Recently, I wrote a guest post This is the Reason All Great Stories are Birthed from Shame. It was a tough post and I needed a nap after writing it. It forced me to peel back layers I hadn’t touched in years. But the post got me thinking about probably the single most important element of great fiction
Since that post was not per se a craft post, I wanted to explore what I began on that blog here today. I firmly believe shame is the critical ingredient for fiction to resonate. It’s the difference between a forgettable fun read and a book we keep and read over and over.
I dig examples. I learn better when I have some to work with, so sharing some goodies with you today.
It by Stephen King
It is, of course, terrifying and is the main reason a disproportionate number of Gen Xers hate/fear clowns. But what makes the story so great is SHAME. Big Bill (protagonist) made the paper boat for his little brother, the paper boat that was then was swept into a gutter, the gutter where the beast was waiting to devour an unsuspecting six-year-old (thus kicking off the story).
Bill also has a terrible stutter. He is ashamed of his stutter and suffers false guilt for the death of his little brother Georgie.
The Losers Club
All the characters in this novel suffer from profound shame, especially Bill’s allies (who call themselves The Losers Club). Ben is morbidly obese and his mom a single parent in the 1950s. Beverly’s father beats her and is sexually inappropriate with her. Stan lives under the cloud of being a Jew, and Mike is black. They face shame in regards to who they are in the WASP dominated world of post WWII America. Richie is socially awkward and tries too hard. Eddy is a hypochondriac, ashamed of his perceived (yet false) delicate constitution.
Without shame, this story would be uninteresting and forgettable because the real monsters in this book are not (only) what is lurking beneath Derry (though that sucker is pretty terrifying), rather what is in each of the children then later adults that also must be defeated—their shame. The monsters who look a lot a hell of a lot like people.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The protagonist is a raging alcoholic propelled by real and false shame. She is ashamed (obviously) that she is a drunk, but she’s also ashamed her drinking supposedly ruined her “once perfect” life. Yet, once she is pulled into a potential murder mystery, she uncovers not everything is as it seems and in seeking truth, she also uncovers the seeds of her shame were not planted by her.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Three protagonists drawn together over a seemingly innocent infraction in a Kindergarten…that ends in murder. All three protagonists are propelled by shame.
Madeline was abandoned by her first husband, who now has decided to move practically next door.
Celeste has a perfect life that is a perfect lie. Because she is perfect, who can she turn to with the truth?
Jane is an outsider and mother of an illegitimate son, fathered by a man whose real name she doesn’t even know.
The Ones We KEEP
When I think of all my favorite characters? The ones I remember and keep in my heart forever, why do I love them? Their shame. Harry Bosch is ashamed that he was the son of a murdered prostitute, that she was thrown away by the system. Everyone matters or no one matters.
Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) is ashamed his father never loved him, that he never measured up. He’s ashamed he failed an innocent client who’s serving life in prison because that was the only way Mickey could save him from the needle.
The Hobbits are ashamed they are too little to make a BIG difference.
Shadow in (American Gods) is ashamed of going to prison, believes he’s culpable for his wife’s death.
Y’all get the gist.
Finding the Shame
Some of us older folks recall that schoolyard taunt, “Shame, shame we know your name!” But I think this nasty taunt can serve as an interesting guidepost when crafting visceral and dimensional characters. When we begin with our story idea, I feel it’s imperative to look for, find and NAME the shame.
When we start out? No, shame, shame we DO NOT know your name.
But we need to.
Shame is a powerful driver of character decisions and actions. It’s the linchpin for all the emotional armor, the lock on the box of the inner demons. The story problem is the crucible for exposing then firing away the shame. That is how we know the protagonist has evolved to a hero. We can’t accurately determine any character’s Goal, Conflict ,or Motivation until we know the dark place they’re doing everything to protect.
Finding the shame can elevate an okay story to an unforgettable one.
A Good Example
For instance, last week I had a student of the log-line class call me for a consult. She had an interesting story but it was all falling flat for a reason she couldn’t quite grasp. I liked her idea, but sensed she was right. Something important was missing.
Her story was set in the 70s and a young girl was running away from home because of her alcoholic mother. Girl jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak when she runs away and gets tangled in a world of predators (sex, drugs and rock and roll). Yet, what happened was the story just was a series of bad situations.
