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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 25, 2019

Guilt is a powerful tool in the creative process.

No, I'm not talking about the guilt you feel because you haven't updated in six months which pushes you to sit down and finish that darn page (though that helps too, we've all been there).

Guilt is very powerful as a catalyst for a character's progress (or regression) as well as a powerful plot device.

First things first though- how do we define guilt?

According to Cambridge Dictionary, guild is “a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person”

Of course, that definition alone will vary vastly from character to character, because the entire sensation it describes hinges on one very important thing: “having done something wrong”

And though one could pretty convincingly argue that there is a very objective definition of what is right and wrong (at least in the legal sense- the insanity plea hinges on one person's knowledge of this differentiation between right and wrong), it won't help us when it comes to guilt.

Because in order to feel guilt, the person has to personally feel that they have done something wrong, regardless of whether society or the law label it as such.

If the person doesn't feel that what they have done is wrong, they will not feel guilt regarding that event, at least (though they might feel guilt regarding ramifications stemming from said event, but that is another matter altogether).

An easy example of that is Romeo and Juliet. They didn't feel their marriage was wrong, though they hadn't previously gotten the blessing and permission of their families (which normally would be considered wrong in their society, and in which situation the average offspring would feel some level of guilt), and so they never displayed even a bit of guilt regarding their elopement even after the dire consequences it brought about (though they did feel deep, sincere sorrow).

But let's assume that your character is in a situation where they do feel guilt because they do feel that what they have done is wrong (whether it is actually wrong or not, as already mentioned, is irrelevant).

What now? How can this feeling be utilized in the narrative process, how can it impact the story and the plot?

In my opinion, it can impact it very powerfully. In fact if written right, it can be a catalyst for the story in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Guilt is primarily a motivator. It motivates people to react in ways that will alleviate the guilt they are feeling. This happens to absolutely everyone, regardless the quality of their character and whether they are protagonists or antagonists, good people or absolute bastards.

What differs according to each character's personality, is in what way they attempt to alleviate their guilt. In general, there are four main trajectories a character may take to do that:

1. Try to make amends: They will try to course-correct; compensate or make up for what they did, or do some kind of penance with a view to right the wrong as best they can.

2. Try to deny and conceal the wrong: They will try to deny they did anything wrong. They might try to shift the blame, rationalize or make excuses, present themselves as the victim and/or the one wronged or outright deny that anything at all happened with regards to the even they feel guilt about (by the way, this is how psychotic breaks are likely to happen if they take this to the extremes).

3. Try to prove that the wrong is actually the right thing to do, and wasn't wrong at all in the first place: They will try to prove that anyone would react and do what they did in their position. They will try to double down on the choice that was wrong, or the action that was wrong, and go all the way, embracing the wrong as the right thing to do. They will rationalize the wrong trying to prove that it is actually virtuous or rightful with a series of mental gymnastics (which, if shattered, might cause the character to go into some kind of temper tantrum).

4. They fall into deep depression, or develop a crippling addiction of some kind (such as alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm, etc) or become suicidal in various direct or indirect ways (depending on how much they feel their suicidal ideation needs to be socially acceptable, and therefore camouflaged). However they will not attempt to address the wrong itself at all. They won't deny the wrong was done, but it will probably be taboo for them and they will not be willing to take any action whatsoever regarding it.

All four ways impact the story very powerfully. A character that could resolve a certain problem might be rendered incapable of acting, and thus the problem remains, for example. Or a character that would normally not make a certain kind of choice, now does it because of this guilt that they carry. And so on and so forth.

How about you? Have you got any characters that carry guilt? What trajectory are they following? Did I miss any? Comment below!

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ShaRose49 at 2:39PM, May 25, 2019

Number 4 describes my character Evan pretty well, but it’s hard to find where Kairo fits. I think this is because at the moment, he’s not feeling as guilty as he should, because he’s gotten so accustomed to doing the wrong thing. Maybe he falls into number 2 right now, because he believes what he’s doing is necessary for his survival, and then later on he would be number 1.

usedbooks at 9:26AM, May 25, 2019

Typo. Should have been "intent and skill." -_-

usedbooks at 9:03AM, May 25, 2019

Again, this is only for an established character. If someone is being a drama queen, and the readers don't really "know" him yet, they will naturally apply what they know of people in their own lives or archtypes from other stories.

usedbooks at 9:01AM, May 25, 2019

If a character is well-written and well-established, then he should feel real and readers will react to him like they do to a real person. If the reader has experienced something similar to the character, logical or not, they will relate to and empathize with the character. But if a character reacts to his situation differently than the reader, the reader will not see him as a relateable "me" character. They may instead react to the character as if they are someone in their family, school, or workplace. Maybe they will come across as eye-rolling melodramatic -- but so do real people. A well-written character who is entirely unlike the reader could evoke different reactions depending on the writer's intent and skin. Readers could react with mocking scorn and dislike the character (as they remind the reader of real life drama queens) or the character could provide insight into why people might react/overreact in the ways they do and bridge that gap of relateability.

