Traditionally, the seven deadly sins are Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, and Sloth.
Now first, an aside about Sloth. “Sloth” is one English translation of the Latin word acedia; other translations include “apathy”, “world-weariness”, or even “cynicism”. I like those translations a whole lot better. Sloth is a judgmental word you use to accuse someone else of laziness. Apathy and world-weariness, on the other hand, are feelings we can often recognize in ourselves. So let’s keep that in mind moving forward.
But why are the deadly sins so deadly? Why is Gluttony on the list, but murder and rape aren’t? This puzzled me when I was a kid; but in high school, an English teacher explained it in a way that clarified the whole thing for me.
The deadly sins are deadly because when you’re in them, you don’t think they’re sins.
When you’re angry, you think you’re right. You think the people who made you angry are the ones at fault, and they deserve some kind of punishment.
When you’re proud, you think you’re right. You’re the one who “gets it”. Other people are stupid or thoughtless or even evil. In some way, they’re less than you are, so you can write off their thoughts and feelings.
And so on.
Classic Catholic theology lets you get past your sins by making sincere confession and doing penance. But when you’re in the grip of a deadly sin, you often do bad things without feeling bad about them. Maybe you won’t confess them as sins—they don’t feel wrong. But even if you do confess them as sins, you aren’t really sorry for them. You think you were justified.
So the deadliness isn’t in the action, but the underlying attitude. Once you recognize this, you can see yourself doing it umpteen times a day. Whether or not you believe you’ll go to hell for bad behavior, I hope we can all agree that we should avoid acting like self-justified dicks.
That’s why it’s useful (as I said in The Brain as a Sense Organ) to develop the skill of identifying thoughts and emotions as they arise. If you recognize you’re angry, you may also be able to recognize that your judgments are coming from a not-ideal place. You may then be able to set aside the stories that your brain is inventing (“I’m good, he’s bad”) and deal with situations in a less biased way.
What does this have to do with writing? It can be a good entry point into portraying “villains” and other people who make problems for your protagonists. Antagonists often believe they’re perfectly justified in the terrible things they do. They’re probably in the grip of a deadly sin. Pride, Envy, Greed and Wrath are the most common culprits…but I think we shouldn’t forget about the others. I eagerly await an upsurge in villains who do what they do out of Gluttony.