When I think of books I read as a child that made my brain turn philosophical somersaults, the first that comes to mind is Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous A Wrinkle in Time. The tesseract theory was super cool; the universal battle between good and evil, dark and light, was masterfully and imaginatively portrayed....but the thing that really made me think and think for weeks, months, years after I finished the book was Meg's own personal battle, discovering that there was a thin line between vices she hated about herself and virtues which could save her world.
A refresher, for those of you who haven't read it in a while: Meg hates her stubbornness. It annoys her family, it annoys her. She wishes she could get rid of it entirely—but suddenly caught up in a world where evil conquers weak minds, she realizes that it is that same trait, only twisted slightly into the virtue of persistence, which saves her and her family.
This is a type of character exploration that I rarely read, yet surely we all experience it in our own lives. When I was younger, I hated my quick temper. It got me in trouble...a lot. But as I've matured I've learned that the other side to a quick temper is a passionate nature. And while I still work at, shall we say, tempering my temper, I've come to have an acceptance of my personality and a thankfulness for it.
I recently read another book which opened doors in my brain I never knew were there; not fiction, but a non-fiction work I began for my own edification: Father Romano Guardini's Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God. While I haven't forgotten to think how the lessons apply to my own life, I was stunned to realize how helpful a book like that could be in developing characters for stories. It forces you to think of people (even fictional people, in my case) as complex beings with a variety of psychological needs and facets, with subtleties and intricacies. Madeleine L'Engle had already awakened me to a virtue being the other face of a vice...but Father Guardini made me explore this idea further: at the same time, a vice is the other side of a virtue—the extreme of a virtue, even. For example, loyalty is a virtue. Natural loyalty (that is, you were born that way and didn't really have to work at developing it) can be a blessing. Your friends and family will know they can depend upon you. You may make a natural, upright leader.
However...if this virtue becomes extreme, you will demand ultra-loyalty from everyone. You will see betrayal everywhere and turn bitter and possessive.
Natural orderliness is good—but can turn into obsessiveness and lack of tolerance.
Natural bravery is good—but can lead to foolhardiness and devaluing of life.
Natural ambition and drive to succeed is good—but I think anyone who's read Harry Potter or the history of the Second World War could tell you where twisted ambition can end up.
It makes you think—perhaps instead of figuring out what a villain's vices are, we should be thinking about what his or her natural virtues are.
No one, villain or hero, is a complete human without being rounded out with good and bad aspects of personality. It's really hard as an author to just “make these things up”--but when you think about the way everything is connected, it becomes much easier to paint a true picture.
Anyway....enough rambling. My sincere thanks to Ms L'Engle and to Father Guardini for challenging my way of thinking and making me appreciate and understand life—and fiction—even more.