Making Your Characters Feel Feelings: Guilt #WriterWednesday

“Guilt is a cancer. Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist. It’s a black wall. It’s a thief.” 

—Dave Grohl

Freud may be the expert on guilt, but I think we can all agree that not all instances of guilt can be traced back to an Oedipus Complex. In truth, guilt comes in many forms and there is no doubt that guilt and its associated causes have landed many of us on a psychiatrist’s couch. 

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Guilt: a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.

That definition is adequate, however, we‘re exploring guilt as an emotion, and it is one of the more negative internal states. Cognitive theory states that thoughts cause emotions, so your guilty character will feel this feeling based on thoughts that they are responsible for another’s misfortune. It is also closely tied to anxiety and remorse. 

Your guilty character’s emotional arc will bee completed when they rid themselves of their guilt. First, let’s discuss what could make your character feel guilty?

5 causes of guilt, and how they affect your character. 

1. Your guilty character actually did something wrong. They may have lied, cheated, stole, or caused someone mental or physical harm. This is when it completely appropriate for you character to feel guilty.

2. Your guilty character hasn’t done anything wrong…yet. And they really, really want to do that bad thing. This is a difficult form of this emotion for your guilty character to handle. They haven’t actually done it yet, so they have that moral high ground to stand on. However, contemplating that bad thing may be enough to provoke guilt. It also may have an additional side-effect of creating some resentment in your guilty character. 

3. Your guilty character believes they’ve done something wrong…but they actually haven’t. The irrational thoughts your guilty character might make them feel almost as guilty as if they’d committed the act. They know these thoughts are illogical, but it would be nearly impossible to rid themselves of these thoughts. 

4. Your guilty character feels guilty for not doing enough. This is a very specific sort of guilt reserved for a character who, despite giving hours of their free time to helping others, they always feel like they’ve never done enough. Or it may be the guilty character who ignored calls for help from someone that met bad ends. That guilt eats away at them and still seek ways to help, disregarding the toll it’s taking on them.

5. Your guilty character has survived something that others didn’t. This often called survivor’s guilt, and it plagues combat veterans, victims of disaster, and lone survivors of accidents. This guilty character will indulge in self-destructive behavior in an attempt to balance a scale that can’t be leveled. 

The goal of your guilty character is to obtain absolution.

But on the way to absolution, they may create defense mechanisms in order to spurred those guilty feelings. These defense mechanisms can become your part of your character’s personality and stand between them and their goal. This sort of internal conflict can drive the narrative of your novel.

1. Repression. Refusing to acknowledge their guilt is probably the least effect way for your guilty character to avoid this emotion. This defense will undoubtedly fail—as it is designed to do—and that guilt will because they repressed it. 

2. Projection. Attributing their guilt to others is an equally flimsy defense against this emotion. It often involves blaming the victim because believing that the victim may be at fault can relieve them of those guilty feelings. Of course, they also run the risk of having this backfire on them, which may incur the hostility of the person they’ve harmed and anyone that supports them. 

3. Sharing. Assuaging their guilt by sharing it with others might help your character feel less alone in this emotion. This is a very effective way for them to handle guilty feelings. It’s also the basis for group and individual therapy, as well as recovery groups like NA and AA.

4. Self harm. Offering up the proverbial pound of flesh my also assuage your guilty character’s feelings. However, this is exactly the sort of self destructive behavior that won’t balance the scale, but will create more conflicts for them to overcome.

Guilty feelings can prompt your character to behave in lots of of different ways. 

And that behavior can be negative, but it can also result in positive behaviors like restraint, avoiding self-indulgence, and becoming more open-minded and tolerant of people who are different from them. Your guilty character may even continuously seek to make amends for the wrongs they’ve done, which can result in a giving and compassionate existence. 

Guilt is a major theme in many novels. Whether it be Macbeth, The Telltale Heart, or Sierra Simone’s Priest, exploring guilt can make for an interesting story. 

Happy writing!