What To Do When Your Character Wants Revenge

Recently I found myself at an impasse when my main character committed suicide because she was in love with a married man. A completed circle, a common triangle, a beautiful story, a boring ending. Something was terribly wrong. It was predictable, and there was no twist, no depth, no “oomph.” I stopped and listened to my character. It turned out she wasn’t ready to “go quietly into that good night.” The little sweetheart wanted revenge. I had to admire what was left of her spirit, and I played around with her little act of defiance to see what I could do. As every writer knows, characters do not always act as we program them to act, and (though we hate to admit it), occasionally they do know better.

That decided, I immediately thought of two quotes, both ancient and time-honored. The first, a quote from Star Trek: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And the other, from Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” I wrestled with the first one, then discarded it because my character’s nature was not a cold one. Does one have to be cold to seek revenge, or just cold enough to serve it? No, the second one appealed to both my character and myself. It would work. I started thinking about revenge. What does it really accomplish? Not much if your character just threatens it with no follow-up. But what if your character actually goes for it?

In Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood, she talks about this “dark side that shouldn’t be ignored.”

“Before you have a character take the air out of her ex-lover’s tires because he left her for another woman, consider what that tells your reader about the character. How does that act change the story? The person? The reader’s response to both?”

If it’s revenge with a little “r” (as in the above scenario), chances are pretty good that the boyfriend will be angry, but face facts — the only one you’re going to hurt is you. If your character wants revenge enough to murder for it, the logical consequence would be lethal injection or life imprisonment. Hence, two graves. But what if it’s Revenge with a big “R” (as in getting even with someone who has left you with nothing but suicide as an option) and your character is already resigned to suicide? Methinks the game would change somewhat. It was fascinating to watch my quiet, withdrawn character come up with a fool-proof way to make it look like murder. She’s already set on one grave, so why not two? Now, that’s cold.

Do we always act predictably? No way. Neither do our characters. So the next time your character is trying to tell you something, it may behoove you to listen. Play around with it, and you just might reach the conclusion I reached as I ended my story, thinking, “Oh, yeah. You go, girl!” And yes, revenge can be sweet.