Sin + Virtue = Bestseller

I took this class at ACFW. Agent Natasha Kern was the speaker and she kept me hooked.

Basically, she taught us that what makes a novel great is this simple formula. I wondered what her class would be like HERE. Now I know.

Our main character must have a great desire, one main thing that comes from their strongest virtue. This virtue must drive the main character. Conflict comes through the form of the character's biggest weakness, or sin. The character must be tempted away from their goals (something heroic deriving from their virtue) by their very own sins/lusts/flaws.

She used the example of Scarlett O'Hara, who loves her home Tara and wants to protect it at any cost. She does horrible things but the reader forgives her because we understand her driving need is heroic. Even her love for Rhett is a conflict, because it clashes with her virtuous passion to save her beloved Tara.

Another example was Julie Lessman's character Faith, in A Passion Most Pure. Faith desires to be Godly above all else, but she's also in love with her sister's boyfriend. Talk about major conflict.

What do you think? Does your conflict pull at the moral fibers of your main character? Have you pitted the MC's sins agains his or her main Moral goal? What's your favorite story and how does this formula play out in it?


Tabitha Bird said…
Interesting stuff Jess. I never thought about it like this, but it is very true. Sin + virtue = bestseller LOVE that!
Jessica Nelson said…
Isn't that a great title!? LOL Sleep good, Tabitha. It's so weird that you're going to bed now. Heh.
Hey Jessica!

I hadn't commented in a while so I just wanted to let you know that I am still here, "visting" you.

Jessica Nelson said…
That's sweet of you Larie. :-) Thank you!
Jody Hedlund said…
Thanks for sharing your workshop! I'd wondered how that one was! I really like the simplicity of looking at it! Will hopefully make keeping that formula in my mind easier!
You mentioned one of my all time favorite books, "Gone With the Wind". My favorite movie is "Phantom of the Opera". I love the main characters even though they do horrible things in the name of love!
Jessica Nelson said…
Jody, the workshop was excellent. She really explained it much better than me!

Hi Donna, I remember you liked Phantom. Thanks for sharing how the formula works in that one. I hadn't thought of it, but you're right. Readers/viewers commiserate with the phantom because of his love (twisted as it is).
Katie Ganshert said…
That makes me excited to listen to her workshop once I get the CD's in the mail. I missed that one, and it sounds really good!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Katie,
It was good because I was fascinated by it, but I'll warn you upfront that her voice was almost gone. I felt so bad for her.
Debra E. Marvin said…
Hi Jessica,
I was in that workshop too. I think hearing it again would help it sink in. You know how you (I should say I) have to hear certain things repeatedly so they can take hold.
It really made me think about that relationship of opposing traits, and the great tension that comes from that inner struggle. So much of writing seems to be about letting plot and character stew in our brain!
Jessica Nelson said…
I agree Debra. I'm stewing right now over my wip, trying to figure out how all my conflicts and goals can be intensified. I think I saw you in there. :-)
It would be great for me to hear it again, I think.
Linda Kage said…
I can see how this happens in Harry Potter. He's always working to save the world, so we forgive him for going into the forbidden forest when he's not supposed to or doing minor infractions. Makes perfect sense.

Now all I gotta do is figure out how to show this in all my stories. Ugg.

Thanks for the advice, Jessica. I'm learning more and more from you each day!
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL LInda! Well, I'm just passing on what I've been learning. :-) Interesting about Harry Potter. I haven't read the stories so I didn't know that stuff.
Great post, Jessica!

This is very evident in the book I'm reading right now (The Help by Kathryn Stockett), which takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. There's a lot of this sin/virtue tension, and what's so great about it is, there's an extra layer of tension because society has changed so much since then, and we feel that difference.
Sarah Forgrave said…
Wow - everyone is up and at 'em early here!

I LOVE Julie Lessman's books! I think all of them demonstrate this concept, but A Passion Most Pure was probably the most gut-wrenching because of Faith's moral dilemma.
Warren Baldwin said…
Good points about main characters.

I wonder, how did authors like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Margaret Mitchell know how to write such incredible novels? Did they have training "back then," or did people read more so they picked up on the nuances of a story, character development, etc.?

