Filthy Lucre

America is a land where wealth is worshipped, and that would seem to indicate that a novel in which money is a major plot stake would be wildly popular. The paucity of financial thrillers, however, proves that the opposite is true. Whatever fever infects the trading floors on Wall Street brings a yawn in bookstores on Main Street. Why is this true?

The first reason is obvious: fiction is made up. No real money is at stake. Second, even in real life money is only a number, and it’s hard to imagine how much is at stake. Just ask a Congressman about this when the nation’s next spending bill incurs another $1.5 trillion dollars of debt. What, me worry? The third reason is more interesting, in fictional terms. What Americans crave is not the pile of dollars but the lifestyle it affords.

One of the enduring staples in literature is the novel about a family with great wealth. The ability to spend money magnifies the actions that family members take. Carefree scion Bob doesn’t head off on a summer day with his township’s beach sticker on the windshield. He takes a hot blonde out on his customized jet ski. That blonde is someone his younger brother pines for, and the reader wouldn’t care less if he was cursing about the beach sticker. Of course, if he had a bright yellow dune buggy . . .

This example implies another reason why a novel involving great sums can interest a reader: the relationships among those fighting for the money. Now we are entering a rich mine of possibilities. If a young trader at Goldman Sachs discovers that his mentor is actually out to ruin him, the reader’s antenna goes up. Notice, though, that the reason has little to do with money; the true issues are betrayal and revenge. Of course, if a palace in the Hamptons with a seven-car garage is the stake . . .

Although Americans pride themselves on being egalitarian, a land in which a plumber’s vote counts as much as a banker’s, the contrast between poor and rich provides another strong trend in fiction. That’s why a social climber is a stock villain; she is violating the norms of society. The reverse is also true: the rich woman who exploits a poor one violates our principles of fairness. Again note, the money is only an instrument in a relationship between characters. Therein lies its power as the root of all evil.

Exercise: When plotting a novel about wealth, first consider its moral effects on your chosen characters. That’s where you’ll find true emotional power. The contrasts you’ll want to draw gain greater clarity when you consider the ethical implications of building a plot line around power. At the heart of a maid’s stealing her employer’s gown is the crime of theft; the price of the dress merely magnifies the outrage.

“The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.”
—Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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