Two days ago, in Part One of this three-part series, I began sharing how to use The Five Thieves of Happiness by John Izzo in our writing to provide inner conflict for our characters. I only had "time" in the first post to share one "thief." In this post I'll share two more. (Why do I always think I can accomplish more with fewer words? The same thing happens in my books. One book turns into two...)
Now that one of your characters has learned to surrender to what is happening, accept the hard truths in life, accept that only the present moment is real, and can practice notice, stop, and replace when necessary, we’re ready to move on with two other ways for your characters to create their own internal conflict.
This “thief” allows the ego to run free, making your character believe that she must distinguish herself to be happy. Status and importance rule her daily life. You can see this played out on social media, with the obsession to get likes and shares and comments. I and me rule every thought, every action, in the search for happiness—which always seems just around the next corner.
When your character's “story” doesn’t match the one in his head, there’s a problem. Mortality and death can become an issue. Your character separates from others, whether family, friends, co-workers or society because of the need to be great, from an ego standpoint.
What to do for resolution
At first it will be difficult, but your character must banish the illusion that separation, by putting oneself on a pedestal, will lead to happiness. This isn’t something you’ll be able to wrap up in the last few pages of the book. It will take your character time, struggle, trying again. Along the way, feelings of hate and anger may have to be addressed in someone who is wedded to the “story” of his life.
Here are some possibilities for a character resolving conceit:
- Remind herself that she is a part of a larger story: a cause, one’s life’s work, service to others or the planet.
- Become part of something bigger than himself, thereby focusing on giving of himself.
- Build relevant and important connections with other people, not for advancement.
- Begin building an equitable world, even if it’s only within a household.
When this desire for something you don’t have is strong, it can become the focus of your life.
Now let’s transfer my brief recollections to a character. If you’re writing a mystery or thriller, your villain would be willing to lie, cheat, steal, or even murder to get what s/he wants.
But coveting isn’t reserved for villains. Your main character can be driven by the desire for something s/he doesn’t have. We’re not talking about in a harmless or ambitious, productive way to get ahead. The discontentment of envy brings resentment of others and their situation. You’ll want to handle coveting with a delicate hand so your character remains likeable.
How many times have you wanted someone’s “good” hair, eye color, fingernails, height, car, or job? That’s natural, even motivational. But when a character’s sense of self hinges on comparing herself with the “outside world,” remember the story of the evil stepmother queen in Snow White.
For your characters, coveting takes away the ability to be grateful—for themselves and for other characters. Your character will resent the happiness and success of others.
How does your character begin throwing off this thief? Gratitude. Gratitude can be expressed by being more supportive, kind, and helpful of those around them. Instead of cruising by a broken-down car on the side of the road, your hero can stop and offer help or take the person somewhere safe to order repairs.
Gratitude won’t squash coveting, but it is a great beginning (think notice-stop-replace from Part 1) to keep your characters from focusing on the wrong things. They must focus on their own lives without comparing them to others. It’s okay for them to have a momentary “wish” for something, as long as it doesn’t progress into envy, which creates conflict.
What to do for resolution
- Have your character ask the questions: What do I value? What matters to me? What is the best use of my life?
- Use the notice-stop-replace technique.
- Your characters may realize that there will never be equality in all things. They are responsible for their own happiness, which means creating less conflict in their lives! By taming their envy when it arises, they can be grateful and kind to others, leading to the banishment of the thief of coveting.
- At some point, they could realize that life is not a contest.
We’ve now explored three of John Izzo’s Five Thieves of Happiness. Any one of these can pump up the internal conflict in a book. If you have two lead characters, they can deal with the same thief, or they might be dealing with different ones. I don’t have the heart to inflict my characters with all five thieves, although in real life, we deal with them all every day—to different degrees.
During the next four weeks, try adding conflict to your story with one or more "thief" from our list so far: control, conceit, coveting. In August we’ll look at the final two thieves: consumption and comfort, then talk about the circumstances when one thief can be more powerful in a character arc than another.
Of the three thieves we’ve talked about so far, which one will be the hardest for you to apply to a character in your WIP? Why do you think that is?
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Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard, putting the finishing touches on P.R.I.S.M. Book Two.
P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, lies, and love.