Thursday, February 26, 2015

Revenge as a Character Motivation

Character motivation revenge
It's Dan today and I'd like to discuss a powerful character motivator: revenge. Many outstanding books and movies are built around one character's burning design to take vengeance. A few famous examples:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Moby Dick by Herman Mehlville
  • Carrie by Stephen King
Everyone loves a good revenge story, and when you begin to deconstruct that idea, it's not hard to see why.

Revenge Builds Character Sympathy

A revenge story begins with a character (usually the protagonist) suffering a terrible injustice. We've all been there. We've all been dumped out of the blue by a boyfriend/girlfriend, or humiliated by a rival, or screwed over by a large corporation. We see someone suffer, and we relate to that person.

The Appeal of Revenge

The desire to get even is a basic human emotion. Most of us never act on it, or we lash out in impatient, immature ways. Maybe that's why we admire someone like the Count of Monte Cristo, who suffers for years and devotes decades to rain vengeance down on his enemies. The best revenge stories involve revenge that was a long time coming.

Revenge is All-consuming

Some wonderful characters in fiction are defined by their path to revenge. Captain Ahab from Moby Dick is the perfect example. His need for revenge consumes (and ultimately destroys) him. Or there's the Spaniard from The Princess Bride, who gave us this little gem:

Come to think of it, there are many great quotes about revenge:
"Revenge is sweet and not fattening."
-Alfred Hitchcock
"If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?"
-William Shakespeare
Even the big guy is a fan:
"Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord." -Romans 12:19
Another way to put it: Karma's a bitch.

Revenge Has A Dark Side

It's important to point out here that revenge doesn't always have a happy ending. Look at The Hadfields and McCoys in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Their blood feud leads to retribution after retribution, and the deaths of several people on both sides. Captain Ahab loses his life, his ship, and most of his crew to the white whale.

Even so, we have to admire characters who are so driven towards a single goal. Who do whatever it takes to get there.

Full disclosure: I'm writing this post while in the midst of a Netflix binge of the aptly-titled show Revenge.

What About You?

Have you written a revenge story, or lived one out in real life? Please share!

Karlie: I love this post Dan! Revenge is a favorite topic of mine. :) Actually, in one of my first novels, the main character Nolan becomes obsessed with revenge. He blames the death of his sister and the loss of his son on his father, and this eventually evolves into his driving force. I think it's entirely possible to root for a character eaten up with revenge, as long as there's sympathetic backstory there. It's all in the motivation and how you lead up to it - it's really hard but I think it's worth it! Awesome post!

Caitlin: I love the idea of revenge as a motive but, I’ll admit, I struggle actually applying it to a main character. Unless you’re a really strong writer, your main character needs to be likable, and it’s hard (but certainly not impossible, who doesn’t love Inigo Montoya!) to have a likable character who’s consumed by revenge. So, I’m definitely still struggling with this, but I’d love to be able to use it as a character motivation soon. :)

Lisa: That's a very good question, Dan. I don't have any stories in which the goal is revenge. I have a few main characters who have incidental revenge. But I just don't know if I could pull off a story whose sole purpose is to get back at someone. Actually, that's not true. I've been thinking of my main characters. Nope, their main goal isn't revenge, but the antagonist in my novels are generally seeking some sort of revenge. That's there drive. Bad people need a good reason to be my books anyway. :)
So, for me, revenge is only good for antagonists...most of the time. Of course there are always exceptions. I love those darned exceptions.
As for in my own life, I have doled out one big slab of revenge, and I'll keep that story to myself.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! Outside of Inigo Montoya (yes, that revenge was satisfying), I can rarely get into characters who seek revenge. I notice it in critiquing pitches also - that I feel like part of the story must be missing. I'm not vengeful myself, and I always feel like revenge is somehow empty.

    If you manage to get your revenge, then what? Does anyone's life change? Kind of like "I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life." I guess it doesn't seem like the end of a story to me.

    Not that I can't imagine getting rid of an antagonist so that he can't do bad things to others in the future, but that's not revenge, in my opinion.

    I'll have to think about revenge a little more, considering how many people find it fascinating. Maybe it's unharnassed potential I'm missing in my writing.