Everything to be ashamed of


Helga’s Post #67:  In ‘The top 10 of the most overlooked emotions’, writing buddy Silk gave us an excellent list of some important ones that writers should utilize in their stories. It’s a useful addition to the writer’s tool kit. Each one of these emotions could spark an idea for a central theme, which in turn could morph into a plot.

Speaking for myself, any help to inspire me is greatly appreciated. Truth be told, I am struggling with my current WIP. It feels like I’m pushing a boulder up a hill. Apparently, I am not alone. That’s how novels start in the words of British author Jim Crace. Then the boulder “gradually turns into a helium balloon that takes you up without effort.”

But back to the subject of emotions. I thought of one more that we might want to add. One such emotion is shame. It’s an emotion similar to embarrassment, which Silk included in her list. The difference between the two is that shame may be experienced for an act known only to oneself. So not the obvious kind of a burglar trapped in headlights, but an internal, deeply personal one, so shameful it can never be shared with another human being. Shame is a powerful motivator for characters, equally useful to endow both your protagonist and antagonist with. It’s an emotion that will add substance and motive to a story, whether used by the writer as an internal emotion of a secondary character, or as the anchor or focus of the entire plot.

I did some research on this topic and looked at book descriptions and editorial reviews. I found what I suspected: Shame is a central theme, or at least an important secondary theme, in many novels. In one way or another, most novels deal with the emotion of shame. It may be an important aspect or coincidental, but it’s there.

Take ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne, as an example. Though set in a Puritan community centuries ago, the moral dilemmas of personal responsibility, and consuming emotions of shame, anger and revenge are timeless.

Take more contemporary novels, both literary and commercial. Ondaatje’s ‘English Patient’, McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, Connelly’s ‘The Gods of Guilt’, all deal with shame as a focal point and recurring theme. Then there is Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’. The central theme of that novel is that violence is born out of shame. That’s a huge revelation, if Rushdie is correct (which may be up to debate).

Think about it: Wars are born out of shame. Domestic violence, all forms of crimes rooted in shame. Plenty of reasons to motivate our characters around this powerful emotion.

Why is shame such a common theme, and why does this emotion touch such a raw nerve in readers? Not surprisingly, it’s because we can relate. Everyone has something to be ashamed of. No exceptions. If anyone claims they have nothing to be ashamed of, they are in denial. Shame is simply part of the human condition. Alice Munro knew this very well. Shame and embarrassment are driving forces for the characters in her stories. Writers would do well to look inside themselves and harvest their own experiences to use in their stories.

I am trying to think about some in my own life. Too many really and not suitable to share publicly (though I have no qualms to use them, albeit disguised, in my novels). But there are some small instances that sting, even after many decades, and I still feel the shame.  It was in Vienna, when people still had only little food years after the war had ended. I recall watering the potted philodendron with the watery soups my grandmother used to cook for my brother and me. An act of protest during a time when our mother earned a little extra, selling encyclopedias door to door. (She occasionally forgot she had a family waiting at home.)

I also remember some of my parents’ stories that made them feel ashamed. My mother’s shame (before she was my mother) getting pregnant (with me) at a young age to a soldier passing through her small Bavarian town on the way to the Russian Front. Then there was my dad never getting over the fact he was forced to fight in a war he did not believe in. The sense of shame and guilt over being a survivor while so many others lost their lives never left him. He told stories about the war until he died at the age of 96. Of the shame of being a POW in Russia, of being wounded and having to walk back from Leningrad, defeated, disgraced.

Some of these themes occupy quite a bit of my thinking these days. Are we able to create and invent stories that have no link to our past, and no resemblance to who we are in real life? Or, to turn the question upside down, how much does our past, and by extension our value system, influence the plots we choose, the focus of our stories and the characters we create? How often do writers create a protagonist who is their mirror image?

I believe that novels readers can connect most closely to reflect some part of the writer’s personal life. Even if it’s a short scene, a snippet, a reflection. Surely we can all dip into our memory trough and unearth some morsels for our stories.

It would be a real shame not to use our very own, very personal treasury chest.


6 thoughts on “Everything to be ashamed of

  1. Thanks for this addition to the list Helga. Shame is such a complex, dark emotion — a very powerful tool in the hands of a thoughtful writer. I love the added dimension that shame is a hidden emotion, like a “blood” moon during an eclipse. Ooo. Yeah. Maybe I’ll use that!

    • Biblical prophecies about blood moon? Hmm, there’s an idea for a new plot! An antagonist who takes his clues from Joel 2:31: ‘The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.’

  2. You are so right, Helga—every one of us has done or experienced something we are ashamed of. Even if it might seem trivial to others, the effect on us might have been great. And putting some piece of that in a story, whether as a main theme or in passing, can add depth to the tale and allow readers to engage more fully with the story.

    And while this is rather off the subject, it’s fascinating for me to hear that your father talked frequently of his experiences in World War II. Mine did not. I’m likely significantly younger than you, but I was an unexpected surprise, born many years after my older siblings. But it seems many American men kept quiet about their experiences during the war, and my father fit that description. I’m sure there’s a cultural study in there, but perhaps also another insight into how different characters in our stories could react differently to the same event….

    • Thanks so much for sharing this experience about your father, JM. I too have wondered many times if the difference is rooted in culture rather than personalities. I know that the old people here in Canada who have been in the war only reluctantly share their stories. It could make for some interesting writing, to have characters react in unexpected and different ways to the same event. Great suggestion.

  3. Shame is part of a continuum:
    REGRET: I wish I’d done something differently (bought Microsoft when it was cheap).
    GUILT: I did something bad, and wish I hadn’t (watered the plants with soup, when others were
    SHAME: I’m a bad or worthless person (because of something awful I did, or because of how I
    was made to feel about myself).
    We all have regrets and feel guilt over something, so we can understand how someone might have such intense guilt or regrets that they feel shame. That’s why we car relate powerfully to such powerful feelings.

    • Thanks for your comments, sofferc. Interesting observation about regret and guilt as a continuum of shame. They are all very useful for the writer and make a story richer and more complex.

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