I’m not sure how I got on the topic, but today I was thinking about temptations in fiction. Unfortunately, when I hear people talk about “temptations,” I automatically think of shallow or cliche temptations used in fiction. In fact, usually I think of the sex symbol love interest you can often find in blockbusters that have a lot of action but little character development. Sometimes, though, I think of a protagonist who is having an affair.
But good temptations aren’t shallow and they are heck-a-tense when done right. Sure, we understand that Frodo and many other people are tempted to keep The Ring for themselves–but that temptation becomes very powerful when employed in a key moment, like when Frodo makes it to Mount Doom, and no longer wants to throw The Ring in. You may have heard the story enough times that that moment of temptation might not have such a significant impact on you, but think back to the first time you witnessed it. After all the struggles and hardship, Frodo finally makes it Mount Doom, and we see him tempted to keep The Ring. We hate it. Maybe we almost even want to hate Frodo, but we can’t really, because we understand it.
Temptations aren’t just for the sinners, villains, and weaklings. Everyone has them, even people we admire, and they can be used for a powerful effect in fiction.
Types of Temptations
Tendencies and Weaknesses
It’s my belief that all of us have certain tendencies or weaknesses we have to deal with. Some people like the high they get from shoplifting. A vampire dating a human has to deal with the temptation of sucking her blood. A werewolf might have to deal with not getting out of control.
To me, in fiction, tendencies are what your character is prone to do or give in to. It’s a weak spot that is already thin and can be worried thinner. It might be considered a handicap. Whatever it is, the reader usually gets some foreshadowing or a glimpse of it several times in the novel. It’s probably reoccurring or hinted at, so that the moment The Temptation rears its ugly head, we already know the character has got an internal battle to fight. If you’re smart, this happens at a key point in the story.
Temptations like this can work well to foster sympathy for the character, if the character truly wants to be good. While everyone enjoys making fun of Twilight these days, the truth is, Edward is a great example of this. So is R from Warm Bodies.
Moments of Desperation
Other temptations aren’t foreshadowed. They aren’t a tendency or weakness, but they come from desperation rooted in high emotions. I once heard that all of us are willing to kill another person–if we get pushed to the right point in the right situation. We may think we are incapable of certain sins, but maybe it has less to do with what we will and won’t do, and more to do with where our “edge” is. Some people’s edge isn’t far from their normal emotional state. You look at a guy wrong, and he’s ready to knife you, even though he knows he shouldn’t. For most of us, our edge is much further away. Sometimes I think one of the goals in life is to strive to push our edges further and further away, but in some situations, it’s more complicated than that.
In the heat of the moment, your character may feel intense emotions, so intense that something they never thought they were tempted to do, may become a very real temptation.
Your character would never kill another person–until she discovers what that person did to her little girl, and her anger pushes her beyond her edge. Your character isn’t a thief, but like Valjean, he might get desperate enough to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family. Your character might be tempted to tell a big lie to a spouse if it meant he could avoid sharing what he is unbearably ashamed of.
How to Use Temptations to Their Max
- Temptations are great to add when tension is already high and we and other characters depend on the hero to fulfill his task. If you look at the Frodo example again, Frodo suffers extreme temptation when the entire world is depending on him most–when an entire army is basically sacrificing themselves just to buy him time. It’s the worst.
- If you want to get the most power out of a temptation, don’t settle for mediocre or cliche ones. Now, when I say cliche, I don’t mean it’s not relateable. The most powerful temptations are usually human ones we relate to, situations where we wonder–really wonder–what choice we would make. But here when I say cliche, I kind of mean a common temptation that’s underdeveloped and shallow, or told in the exact same way dozens of others have been told, temptations that are generic and not really fleshed out. Instead, for the most power, go for meaningful temptations that feel significant in the story, temptations the audience understands–either because it’s simply a human temptation, or because we’ve seen the hero’s weaknesses ahead of time.
- Similarly, avoid “temptations” that the audience knows won’t legitimately tempt the heroine, because we already know she’s not going to blink an eye before taking the higher road. Often the villains saying things like “Join me, and you could be the most powerful person in the world,” don’t work, not because they are stupid, but because we know the hero isn’t even tempted. If we had a hero that we believed might actually, legitimately join the dark side, then the temptation would have some power in it. Otherwise, it’s not fleshed out and feels rather generic, and these days, it’s almost always unnecessary.
- Often in pivotal moments with very strong temptations, the moment is best if rendered in what’s basically the writing equivalent of slow-motion. Slow the pacing down. Get detailed. Otherwise the audience won’t feel the full weight of it. Look at Frodo’s Mount Doom scene again. The temptation goes longer than a blink of the eye. If you want the audience to really feel the temptation, it’s almost always got to be longer than a half-second.
While temptations are most powerful when fully rendered, they aren’t always that important to the story. Not every temptation needs to be fleshed out and full-blown. It’s okay to use temptations as micro-concepts or in passing. But when dealing with strong or significant temptations, follow the guidelines above.