I’ve been seeing sentiments of this sort a lot lately, in various writers’ groups and blogs. The idea that it’s somehow shameful and wrong to be jealous of another’s success in any area, that we should all feel nothing but joy when someone else does well, seems a permanent fixture these days.
While I agree that we should be happy for our friends when they do well–and I have no trouble being so–the fact is, if you’re a writer, and you think people shouldn’t feel envy, despair, anger, or sadness when other people make it in the world, I wonder about your actual writing.
The fact is, people are, well, basically shitty. We try to be good people. Most of us succeed. But how many people have you ever met whom you honestly and truly believe have never felt envy or anger? Who’ve never watched a TV show about the homes of rich people and felt that little pang of jealousy or dissatisfaction with their own lives? Or seen a friend of their get promoted and, even under the true happiness they undoubtedly hold for that friend, still think, “Why couldn’t it be me?”
That’s human nature. It is human nature to envy, to covet. It wouldn’t be in the ten commandments as something we all shouldn’t do if it was something people didn’t do to begin with. You don’t feel the need to warn people, for example, to eat food if they want to live. Because they do it anyway. They feel hungry and they want to eat. Hunger isn’t something most people can control (they can ignore it, sure, but not control it). Neither are our more negative emotions.
And if you want to be a writer, if you want to create realistic characters, you need to accept and acknowledge that people can be nasty little creatures. Even the best of us can’t be good all the time. And even if we behave well, we still feel it. Those negative emotions seethe and writhe beneath the surface of our cheerful smiles. “Congratulations” comes out of our mouths through gritted teeth. Not all the time, no. But a character who, like Melanie Wilkes, only ever truly feels joy and pride in the accomplishments of others either has no ambitions in life at all, or is a Mary Sue. A spineless, dull, loathesome sort of cypher swirling through the pages of our books.
People don’t identify with such characters. Okay, some people might, but I worry about their mental health. It’s the flaws of our characters, as much as their strengths, that make them interesting to us and our readers. Their false pride, their arrogance, their jealousy, their lust and anger. These are universal emotions just as much as happiness and love.
If you only show the good side of humanity, and ignore the bad, you’re not creating humans. You’re creating bland space-fillers.
People feel badly about things sometimes. Let them feel it–whether it’s people on a message board or people in your books.