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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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 25, 2019
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