The Virtue Continuum in Writing

I’ve come across this image several times recently on various social media sites. VirtueContinuumWith a little research, I discovered James Lanctot originally created it to illustrate Aristotle’s thoughts on virtue for this paper (co-authored with Justin Irving in 2007) discussing servant leadership. According to Lanctot and Irving, servant leadership is a model of leadership “that places the good of those led over the self-interest of the leader”. As one might suppose, this continuum is often referenced in terms of business or organizational leadership. It also comes up when discussing personal development.

What I find most interesting about this continuum is how it illustrates that even the traits we hold most dear can be perverted into something dangerous or self-serving when taken to extremes. Many conflicts within relationships, politics and social justice can be traced back to differing opinions as to the location of “center”.

As a writer, I think strong stories can come from identifying a character’s most valued virtue and creating situations which push him away from that center. For example, an excellent story may come from exploring what happens when an individual who values humility is suddenly given fortune and fame or from watching a family falter because the breadwinner sees diligence where her family sees workaholism. The balance beam of virtue provides many opportunities for conflict, large and small.

I have decided to keep a copy of this image in my writing binder. I think it will help me plot more interesting story lines and develop deeper, more authentic characters. I can already see how revising with an eye on the virtue continuum could benefit my stories.

How has virtue – in balance, deficiency or excess – appeared in your stories or your life?


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