The Redemptive Arc, by David Corbett


December 8, 2015

It’s the holiday season, which means it’s time to talk about my three favorite elves: Shame, Guilt, and Ho-Ho-Hope.

Those of you who follow this blog daily probably have gathered already that I’m going to follow up on two recent thought-provoking posts, one by Tom Bentley (“Shatter Your Characters”) on using shame and guilt to deepen characterization, the other by Donald Maass (“The Current”) on the implicit presence of hope running through all great stories. (If you missed either of these posts, I enthusiastically urge you to go to the links and check them out.)

What I will try to add to these two discussions is a technique for dramatizing shame and guilt in such a way that they provide not just elements of character, but generate an impetus toward positive action in the hope of some redemptive conclusion—a decisive act that seeks to remove the stigma of shame or guilt that is haunting the character’s life.

To do that, let’s revisit shame and guilt, and try to define them a bit more suitably for the purposes of writing dramatic fiction—by which I mean try to think about them in ways conducive to generating action, not just a sense of sin or self-loathing (two telltale reminders that Santa is, indeed, making a list).

Tom, quoting from a TED talk by Brené Brown, gave excellent working definitions of guilt and shame as they are commonly understood:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior.

Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.”

Guilt permits a person to make amends. Shame, in this definition, does not. The person with a deep sense of shame is condemned to a prison of self-contempt from which there is seemingly no escape (which is why it correlates so strongly with addictive and other self-destructive behaviors).

This immediately raises a question: What does shame accomplish in characterization if it just means my character is stuck?

It’s for this reason that I’m not entirely comfortable with this definition of shame (though it seems to rule the field at the moment in the behavioral sciences).

It’s here that I’d like to offer a brief but hopefully illuminative digression.

A Brief History of Shame Versus Guilt

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote a seminal paper on the topic of shame vs. guilt during World War II, when she was commissioned to write a report on Japanese culture for the benefit of decision makers needing to “understand the enemy.”

Benedict created the terms “shame culture” and “guilt culture” to distinguish Japan from Western European countries in the way social prohibitions are enforced.

Generally speaking, shame focused on the disapproval of others, where guilt focused on violation of a moral code.

Benedict argued that guilt emerged from shame in the individual (and in cultural evolution), in much the same Greek literature progressed from heroic epic to tragedy.

In the Homeric epics the world is chaotic, with life at the whim of the gods. The best one can hope for is to earn honor or glory before death. The great Homeric hero is Achilles who, given the choice to go home and live a long, peaceful life, or earn glory through combat, even with the foreknowledge he will die on the battlefield, Achilles chooses honor and heroic glory. (Shame cultures are also referred to as honor cultures, or honor/shame cultures.)

In contrast, Athenian drama, even when telling the same story, reveals a movement away from chaos and fate (and honor and shame) toward individual agency and responsibility. One sees a gradual progression from Aeschylus to Sophocles to Euripides, where characters are portrayed less as victims of fate and more as actors responding to circumstances.

A century later, in his Poetics, Aristotle formalized this sense of individual agency and responsibility in the concept of hamartia, often translated (inadequately) as tragic fault or flaw. In actuality, hamartia meant precisely to act in defiance of fate, whether through error, misjudgment, or personal fault.

In other words, Greek culture (and all of Western culture with it, since the one emerged from the other), in order to enforce social and political norms, evolved from a reliance on shame to a reliance on guilt. Guilt was therefore seen as more advanced, mature—a conception that would survive all the way to Freud.

You can imagine how the Japanese responded to this. (Pretty much the way citizens of the Old South would have, for Dixie is the personification par excellence of an American honor/shame culture.)

Considerable debate ensued, and it’s unclear that final results are in. As Tom noted in his post, guilt and shame cover a lot of the same ground, and it’s not always simple to distinguish one from the other.

Even as great a thinker as Cicero, in developing his concept of natural law, defined what distinguished right from wrong in terms of what was honorable or disgraceful. But honor and disgrace would seem to be related more to shame than guilt. How do we escape this circularity?

