“Greed is good” a famous fictional character once said, and he was right in a way, it just depends on your definition of “good”. For this particular individual he saw greed as good for himself. But when it comes to reading, you’ll find that in nearly any good book there will be greed literally strewn across the pages and that’s because it’s a fantastic plot device. Greed pushes people on.
We all succumb to greed at some time, it’s human nature, like that secret stash of chocolate only you know about to overindulging at the Christmas buffet. But it’s the bigger “greed” picture you’re seeking when it comes to writing fiction – wanting more money, more lovers, more land, more jewels, more attention, more power, just more more more more! <insert maniacal laughter here>. But finding inspiration starts in the real world. I’ve included a photo on this blog that I snapped in a well-known French palace last year and it shows a mind-numbing level of opulence which extended across this vast building and although it’s an amazing place, the fact that it was built when the level of poverty in the country was overwhelming and only a tiny number of people held any wealth or power, shows greed on a monumental scale. The king at that time may have been considered a good man in many ways, but to push forward with such an expensive project shows not only greed, but an enormous disregard for his own people.
Greed can provide your characters with the impetus to do something extraordinary in some way and although there’s nothing to say that your good guys can’t be greedy, it’s the bad guys who normally use it well in fiction. If your villains really want to get their hands on something then it provides them with a great reason to drive them towards that goal. Without a good reason for a villain’s behaviour you do tend to lack something pushing your plot along, and greed is a really good one to start with and build upon. Greed can be in your face or it can be very subtle and complex. It’s up to you what your characters desire, but the stronger and more intense that desire the greater your readers will believe why your character is acting the way they do, usually to the detriment of others.
Greed in fantasy can take on an additional angle, providing an impetus that is otherworldly or magical. But what can be more satisfying is using elements of fantasy to satisfy a type of greed that is rather ordinary. Reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, one of the main bad guys was so bad simply because he wanted the same level of attention that the good guys were getting. I found this quite profound. Here was someone with an enormous opportunity to do good in the world because of the privileges he enjoyed, but jealousy and greed drove him to be the bad egg in the basket. To survive this particular baddie, who had no magical abilities at all, the good guys (who did have the odd trick up their sleeve) had to use every skill they possessed.
But of course, history is literally splattered with greed and that’s where you can get great inspiration.
- Henry VIII – The last Tudor king was a rather complicated individual; moody, charming, hypocritical, insecure, confident, generous, arrogant, etc. but essentially a serial killer. True, he killed to get rid of his enemies or due to the greed of others who were advising him, but he also killed for his own personal greed. He has gone down in history as the man who had 6 wives and reformed the church within his country in the pursuit of a male-heir. Henry’s story is an intensely complex one based on his own family’s shaky ascendancy, and he may have had a medical condition that caused many of his wives to miscarry, but at the heart of it he lusted after women, took what he wanted and if he didn’t get what he wanted he’d move heaven and earth to get it.
- The transatlantic African slave trade – This was an entire market based purely on intense greed and which brought enormous suffering to millions of people. Slavery has existed from the beginnings of human existence, but what occurred after the discovery of the Americas still defies belief today. African people were rounded up, taken forcibly from their homes and shipped in utterly desperate conditions to another country to work the fields of a handful of people. The owners of the slaves made extraordinary fortunes from sugar, exotic fruits, etc., but the effects on the slaves themselves still echoes across both sides of the Atlantic today.
- Witch hunts – In medieval times the persecution of women (and often also men) as “witches” was occasionally (but not always) due to greed. What better way to get your hands on some desirable property than declaring the owner a witch and having them burnt at the stake?
- Gold – This simple little metal has driven people mad with greed for eons. Think of what the conquistadors did to the peoples of South America in their quest to get gold or how various gold rushes across the world (Australia, Americas, etc) have driven people to murder or displace indigenous populations or destroy the environment. Diamonds have had a similar effect in some parts of the world (e.g. South Africa) as well.
- Child labour – The growth of various industries during the industrial revolution that supplied new and highly profitable goods, led to extensive child labour in dingy, dangerous environments in many countries. The safety of these children meant nothing to the men who were making their fortunes on the backs of innocents. Unfortunately, such practices still exist today in other parts of the world, and usually for the same reason.
- Corruption – It seems that power breeds corruption which originates with greed. How many companies, governments, kings, queens, emperors and charismatic individuals have started off with good intentions, only to fall prey to their own greed and wallow in the mire of corruption that tends to follow? You see it in the politicians who spend taxpayers’ money on their own pleasures, or companies who find nasty little ways to dredge the last cent out of you, or the rulers whose eyes have grown too big for their own stomach and start looking at other people’s plates.
There are many, many examples of people’s greed wreaking havoc across history, such as Rome’s emperors, various Popes from history, the Great Depression, Hitler and World War II, Napoleon, Stalin, the Czars, etc. Behind nearly every terrible story there is usually an element of greed lurking somewhere.
I’ve created a Pinterest page for this subject.