Running away is not a story goal. It’s passive and stories need active goals. Protagonists can run away but heroes return to face and conquer. So how could this protagonist return and when she did, what exactly would she face and conquer?
Her story idea lacked the connective tissue it needed to fully come together.
In this case, the connective tissue was…
You got it. SHAME.
I asked the writer, “Okay so WHY does the mother drink? WHY is she an alcoholic?” Because an answer of, “Well it’s genetics” or “She just likes Jameson way too much” isn’t meaty enough for a good fiction.
I challenged her to think about why the mother drank. What was HER shame that she was numbing with booze?
The writer actually hadn’t asked that critical question, btw.
Since the story is set in the 70s, women were very vulnerable. Mom has four kids. She wouldn’t be able to get a bank account without her husband’s permission. Odds were she had no money of her own and no way to get it without her husband’s knowledge. Divorce was highly frowned on and if she did get a divorce the courts likely would have ruled in the man’s favor.
So why does Mom drink? *puts on thinking cap*
What if the father the protagonist (the teen) adores who everyone thinks is this super amazing guy is actually an abusive bastard? What if he’s a traveling salesman who takes great joy in coming home and relaying his conquests to his wife? Tells her if she hadn’t let herself go pumping out babies, he wouldn’t need to find other women?
He’s a narcissist, manipulator and master of gas-lighting everyone, including his kids. Mom drinks because she is ashamed she is so powerless. She is ashamed she married such a person, that she believed he loved her. She probably also has false shame from his abuse (she is fat, ugly, stupid, useless).
So you have a scene. Mom comes out into living room ready to go to a cocktail party. Dad makes a big deal over how beautiful she looks in front of the kids, goes up and passionately kisses her (oh the adoring husband) then whispers “lovingly” in her ear, “Don’t you have a tighter girdle? I’ve seen pigs with a better figure.”
Mom’s face changes and she mutters something about needing to adjust her girdle and twenty minutes later stumbles out clearly toasted. Dad then sighs to the kids and gives the pained Look at what I have to put up with face.
So in the beginning, the teen protagonist is unaware of the real villain (because of incidents like the one above). She’s judgmental of Mom, but when she runs away, she gets a hard dose of reality and matures. She begins to see things in a new light, her mother in a new light.
NOW, the antagonist (alcoholism) can be defeated because when she returns she can forgive her mother and even possibly expose her father. Lay shame at the feet of the person who should be held accountable for it. Once she helps free Mom of false shame, Mom can get help for her drinking.
By naming the shame, we’ve taken a story of vignettes and threaded something entirely new throughout that holds the story together in a far deeper way. The writer was pleased, I was pleased and I think she has a hell of a story that I look forward to reading.
Why Do We Miss This?
When I get samples from writers, I see a lot of uber-perfect Mary Sue characters. Heck, my first novel? My protagonist was beautiful, a genius, always made good decisions and she bored the paint off the walls.
I believe a lot of new writers are afraid. I was. Often looking for shame for a character makes us have to dig into our own tender places.
But, it IS worth it. Promise!
So I challenge you to look at your own work and see if you can pinpoint the shame. My stories all sucked until I learned this. Finally, I got brave.
In my debut novel, The Devil’s Dance, Romi’s shame is she grew up trailer trash and is from a highly dysfunctional family. Her mother abandoned her as a kid and every man who’s ever loved her has betrayed her. Every decision she’s made has been to escape her shame—leaving the trailer park, going to college, landing the perfect job and perfect guy.
But what happens when everything she’s carefully constructed comes tumbling down on her head, dumping her right back in the one place she vowed to never return to?
She did everything to escape the trailer park and now it’s her only refuge.
She’s forced into a position to face the shame that has been driving her. Romi has a LOT of baggage and baggage makes for interesting characters and stories ( click the sidebar and get a copy 😉 *cute face*)
Look at your favorite books, movies and characters with new eyes and look for the shame, and I think you will be surprised how much it drives the story.
What are your thoughts? Do you see what I am talking about in reference to shame? Did you have to face some of your own shame to start writing fiction worth reading? Heck, I did. Do you like books with characters who are able to finally see then conquer shame? What are some of your favorites?