Psychoanalysis and developmental cognition theory eventually came up with a new way to define and distinguish the two. Paraphrasing:

The development of shame precedes the development of guilt and is in fact one of its important precursors. Shame begins early in infancy during the phase of bonding with the mother or primary caregiver. The anxiety associated with shame arises from fear of separation from or loss of the loving parent. Guilt develops later, after a sense of a unique personality (and thus individual responsibility) has emerged. The unconscious threat in guilt is not abandonment but punishment and retribution.

It becomes a bit clearer, now, why shame and guilt are sometimes hard to separate. Guilt emerges from shame, with internalized fear of doing something that will cause the loved one to disapprove—or disappear—underpinning apprehension of being punished for doing something wrong (which may also produce loss of love or abandonment).

They’re not apples and oranges. They’re cocoon and caterpillar.

Returning to Drama

But for the purposes of dramatization, it’s useful to look at who the character fears will react negatively to whatever they’ve done, and what form that reaction will take.

In shame, I fear being shunned by those I look to for support, respect, and love. It may be as little a thing as attending a cocktail party with my fly down, or as big a thing as being unfaithful to my spouse, or plagiarizing my doctoral dissertation (and other forms of “cheating”).

People will look at me differently, my status will decrease, I will lose friends and loved ones, and those I don’t lose will respect me less. It’s only when this shame is internalized that it creates a sense of diminished self-worth or self-loathing.

In guilt, I fear being punished for something that violates a moral code. I haven’t just done something humiliating; I’ve done something wrong. I can atone, make restitution, “take my medicine,” etc.

Doing something wrong, of course, can also elicit shame—remember, shame is a kind of foundation for guilt. I may be shunned or even abandoned by the community or my loved ones because of the wrong I’ve committed.

Consider the expression “I can forgive but not forget.” What it really means is: “I may have stopped hating you but I’ll never trust you again.” As forgiveness goes, it’s pretty thin gruel. Why? Maybe the guilt is gone, but the shame remains. And shame is very, very hard to overcome. As an old Irish saying goes: “Better the trouble that follows death than the trouble that follows shame.”

Now, just like shame, guilt can be internalized. This often takes the form of a damning conscience. But that conscience has a voice, and that voice, however vaguely, has a face–which is why deeply internalized guilt often also feels like shame. We sense, if only through the personification of our conscience, as though we have been diminished in someone else’s eyes. That shame will be lesser or greater to the extent our conscience is the voice of a unique, conscious, self-generated moral code — our Better Self — or the voice of the family or community.

Internalization of shame and guilt is an inescapable part of our natures, but internal states don’t help me dramatize much. They can help me explore the inner life of my characters—how they feel about themselves, how they view and value their lives—but it doesn’t necessarily point toward any kind of action. People can stew in their shame and guilt. Many do (raise your hands). That doesn’t give us much to dramatize, though.

Drama requires two key components: desire, and other people. The desire is to reverse the damage, fueled by the hope this is possible. So if I’m going to use shame or guilt in my characterization, it’s useful to see what desire they create, and who can gratify that desire.

Since shame involves how other people view us, and a decrease in status given what we’ve done, what we want when we experience shame is to regain the respect (and love) of those whose opinion matters to us.In particular (for the sake of dramatic simplicity if nothing else), if what we did shamed us in front of one specific person we value above all others, it’s that person’s respect and love we hope to regain.

And so the action of the story will be motivated by this pursuit to regain lost love and respect—the character will do whatever she can to convince this key other character(s) that she is worthy of being once again thought of sympathetically, returned to the fold.

Guilt is a little trickier, since one cannot seek a response from a moral code. Instead, in questions of guilt, it’s beneficial to ask: Who was harmed through the wrongdoing? Once this is clear, the desire clarifies as well: We want to be forgiven by the person(s) we harmed. (We may also seek to be absolved by whatever authority ruled against us, but that’s a little more abstract.)

To word it in terms that both simplify the dramatic action and amplify the stakes:

Shame creates a desire to regain the respect of the one person whose opinion matters the most, given what happened. (The more that respect also includes love, the better.)Guilt creates a desire to obtain the forgiveness of the person harmed through the wrongful act.

