Guilt is a tricky bugger, even in real life. What is guilt? Why does it have so much power? How can we use guilt in story and why would we? Before we unpack this sticky subject let’s begin, at least, with a definition.
Obviously, the story will dictate which definition we use. We might even use all three! Though—as most of us know—one doesn’t have to break any laws to still be crippled by shame, remorse, and regret.
An interesting aspect of guilt is that it may or may not be “valid.” Why do I use “valid”? Because all feelings are “valid” as in we DO FEEL THEM. But, do we deserve to feel them?
I’ve written, previously, on NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). Narcissists, by definition, do not or can not feel guilt. This is one of the reasons they leave such destruction in their wakes.
Most “normal” people have a conscience. We have this inner moral compass that sounds alarm bells either before or after we’ve crossed a line. Obviously, we’d love to hear the warnings BEFORE crossing a line, but humans are not robots.
We have flaws and emotions. Sadly, when emotions run high, we might say or do something that, at any other time, we’d never even consider. This is where we get “crimes of passion.” But, we also say things when we are angry, sick, exhausted, stressed, etc. and just plunge head-first into “The Stupid Zone.”
Guilt and Remorse
Guilt can drive people mad. Just open up Edgar Alan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart for such a peek. Though Poe’s short story is an extreme sampling, it isn’t terribly far from the truth.
The acute emotions guilt elicits are among the reasons so many criminals get caught. Eventually, the weight of their shame is too much and they cannot go on without confession (to a hotline, a friend, a lover, a spouse, a cellmate, an officer of the law, etc.).
It’s also why people having affairs, or embezzling, or committing some kind of serial “offense” can get sloppy. Guilt underpins their actions. They WANT to be caught because they cannot go on without a reckoning.
***Note: Psychopaths are different in this aspect. Frequently their lack of remorse only feeds their god complex. Arrogance makes them sloppy, not any need for unburdening.
There is a real difference between feeling guilt/shame because we’ve actually wronged someone and need to do our best to make amends/change bad behavior versus phony narratives.
For the record, I am NOT a mental health professional, but I’ve seen my share. I also write because it’s cheaper than therapy. Like many creatives, I draw a lot (though not all) of my inspiration from experience. Just remember this is namely a writing blog, not a mental health blog, though it is really easy to get the two confused.
False shame is particularly insidious. It can destroy all hope, dreams and joy. Why it is uniquely evil? Because we cannot repent for something we didn’t DO. False shame is when we needlessly take on the shame and guilt for others.
If I yell at you and act like a complete jerk, then I DID THAT. I can apologize, make amends, ask for forgiveness, and, if possible, request an opportunity to rebuild a trust I damaged or destroyed.
There is agency.
The False Guilt Narrative
But what about the abuse victim who believes they should have said more, done more, fought harder? What about the person conned out of their life savings? The man or woman who falls for a catphishing scheme/love scam?
One of the reasons so many victims remain silent is because of shame. How could they be so naive? So trusting? Of course, they deserved what happened. A better human being wouldn’t have been damaged, fooled, grifted.
This narrative can come from multiple vectors. It can come from culture/society who shifts blame to the victim. She shouldn’t have dressed that way, drank that much, acted like that. Everyone KNOWS not to click on those links! What idiot gives someone ten grand without a contract? How did you NOT know the “love of your life” wasn’t real? What kind of LOSER falls in love with someone they’ve never even MET?
***For the record, lots of people. Penpals were a thing and sparked a lot of marriages so haters can just shut up.
Also, many abusers either a) groom victims ahead of time or b) target the weak and vulnerable. Like wolves who stalk the perimeter searching for the weak, sick, lame, or lonely, abusers “hunt” in much the same way.
When predators do lure in the prey, they project a false version of events onto the victim to keep their cover. If an old woman conned out of $10,000 for a roof that never happened is too ashamed to go to the police? And feels guilty for being a fool? The con can continue.
Thus, whether it’s being a victim of abuse, a rape, a theft, a con, the one Ace up the abuser’s sleeve will always be “false guilt.”
False guilt almost always guarantees silence. Additionally, the victim will spend years punishing themselves while the offender goes on their merry way committing the same offenses over and over and over.
How “Penance” Manifests
There is penance, and then there is “penance.” When we are in a more emotionally healthy place, it’s easier to discern who should own the guilt and then what to do with that guilt. If we were a victim, then that guilt doesn’t belong to us.
