In today’s post, I’ll look into an aspect of human nature that could be used for both good and wrong in writing. From helping to make a character relatable to making them look extremely foolish.
As people interact, it leads to both good and bad things. The unpleasant memories may stick way too long. Forgiveness may be hard to come by if the hurt caused was too severe. Expecting all characters to forgive and/or forget would be unrealistic, holding grudges and past misdeeds is part of people. The question is when – if ever – they’re willing to let go, and what may be necessary to get to that point.
A major aspect of such inner conflict may be whether the grudge goes both ways – if neither side is actively seeking to mend differences, the gap may be there to stay forever. However, if one is actively trying to mend differences and the best-meant pleas are falling on deaf ears, more so if for petty reasons…
Bonding with characters
Past grudges may be a good way to bond with characters, especially if their internal thoughts are shared. There may be a complex backstory (revealed over time) about how the grudge came to be. Seeking forgiveness is a powerful plot point, and can be a major internal motivation.
A character that holds a grudge has a relatable weakness because most people had been through something unpleasant and had a similar experience, even if on a much smaller scale. A special case is holding grudges on a child for the deeds of their parent, even worse if the child is trying their best to prove themselves.
Likewise, a character seeking forgiveness becomes very relatable – forgiveness is a noble goal that brings a lot of reader satisfaction when it comes to pass.
Taking it too far
As said before, a major problem is when a character is unwilling to forgive despite the best efforts of the other person. More so if this refusal goes to absurd lengths. If it seems that the character would rather bleed out than let someone who wronged him in past tend to their wounds… it may erode all the hard work done with building a relatable character. Especially if the misdeed is only slight or even a misunderstanding the “wronged” character isn’t willing to see from another point of view.
When too many characters are victims of a chain of accusations, misunderstandings, past grudges, and old hatreds, it may put a major dent in the reader’s belief in the story.
Betraying your purpose
Another major problem is when the abovementioned happens to a character (let alone more) in a position of power. If a character is a leader – or member of a council – in a major faction, it’s expected from them to let go of their personal issues to perform their duty and the position they’re in (whether it’s hereditary or elected).
When holding on to past grudges leads to one mistake after another and a downward spiral of wrong decisions based on emotions rather than reason leads the realm to turmoil or makes a bad situation worse, it causes damage on multiple fronts: it erodes faith in the character (both from readers and other characters) and increases the challenge the characters face because they’re divided rather than united. And, finally, holding on to past grudges too strongly – maybe even nonsensically so – may reduce the enjoyment of the story by monotony and lack of hope for a change.
To wrap this up – something that is part of human behavior can work for good and for bad in writing, the key is to find a point where it’s believable and helps the story and characters rather than pushing it into absurdness (unless that was the whole point).
As usual, I’ll welcome your thoughts and experiences – is this something you’ve touched in your writing? Have you read a book that approached this topic well – or poorly?