LOVE hearing from you guys!
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I thought I was on the final revision of my book, but maybe not.
This really brings into focus my MCs shame. He witnessed his mother’s assassination as a young boy and could do nothing to stop it. It has haunted him the rest of his life as he makes choices to prove he’s not powerless.
Great blog post! When I first started my current WIP, the driving emotion of my protag was arrogance. He was getting fired again because he’s better than everyone else. He’s the only one who taught truth! But the further into my novel, I started peeling back the layers. He’s ashamed of how often he’d been fired. He’s ashamed he never earned tenure. He’s ashamed his step-father never loved him and that his younger half-brother was the golden boy. He’s ashamed that his golden boy brother died in a heroic attempt to rescue him after the first time he was fired. And now he’s ashamed that he abandoned his brother’s widow and didn’t even know he had a niece for twelve years.
Discovering this changed everything about my WIP and has made it so much better, even though I’m now having to re-write a lot of chapters.
One of your best posts, Kristen. I’ve never consciously addressed the issue of shame with my characters, but when I look at my own work, I see them wallowing in the consequence of that shame: humiliation. One story in particular, my heroine is drowning in it and yet still finds the courage to hold on to her convictions and do something that vindicates what she knows is right – even if it doesn’t change anything. In my first book, the hero carries a burden of shame for which he finally pays penance, although I never looked at it quite that way. And, gee whiz, in yet another of my books, the guy is overtly ashamed of his past and is constantly battling its fallout because it’s something everybody knows about. But, again, I didn’t set out to “name the shame”. But its definitely there.
Very thought-provoking concept you have here. Because when I think about it, shame and humiliation are things that, for me, really resonate in my characters at a personal level. It’s why I connect with them emotionally. And I never even realized it.
Clicked and in my Kindle. ?
Yeah, shame. Pretty sure I was trying to name the thing that was driving my protagonist. I think it’s shame, both for her mother (how could she fall so [apparently] in love with another man just 3 months after her husband’s death?) and shame for herself (why can’t she just be happy about her mother’s happiness?). Well thanks, little lady. You just saved me hours of drafting while I try to nail a feeling. (The above should be read in a reasonable facsimile of a John Wayne voice.) ?
I’ve put part of a manuscript aside, it’s all finished but I needed some distance again before I continue on the second draft. As I read this, I thought about shame, I thought about my characters but also about other books I’ve read from many genres and you are exactly right shame is a powerful motivator at some point in the characters journey. I’m going to re blog this post if I can, I really enjoyed it and I hope that counts as a link. Thanks
So simple, yet so important — wonderful post, Kristen! I’ve seen the shame in my characters, but had to learn how to present the trip ‘back’ in ways that weren’t easy to track. Also, to find the deepest level of shame that truly allowed the character to be free of it. It’s easy to move the character into an obvious ‘facing’ of the more surface levels of shame, and then act like that’s that — all is good! But in truth, the character is still wounded. I figured this out in a short story where the surface shame was conquered, but the real shame that had twisted the character was still intact. It was, and felt, so incomplete. So, I had the character lose the struggle against that shame and commit a murder, which brought them face-to-face with their real shame, though too late to stop the destruction created by it.
Anyway! Great post — definitely a keeper that will go out to my(unknowing) minions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.
Great post Kristen, I think you may have just helped me through a bland spot in my book 🙂
Great post, Kristen. 🙂
I agree… so much of good writing is vulnerability. Another example near and dear to my Gen-X heart is “The Breakfast Club.” I think the reason that movie resonates so much is that the central plot, the entire movie, rests on the idea of uncovering shame and being vulnerable. No special effects, no clutter, few characters. But man, do we get to know them, and relate.
My family was military, and close to my father’s retirement we moved to our last station… in the South. I’d been to school on base my entire life, to that point (in California and Hawaii, so very much looked like a hippie kid), and for the first time I experienced the cult of the WASPs. (I was in 6th grade). God, I hated those girls.
By 9th grade, one in particular had made it her habit to harass me, in her snotty perfect cheerleader-Barbie way, and I finally had enough. Outside the girls’ bathroom, I took her arm, pushed her against the wall, and quietly said “You don’t want to mess with me.” (I was a toothpick back then, so really no physical threat, at all. Just an internal raging hostility backing up my words.)
