“Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been.”—Hillary Clinton
There are people out there in this big, wide world whose only mission in life is to live without regret. It’s easy to write books and movies about them because they usually have a life full of adventures. They’re the ones shark diving off the Cape of Good Hope, jumping out of airplanes, and traveling solo to parts of the world that require a prop plane, an ancient off-roading vehicle, and a sherpa. These characters (and sometimes real life people, heh!) seem to only exist to remind the reader that life is too short to live with regrets. However, there are just as many stories about the characters who took the safe route and had to live with that regret and how that feels.
Let’s explore how it feels to live with that regret.
Regret: a negative conscious and emotional reaction to one’s personal decision making or choice resulting from an action or inaction.
Regret is a negative emotion. There’s no getting around it. No way to sugar coat it or come at it from a neutral place like I did with anger. Regret lingers in the place where opportunity existed and coupled with self-blame, it can be the one thing that spurs your character in to corrective action. Meaning, if it’s a missed opportunity, they say yes the next time an opportunity of any kind comes along. If it’s something that they dove into that impacted them in a negative way, they will avoid anything that looks like that bad decision for the rest of their lives. It’s directly related to omission bias which is the tendency to judge actions as worse than they actually are. How your regretful character reacts and how intensely they react to this emotion can drive your plot!
There are three things that determine the intensity of regret.
Action vs. inaction, age, and opportunity will all affect how your regretful character responds to this emotion. The severity can increase or decrease depending on the circumstances.
Action vs. Inaction:
Regrets about taking action on something that turned out badly and could have been avoided are more intense in the short term. Like bypassing the gas station on the way home from work when you know that leaving a full thirty minutes earlier to get gas on the way to work in the morning is annoying as fuck.
Not that I know about this from experience or anything.
Regret that stems from inaction grows more intense over time because every time your character is confronted with the positive result of their inaction, they have to come to terms with the fact that “it could have been them.”
We’re looking at you second-chance romance heroes. The “one that got away” doesn’t have to get away, you know.
Can be a big factor in the intensity of regret. To be more specific, older characters will feel deeper regret for things they did or didn’t do in their youth. As the song goes, “Time makes you bolder and children get older. And I’m getting older, too.” Your older characters may lament the decision to sit out when they should have thrown caution to the wind. Or maybe they allowed themselves to be caught up in something criminal or hurtful that they wish they could take back. Both instances would cause a regret that would be equally intense.
If your regretful character can point to decision that may have improved conditions in any way that is often a source of regret. It’s also the primary impetus for taking corrective action.
Say your regretful character decided to stay home instead of going away for college—not knowing that one decision would lead to an unexplored life. The first chance they get to travel, or take a new job our of state, they’re going to take corrective action and seize the opportunity.
Or maybe your regretful character is an old woman in their rocking chair, counseling their granddaughter on the many regrets they have about staying put.
This sort of regret intensifies with age because the character will feel the limitations of that more acutely as they age. It may result in bitterness or a need to live through the younger people around them.
Regret is one of those emotions that can inform every action your character takes.
As an emotion, it has built in conflict. No matter how you apply it to your character—be it an active or inactive decision—it will give them a central problem that stands between them and their goals. It can also lead to other emotions like sorrow, hurt, anger, and it is closely related to remorse. We’ll explore that next week.