that my mind and my hands might complete.


Acedia, whose nature is sloth, will speak often of an easier path. It seeks to blind me by apathy such that I do not see my own flaws. And beyond this, it will waylay me with distractions, and offer me comforts and conveniences to draw me away. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the second virtue and pledge is: I will always seek to improve my craft.


Caritas, the Virtue of Charity


But I shall not mistake the craft for other skills. For a skill may be useful, and a means to make life easier, or to earn my daily bread; Still, the craft is more than this. It is a passion, one that I follow by choice and by love. It is a skill, more than any other, that I hold in my heart and that offers me comfort through the shadows that may come before me.


Avaritia, whose nature is avarice, wishes me to forget this love. It will fill my dreams with visions of wealth and fame, and promise that the craft can manifest these visions. It will seek to use my desires to bend my understanding of the craft. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the third virtue and pledge is: I will always love the craft for its own sake.


Castitas, the Virtue of Chastity


I must be the master of this passion, for it shall master me if I am careless. For the first moments of love are a powerful spell; yet I must remain committed to my craft once that enchantment fades. My tales are precious to me, and I must be true to them always, for they will guide me to a place of fulfillment.


Luxuria, whose nature is lust, wishes that I lose that control. It will tempt me with a hundred possibilities, and then a hundred more; And should I chase one, it shall vanish before I touch it, so that I become lost by my passions and must chase another. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the fourth virtue and pledge is: I will commit myself to my own tales.


Temperantia, the Virtue of Temperance


My tales are precious to me, but I mustn't forget that I make them to share. I have an audience, and I am called upon to entertain and inform them. Their own needs and desires must count at least as much as my own, and so I will restrain my own whims when they would interfere with the tale and with the craft.


Gula, whose nature is gluttony, wishes to see me succumb to my desires. It will whisper to me that the tale exists for my own pleasure alone, and press me to indulge in score-settling and theft of that which is popular. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the fifth virtue and pledge is: I will always remember the needs of my audience.


Patientia, the Virtue of Patience


I know that my path is a long one. I have chosen a craft that none have ever mastered, and I know the road is hard. Yet it is my path, when it is rough as well as when it is smooth. Obstacles shall come, and I must endure them; and when the road to my next destination is longer than I reckoned, then I shall endure this as well.


Ira, whose nature is wrath, will push me conquer myself. Where I stumble and fall, it will invoke a terrible anger; where the path is long, it will invoke weeping, and lead me to consolation through self-pity. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the sixth virtue and pledge is: I will control myself whatever may come.


Humanitas, the Virtue of Kindness


But I need not be alone, for other walk this path alongside me, and endure as I do. Yet there are those who will, through luck or fortune or renown, enjoy an easier path, and reach their destinations before I do. Their success does me no harm, and I shall not begrudge them for achieving that which I desire.


Invidia, whose nature is envy, holds only hatred for these fortunate few. It will lead me to seethe and plot, and to conjure comforting lies that I might not feel less than anyone. Bitterness and failure are my rewards for listening to it. But I shall pay it no heed.


So the final virtue and pledge is: I will not begrudge others their success.


What Does Any of This Mean?


That's the poetic way to render this, but now let's get practical. The Seven Virtues describe a healthy and productive means of approaching the writing process. To follow them is to avoid falling into the vices that can make your writing worse, stop you from getting an audience or simple erode your well-being.


Here's the simple version:

  1. Humility: I will acknowledge that I must prove my worth. A lot of the feel-good advice offered to neophyte writers has the effect of inflating their egos, but none of us are masters here. You aren't special because you are a writer or because you successfully wrote a novel, and you are certainly not entitled to be published because you wrote something, nor are you entitled to an audience. This is a tough field, and you'll have to earn every inch of land you claim.

  2. Diligence: I will always seek to improve my craft. If you're starting out, then you're probably a bad writer. After years and years of work, you'll still be a bad writer, albeit one with more wisdom. No matter how beautiful, tragic, thrilling or terrifying your latest work is, there is always room for improvement. The worst thing for any creative person is to think that they have achieved perfection, and the most dangerous time in the life of any project is when the creator decides that it's finished.

  3. Charity: I will always love the craft for its own sake. Yes, I know, you're going to be a best-seller - the next Stephen King. So am I, and so is everyone else who ever decided that novel writing was a grand idea. Get that idea out of your head now. You will work for years and years and, if you're lucky, will earn a pittance and an interesting story to tell at parties. If you're only writing (or playing guitar, or making films, or whatever else) for money and fame, you've already erred. You'd better love the process, because that's all you're guaranteed.

  4. Chastity: I will commit myself to my own tales. At some point, you're going to be tempted to chase after trends in hopes that it will boost your profile. Maybe it'll even work, and you'll be popular...for a while, as long as the trends last and you can feign passion. If you chase after someone else's ideas because they're successful, you'll find your own success never measures up. It's far better to commit to your own ideas, develop them, and follow them where they go.

  5. Temperance: I will always remember the needs of my audience. There are many textual vices in which an author may indulge. Some put their political or religious opinions into the mouths of their characters. Some seek proxy revenge against fictitious mock-ups of real life rivals. Some pepper their stories with memes. Some use awkward narrative devices or long descriptive bricks to show off how skillful they are. Remember, though, if you're writing this down it's because you want to share it, so ask yourself: Do my readers want to see any of this?

  6. Patience: I will control myself whatever may come. Nothing breaks a new writer quite like a lack of self-regulation. It comes in two popular flavors - the bitter taste of outrage and the tear-stained salt of self-pity - and either can send one off the rails. If you react to every rejection by moping about or howling conspiracy theories about the gatekeepers, then you won't have enough time left over to get any work done. You don't have to like failure, but don't let it be your master.

  7. Kindness: I will not begrudge others their success. Yes, I know, audiences are stupid and publishers are crooked and that's why all popular books are awful and no one has the guts to touch your masterpiece. Does thinking that way make you a better writer? Does consuming all of those articles and podcasts and videos from people hate-reading novels do anything besides warp your ego? Yes, people buy books that you don't like that are written by people who haven't "earned" their success. If you fixate on this, then you've already lost.

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