Thursday, July 14, 2011

SHAME: dig deep and write about it

At Thrillerfest, SuperAgent Barbara and I taught a workshop on Creating Emotional Depth. I made the point that the most powerful emotion is shame, a notion that took hold of me sometime last year and which I've been thinking about since. When an audience member asked me for clarification, I promised I would follow up here. (I am thinking of turning this into an article at some point so your comments are welcome.)

I've always been drawn to the theme of shame in my own writing. An earlier example is my short story, "Mortification;" a more recent example is the entire AFTERTIME series for Luna. I'm quite certain that I am not finished exploring shame in my fiction.

Shame is a human's self-limiting and self-correcting response to knowledge of wrongdoing or suspicion of inadequacy. There. I just tossed that out from the recesses; but let's see what the dictionary people say:

"A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness."

Yeah....I guess.

Neither my definition nor theirs takes me to the place I want to go here. Shame is crushing and nauseous and evasive. Shame makes you want to injure yourself and hug yourself at the same time. Shame is felt in the gut and in the most delicate synapses; it both bludgeons and sneers.

Shame is this: you knew it was wrong and you did it anyway.

And this: you know your desires and your hungers are not what NICE PEOPLE want, and yet you can't stop wanting them.

And this: you were born unworthy and none of the million attempts you have made to fix yourself in a thousand little ways has worked - they have sloughed off like so many raindrops or dandelion puffs and you are immutably, permanently as damaged and despicable as ever, but worse because -

- you have done something that has left you EXPOSED. I actually think this is where shame transmutes into mortification - that is to say, through action. The two words can be synonyms, but to me mortification has a more corporeal sense, it implies a physical manifestation of shame, which can be completely internal. Taken to its extreme mortification can include self-harm (as in the ritualistic abuse of the body practiced by flagellants) but in my fiction i have characters injure themselves in small ways, such as pinching skin in hidden places or digging fingernails into flesh. In moments of shame, transferring one's attention to pain can be an - perhaps the only - effective relief.

The fear of exposure is central to shame. Sometimes we fear that strangers see inside us. Sometimes we fear that those we love will learn the truth about us. Sometimes we can't escape God himself, His scrutiny, His crushing and eternal judgment. All of these are perfect for fiction, because humans - characters - will go to great lengths to avoid exposure. Like beetles on our backs, we writhe and twist; we'll commit acts of treachery and betrayal and violence to protect ourselves.

It might not be going to far to say that shame is at the core of many crimes. In fact, now that I think about it, it's a theme best suited to all dark genres like mystery and horror, because it can motivate a protagonist to act outside his own interests. (And a villain to act villainously, but that goes without saying.)

Feel free to add your own thoughts/examples in the comments, but recent books come to mind...CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER...Attica Locke's BLACK WATER RISING...both of Bryan Gruley's books...Megan Abbott's work...


Anonymous said...

Conway Sax, my protagonist, is driven by shame. He can't tell readers exactly what it is he's ashamed of - his pride and taciturn nature won't allow it. Someday I'll write a Conway titled FEARLESS MORAL INVENTORY (the phrase is from AA's Fourth Step) in which Conway finally spills. It may be the last book in the series.

Susan Tunis said...

Hey Soph,

Have you read Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winner A Visit from the Goon Squad? The second story/chapter of the novel is a perfect example of what you're talking about. Check it out.

Interesting thoughts!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Steve, YES, Chasm belongs on that list. Addicts are great shame conduits.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Susan - it's on the TBRP! Thanks for the reminder.

Jason Black said...

I don't buy it.

Shame is certainly a powerful emotion. But the MOST powerful? Nah. I can't get there from here.

I rather view it as a circumstantial thing. Depending on the circumstances, shame MAY be the most powerful emotion affecting a character.

But in other circumstances, different emotions may be more powerful. Consider:

How many times in stories have we seen situations where a character knows he/she has to do something hard, but doesn't do it right away because doing it will involve the moritification of revealing something shameful? Just like you've talked about. Well, tons of times. It's a very common story mechanism.

But what happens in those books? Your hypothesis creates a prediction: If shame is the most powerful emotion, then those character will NEVER do the hard-but-necessary thing because their shame will always be a stronger force inhibiting them than whatever other motivations are pushing them towards doing the right thing.

But that's not what we see in those books. The climaxes of nearly every such book, the cathartic moment in those stories, is exactly the moment when SOME OTHER emotion--love, a sense of justice, whatever--finally becomes stronger than the shame. The character becomes unblocked, and can act.

I suspect that ANY emotion has the potential to be the strongest emotion. It all just depends on the circumstance.

Lise McClendon said...

I get what Jason is saying. Every character needs a strong overarching emotion. Shame however is unique that it implies a kind of awareness. You have to KNOW what you did is wrong, and be mortified by your imperfection. Not every character cares about that. I agree though that shame is a strong emotion in many characters and can be a powerful motivator. Finding that key in a character can turn a lukewarm narrative thread into a red hot one.

Sophie Littlefield said...

thanks you guys for jumping in the conversation. i see your point, jason...i thought about it at the gym. I think that often (but certainly not always, as you point out) the compelling emotion - be it rage (a favorite of mine) or lust or vengeance or anything it all - may have at least some roots in shame. Even eroticism - so many darker (making no judgments) longings have at their roots early experiences that embed notions of "good" or "wrong" in people's minds.

Lise, exactly, and even more interestingly when what a character "knows" is different from what the reader knows to be true. An unreliable narrator is a little tricky to pull off, but I find them fascinating.

And of course I always desperately want to be fascinated.

ok off to feed the dog. :)

Denise A. Agnew said...

Tried posting earlier and it didn't take. Trying again. I love complex characters, and the more a writer gives me a character who is less than perfect and talks to all those emotions everyone feels at one time or another...I love it. As a writer, I want that for my characters, too. By the way, just discovered your Aftertime series. Really looking forward to reading it. :)