She said “And why shouldn’t I?” So superior.
Glaring at her, I said “Because I’m crazy, and you don’t know what I’ll do.” Then I shoved her away, and stalked off.
She left me alone for the rest of high school, and the rest of the cheerleader set kept a respectful distance too. At least I wasn’t tormented anymore.
Nowadays, I’d probably be suspended for something like that. Or reported to homeland security. But, hey, I got to finish high school in peace, which is really all I wanted.
By the way… In the process of changing user ids, email settings, etc, with WordPress and Gravatar. Forgot what I’d decided to use consistently… so need to fix this, and try to remember as I comment from here on out, what I’ve already taken care of. LOL
Since, I’m going to be publishing under my more interesting middle name, I should probably mention that from now on “Cathy F. = Noreen French” (Real name is Catherine Noreen). And yes, I know you aren’t a fan of pen names. I’ve just decided to re-own Noreen. My mother used to call me that before I forced the issue in Kindergarten and made my family call me something “normal.”
I was a pretty headstrong kid.
So. My social media has both names, and my blogging site is under Noreen. Eventually it will all hang together nicely, I think, and work either way. Figured I should make the choice though, and get people used to it, *before* publishing the book.
You mentioned “The Breakfast Club.” Now I need to finish my Breakfast-Club-set-in-a-hospital story. Too many ideas, too little time.
I’ll give you the best compliment I can: this spurred a thought about something that was missing in my WIP: my heroine’s shame about being a mere human (it’s science fiction).
As a general statement, though, shame might not be a character’s only underlying motivator. It could also be anger, sadness, a sense of unworthiness, or many other emotions that (I’m ashamed to admit) I’m too lazy to think of right now.
I agree but I think those are spokes, not the hub. Can’t remember who said there are only two emotions: love and fear. All other emotions come from these two. Anger comes from fear. Depression comes from fear. Sadness comes from fear, etc. etc. I will still say shame is the major linchpin, the root from which all other things spring forth. But, hey, that’s just my thesis of the day, LOL.
Congratulations on your new book. Well done!
That’s a great follow-up to a great post. Applying it to my books, I can see the shame in one (MC kited checks, got thrown in prison, and his parents died while he was in prison), and less so in the other, which may be why it’s not selling quite so well.
“The Girl on the Train” – after 50 pages or so tossed it in trash. Shame has flavored much of my life and a long time to understand that some things so inconsequential to just get over it. Also learned that much in my childhood was imprinted than I was a bad person. Liberated from that now. I am a good person albeit half crazy.
What a fantastic, insightful blog post. Very eye-opening.
I’m a “why” person. I thought, “Why is shame so overwhelmingly powerful? No one is exempt…” I thought back to how shame has affected every human from the very start. (My personal conviction that the Bible is the truth–and here is another confirmation.) After God created Adam and Eve perfectly in a flawless paradise, there is an interesting verse right before they fell–it says they “were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25). Then the first thing that happened after they disobeyed God was that they experienced shame! So they hid–from each other and from God. (Genesis 3:7-8). That instantly lead to fear, blame, broken relationships, and pain. Their first human son felt hatred and jealousy, then murdered the second son. Humans were infected with shame and reacted to it in the worst ways from then on (to today). How interesting that shame is the first and deepest part of brokenness.
Then I thought of how redemption came through conquering shame. Jesus, who never sinned and had never experienced shame, was put on public display and suffered the worst indignities and humiliations possible besides going through the actual physical torture and a grisly death. He intentionally went through it to free humans from the shame and consequences we all live with–so He focused on the outcome. I love this about Jesus: “…for the JOY set before Him, endured the cross, DESPISING the SHAME, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) He had no reason to feel any shame, so He *despised* shame–the only one who could–specifically to redeem every person from shame, brokenness, and all the consequences.
That’s why all humans relate to and react so powerfully to shame. We can only “redeem ourselves” from shame to a point or for a specific situation, but we will soon find ourselves in another place of shame again. Shame is rooted in our souls. There is only One who is powerful enough to eliminate it permanently. That’s why all the examples in the Scriptures that show how Jesus completely transforms someone are so impactful… it’s the ultimate redemption.
