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The Weight

Are you hiding something?

Did I just see you flinch?  I won’t tell.  In fact, you don’t even have to tell me what it was that just flashed through your mind.  It’s enough that I know it’s there.  You are carrying a burden, a weight that much of the time you can ignore but which nevertheless never completely goes away.

Guilt is like that.  It persists.  It’s a stab that doesn’t stop.  Until it is spoken and absolved, confessed and forgiven, it remains real.  Now, what’s that you say?  You insist that you have nothing about which you feel guilty?  Why do I not believe you?  If that is true, which I doubt, then you have lived a life that is either lucky, pure or blameless.  Either that or you have no conscience or empathy, in which case go seek public office.

Sorry, cheap shot.  Back to guilt.  It’s a primary emotion, primary meaning not only important but universal.  We’ve all felt it.  If our greatest offense was big enough, even if was committed long ago, we feel it still.  The stab.  What we have to feel guilty about may be something we said or did, or it may be what we failed to say or do.  Remaining silent when a shout is called for can be as damning as anything.

What I’m talking about today is not the wound we feel, but the weight we bear.  Characters too.

The Wound of late has been much discussed in the realm of fiction writing.  It’s the backstory hurt or injustice that has shaped a character into who he or she is in the present.  It is the root of yearning, the yawning hole, the empty bucket to fill, the unmet need that shapes and drives a character, producing a false belief and an anguish that demands relief.

The Wound is a fine and important aspect of character development, one entirely fitting for our era.  The hurts we feel must be healed, and when met by a lack of understanding, ownership or apology, those hurts do not go away.  They burst forth as anger.  Those treated unjustly demand justice.  They shout.  They march.  Our current Age of Resentment has its origins in complaints both direct and indirect, sharp and long-standing.  The public clamor going on these days, ask me, is healthy.  It is our society trying to heal.  It’s our collective story and a fundamental aspect of the stories we tell.

The Weight is different.  The Weight drives us in other ways.  The Weight may lead to avoidance and denial, or it may cause us to project our own guilt onto others.  If you have ever gone on a bender, taken a joy ride, or run away from a situation, or have too quickly pointed an accusing finger at others, then you have felt the displacement of The Weight.  Guilt spills over, like water when a stone is dropped into a brimming beaker.  Guilt has to go somewhere, and that usually that is into blaming others.  Our hope is that when the burden of guilt gets strong enough, it will lead to change.  If you have ever resolved to be a better person, then you have felt that effect.

In a way The Wound and The Weight are equal, flip sides of one coin.  In the greatest story ever told—you know the one—a savior comes both to heal our suffering and to absolve us from sin.  The practice of faith includes acts of comfort and charity; it also involves humility, confession, contrition, penance and forgiveness.  Which human need, I wonder, more reliably drives people through the doors of church, temple or mosque?  Is the awareness sought in “mindfulness” more an expression of peace and compassion or more a relief of guilt for not doing better or doing more?

I mention The Weight today because it’s equally important as The Wound in providing the deepest level of character motivation, the current at the bottom of the river, the undertow that sucks at your feet when you’re standing in the water on the shore and a wave reverses direction and streams back to the sea.  The Weight is like that force.  It tugs.  It directs characters to do things in certain ways that reflect—or more accurately deflect—that guilt.

There is, you may argue, a gray area between The Wound and The Weight.  Victims of a crime or a tragedy, for instance, may feel (incorrectly) that they are in part to blame, perhaps even for being in a bad situation in the first place.  In such cases, although an individual may in fact be wounded, I would argue that it is the weight of guilt that predominates, for now, and for story purposes it probably is most useful to treat a character’s condition that way.  A soldier whose buddy died on the battlefield did not fire the bullet or plant the IED but guilt may grab hold of him or her, even so.

Likewise, if a protagonist has in his or her backstory a mistake, the reasons for it may be understandable.  But a having good reason for a mistake does not always mitigate The Weight.  Compare that with the shame that attends The Wound.  That shame is a forward and conscious feeling.  Guilt tends to be buried under layers of denial.  If there is a practical difference in characters who feel The Wound versus those who bear The Weight, it is perhaps this: conscious awareness versus displacement and denial of the reasons for one’s behavior.

Let’s check out some ways in which The Weight can be made practical generator of story actions:

As we meet your protagonist is he or she either, A) overly responsible, caretaking, community minded, self-sacrificing, or B) self-involved, fun-loving, judgmental or critical?  How do we see that tendency right away?

 If your protagonist were to have a free morning, what would he or she do with that time?  Something for others or something for self?  Can you turn that thing into a prime directive, an imperative or goal?  Can it become a sub-plot?

 Whom does your protagonist blame for his or her problems?  In what way is that partly true, and in what way is that actually wrong?  Which other character in your story sees the whole picture, and when does that character zap your protagonist with that perspective?

 In what way is your protagonist righteous?  Justified?  Insistent on principles, code, ideals?  Can you make that righteousness stronger?  What is the biggest thing your protagonist can do to knock someone else for not measuring up?  How is that judgment wrapped up in false kindness? 

In what way is your protagonist blind to the truth of another, and how is he or she certain of the truth of himself or herself?

 Who can be determined to take your protagonist down?  What is that antagonist’s chief complaint about your protagonist?  In what way can your protagonist bear out that belief or prove that antagonist correct?

In what way is your protagonist trying to make up for his or her fundamental deficiency?  How does your protagonist pardon himself or herself?   How can that absolution fail spectacularly?

 Looking to backstory, what does your protagonist actually have to feel guilty about?  What would make that guilt even worse?  What is cringe-worthy to the max?  What would be nasty, offensive, opprobrious, scandalous, shameful, or shocking?

 To whom should your protagonist confess?  In front of whom should your protagonist humble himself or herself?  What makes that impossible?  What makes it necessary?  When is it most critical?  How does your protagonist fail?  Who is most disappointed or hurt by your protagonist’s pride? 

 What finally triggers your protagonist to change?  After changing, what can your protagonist do differently than before?  Work backwards through the story to build your protagonist’s negative modus operandi, so that his or her later reform will be even more meaningful.

When denial ends and The Weight finally reaches the surface of consciousness, what does it feel like to your protagonist?  Get it down in words.

Hey, we all make mistakes.  Some are embarrassing, others are humiliating, still others may be so awful that we deny, minimize, escape or project our fault onto others.  Unjustified or understandable, forgivable or not, we all bear guilt.  That guilt, in one way or another, seeps out.  The Weight is not invisible, we express it in visible actions.  We work it out in real time.  We live in a confessional booth.

Why should protagonists be any different?  To burden your protagonist with The Weight is to both increase drama and enhance reader identification.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but if you’re worried that readers might turn against your flawed character, remember this: We’ve all been there.

How is your protagonist carrying The Weight?  How will we see that?  How will things go?  Let us know!

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].