Any ideas?
Stephanie Faris said…
Have you ever heard the GMC formula created by author Debra Dixon? Every character has a goal and a motivation for that goal, plus a conflict that keeps her from reaching that goal. The hero has a GMC too and it helps if that GMC is at cross purposes with the heroine.
Jennifer Shirk said…
That's interesting. I've always given my character a GOAL, but never thought about it being driven by her virtue or her CONFLICT coming from temptation or sin.
I'm going to try to keep that in mind.
Cindy R. Wilson said…
Oh, I like that idea. My struggle with my current WIP is that there is a conflict but my MC's goal is a bit nebulous. I'm going to think about this post and try to apply it to my WIP. Thanks!
Candee Fick said…
I'm with Katie and anxiously waiting for the conference CDs to arrive. Thanks for the nutshell version to whet my appetite for hearing more.

Now, if only it was as easy to apply as to listen to. Sigh.
Deb Shucka said…
Hmmm. Sounds a lot like life. I'm going to filter some of my favorite memoirs through this formula and see how it feels.
Jessica Nelson said…
Deb, that would be really interesting I bet.

LOL Candee. Very true. :-)

Hi Cindy, goals are hard for me. Good luck with that! ;-)

Hi Jennifer, you might do it instinctually too? You never know. I'm trying to remember your heroine's goal. Hmmm
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Stephanie, Yep, I've definitely heard of that. This is kind of like GMC I think, but a little different. I wish I could hear Kern's talk again because it was so good.

Hi Warren, I think many things are instinctual for a writer. Different stuff for different writers though. No doubt there were writers whose manuscripts have been lost to history because they weren't as strong as some of the classics. But maybe those classical authors had trusted friends and literary teachers read their work? Offer advice?

Hi Sarah, I love her books too! :-)

Hi Janna, wow, that sounds interesting! So it's a historical? I'll have to look that author up.
Wow that sounds that a really interesting class - thanks for sharing. I am trying to think if I can apply this formula to my own novel... not sure if it works exactly, but I will definitely also keep it in mind when I start plotting my next one.
Back to the drawing board for me. Will I ever get it right?
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Eileen. There is no right. :-) These are only ideas.

Kate, I was completely fascinated. :-)
Wow, this is also the formula in redemption and the Bible! Whaddyaknow?

My main character is me, and my conflict is I sometimes want to run away from being an angelic pw and be a "normal" person, whatever that is. Not bad or wicked, just not involved so much in every meeting, not so up front all the time.

We'll see how I unravel all the knots...
Tamika: said…
That's the formula to live by in writing. It is calling card to catch the reader thinking about their own nature and what is keeping them from theirs dreams.

Thanks Jessica, I needed that!
Nancy J. Parra said…
Hi Jessica, great post! What an interesting way to present conflict goal and motivation. love it!

Belle said…
I like this formula - I usually just give my characters a particular goal and then leave them to get to it. I think sometimes I end up with the formula, so it's really a matter of tightening things up so that I always end up with the formula!
Tana said…
Wow can I nominate you for most informative post this week??? Ever??? I love this! I need to brainstorm for my WIP's (yes, that was plural) I think I need to sit down sip some coffee and just think through my plot lines a little more. SOmetimes I'm too quick to write.
Angie Muresan said…
Jessica, first off you're so awesome cause you always reply to our comments. I try to do that too, but somehow or other get caught up in things that have nothing to do with my blog, and I forget.
Love the title of today's post. The important thing for me is to remember to make my honorable characters sin a little.
Hi Jess -

Natasha Kern's simple (but not simplistic), get-to-the-point explanation helped a lot. I'll have to remember that equation and apply it to my own work.

Susan :)
Gwen Stewart said…
Great advice here. The tough part for me is that even when my characters have goals and conflicts, I tend to subtle them up. Nothing is as overt as it should be, or as simple as it should be. And I don't at all mean that like, "My work is too DEEP for anyone to understand." LOL I mean it like, it's too muddy.

*sigh* It is a very tricky thing. We must write simply but keep it fresh and not derivative. It's so, so tricky to get right. I'll keep tryin' though!
Jessie Oliveros said…
I'm actually now (almost through with my first draft)...just now figuring out my MC's sin. Yes, definitely needs a rewrite.
Sounds like great advice and I love the example of Scarlett O'Hara. She has so much passion.