I know many people do not believe this, but it gripped my heart and opened my eyes. I never saw that shame was the first consequence of the original sin–with all kinds of brokenness and evil following–and spiritual redemption by the One who defeated shame is the only way we will ever have perfect freedom.
P.S. I just ordered your new book!
Hi, I finished it! (Staying up crazy hours each might because I couldn’t put it down!!) Before I write my review, I need you to answer a private question for me–I sent you a
PM on FB. 🙂
Kristen: I admire how you tackle touchy topics with gustso. I applaud you on this – shame is powerful in a novel. Yet, being a romance writer, I cannot tell you how many romance heroines I read who are know-it-all perfection. The hero’s immediately smitten and their bar hook-up becomes a miraculous, rose-petaled union that lasts the ages.
Of course, I exaggerate, but (cough, cough), this perfection trend becomes wearisome.
I’ve stopped entering RWA contests, because I know that my ashamed, flawed heroine will be judged more harshly. My heroine’s brave and resourceful – and she overcomes a lot by the end, but they’re not willing to tolerate her in the opening chapter, where she’s vulnerable and ashamed of her past.
And yet, I think the timeless romances, the ones with staying power, have flawed heroines – from Scarlett O’Hara to Jane Eyre and beyond.
It’s interesting, in that I’m observing a few successful romance authors who are writing women’s fiction (WF), perhaps because the genre allows for a more dimensional heroine. Liane Moriarty’s phenomenal success certainly inspires.
I remember seeing a really terrific article on how the concept of shame had dissipated in American society. How important it was to have a sense of shame. Today I think people will shriek, “How dare you judge me!” when shame fulfills a purpose. When we feel shame, we reflect on our behavior and try to improve. The world, after all, doesn’t belong to us. We share the world with others, and that requires consideration, manners, decency.
Excerpt: “In the old days, grandma might have said to us “shame on you!” But by saying this, she certainly didn’t mean, “You are a horrible and unworthy person!” What she meant was more like, “right now, you are acting like a bad person, but if you change your behavior you can become a good person.”
What about the total badass characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones?
Those are movies driven by visual effects and plot. But with Indiana Jones I would say he had a shame of never earning his father’s love and respect as evidenced in the third (?) movie. He’s achievement-driven and a lot of that comes from Daddy issues.
With Bond, these books were part of the pulp fiction heyday. They were meant to be fun, exciting with cosmopolitan characters who were larger than life (which was very popular at the time). They weren’t meant to be character-driven, rather sexy, exotic, with lots of T&A, fast cars and det cord.
If I were to psychoanalyze Bond, though, one would go to Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” where Fleming gives a brief “biography” of his character. Bond was orphaned at age 11 when his parents died in an accident, then sent to live with an aunt then from boarding school to boarding school until finding his true place in the world working for the British government.
Thus there is perhaps a shame of not being part of a family, of not fitting in, then embracing the role of the maverick and making it into his identity. He never settles down with one woman because a) marriage is boring in pulp novels b) marriage is a hazard and a handicap if ur a spook and c) intimacy after losing his parents that way? Would be difficult.
So my two cents on that for what it is worth 😉 .
Mr King sure put me off clowns for life. Another great blog. I’d never looked at that angle before, but it certainly makes sense. And yes, perfect people in stories are as boring as watching paint dry. It’s their inperfections which make them human and relateable.
Great post. Hadn’t thought of this.
What a great nugget of info! I read Devil’s Dance and loved it! That shame adds a depth and believability to a character that just isn’t there without it. (And yes, I’ll be leaving a review on Amazon before the end of the weekend.)
THANK YOU! Make sure you come to the party on FB!
Interestingly, I read the title to the blog and assumed it would be about why we often write under noms des plume.
They say a writer should write about what he or she knows… but sometimes one doesn’t want family and even some friends to know just how much we know about some things, and how we got to know so much. Is that shame?… Is it saving one’s own reputation?… or is it just protecting others from their own sensitivities?
Thought-provoking post. Love the concept. Exploring shame could be a great writing craft class.
Yup, I recently realized the fastest way to make me sit up, notice and root for a protagonist is to make them squirm. Rather, I REMEMBERED that such characters are what attracted me to my favorite stories.
