If even Jimmy Carter admits that “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” how can the rest of us escape not only lust, but wrath, greed, sloth, pride, envy, and gluttony? Regardless of how you view traditional religion, you likely disapprove of them all. Add a bit of psychology, and the list lengthens: manipulation, sadism, passive aggression, lack of empathy. Who wants to be like that? Or know someone like that? Far fewer people than the number who’d love to read about it.
Tip: Ugly emotions keep readers turning pages.
Aside from the popularity of true crime, thrillers, and mystery, everyone enjoys a good bad guy. And most of us equally enjoy a good guy who’s at least a little bad. These characters mirror the sins in our hearts, and because we recognize ourselves in that mirror, the novel’s bad guys inspire us to improve, while the good guys reassure us that nobody’s perfect. Not even in fiction.
Take betrayal. Its underpinning is a smug self-righteousness. How could you do that to me when I was so generous/thoughtful/compassionate/supportive? Like anything about fiction that’s taken too far, betrayal can build such an unpalatable character that readers simply close the book.
Yet in healthy doses, betrayal can drive a novel fast and far enough to become a classic. Javert kills himself because Jean Valjean betrays the officer’s belief in absolute justice. Madame Bovary feels betrayed by the life that first her husband, then her lover promised. Gatsby betrays his moral center for the fool’s gold glitter of Daisy; vengeance drives Ahab to betray his crew’s trust in their captain. In The Art of Fielding, the sport that Henry loves betrays him: when the ball he wields so well injures his friend. Henry, in turn, betrays his skill—by resolutely and suddenly losing it.
Dark thoughts—like betrayal—fertilize both dilemma and causality.
In the best novels, every event except the last arises from the one preceding and spawns the one following. Pride goeth both before a fall and the next scene; the proud character will make mistakes, possibly horrifying, and definitely instigating whatever happens next.
Most of us hope to bury or at least hide our dark thoughts. We know that greed is offensive, that envy is never classy, and so on. We struggle forward. But when a character’s dark thoughts clash with the sense of right and wrong—that’s an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. In other words, it’s fiction.
This doesn’t mean that your protagonist must act on every unpalatable thought. You could leave that to the antagonist. Or not. But while complicating the protagonist with some stifled but evil impulses, don’t neglect to complicate the antagonist. As Robert McKee observed, a worthy antagonist shapes a worthy protagonist.
Worth has much to do with credibility. Do we believe in the protagonist? That external forces pressure her into earning the ending? Credibility also demands exposing the secrets most humans vault away. This exposure is both credible and intriguing. We want to know what’s in the protagonist’s vault just as intensely as we want no one to guess what’s in our own.