Friday, February 28, 2014

What Do Your Characters Regret?

As humans, we all do things we later regret, whether it’s something we regret for only a
few days or for a lifetime. And your characters should do the same, even if they’re not human. After all, even non-human characters must be somewhat relatable to your human readers.

“Regret” is “a sense of loss, disappointment, dissatisfaction, etc.” or “a feeling of sorrow or remorse for a fault, act, loss, disappointment, etc.” Synonyms include “remorse,” “contrition,” “shame,” “self-reproach,” and “twinge of conscience.” We’ve all felt regret. Maybe it was that moment you didn’t follow your conscience and speak up; perhaps it was the chance you should have taken but didn’t. Sometimes we regret an action for a few days but are able to make restitution soon. But some regrets can never be fixed. They can be healed through Jesus; you can be be freed from their hold. Yet the memories usually remain.

If your characters, both heroes and villains, are to be real, they must experience regret. You may have to dig a bit before discovering the things they feel haunted by. Some may not be truly haunted, but even they must have experienced something to cause disquiet inside them at one time or another. So, what kind of things can cause regret? The answers are as limitless as they are personal, but here are some ideas to hopefully get you started:

  1. She stole something and blamed someone else. Imagine the guilt, especially depending on how badly the innocent person was punished. This can be the crack in the perfect person’s façade, or the point at which a whole criminal career was forged.
  2. He had a falling out with a loved one who is now dead. This can be a powerful source of sorrow in your character. And it can also serve as an excellent motivator. Perhaps your hero is bent on preventing other people from experiencing the same tragedy, and so he helps families reunite and reconcile. You could actually give that mission to the villain instead for an interesting twist. Haunted by his lack of reconciliation, he could try to force families to make-up, and his disappointment when they don’t could create bitterness.
  3. The boy never told the girl he loved her. Maybe he came close, and he really felt deeply about her. Yet he was shy and didn’t make his feelings known. Tired of waiting, she married someone else. And he lives with the pain of having lost the only girl he ever loved. This, too, could be the key to either the hero or villain’s motivation.
  4. Someone died because of something he or she didn’t do. Obviously there are many different things that could fall under this, but two come to mind for me.
    • He saved himself at someone else’s expense. Let’s face it: when survival instincts kick in, it’s hard to predict what will happen. Sometimes we act selfishly and run out of time to change our decision. But there can be a telling element in this situation as well. A quote from last Monday’s episode of the TV show Intelligence sums up my thoughts. Riley, the Secret Service agent, says “War can change people.” And Gabriel, the Delta Force veteran with a computer chip in his brain, replies “No, it reveals them.” It is true that people make mistakes, but their character also shows through under stress.
    • She hides a secret that could have saved someone’s life. There are many reasons for keeping a secret - saving face, trying to avoid further complications, protecting someone else, etc. But if I hid information and then watched someone die because they didn’t know about it, I’d probably carry some regret around for the rest of my life.
Other reasons for regret could be not spending time with a grandparent before he died, breaking promises, lying to someone, holding a grudge, being wrapped up in work while his children grew up, dropping out of school, etc. The list could go on and on.

Who does your character see when they look in the mirror? Are they happy or sad to look back at their history? Does it hurt to review their memories? Do they wish they could go back in time and change things? These are all questions you must answer to fully understand your characters. Regardless of whether his or her regrets are big or small, they will affect the way he or she acts. The girl who regrets disobeying her parents when she was younger would probably be more wary of doing things she was told not to do. The boy who wishes he had shared his feelings with a loved one will likely take more opportunities to vocalize his love now. Please understand that I’m not telling you to give your characters a horrid past full of pain and suffering. But do dig into their past and find what they wish they had done differently. Have them make a mistake on their journey. The choices he or she make will affect the story, and humans don’t always make the right decisions.

What regrets do you consider to be strong motivators in stories?

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