I did realize that there was an element of shame driving my MC, but I hadn’t been making the most of it, making it central and acute. Now in revision I’m asking the “secret shame” question of characters left and right!
“The story is always with the hero. Outward defeat of said villain is not enough. That is only half of the recipe for a perfect story.
How does the protagonist face this villain and finally change? How can she evolve to a point where she can finally say that crucial line?
You have no power over me.
She must not only defeat the villain, she must also face and defeat her own shame.”
Guess you said as much, and finished the “why”. Very nice!
Always well worth the read – your tips and insights are invaluable, Kristen
Excellent lesson. I have two characters, if not more, who are being re-explored. In one afternoon, I’ve found many sticky ends that drive one personality to change/manipulate the direction of the story.
Thank you, this exposition resonates with many of my “sensitive” characters.
Excellent post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with all of us! 🙂 Started your book by the way. Loving it so far! 🙂
Have you been looking over my shoulder? I tease, but it almost like you knew what I have struggled with over the last few months. Guilt, defeat, shame, or what ever you want to call it, my protagonist could not get beyond wanting to find pleasure in others. What makes it worse, the character is me. I’m writing a memoir.
This is a great post and as a novice writer, it gives me direction and hope. Thank you for sharing your talent.
This post should be read by all authors. Now I know what to add to my protagonist to make her more believable and deeper. Thank you!
By the way, I’m a Gen-Xer and hate clowns. I blame Captain Kangaroo though. Every time that clown came on the TV I hid behind the couch.
“Now I know what to add to my protagonist to make her more believable and deeper.”
That made me smile, Renita. The protagonist in my series of crime stories has no shame… she even screws her way out of a sticky situation in the new book (‘Sharknose’ – due out shortly once we’ve sorted the cover photo)
As my protagonist, Lena, is a high end ‘escort’ who loves her work, it’s no surprise that shame is a stranger to her. (For an introduction to her, the short prequel, ‘Recreation’, is free from my publisher’s website http://www.ex-l-ence.com/collections/lenas-friends – or full priced at Amazon – along with the other books in the ‘Lena’s Friends’ series.)
Excellent post. I have not seen this discussed before and it is good food for thought (and writing, of course).
Love this post. I’m taking a ‘fiction break’ to work on a memoir, and this topic seems just as germane in that genre as in fiction.
“I’m taking a ‘fiction break’ to work on a memoir, and this topic seems just as germane in that genre as in fiction.”
I’d say more so, Betty… if the memoir is to be an honest one. (Unless, of course, you’re perfect in every way?… OK, I thought not.)
Isn’t there a little bit of disguised memoir in all novelists’ works? We just don’t always want to admit it.
I’m close to finishing the first draft of a fantasy story I’ve been working on for some time, and your post shines a light on my protagonist’s absolute lack of shame. He is the exact opposite – completely carefree, non-judgmental, accepting and open minded…
Oh well, I guess that’s why there are first drafts!
It isn’t written in stone from some imagined omnipotent in the sky, Anna. If being completely without shame suits your character, then it can be one of the traits that makes him what he is. After all, you said it was a fantasy novel. My own ‘hooker heroine’, Lena, can be pretty shameless at times, and her friend ‘Roxy’ takes no prisoners at all, yet they are still ‘the good guys’. http://www.ex-l-ence.com/collections/chris-grahams-books
Did Bill Naughton’s ‘Alfie’ have any shame?… Of course not, but he was still a popular enough character to sell a lot of books and spawn a successful movie. (Though some of the success might have been from casting Michael Caine in the title role.)
Rules are often arbitrary and are supposed to be stretched and even broken by writers. Otherwise novels would all be as bland as Grammarly, Autocrit, et al seem to prefer.
I agree rules are arbitrary and we must look to what works for the story. Not all stories need the same level or even type of shame.
My all-time favorite movie is “Legally Blonde.” What is Elle’s shame? Well, she actually feels pretty good about herself and believes her boyfriend all through college is taking her out to propose to her…when in reality he dumps her. She is heartbroken, but this “embarrassment”, this “wronging” propels her to do something she hadn’t considered…apply to Harvard.
At first she does this for all the wrong reasons. She wants to win back her beau. But the simple “shame” propels a far deeper story. Elle comes to understand she is smarter and tougher than she’d ever imagined before the crisis (the shame).
