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A Tale of Two Terms

June 27, 2024

By John Pipkin, fiction faculty


There are no easy shortcuts to writing compelling narratives, but sometimes there are tidy little clues to be found in language itself, pointing us toward the necessary elements of storytelling. So here’s a look at two obscure terms in English that each seem to reveal a few secrets of how writers can develop characters with core traits that will help them generate plot.


First, let’s look at the term “cacoethes,” a curious word that has migrated into English from Latin, although the Romans actually borrowed the Greek words kakos “bad” and ēthos “disposition” and smashed them together.In contemporary English, cacoethes refers to the irrepressible urge to do ill-advised things, but its first written appearance in Latin carried a more specific meaning. In the Satires of Juvenal (a collection of satirical poems on Roman society, written between the end of the first and the early second centuries) Juvenal cautions against the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of (bad) writing: “Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes . . .” translated: “The incurable desire for writing afflicts many. . . . ” The first appearance of “cacoethes” in English has a similar contextual meaning in John Foxe’s sixteenth-century Book of Martyrs, in which he amplifies the desire to write itself as a malady suffered by those who write ill-advised things:


But now, like a spider-catcher, sucking out of every one what is the worst, to make up your laystall, you heap up a dunghill of dirty dialogues, containing nothing in them but malicious railing, virulent slanders, manifest untruths, opprobrious contumelies, and stinking blasphemy, able almost to corrupt and infect the air. Such is the malady and cacoethes of your pen, that it beginneth to bark, before it hath learned well to write. . . .


There are other more “recent” references that continue to use the term in a cautionary way. The nineteenth-century American writer Catharine Sedgwick titled her 1830 short story “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in which a young woman’s family publishes her short story without her permission, much to her shame and embarrassment. And of course, we can’t overlook the 1890 poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “Cacoethes Scribendi”:


If all the trees in all the woods were men;

And each and every blade of grass a pen;

If every leaf on every shrub and tree

Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea

Were changed to ink, and all earth’s living tribes

Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,

And for ten thousand ages, day and night,

The human race should write, and write, and write,

Till all the pens and paper were used up,

And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,

Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink

Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.


Despite the discouragement against writing altogether that earlier definitions advance, the modern connotations of cacoethes actually offer helpful advice to writers by applying more broadly to any uncontrollable, irrepressible urge to do something that most practical-minded people would recognize as something you probably really shouldn’t do. And in a way, this sounds like the perfect definition of the central trait of a main character in any narrative, fiction or nonfiction.


How often have you heard the advice that plot emerges at the moment when a character makes a bad choice? There usually isn’t much to talk about when characters are behaving themselves, doing what they are told, following sound advice, or making good decisions that lead to the expected good consequences. There’s no suspense, no tension, no surprise. Now, this definition of character may seem to suggest that in order to be compelling, a character needs to be guilty of having bad intentions or, at best, of being deeply flawed or foolish. But cacoethes doesn’t just apply to negative characterizations like this. An irrepressible urge to do ill-advised things also applies to heroic characters. Think of those characters who have the will and determination to do what needs to be done, even when the desired goal requires decisions that would otherwise be unadvisable.


For example, consider the character who rushes into a burning building to save a puppy. Plowing headlong into danger (or even self-sacrifice) is hardly an advisable act, but in times and situations in which it may seem necessary, this is the very definition of the characters usually deemed noble, courageous, brave, etc. Even taking smaller risks or making less-consequential choices that nonetheless run counter to what we might consider the safe or practical choice is often what separates main characters from the crowd: think of the detective who employs unconventional methods, the civil rights activist who pushes the boundaries of the law, the journalist who instinctively does the opposite of what their editor advises them because they want to get to the truth. And for truly well-developed characters, these decisions are not just random, accidental, or contrived choices born out of authorial necessity; rather they arise organically from the “irrepressible urge” that is part of who the character is at their core. In other words, the character who chooses the ill-advised course of action does so because they are who they are, and they really cannot do otherwise.


There is another obscure term that also identifies a core character trait that can be useful in driving the plot of a story forward. The word “velleity” refers to a desire or an inclination that is not powerful enough to lead to action, and in some ways this trait is the flip-side of cacoethes.  Velleity can define a character whose will (or motivation) is not strong enough to lead to necessary decisions and actions, even when that character harbors a yearning or desire. The etymology of “velleity” is a little more straightforward than cacoethes, coming from the Latin velle “to wish.” One of the first written English occurrences of velleity appears in 1640 in A Treatise of the Passions and Faculties by Edward Reynolds: “They are only Velleities and not Volitions; halfe [sic] and broken wishes, not whole desires. . . .” Here again, we can see one of the defining characteristics of a great many literary characters, people who find themselves lacking in volition, unable to confess their love for another character, too timid or wracked with self-doubt to face a challenge or pursue their dreams, or those characters who are simply incapable of doing what they have always wanted to do. (We might think of any traditional hero at the beginning of the so-called “hero’s journey.”) And let’s not forget Hamlet, the most garrulous of all Shakespeare’s characters, full of passions and suspicions and ardent monologues, who could not find the will to act on any of his impulses, at least not until the very end (and you know how that turned out).


So the next time you’re struggling with character development in your writing or looking for an easy shortcut to help push your plot forward, consider imbuing your main characters with a propensity for cacoethes or velleity, or, if you’re feeling particularly cruel, perhaps some dastardly combination of the two.



John Pipkin is the author of The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. His critically acclaimed debut, Woodsburner, was awarded the First Novel Prize by the New York Center for Fiction, the Fiction Award from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner First Novel Prize and was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington PostThe San Francisco Chronicle and The Christian Science Monitor.



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