Making Your Characters Feel Feelings: Remorse

"There is no person so severely punished as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse." --Seneca

Last week we explored regret and how that can drive the narrative of your story. Regret is often used interchangeably with remorse, and while the two are similar, it would be more accurate to say that regret is a feeling associated with being remorseful. Regret is a wish to have done things differently, but remorse means that your character regrets actions that are deemed shameful, hurtful, and/or violent. Remorse is also closely associated with guilt, and that character’s emotional journey will rest on giving or receiving an apology. 

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Remorse: a deep regret or guilt for a wrong you have committed. 

More than just a regret over actions and a wish to have done things differently, remorse is born from a negative action and the motive behind it. It comes from empathy for the pain your remorseful character may have caused. If your character is the one who feels the remorse, they will apologize and make attempts to repair the damage they have done. They may attempt to repair the damage they have done or they will punish themselves, hoping that they will find redemption.

And I guess that’s the center of this emotional journey. Remorseful characters seek redemption. 

Whether or not our character deserves redemption largely depends on the seedy to the wrong they have committed in your narrative. The more sever the transgression, the deeper the remorse, and the harder it is to achieve forgiveness. Be careful when you’re crafting these baddies because writing them out of that sin might be more difficult than you realize. 

There are three ways that your remorseful character might seek redemption.

None of these are more effective than the other. Some of them may even put your character in deeper with the person from whom they seek forgiveness. However, these are a few actions that your remorseful character can and should take in this emotional journey.

Apology: 

In the Five Love Languages by Gary Chapmen and Jennifer Thomas, they list the five ways to deliver an effective apology. You must 1) give a detailed account of the offense, 2) acknowledge the hurt and damage that you caused, 3) accept responsibility and take ownership of the act, 4) offer ways to demonstrate remorse, or leave space for the wronged party to suggest ways to make emotional, physical, or financial restitution, and 5) ask for forgiveness for the wrong that you have done.

They make it sound so easy, right?

But we all know it’s not that easy. If it were, every prisoner eligible for parole wold be able to convince the parole board that they have been rehabilitated. However, that doest mean the they won’t try and so should your character. Whether or not their apology is believable depends on the object of their remorse and how their apology is perceived. It’s important to make sure that your character is experience and expressing a wide range of emotions during their apology in order for your reader to perceive it as genuine. 

Atone:

When your remorseful character is giving a genuine apology, their willingness to change the behaviors that harmed the target of their will be an acceptable demonstration of their remorse and deserving of forgiveness—depending on the personality of the wronged character. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that atonement will lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness. If that is your remorseful character’s goal, their atonement must be measurable and demonstrative. Remember, you’re not just convincing the character who has been wronged, you’re convincing the reader as well. 

Self-flagellation:

Okay, so I might be leaning on the more Catholic understanding of this particular definition but who is more familiar with self-flagellation that Catholics? There might be others but this is the most familiar frame so we’re gonna roll with it. 

A character who is willing to humble themselves as a form of repentance is relatable, but that is not the same thing as self condemnation—which is where self-flagellation is rooted.  This character is someone who finds themselves in the position where they can’t make amends. Maybe the person they have harmed is dead, or inaccessible so they must demonstrate their remorse with volunteer work, philanthropy, or some other way that they choose to sacrifice themselves. This is usually a character who needs to redeem themselves to a whole community as well as the person they have hurt or harmed.

When you’re writing a remorseful character, make sure they know the importance of their apology and how it can impact their relationships. 

Next week we’re going to explore guilt because why not get all f these icky feelings out of the way in one go?

Also, I’ve been thinking about creating a workbook with writing prompts for each emotion. Is the something you all would be interested in? Let me know in the comments!

Until then,

Happy writing!

Tasha