Jealousy is one of the toughest emotions to convey without scattering clichés like rose petals at a wedding. Knowing your character is essential to achieving anything like realism.
As a child, I vividly recall sneaking across the street to peek through the window of a neighbor’s house to watch my favorite shows on their color TV set. Color–imagine that! Color made all the difference in the entire universe. Black and white movies were a thing of the past, so why shouldn’t TV follow suit? Best of all, you didn’t have to buy a ticket, or worse, stand outside to watch. Oh, how I wished we could have one, too. When I asked my dad why the Nelsons had one and we didn’t, he answered with, “‘Cause Mr. Nelson’s a doctor. Besides, color TVs will never catch on.”
I remember wondering why doctors could buy color sets but the people who dreamed up the TV commercials couldn’t. It wasn’t fair! Anybody could see my dad’s work on TV. How many of Dr. Nelson’s patients ever showed up on screen? Once in a while, maybe, as extras. So there! Pifffbt!
Now, cursed with the wisdom of age, I’d have to categorize that issue as a solid case of envy. But jealousy? Nah. Not really. So, what’s the difference? For me, it’s the degree of passion one has for the desired object, be it a car, a cat, a condo, or a courtesan. Had I been willing to hatch a plot to break into the Nelson’s house and make off with their gigantic, 21-inch, RCA color console, hide it in my room and refuse to share it with anyone, then one might call it jealousy. Tinged with a hint of obsession.
The idea of possessing the object of one’s desire–provided someone else already claims it as their own–is one true test of jealousy. In my mind, at least. Another possible test would be the degree of guilt associated with it. If, for instance, your character is willing to admit he’s “jealous” about something, it’s likely only envy, because he’s not concerned about owning up to it. Real jealousy, on the other hand, bestirs significant feelings of guilt, and the person experiencing that guilt, and its cause, won’t be keen on letting the world know about it.
Like so many emotions, it’s a matter of degree. Spouse abusers, for instance, allow their jealousy to override rational thought. How many times have we heard, “If I can’t have her, no one can!” But please, spare your readers; don’t dump something that horribly clichéd in your opus. Instead, paint a word picture of your character. Show his passion, as unreasonable as it is. When he’s in his car following the object of his overwrought “affection,” let the reader hear his rambling commentary, his guesses about what she’s “really” up to. This can be especially effective if the reader knows his target is engaged in something entirely innocent, perhaps even altruistic. Of course, the jealous “lover” would never be able to recognize anything but betrayal, whether there’s any truth to it or not. What does he feel when he sees her on the phone or stopping to talk to another male?
Thankfully, not all those stricken with jealousy take it to extremes; they don’t let their feelings carry them overboard. A jealous aunt, for instance, may be quite reluctant to release her hold on her charming little niece, Rosebud. Maybe it takes a bit of extra energy from the child to make the aunt realize she’s being unreasonable. Auntie’s face flushes, but not from exertion. It’s the shame she feels because she allowed her jealousy to drive her actions. A perceptive parent would recognize what’s happened, and would likely act to smooth things over and lighten the mood. Alternatively, the parent might allow his or her own jealousy to fuel a sharp response, possibly followed by a dose of recrimination, or perhaps a smidgeon of fear. Is it safe to leave little Rosebud anywhere near aunt Matilda?
Jealousy can take hold of almost any character, provided they’re capable of emotion. Imagine two children fighting over a particular kind of candy bar when they both have bags loaded with sugary swag collected at Halloween. Who would be the real monster in that scenario? When one child eventually takes ultimate possession, what does he or she learn from it? And what new knowledge does the loser in that same battle acquire? How do such things play out later in their lives? Who becomes the true winner?
Remember your own past and draw on it to create characters readers can believe in. Don’t be satisfied with bland expressions like “green with envy.” Find a fresh way to present your characters and what they feel. You could start by never even using the word “jealous.”