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Shatter Your Characters: Shame Them, Guilt Them

Malibu pretending to be an innocent civilian [1]
Malibu pretending to be an innocent civilian

My cat killed a hummingbird a few days ago. She brought it in, as cats will do, proud, thrilled with the hunt, mad with animality. If you have a cat that goes outdoors, you know the behavior: your pet’s standard personality is turned up ten notches to a twitching, eyes-afire clench of sinew and nerves.

In my cat’s case, she’s a poor birder, for which I give thanks. In years, I’ve only found evidence of one slain bird in our yard. She’s pleased to display the occasional vole or even a rat from the nearby fields, but I, the moral relativist, shrug off those captures with bland disgust.

But here, a hummingbird. A creature of darting beauty, an expression of brimming vitality in its pulsing flights. Hummingbirds are like a sudden flare in the darkness, the wow of light, the delicate lick of the flitting flame. But this one, its flame out, being flipped maniacally into the air and onto the carpet in surges by my cat, until I was able to grab it off the floor before another flick of the cruel claw.

And when I picked it up, the bird’s limp neck flashed the ruby iridescence that contrasted with its green/gold feathers—beautiful yet, but just a shiny death mask. I put the bird out in the nearby fields, and then felt a pang of shame.

This post isn’t designed to be a forum on the politics of allowing a high-level predator like a cat to roam outdoors. My cat, Malibu, was a semi-feral cat that we’d seen roaming the neighborhood for more than a year before we adopted her. As we later found out, she had survived on the kindness of strangers—and of course, on her hunting skills. What is more interesting to me now, as a writer, is the shame. Since Malibu isn’t, as we are, gifted and cursed with a sense of self-consciousness, I had to experience shame in her stead.

Shame and Guilt, Kissing Cousins
Shame—and its first cousin, guilt—are useful tools for writers (and such intrigues for psychoanalysts): instances where a character was shamed, or felt deep guilt are often motivational markers for later character behaviors. We get a fine sense of the power of shame in our early stories: when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the sudden sense of their own nakedness sweeps over them in waves of shame.

[Note: I don’t know about you, but I would have made a fruit salad out of those apples long before that wiggly fellow in the grass waggled his forked tongue at fair Eve. And I’m all in favor of some people being naked, but clothes do make the man.]

Guilt follows in scene two, when God questions why they bit into the forbidden. Not having good lawyers, each bobs and weaves for blame; expulsion from the Garden follows. (And their boy Cain had a lot of splainin’ to do later for his own guilt-laden crime.) That shame/guilt of our forbears, a backstory bear trap, became a lurking presence in many books, Biblical and not, to come.

The Fictional Fodder of Guilt
I wrote a coming-of-age novel years back in which one of the lead characters was carelessly driving a car in which his brother was killed. That incident is barely mentioned, but it’s there. His best friend, the book’s protagonist, doesn’t realize until much later how the burden of the past imprisons his friend, and causes him to act out (and lash out) in the book. When the protagonist finally gets it, his understanding and conditional forgiveness of his friend evolves.

In a novel I just finished, the protagonist realizes that his housemate is his best friend only upon the housemate’s impending death from AIDS. When the protagonist fails to visit the dying housemate in hospice, later discovering that he’s dead, he’s wracked by shame that he wasn’t there for his final hours, and guilt for never having told him he loved him. He expiates the guilt in a way that’s a defining piece of the book’s latter stages.

In the novel I’m working on now, the lead character is at first only dully aware that what he views as his harmless drinking has produced multiple incidents where he has been stung by shame, particularly in regards a woman he is haplessly trying to woo. His subsequent guilty reflections on his behavior do stir motivations—and attempts—to change, though sadly for him, there’s going to be plenty of trouble ahead.

Brené Spells It Out Better Than Me
Though shame and guilt do a mean tango, it’s helpful for a writer to distinguish the two. Although she’s not speaking of these constructs for a writer’s purposes, let’s look at how author and speaker Brené Brown makes those distinctions. (By the way, Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability [2] is a must-see. The one on shame [3] ain’t shameful either.)

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Here’s what you even need to know more: Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.

And from another piece:
Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

How Do I Shame Me? Let Me Count the Ways
Dangerous can be good in a novel. But perhaps not in real life.

In a time when the public confessional seems a turnpike to publishing success—my new book, “I Blended My Siblings’ Brains into a Vodka Smoothie” is climbing the charts—I want to get in on the action too. As an adolescent, I was a wayward kid, devoting all my creative hours to getting in trouble. I was pretty good at it, and rarely got caught. For a period, one of the pleasant things my friends and I would do is fill a refillable fire extinguisher with water and drive around and spray pedestrians or bicycle riders with the water and vroom away. Geniuses, we found that to be great fun.

On a summer day in which we either didn’t have the extinguisher, or it wasn’t filled, we’d gone to a local hamburger joint that sold giant—and I mean giant—malts, at least a quart of liquid. I was in the back seat, window down, when we slowed to turn right at a traffic signal. I hadn’t even thought of doing it, but in a second, I saw a guy standing near the curb waiting for the opposing light to change and I whipped that half-filled malt out at him, drenching him.

It took a moment for the car’s occupants (sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys, like me) to realize what I’d done. “Wow, you really got that guy!” someone said, and my friends laughed. But I’d turned back to look at my work, and saw an older Asian guy in a three-piece suit, looking in the moving car’s direction, hands at his side, no discernible expression. My shame was sharp, and hot.

I immediately wondered if he thought I was a racist, if our car was out to target well-dressed Asian people minding their own business on suburban street corners.

No, not a racist; just an idiot. The shame passed, but the guilt remains. Our car, which had fallen silent, because no one thought that incident was a victory, continued home. I wished I’d insisted that we return to the man, apologize, try to help, but I didn’t. Instead, I feel a fresh minting of guilt as I write this now, something I’ve never written about before.

That’s the kind of feeling that you can stir in your characters. Their acts, even if from forty years’ past, are still in their bloodstreams, simmering away. Tap them for their emotional power.

Oh, not more than a half-hour after Malibu killed that beautiful bird, she was purring in my lap. She remains guilt-free. Me, it will take a while.

What about you, sinners of WU? Do you think the spice of shame can add depth, or complexity, or plot development to your stories? Or is gilding with guilt just soap-opera stuff? Want to tell us about the time when you were fourteen and you stole your parents’ car while they were at church and almost drove into a ditch? (Oh wait—that was me.) Happy Thanksgiving!

About Tom Bentley [4]

Tom Bentley [5] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [6].