I was asked this yesterday at a conference. Now, to put it in perspective, I was one member of an audience, he wasn’t asking me specifically. But he did ask it just that way. “What’s your shame?” Because I deal with the effects of shame daily, the question hit me, and I started thinking. We have many tools to give our character’s depth. Give them a quirk, give them a gift or a deficiency, preferably one that gives an appropriate roadblock to your character’s goal. Show them either progressing or regressing in a certain area of their life. But do we use shame as fully as we can?
First, let’s define our terms. Shame and guilt are often linked, and that’s natural. But they are not synonymous. To paraphrase the amazing Brene’ Brown, Guilt is doing something wrong. Shame is being something wrong. “I lost” is vastly different than “I’m a loser.” In the hands of an innocent person shame can be hurtful. In the hands of a betrayer, it can change the course of a life. Used in a religious setting, shame can damage the soul.
Shame tends to drive people either to or away from certain behaviors. If an alcoholic man has two sons, one may never touch a drop of liquor in his life and the other may be just as bad as his father. Both reactions can be caused by the shame of not being able to bring a friend home when their father is drinking. Shame may cause panic attacks, it may force someone into a veneer of stoicism, or it may be anything in between. From that aspect, shame is one of the most powerful tools a writer can have.
Of course, it’s not just protagonists that can work with shame. Your antagonist may wield it like a weapon. Why? Is it from the antagonist’s own shame? Or is it simply an efficient means to an end?
I think through what I’ve been reading the last couple of years, and I’m not sure we use shame as powerfully as we could in literature. Is it cultural? American society seems to have no shame about anything anymore, unless it can be pointed at the other side of the political aisle.
Or is it personal? When we write, we write from the heart, and maybe that takes us too close to our own shame. Shame is always more comfortable in the dark. Do we not write characters who deal with shame because of the internal nerves it hits? If so, how can we approach building characters who deal with shame, whether it be healthy dealings or not?
Or is it just skillset? Does it take a special level of expertise to write a character in shame without it getting melodramatic?
What about you? How do you use shame in your writing? In other words, what’s your shame?