It might take therapy, faith, healing groups, or some other sort of mental health intervention (or a MIRACLE), but the ideal is to finally accurately identify the genuine owner of the guilt, and then leave it for the offender to take or leave.
Remember the main problem with false guilt? Since WE aren’t the actual OFFENDER, then WE can never really do anything about a crime we never committed. If that guilt remains inside, this malignancy goes metastatic into all areas of our lives.
Many people self-medicate. Maybe that’s alcohol or drugs, but it could be shopping, overeating, rescuing people, gossip, gaming, gambling, religion, compulsive exercise, controlling others, or any combination of the above and more.
Energy Must Be RELEASED
Since real guilt and false guilt are potential energy, we feel it inside ourselves building and building until we need to release that energy. More often than not, we generally don’t “release” this emotion in the healthiest of ways. We might numb it with substances or activities until eventually comes roaring out at the most unexpected times.
Years ago, when my grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s, I was hurting. Badly. I’m a fixer, but that? I couldn’t fix, I couldn’t DO enough. There was no way to help, not really. No way to make her better.
I was a brand new mom with a husband who’d just gotten orders to deploy to Afghanistan and so, when the manager at my local Target intimated I’d stolen a box of baby diapers.
Was it really about the diapers? Really? Or was that poor manager merely the first target of opportunity where I could vent all my anger, rage, and feelings of worthlessness and helplessness?
Real Penance is Different
When we feel genuine shame, we have agency. Why? Because we DID the thing. We aren’t carrying someone else’s baggage. There are healthy (though definitely NOT easy) avenues to make peace and release our guilt.
The problem with authentic penance is that, while it is great in life, it is STORY DEATH.
Great stories are all about messed up people making really bad decisions until the crucible of the story plucks their heads out of their metaphorical tail ends and gives them what they needed all along…enlightenment.
If they’re abusive, controlling, manipulative, destructive, then the story (over the first two acts) should strip away all their excuses until only THEY remain (Act III). Them and the wasteland of ruined relationships, shattered dreams, and hollow illusions that have been their sustenance.
STRIP IT AWAY!
If we are going to talk about this topic at all, then we need to ask a critical question, “Why do people NEED story?” Because we are HUMAN. From stick figures on cave walls to screenplays and Scrivner, it doesn’t matter.
Humans need and crave story because story is a safe way to hold a mirror to our souls so we can do the honest work. If we are a horrible human being (and I have been one), we aren’t exactly open to friends, family or even a therapist telling us, “Hey, your life sucks because you’re a pretty terrible person. You’re controlling, manipulative, and want grace but never give it.”
BUT, when we SEE a character with those same flaws go from stumbling in the dark over the corpses of dead relationships, failed dreams, and lost jobs, and THAT person gets the AHA! We are there on the journey with them and can learn. There are footsteps we can follow in.
Also, if there is hope for them, there is hope for us. The cycle CAN be broken. We can identify WHAT we’ve done or are doing wrong, then take steps to make it right.
Conversely, if we’re self-medicating, self-harming, believe life isn’t worth living, or we are alone and depressed because we’re carrying guilt that isn’t ours? That’s bad. If we allow people to walk all over us, take advantage, and treat us like a dumping ground for all their toxic waste (I’ve been this person too!), then story—again— holds up a mirror!
We can SEE the “WELCOME” written on our foreheads. No wonder we’re mistaken for doormats! We might even see the demons on our back that we should have never offered to carry in the first place. They didn’t belong to US!
What About Story?
Hopefully, after all this, you might be able to see a bit more clearly. When we create a story problem, what purpose does it serve?
Now, story operates on a minimum of two levels. There is plot arc and character arc. Thus when I ask the story is about, there are TWO answers.
I’ll riff an example.
My story is about a newly released ex-con who must to find the woman who gave her up for adoption in order to save her estranged daughter from a life-threatening genetic disease.
Okay, so we unpack.
Clearly this person had some sort of a substance abuse problem, likely brought upon by her own false or real shame. A problem bad enough to land her doing hard time.
Being given up for adoption can create feelings of being unworthy or abandoned. She has her own child that she then FAILS because of her addictions. Now, free from jail, she wants to make amends but it might be too late.
How do we know if the protagonist WINS?
If at the end of our story, she is still CLEAN, able to find mom (who never wanted to be found) and then convince her to help try and save the daughter/granddaughter?