Both of these ambitions are motivated by hope—hope that regaining respect or being forgiven is possible. Otherwise your character is back to stewing in his shame or guilt, which is a particularly tortured form of navel-gazing. Don’t deny your characters their anguish, but use that as motivation, not a state of negative self-absorption.

The hope for redemption may not exist or reveal itself until something happens in your story, a triggering event or revelation that suggests that the possibility for overcoming the past exists. Maybe that triggering event or revelation takes place before the story begins. One way or another, without it your character is stuck.

Conflict is created by the simple fact that you cannot earn someone else’s respect or forgiveness, any more than you can make them love you. You can do everything in your power to try to convince them, but the ultimate decision is theirs.

Respect, forgiveness, love, God’s grace—these are gifts, not rewards. We may be able to prove to ourselves we deserve them, but that’s really not the issue. We want something from another person we can only request, not demand–which is what makes the desires generated by shame and guilt so powerful in drama.

What happens when your character finds he isn’t earning the respect or forgiveness he so deeply craves? Hopefully (that word again), he tries harder, or tries something else, rethinks the issue, reconsiders his goal, looks deeper into himself (which is where internalized shame or guilt, a lack of self-worth or a barking conscience, come in). If fortunate, he’ll succeed through failure, i.e., figure out what will work by examining what doesn’t.

But this has a risk—your character can test the patience and goodwill of the person whose respect or forgiveness is sought. Few things in life are more aggravating than being hounded for a favor.

It may be that your character fails in his pursuit, and comes to some deeper realization about himself or those whose respect, love, or forgiveness he seeks, and this is the story’s takeaway.

His failure may be because the person with the power to offer respect, love, or forgiveness refuses or cannot do so (because she’s dead, for example).

Alternatively, it can be because the character who’s ashamed or guilty never properly comes to understand what is necessary to make things right.

An example of the former instance is Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s series protagonist. He feels guilty for something he didn’t do–his sister was murdered when their brother stayed home to watch TV rather than go out in the rain and pick her up at the bus stop. The brother subsequently killed himself. Jackson feels these losses as any Catholic would–as a stain on his own soul, a kind of original sin. He constantly strives to atone, normally by helping women in desperate need or peril, but forgiveness never comes, ironically because he did nothing wrong. (This Sisyphean futility at achieving forgiveness or justice — existential guilt — is a common motif in detective stories. The “will to justice,” though gratified partially with the solution of each book’s crime, is never totally appeased — very useful for a series hero.)

When forgiveness is withheld in this way, the reader will want to feel as though respect or forgiveness is deserved, even if not forthcoming. (The character, to some degree, has earned the right to respect or forgive himself, or earns the respect or forgiveness of another character whose opinion has been shown to be of value in the story.)When the character’s lack of understanding is at issue, the reader will want to know the character will come to realize what was necessary, just too late (tragedy); or is simply too beholden to false ideas to have ever had any real chance (black comedy).

In this instance, the moral revelation will be the reader’s to take away, not the character’s. (For an example of this technique, see Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back”–Parker’s wife despises his tattoos, believing they’re Satanic. He tries to return to her good graces by showing his devotion to Christ–through getting a tattoo of the crucifixion on his back. His wife, needless to say, remains unmoved.

Tom was absolutely right that using shame and guilt to shatter the lives of your characters provides an extremely powerful way to make them human. But to avoid simply having them lying there in pieces, the shame or guilt needs to generate a desire for respect or forgiveness, motivated by the hope that, somehow, putting the pieces back together isn’t pointless.

And it ain’t just Christmas spirit that makes me believe that.

How are you using shame or guilt to deepen the characterization of your main character? How profoundly has the character’s life been shattered by what happened? What desire has this shame or guilt motivated? What other character holds the key to regaining respect or obtaining forgiveness? What reasonable hope does the ashamed or guilty character have for redemption? What has happened in the story to awaken that hope? What does he do to regain respect or obtain forgiveness? How does he fail, and why? Why does he ultimately succeed (or not)?

David Corbett is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character

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