So again, what works for one story may not work for another, but if there is no blind spot, no place the character protects, the story can be flatter than if we just take a bit of time to add in that “shame” to the level and degree the story merits.
A fair point, Kristen. I suppose it depends on your definition of shame. Is ‘shame’, perhaps, one of those words that has a more generalised meaning in the US than to us in the UK?
To me, shame is a strong, vicious, and painful emotion, but from my reading of your piece, you seem to include minor regrets, disappointment with oneself, acknowledgement that you may have let yourself or someone else down… even simply going out of the house wearing something that isn’t ‘cool’, or mixing with the un-cool people and spoiling one’s image.
I wouldn’t consider any of these as real shame. Certainly not as the soul destroying, life changing shame that cruelly burns some people from the inside… often when they’re ashamed of something they failed to do, rather than something they did, and probably had no control over anyway.
PS: In case you wondered what I meant by ‘one of those words that has a more generalised meaning in the US than to us in the UK’. I’m referring to American English’s habit of softening, even diluting, words’ meanings so the they lose their harder edge. An example of this is the use of ‘awesome’ (now sadly becoming misused here too). Something that is awesome should inspire awe, even terror, in those experiencing it… Things like the Niagara falls, the sound of a jet engine right next to you, even the power of a great piece of live music, yet I constantly hear it being used to describe a cup of coffee, make up, fashion, or some three minute jingle by a bunch of pretty boy pop stars.
Oh I agree. Another word? “Friend.” But all stories are different and require the appropriate emotional intensity. A light-hearted comedy can use the shame of losing your gym unless you win a Dodge Ball competition. A literary fiction might use the shame of being a Nazi who changes and loses his life, smuggling Jews to safety to right his personal wrongs. A romance might be the shame of being left at the altar, of believing oneself to be unlovable.
Emotions in fiction are like colors on a painting. The level and intensity directly relates to the subject to evoke the artist’s designed emotional response.
Loved this post. Had never specifically thought about the part shame plays in a character’s motivations. Am knee-deep in revisions for my WIP. After reading this, I mentally reviewed my protagonist, as well as the secondary characters, and found that ALL of them had that tender spot they tried to hide/escape from. It fuels their personal ‘disbelief’ about life, which in turn, directs their actions throughout the story. So I had included their shame as part of their makeup without realising it.
For future writing, I will be making a conscious check with each character to find that shame and the actions that spring from it.
Thanks for this post, Kristen! As usual, your blog seems to coincide with what I’m struggling with. I was at a conference recently, and after a creative visualization, I finally found the motivation for my MC (and confirmed that she is the MC), but your post about shame helps to clarify things even more. She’s outgoing and vivacious (and a dragon) but feels like she has no special talent or skills like her friends (secret shame is she feels worthless?), and is so desperate that she tries for something when she clearly hasn’t got the talent for it. Breaks rules, lies to her family and herself, etc. before all is resolved happily (hey, it’s a younger middle grade). Anyway, your post makes me want to go back to all my characters and take another look at them to see what underlying shame might be making them tick. Thanks!
Great post, Kirsten.
Shame, shame, shame! It has a name. This is a great post that makes me look at my work with new eyes.
Great post and it came with perfect timing. Though in the short story I am working on currently, I know the MC’s shame (dyslexia), I want to go through it again and take a second look at her actions through that lens. Would a kid with dyslexia go into a bookstore? Well, if the sign were interesting and the words on it didn’t move on her, and it looked kinda cool she might. Would she head directly to the children’s section if she heard other kids in there already? Maybe not. Especially if she’s teased about her disability and she recognizes the voice of one of her tormentors (which she does.) What areas of bookstore besides the children’s section would she gravitate towards? Maybe books with photographs–like cookbooks, gardening books or coffee table books. Books that aren’t pages and pages of just words.
So yup, you need to know that shame.
Don’t forget, Terri, that many dyslexics can read reasonably well, but can’t replicate those words on paper themselves because they just don’t see them correctly in their mind to write down (if that makes sense). A dyslexic friend of mine has no problem reading a history book, or a tech manual, or even one of my novels (despite having a ready made excuse not to.) and fully understanding it. Yet that same person has trouble writing a greeting in a birthday card, posting a simple Facebook post, or even writing a cheque to pay a bill (plastic cards are his best friends).