PLOT PROBLEM is solved.
But, there is also the CHARACTER ARC. Maybe prison was enough to change the protagonist enough to at least begin the Hero’s Journey. Locked away, she got clean, was able to get help, therapy, a support group BUT she has to go back to the real world. There’s a lot of carnage and collateral damage she’ll HAVE to face.
She is going to HAVE to CHANGE in order to successfully arc as a character. This will not (and SHOULD NOT) be easy. Old coping mechanisms are the low-hanging fruit. Our character will try and fail, but (ideally) we’ll root for her to win.
So when we ask what is my story about? My second answer is:
My story is about an addict who faces her demons and conquers them and, in doing so, restores her relationship with her estranged daughter.
Whether daughter lives or dies doesn’t matter. All that matters is the protagonist finds the birth mother and convinces her to TRY to help. And, in doing this great act of courage, repairs enough of the damage to be a story-worthy ending.
Whether the ex-con ends up friends with birth mother, again, is the author’s choice. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. The goal wasn’t to restore the relationship with her MOM, rather to restore it enough to mend fences with her DAUGHTER.
If we take prison, and drugs, and genetic disease out of the picture, we could write that CHARACTER story countless ways.
Guilt and Story
Without pain, suffering, sickness, death, and evil, a protagonist is nothing but some poor schlep without a purpose. Pretty prose does NOT a story make. Audiences are there for the suffering. Why?
Because THEY are suffering and they want a story to show them that good can win, love can conquer all, there really is light is the end of the tunnel, that life has meaning, and there are some things worth fighting and YES, maybe even DYING for.
Even if you don’t write those kinds of “happily-ever-after” stories, then audiences should walk away rattled out of their apathy, shaken from their indifference. Some stories should offend, shock, and horrify because the human response is to DO SOMETHING. Stories make the world a better place.
Regardless of what kind of stories you write, the purpose is always the same. Stories speak to the souls of the audience. There is resonance. They might not see ALL of themselves in the characters, but there should be at least enough that the reader (audience) is willing to endure the ride and all the trials and tribulations along the way.
Guilt, shame, regret, pain, hopelessness, helplessness, rage, all have their counterpart (which is a clear compass for your ending).
So before you write, think, “What is my story about (plot/character)?” and “How does my story END?”
If we identify the pain, then intuitively, we know the cure.
What are Your Thoughts?
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Are you being too easy on your characters? Making them “too perfect?” When trouble rears its head, do you hold back? Or could you do a better job of torturing your characters?
What are some of your favorite movies, series, books, plays, etc. that really NAILED guilt, shame and suffering?
For those who follow my blog, you already know I LOVE The Joy Luck Club (movie and book), Fried Green Tomatoes, Steele Magnolias, Luckiest Girl Alive, Heart-Shaped Box, Girl on a Train, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (movie and book), Sharp Edges, and so many more.
Series? I love Ozark, American Horror Story (Seasons 1-4, and the first half of Season 10), Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Stranger Things, and all of these could be BOOKS about technique in and of themselves.
What about you guys?
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Good post, I understand how something you can’t fix will manifest in misdirected anger. I’m with you on Ozark, Vikings, Stranger Things, and the Last Kingdom. We just finished three season of, For All Mankind, and enjoyed it. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Wheel of Time, Dead to Me, 1883, Mrs. Maisel, Poldark, Absentia, are several we liked. I think I watch too much television.
I watch a lot of television because I study it and take notes, so I use it to help me be a better writer. I couldn’t do “Absentia.” I am a stickler about fight scenes and they so badly botched one in the beginning I NOPED out.
I read and listen to a lot of books. But, to wind down at night or relax on the weekend, great television/movies are always great to add to the creative well.
True, true to the core across the board. The more ways our characters can grow, the more fulfilling they will be to what we’re doing. The same lesson holds for us personally as well.
Great Post, Kristen. I just watched Unbelievable (on Netflix) and its textbook false guilt based on a true story.
Your posts are always so comprehensive and I gain so much knowledge from them. I always pin them to my Author Board for future reference. Thank you, Kristen, for sharing your expertise!
Always a pleasure. Thank you for taking time to comment. I know the work I put in serves a good purpose. It’s great to have the feedback.
This was so helpful! My WIP has 2 characters acting out of different kinds of guilt and shame, and this gave me actionable ideas for spiking their emotions and giving them stronger choices. Great stuff.