Ozoneocean at 7:06AM, May 25, 2019

Like I said over and over Bravo: while people are not logical internally, the way we understand others IS through logic. External reality is completely different from the internal reality. Illogical guilt almost always comes off as melodramatic and funny. Communicating ideas and emotions with people is very, very, very, very different from FEELING emotions. You can tell your audience that a character is sad and guilty and we'll empathise, but if the reason for the guilt is explained to be something completely outside the character's control and hard to empathise with then you'll start to lose the audience and risk their empathy turning to ridicule. Remember, this is a character, not a real person.

bravo1102 at 5:49AM, May 25, 2019

"I don't understand, but I have to deal with it." Boom - a character with internal guilt and conflicted feelings they have to work through. Whole character arc right there and they never have to reason through anything, merely accept it. That path to acceptance of their guilt is the story. Guilt really, sucks in real life. It SEEMS to have no rhyme or reason and SEEMS to be just an imposed prison sentence. There is a path to understanding that can be a character arc and that path to understanding could be LETTING GO of guilt that is UNREASONABLE as opposed to perseverating over things over which you have no control. Congratulations you have have a relatable character. A character's reasoning could be completely unreasonable and flawed and that might be what makes them interesting. Because grandma put all this unreasonable illogical guilt into them growing up over things they couldn't control because they were children. Boom -- another character arc.

bravo1102 at 5:42AM, May 25, 2019

@ozoneocean: Audiences empathize with the FEELINGS not necessarily with the REASONS. That is what is called EMPATHY. You see if the events are SEEN as uncontrollable the guilt will FEEL that much worse. It's all about how the characters sees it and relating that to the audience so they FEEL the guilt. It's all about FEELING not logic. A character with flawed logic or none at all becomes more relatable as the reader follows his or her path to understanding. That's using real psychology about guilt and the hows and whys of feeling it or gifting it or getting stuck with someone else's luggage , Russian mothers, controlling siblings and all the schmaltz that makes up a soap opera. Guilt isn't logical and that makes for great conflict as the character tries to reason with the unreasonable.

Ozoneocean at 4:50AM, May 25, 2019

@Bravo: of course people and their guilt aren't logical but that's irrelevant because we're not feeling what they feel and we never will. For an audience it's easier to make a character sympathetic and believable if we can empathise with their guilt. Giving a character "realistic" guilt over something they have no control over is idiotic because outsiders will NEVER be able to empathise with that as much as we could something that is more logical. I'm afraid that's just the dichotomy between real life and fiction. Brain chemistry does not translate at all to the page.

usedbooks at 3:52AM, May 25, 2019

What characters feel guilty about can say a lot about the character too. A mobster might feel guilty about missing his son's baseball game and remorseless about taking a life ("just business"). There are also characters who seem to own other people's guilt or take on "unearned" guilt. "This bad thing happened because I wasn't there to stop it. I could have done something." Never mind if the event was caused entirely by other people or somewhere else or if there was no reason the guilt-feeling person would have been on scene or even if that person attempting to help would have just made him another victim. (Which also brings up "survivor's guilt," a nasty thing. People wishing it had been them instead. That their being alive is unfair to someone who isn't.

usedbooks at 3:44AM, May 25, 2019

Yeah. My story is chock full of guilt and regret because the cast is full of former criminals (many forced into crime by circumstances). I have two characters who essentially adopted orphans left in their wakes. Kaida tries to be anonymously philanthropic but pushes people away. Mike is motivated by his history of accidentally(ish) killing a man, so he's afraid of his own anger. There is some self-punishing going on too. One character agonized about why he DOESN'T feel guilty for some things. By contrast, one former criminal turned himself in, served time, got out, and is well-adjusted and content. And then there are characters who do nasty things and feel no guilt at all (mostly antagonists).

bravo1102 at 2:32AM, May 25, 2019

There is no logic behind guilt. That's one of the great things about it being a motivation in a story. One character can project or impress their guilt on another, or make them feel guilt for something they had no power over. That can drive a plot. There can be the whole character arc of someone who did it did not do something and that drives change. It could be : inaction- guilt over inaction- leads to action. Before you know it people are claiming you have good characters that they identify with and stuff as opposed to pretty pictures and words.

Ozoneocean at 2:23AM, May 25, 2019

That's pretty heavy Genejoke.

Ozoneocean at 2:22AM, May 25, 2019

Guilt and regret are related, but guilt is sharper and more personal. I think for it to be good in fiction the audience has to see that the guilt makes sense. Too often I've seen characters feeling guilty for things they had zero control over or that someone else did, while NOT feeling any guilt at all for the terrible things they HAVE done. Be consistent with your use of guilt! I know people are NOT logical and don't do things in predicable, sensible ways but for an audience I think that a little bit of logic helps use believe things a bit more: Like a character should feel crippling guilt over killing someone by accident rather than their mother who died in childbirth.

Ozoneocean at 2:16AM, May 25, 2019

I should incorporate guilt into my work, I know I should, but I've just been burned by the terrible cliche versions of it you see in almost all anime... The classic is Neon Genesis, but most of the rest do it: in the typical anime it's a badly written simulacra of traditional cultural guilt that is part of Japanese culture- the need to take on responsibility for inconvenience or misfortune to someone and apologise for it "sorry for the trouble I put you through" or "IT'S ALL MYYY FAAUUUULT" on the extreme side. Guilt and the need to atone is so much a part of that culture it can get disturbing at times.

Genejoke at 12:50AM, May 25, 2019

So in regards to guilt, yeah it's pretty damn powerful but potentially hard to sell to the reader how powerful a motivator it is.

Genejoke at 12:47AM, May 25, 2019

Some real life guilt I'm dealing which if anything would probably fall into category 4. A couple of months ago my 16 year old niece left home on a Sunday to go to work, she didn't show up and a few hours later I was our searching for her. I had one of her brothers in the car as I drove around back streets trying to find her. As we got as far in one direction as I figured she would have gotten on foot, I decided to head back down the main route through that part of town. We passed one of the small quiet train stations and for a moment I thought about stopping to check there. It's a small depressing train station with no real security. You can just walk on to the platform. Knowing she didn't have money for a train the only reason to check would have been if she was thinking about doing something stupid. I said to her brother, "nah, she won't be there" and drove on. We found out the next day she was there at that time. I don't know if she would still be alive if I had stopped, but yeah.

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