Values Vs Virtues
When building a character, one of the first aspects that comes into consideration is what the character values. What manner of justice is the character of a revenge story in pursuit of? Why does this character value justice, whether personal or social, above all else? What virtues is the character sacrificing to achieve their goal? It goes without saying that the deeper a writer understands their character, the smoother their writing will go.Building a character is more than understanding their personality and flaws, however. It includes understanding the character’s place in the world, how they feel about their circumstances and how their values will change throughout the story. At the heart of this, inevitably, lie the character’s relationship with the values and virtues deep within them.
Values and virtues are very different layers of your character but share an importance when it comes to developing your story. Values are not virtues and vice versa.
Values are what matter to the character on a personal level. They are standards your character believes to be attractive or positive. Values are subjective standards held normally by few rather than across an entire culture. Examples of this would be combative honor, materialism, tradition, infamy, etc.
Virtues, on the other hand, are less subjective standards with high-moral value. Virtues are culturally accepted standards that cannot be influenced outside of cultural agreement. Virtues are qualities universally considered admirable. Examples of this would be charity, humility, pacifism, piety, etc.
To clarify, virtues are more universally accepted than values but are not immune to subjectivity. An excellent example of this is the rivalry of the Athenians and the Spartans. The Athenians valued the arts and sciences while the Spartans valued athleticism and being battle ready. Any member of these respective cultures who embodied these values were seen as virtuous by their cultures. Not by their rival’s culture. The virtuous status of a military-bred Spartan wouldn’t hold up in Athens and vice versa. Virtues are less subjective than values but can be reduced by what the culture of a population values.
Let’s put this another way. Your protagonist values the respect of their peers. Since this is important to your protagonist, chances are they’re going to demonstrate the virtues of teamwork, cooperation, tolerance, and empathy. To an extent, your character will want to obtain or maintain a relationship with what they value. In this case, the protagonist is the kind of character that values the respect of their peers but to gain that, the protagonist will have to earn it. From that hard work to gain what they value; the character will have to demonstrate the virtues necessary to obtain them.
Illustration of Beowulf from Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race, 1910.
Take the legend of Beowulf as an example of this. Identity is something Beowulf deeply values. His identity as a great warrior and eventually king is achieved by his virtuous deeds of bravely sleighing terrorizing monsters and bestowing mighty gifts upon his allies. The value around identity motivates both Beowulf’s virtuous actions and his belief in them respectively.
Characters can also have an interesting relationship with what their culture considers virtuous. There are many stories where the protagonist doesn’t fit in with their culture or are victimized by the virtuous.
Illustration of Hester Prynne by Mary Hallok Foote, 1878.
An excellent example of this is Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. Hawthorne takes an interesting approach to Hester’s relationship with what her community considers “virtuous.” The female characters of this novel are either evil witches or gently pious. Hester confuses her “virtuous” community by refusing to behave in accordance with either of these identities. The story begins with obvious proof of Hester’s infidelity, a punishable crime in her community. Despite Hester’s protests of embellishing the letter “A” sewn to her corset, her daughter's dresses or speaking out against the system that punishes her, she clearly values repentance. Repentance as a value motivates Hester to perform virtuous acts like tending to the sick and clothing the poor. This, in turn, eventually earns her reputation as her community’s most beloved citizen.
A character’s values and virtues can tell a reader a lot about them. Familiarity with these aspects of a character is vital to understanding them, especially when writing a character into a story. Values and virtues add weight to a character’s relationship to themselves, their community and even the plot they exist in. When drafting your character, consider how their values can lead to virtuous acts and if those virtues are shared by the characters around them. If you’re looking to explore your characters further, consider downloading the character-building workbook below. The workbook was designed by yours truly and offers blanks to fill on both topics. Happy writing!