Monday, January 18

What Are Your Characters Ashamed Of?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Few things motivate a person like the fear of shameful secrets coming to light. It doesn’t even have to be a really bad secret, just something that makes a character cringe and wish it never happened.

Maybe they bullied someone.

Maybe they stole something.

Maybe they dropped the vial of zombie virus and started the apocalypse.

Whatever it is, it hurts them to think about it and horrifies them that someone else might find out—or worse—call them on it. It saps confidence, pops into mind at the worst times, and can ruin an otherwise good day.

Take a look at your main characters, especially your protagonist, and ask:

What are they ashamed of?


It might connect directly to the plot, or it could be the thing that’s affecting their choices regarding the plot. They could easily do the wrong thing and make the bad call in order to keep this shame from becoming known.

Think about that shame and consider:
  • How does the shame affect their day-to-day choices?
  • How often do they think about the shame?
  • What triggers the memory of that shame?
  • What other actions or mistakes are a result of this shame?

The more profound the shame, the more affect it’s likely to have on the character—and the easier it is for us as writers to make use of it.

Shameful secrets are character blackmail. We can force our characters to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, either by threatening to expose those secrets, or reminding them they still have penance to pay to make up for it.

(Here's more on making your characters uncomfortable) 

Maybe the character is trying to make amends, or has a knee-jerk reaction to anything that comes close to what they’re ashamed about. It’ll probably affect how they feel about themselves, maybe make them doubt the type of person they are, or if they’re worthy of something they want. It might be the reason they push themselves so hard to be successful, feeling a need to put it behind them (or it coculd be the reason they are successful).

Shame can also affect how a character interacts with others.
  • Who is avoided because of this shame?
  • Who is treated differently because of it?
  • Who is treated worse?
  • Who is treated better?
  • Who treats them differently?

And of course, secrets aren’t always a secret, so we can have other characters in the story know the shame of our characters and be willing—and able—to use it.
  • Who else knows about the shame?
  • How do they feel about it?
  • What do they do about it?
  • How does it change their perception or opinion of the protagonist?
  • Who else have they told?

Shame can be a useful emotional tool in both plotting and the development of our character arcs. It’s often associated with mistakes and bad judgement, which can come back to haunt a character or ruin their plans.

If you’re looking to add a little more emotional oompf to your novel, try looking at the things your charcaters are ashamed of.

What are your characters ashamed of?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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18 comments:

  1. Another great post Janice. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. This is timely! I'm just working through a piece now where my erstwhile Sheriff is feeling guilty for neglecting the wife and the mother-in-law has been laying the guilt on thick. This post gave me some new ideas to carry the shame and the guilt out just a little further. Fun stuff!

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    1. Glad it was helpful :) It's always nice when a post is just what someone needed.

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  3. Always a handy post.

    If anyone's wondering: technically, "guilt" is the character believing they've done something wrong. "Shame" is moving beyond that to some fear that it makes them a Bad Person, and seeking redemption might get a lot messier than just making up for one problem. So a story's usually stronger when the character does go past simple guilt into true shame.

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  4. Even the title is enough to make me dissolve in thought... Thank you!

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  5. My character is ashamed that she used a singular noun with a plural verb in the title of her article.

    Yes, it is Monday.

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    1. We all make typos. Especially when we change our minds about a title just before hitting publish. :)

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  6. Excellent and timely post. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. As usual, your posts are spot on and have perfect timing! For a while, I'd been thinking what makes my main character tick. Why should the reader keep reading about him? Why is he, in fact, the main character? So I had to dig up dirt on him, and it turns out that he has a deep, dark secret no one would ever expect because it's downright illegal and demonic. This is a great post to remember for when crafting a plot and developing characters. Thanks!

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  8. I knew I'd read this one. But I don't at all mind the reminder! :)

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