Monday, September 5, 2011

Revenge and Retaliation

For various personal reasons, I've been thinking about the human tendency to lash out in retaliation. To take revenge for a wrong (whether actual or imagined), and to focus all resources toward that end. Such single-minded dedication makes for dramatic fiction. It is, after all, a form of self-sacrifice for a greater good -- the righting of wrongs, the punishment of the wicked, the service of justice. It also presents a wealth of possibilities for action and for exaggerated emotion.

It's also a natural and, dare I say, universal human impulse. When someone hurts us, our first and automatic reaction is anger. I think this is true, no matter what our religious beliefs, our social conditioning, or our meditation practices. These things influence how we express our reaction, but I don't think they can eliminate it. We want to strike back. Anger can be immensely helpful in energizing us to life-preserving action. It also has the result of temporarily numbing both physical and emotional pain. In the natural course of events, however, this reaction is quite brief in duration. We humans -- and the characters we create -- run into problems when we become frozen at this stage. Then we start thinking, "I've got to make her pay," or "That'll teach him." Then we start planning out our revenge, distorting our lives to creating suffering in others.

In fiction as in life, actions have consequences. As writers, it behooves us to understand the difference between natural consequences and created or artificial consequences. If Character A is an habitual liar, the natural consequence is that anyone who's had dealings with him will become distrustful. People may also be angry and resentful if they've been harmed in other ways. A created consequence might be someone slaughtering A's favorite guinea pig and hanging the carcass outside A's door. The distinction here is not only one of appropriateness but of scope. Cheating at poker has natural consequences within the game (and its financial obligations); fire-bombing the cheater's home town escalates the conflict to a new level.

This is useful to understand when we're looking at a character's motivation. It's all too easy to set up:

A harms B or someone/something B cares about
B dedicates himself to revenge
B sacrifices all other aspects of his life in pursuit of this goal
B achieves his aim
B lives happily every after.

If we break it down to immediate/natural vs created reactions, we can add a few twists:
A harms B
B is hurt, furious, incredulous, desperate, despondent; other characters react to B's plight
B dedicates himself to revenge, in a way that makes his reaction different from that of any other character because it's shaped by his own history, values, etc. This can be cone coldly and with calculation, or unconsciously, or in a delusional way; B can be manipulated by those with other agendas and reasons for wanting A eliminated.
B sacrifices all other aspects of his life in pursuit of this goal, despite many possibilities of taking some other action. The conflict assumes a larger scale, with other characters being drawn into it or affected in powerful ways; perhaps B has moments of awareness of the price but is, like an addict, unable to change; perhaps B wrestles with his decision, thereby gaining inside into himself and A
B achieves his aim or B changes his mind as a result of what he's suffered.
B comes to terms with the full impact of what he has done, for good or for ill.

I think that's a much more interesting story.


  1. Thanks for these last words Deborah. They clarify a question I've been asking myself.

    My first book has just been published (last week! - still walking 3 meters off the ground!) and I know that the second book in the series has to be out there within a year, at the latest.

    I set up an antagonist's motivations with a few well timed hints and hooks, but nothing concrete. In order to really pull this draft of Book 2 together I have to find their baseline motivation. I have the actions/consequences not the WHY.

    Thanks again for triggering a thread for me to follow.

  2. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS on your book!

    I love the way we cross-fertilize ideas, how when I'm stuck or flailing, some other writer will say exactly what I need to hear to see things in a different perspective. Kay Kenyon does that a lot for me. Our work is quite different, but the way she talks about writing always gives me new insights.