If there is a hive mind in the writing world, envy has received its share of recent buzz. Might I refer you to several blog posts I’ve enjoyed, then do a brief geek-out before bringing us back to writing?
- Seth Godin, on the Internet as envy amplifier.
- The Rejectionist, about it being easier to wallow in envy than take the hard risks
- Sugar, in a sweet and honest post about how We Are All Savages Inside.
Each of these articles contains different angles, solutions, and tones, but upon one thing they agree: envy is ubiquitous.
Did you ever wonder why? Why would something so uncomfortable and potentially divisive be a universal human experience? Well, if you believe the evolutionary psychologists, envy confers survival advantages, and so does its progenitor, comparison. (For more detail, read this.)
Now, ready to harness that primal force for the good of your fiction? Ready to transmute those roiling emotions into writing? Your friends and neighbors will thank you.
The Upside of Envy
100,000 years of breeding says we are built to:
- Stratify our society according to the person’s skills and abilities
- Gather another’s social standing with minimal cues
- Become alerted and energized by envy if we’re falling behind
- Hide our envy – sometimes even from ourselves, because to acknowledge it is to volunteer for a lower place in the tribe.
We can take each of these bullet points and use them to enhance theme and conflict in our works-in-progress.
For instance, we can ratchet up story tension by putting a character in a position where their skills are grossly under- or over-estimated? We love these kinds of stories. We have the:
- Comedic or tragic/cautionary tales when a low-ranking person aims to be a #1 and gets their wish. (Think Bruce Almighty)
- Stories about the underdog, where the real leader is unrecognized by self or others. (Many traditional romances feature this component, where the hero learns to recognize the heroine’s unsung qualities, and becomes willing to sacrifice his own rank to ensure his peers see her the same way.)
- Stories about people who don’t accept their society’s measuring stick – either by birth, intellectual choice, or pre-emptive rejection – and who teach us to evaluate one another differently. (Think all wild-child stories, including Crocodile Dundee; To Kill a Mockingbird.)
Here are a few more envy-related questions to prime your writing:
- At the beginning of your story, what status does your main character have within their society? How do they feel about it? Why?
- How about at the end? If there’s no outward change, do they have a different understanding about their place within their world?
- Who do they envy and why?
- Must they cope with another’s envy?
- Repeat the above for your antagonist.
- Notice all the ways that status is signaled within your fiction – names, possessions, titles. Is there one you can use as a symbol of change or threat to a character’s status?
In the end, if we’re not careful, envy can be the cause of much personal and societal heartache. But we have a choice in what we do with our feelings. Why not use them to inform our fiction?
If we do, in another 100,000 years and 100,000 novels, maybe the green-eyed-monster gene will be short a few amino acids.
If so, I wonder which lucky writer will get there first…
Does envy play a meaningful role in your fiction? Does rank? Does your main character excel at pegging another’s social status, or is that their Achilles heel? Speak to me of envy.