How To Write Character Emotion: Guilt & Shame

New emotional food for thought: Are guilt and shame the same thing? Is it possible to feel one without the other? Do we ever "get over" shame and guilt? What's the dividing line between the two? Are there some people who only feel these emotions when they get caught?

Synonyms: disgrace, self-disgust, humiliation, degradation, dishonor, infamy, remorse, self-abomination, embarrassment, mortification, chagrin, unworthiness, contempt, disrespect, debasement, disappointment

Dictionary Definitions:
1. Guilt - a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.(

2. Shame - the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another; disgrace; ignominy. (

It seems to me that shame and guilt are very closely related, but not necessarily the same thing.

Shame is a strong and painful emotion….Do not confuse it with embarrassment….Shame is caused by harsher emotions—guilt, unworthiness, even disgrace. It can create physical pain or make us twitch or blush in anguish. These reactions make it a difficult emotion to conceal….And it may be the worst feeling in the entire spectrum of emotions, because it makes us feel worthless and utterly alone, as if no one else feels this way and as if we are not even worthy of someone else’s comfort….Unlike despair, shame does not feel permanent. ~Creating Character Emotion, Ann Hood

Writing Tips:
1. Guilt and shame can be great motivators for a character's actions.

2. Since we write inspirational fiction that often carries a message of redemption, it follows logic that we will use the emotions of guilt and shame in most of our stories. It behooves us to study up on these emotions. Again, think about carrying a character through various emotions from the beginning to end of a story. For resolution, a character feeling guilt/shame should reach the place of apology, forgiveness and relief from shame, but only if you want an "aah" ending. If one of the points of your story is to show that our wrong decisions can affect us and those we love for a lifetime, then you may choose not to show that relief.

3. Notice the dictionary definition of guilt above. It is possible to feel false guilt. (I happen to believe that false guilt is a weapon the enemy of our souls uses against us on a regular basis.) A fictional example of this might be a woman who decides to spend time with her children rather than her ailing father, and he dies alone. Guilt and shame come as the consequences of our decisions, and those decisions aren't necessarily always motivated by evil.

4. Guilt and shame are complex emotions that often involve fear, denial, low self worth, etc. (Any others that you can think of?)

5. Sometimes a person’s guiltiness is proven through their denial. We often even deny our guilt to ourselves. To me that would be a great way to write the emotion of guilt and shame for our character--show their thoughts of denial or have them deny wrongdoing to another character through dialogue.

6. Guilt and shame are funny animals. Sometimes guilt and shame never see to go away (think MacBeth); at other times we reach the place where we feel relieved, unburdened, and/or cleansed. To me it would depend on the character, and their relationship to God. But also remember that even believers sometimes have trouble forgiving themselves...

7. Use concrete details in writing shame, especially when comparing what brings on those feelings. (EX: comparison between a friend’s clothing and your clothing; or appearance, or home, or car, or popularity, etc.) Sometimes we try to cover things up to avoid shame.

8. Guilt and shame are obsessive emotions. They niggle at us. (I remember a story my grandmother told me when I was very young, about a girl who was supposed to sweep the floor for her mother. To save time, she swept the dust under the rug rather than into a dustpan. An obsessive voice kept pestering her with the words: “Dust under the rug. Dust under the rug.” Wow! Now that’s an old memory!) So when we write our characters experiencing guilt/shame, we need to show how the shame can stick with the character and not let go until a wrong is righted.

Physical/Emotional Response (may need fresh writing to avoid being cliché): guilt lay like a rock in her heart; lump in her throat; when being caught—a stupid (or idiotic) smile; have the character try to deny/forget it with the daily affairs of life; paste a pleasant look on our face so no one guesses the truth; try to make it right (sometimes more to assuage our guilt than repent of it); we try to rationalize our behavior; we try to place part of the blame on others to make ourselves look less guilty; we seek pleasurable activity to take our mind off of it, but it rarely works for any length of time; we’re bothered; sometimes people feign an apology for guilt that they really don’t mean; breath catches; eyes shining with tears; sob in his throat; anguish for how what we’ve done has affected others; begging forgiveness

Literature Example of Guilt/Shame: from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Dolly!” he said, sobbing now; “for mercy’s sake, think of the children; they are not to blame! I am to blame, and punish me, make me expiate my fault. Anything I can do, I m ready to do anything! I am to blame, no words can express how much I am to blame! But, Dolly, forgive me!”

What are some acts or situations that could bring on guilt or shame? My answers--stealing, cheating, adultery, jail sentence, things that don’t meet the status quo such as housing, clothing, etc.

Can you think of others?

Don't forget--for every time you join the discussion on characters and their emotions this week, you get your name in the hat another time in the book giveaway of "Higher Hope" by Robert Whitlow! (Tami, the heroine in the story, though she loves her parents and lives according to how they raised her, is somewhat ashamed of them. The author is very subtle about how he portrays this.)

Now don't you feel "shame" that I've had to stoop to bribery to get you to participate? :D

Related Articles On Writing Character Emotion:
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NEXT POST: Who Am I? (an inspirational video you need to see!)

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