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."
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...