Maybe your dyslexic character could be more like him… though getting back to the subject of ‘shame’, I’m not sure that dyslexia should be thought of that way. It isn’t in any way shameful, and none of the dyslexics I’ve ever met feel any shame about their condition (do we suggest that being black, female, or gay is shameful nowadays?… Of course not. Maybe this is just another example of the differences in the meaning of shame that I discussed earlier in this comments section. I won’t repeat it here, but if you’re interested, take a look.
Chris the age of the character and environment could make a dyslexic feel shame. I know my mother is terribly dyslexic but she grew up in a time when they didn’t know what it was, so you were stupid or lazy. She still feels shame over it. Someone reared by a person of that generation could create shame in a younger person (projection). Say a character raised by a grandmother. All kinds of ways to go about it but it is and can be real and I think that is a great shame to overcome. I think a lot of people with that disability could relate.
Sure we are more accepting of differences these days publicly but people can be jerks. I am severely ADHD and it took a long time to get over what teachers did to me. I spent many a school year sitting in the hall.
So anything can work, we just need to put thought into the HOW it will work. But just to let you know, THANK YOU for so many wonderful and thoughtful comments. Really enjoying the discussion. ((HUGS))
Thanks for the hugs, Kristen. It isn’t every day that I get hugged by an attractive blonde wearing a Viking helmet.
I get your point about generational differences in acceptance, and indeed in the treatment of those with issues (to use that awful current term). However, I reckon we’ve returned to our old friend, semantics.
The examples in your reply, and in your response to Terri, would seem more embarrassing than shameful… certainly to this British English speaker. To me, the words are on different shelves behind the bar, with ‘shame’ being a harsh grappa while ‘embarrassment’ is merely the dry white wine (not quite down to the Prosecco or even the alcopop of mere ‘discomfort’.)
Sadly, like the drinks in a cheap bar, our language is being watered down so that the stronger words get used at all levels, losing the subtlety of meanings along the scale.
As for ‘difference’; surely difference can be channelled into a strength. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all. Wasn’t Einstein different from his peers?… Alan Turing?… Degas?
Differences, even weaknesses in some areas, perceived or otherwise, act to concentrate the strengths.
I deliberately made the eponymous protagonist in my crime novels somebody different. She’s someone who wouldn’t normally be on the side of law and order, a successful sex worker, though strictly, Lena isn’t the protagonist. She’s more the common factor that brings together the different characters on the side wearing the white hats (though sometimes they cross the line). That’s why the series is called ‘Lena’s Friends’… From policemen, through to a gay atheist vicar, taking in bikers, hookers, wealthy businessmen, and even cattle breeders along the way, Lena’s varied friends form a kind of gestalt protagonist. Like Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Secret Seven’, but very much for grown ups.
Chris had some great input on that. Shame might not be in the bookstore though. Obviously kids are jerks, so you can have that. But I know from experience with myself and family that a lot of the additional measures taken to help the challenged can make them outcasts. For instance, my brother was legally blind, so he needed everything in copies in large print. He HAD to be in the first row. He missed detail, tended to get too close to people invading (unintentionally) personal space.
My mother went back to college not too many years ago, but being asked to read aloud? Or for her, she was given additional time to take the tests because her dyslexia slowed down her reading pace. So a dyslexic kid might be given more time to take a test or a special filter over a computer screen…all things that mark him/her as “other” (which no kid or even adult really wants to be). My advice would be to use your hive mind on social media. Maybe ask people in your following who have struggled with dyslexia. People are very helpful and I think it’s a noble undertaking for your character.
Shame is a funny thing and can even be anything that makes us “different.” Red hair. Too many freckles. Big nose. I’ve hidden my legs since 1991. Even though I was a ballet dancer and in amazing shape…I have HUGE thighs. get called Thunder Thighs enough and yeah…shame. Shame often seems silly to the outsider, but to the person enduring it? It’s a pretty big deal especially when ur young.
Such great insight as always… I have been really fixated on my physical antagonist, to the point where I had forgotten a little that the society of the 17th-century is huge player in my Protag’s story. A great post to jumpstart into writing today. Now over to WANA for sprints!