If something is well-motivated a lot can be forgiven.
Unknown said…
Oops! I forgot to sign out of my daughter's blogger. "Yearofthericeball" is really me, Ashley Ladd. Guess I need to see if I joined your blog as me or her. I'm so confused.
Keli Gwyn said…
Jessica, I wish I could have attended this workshop with you. Since I couldn't, I appreciate you sharing the highlights. Great formula. Has what you learned changed the way you're looking at your WIP?
Jessica Nelson said…
Jeanette, you crack me up! I'm looking forward to your book someday. :-)

Hi Tamika, nice summary. Sometimes it really is us, and not others, that prevents us from reaching our goals (I know, awkward sentence)lol

Hi Nancy,
In the class I don't remember thinking of gmc, but it seems this is striking a chord with you guys as gmc. Interesting. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Belle, I do think this stuff can be intrinsic to the writer, but it's always good to recognize your tools and sharpen them (like you said) :-)

Hi T. Anne,
You're so nice. :-) Thanks. The class, even though it was just Kern talking for awhile, blew me away. I think this is a really powerful way to write a novel, and like you I'm totally thinking things through.

Hey Angie,
Yeah, sin keeps them real. LOL I try to answer stuff when I can. Not sure if it's because I'm nice or because I'm addicted! LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Susan,
She can explain it so much better than me! LOL

Hi Gwen,
You know, I don't think everything has to be in the reader's face. I like when there's some mystery to a story. I think the important thing is that the author eventually knows the goals,etc, even if the character doesn't. :-) And I'm sure your manuscripts aren't muddy! LOL

Hey Jessie,
Yeah, can't forget the sin! LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Ashley!!! I was like, yearofthericeball, hmmmm, who is that? Heehee! Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Keli,
This is definitely changing how I've looked at things. I realized that in my last manuscript I did this without knowing it, but in this one I really need to strengthen the conflict and then maneuver things so that everything the heroine wants is affected by what the hero wants, not just their tangible goals, but their emotional/spiritual ones too.
Genny said…
Great points, Jessica. I think having conflict like this within the MC makes the reader root for him/her (or not) that much more!
Jill Kemerer said…
Love this post--you made the concept make sense. Thanks!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Genny and Jill, thanks for stopping by. ;-) I really think this concept deepens gmc so well.
Hi Jessica,
I always enjoy your warm comments to other bloggers and had to stop by. What a great, educational post today. I may have to rethink my MC to stoke up the passion. Really made me think, many thanks.
Julie Dao said…
Jessica, this is such a great point! I have problems with characterization and this is an amazing tip to keep in mind. There's nothing like inner conflict to make a character compelling :) I was actually going to blog about the "Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. His main character Edmond is a really good, kind, naive man whose vice only shows up when he is betrayed by his friends. Even though he is thirsty for revenge and turns his back (temporarily) on his religion and forgiveness, the readers support him because let's face it - if your friends put you in jail for 16 years for a crime you didn't commit, you'd want revenge too!! This was such an informative post :) And I just wanted to say thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. You're always so kind and it's really encouraging to me! Hugs!

- Julie
Kara said…
What a great title! I agree 100%
Pen Pen said…
Okay- I copied this post into a word document cuz I need to spend more time looking into it! Really-THank goodness u put this up-I wouldn't have thought to question this in my WIP otherwise!!!!
My main character has a noble goal and pit falls working against it, but looking into this has opened a new way to look at plot structure for me...I'll look into it and report back on what I've learned! :)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Ava,
Thank you for stopping by! :-) As soon as I heard the title of that class, I knew I wanted to go. LOL It really did help me see some things more clearly.

I've never read the book but I absolutely love the movie! Talk about conflict and sins and virtues clashing! Thank you for commenting. :-)

Kara, Wish I could say I came up with it. LOL

The book Natasha Kern used for much of this is called the Moral Premise. Maybe you can find it online? Really, super interesting stuff in Natasha's talk and in her post on the Seekers blog. Definitely pass on anything you learn! :-)
Dara said…
Yes, my character Miyuki is in deep conflict with herself, struggling to overcome her vengeful, cold-hearted nature to become human and learn to love.

I'm sure I'll have it more specific as I write the story but that's what I have so far for Miyuki :)
Jessica Nelson said…
Sounds good enough to start a story. :-) What makes her want to struggle to change in the first place? That would make a good plot. :)

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