Your Character's Wants Vs Needs: Genre Dive (Fear and Forgiveness)
The next topic of our Character’s Wants Versus Needs Genre Dive series covers the topics of forgiveness and fear. Thematically these two topics are exhibited across all genres for tension and conflict resolution. When these topics are the focal points of a story, however, a noticeable pattern emerges in several genres. Historical fiction, horror and literary fiction are the genres that come to mind when considering stories that exhibit forgiveness and fear as a character’s want versus need. Unlike acceptance and faith, forgiveness and fear don’t usually manifest in a literal way. The protagonist doesn’t set out on a journey because they want an apology. Horror stories aren’t solely about the things that make our skin prickle. Of all the wants versus needs on our list, forgiveness and fear may have the most complexity to offer.
Before we dive into these genres, let’s review how both topics tend to manifest in fiction. Sometimes we encounter stories of betrayal that lead to a character’s struggle with forgiving their betrayer. Other times, we encounter stories where a character has failed in some way or done wrong and struggles with the act of forgiving themselves. The latter of those two examples tends to fall under the category of a redemption story (or arc). In a redemption story, a character usually sets out to right a wrong (want) of their doing. Regardless of whether this goal is achieved in the end, the character is always confronted by the realization that they’ll need to forgive themselves (need) first.
There’s an entire genre dedicated to horror, but fear plays out a little different when it comes to a character’s want versus need. Characters don’t tend to make the choice to want to be afraid, nor do they discover a need to be to achieve their goals. When we get more literal in the horror genre, there tends to be two major ways in which fear becomes intrinsically laced with the character’s journey. Usually, fear is presented as an outwards obstacle the character needs to conquer or overcome. The protagonist wants to survive the monster hiding among their group but needs to overcome the paranoia that’s clouding their judgement. Fear can also present itself as a character’s internal struggle. The protagonist wants to trust people again before life passes them by but needs to work through their past trauma as the almost victim of a serial killer.
With that established, let’s examine few famous examples of forgiveness and fear:
In Victor Hugo’s drama, Les Misérables, the topic of forgiveness is taken to an interesting extreme. Here’s a story where the entire cast of characters are seeking redemption for something. Valjean’s encounter with Bishop Myriel sets him on a path to redemption as an act of forgiveness can be the first stone cast towards change. Cosette, his later adopted daughter, is nearly consumed by bitterness for the wicked Thenardiers who neglected and abused her throughout her childhood. Both Valjean and Cosette have grown bitter and hateful from the suffering of their imprisonments. This comparison sheds light on the concept of how suffering can change a person for the worse. Before Valjean’s death at the end of the story, he urges Cosette to forgive her abusers. From personal experience, he recognizes how forgiveness will be the key to freeing one's self from the prisons of their past.
The topic of freeing one’s self from the past is also exhibited throughout author Fyodòr Destoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment. Protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov is riddled with guilt after killing a pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Throughout the story, Rodion acts as his own judge and jury regarding his sins and how to redeem them. As a result of this, Rodion’s total disgust with himself spurs him into seeking redemption in ways he judges to equal the value of his sins. At first Rodion is content with having become a non-violent member of society. His redemption begins with acts such as sobering an alcoholic or foiling a sinister plot against an upstanding family. Eventually, Rodion accepts that his personal judgement upon his own crimes will never fulfill his need to achieve redemption. As the title suggests, Rodion wants to atone for his crimes but needs to be punished for them.
Tragedies can also follow when a character’s wants and needs revolve around forgiveness. The fact is apparent in the previous examples where satisfying the character’s need manifests as personal fulfillment. Valjean resolves that forgiveness is the key to freeing himself from the pain of his unjust past. Rodion overcomes his denial and accepts that redemption he seeks can only come from being judged by the law. In both examples, the protagonist achieves their need in the way they least expected. Sometimes, however, forgiveness is a need the protagonist does not get to realize. This is the case in author Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Protagonist Briony Tallis witnesses her sister sleeping with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Understandably shocked by this encounter, Briony wrongly presumes the event was rape. It isn’t until Briony’s adulthood that she realizes her mistake, one that ruined the lives of her sister and Robbie. Briony’s only redemption is found in writing a novel that both confesses her sins and includes a happy ending for the lovers. The tragedy, of course, lies in that their happy ending is fictional while the reality is anything but. Briony wants to take back the pain she inflicted but needs to let go of her own pain by telling the truth.
As mentioned previously, fear plays out a little differently when applied to a character's want versus need. A pattern that often develops with this topic, is there's more room for tragedies. Sometimes failures, the lack of success or outright tragedies are the more effective ways of ending a story. Sometimes the protagonist needs to fail in order for the story to hit home. Sometimes the story's about how the protagonist's failure is inevitable. Sometimes the horror can't be felt without the characters meeting their impending doom. If you're familiar with these next three examples, then you probably already know where I'm going with this.
Fear is more deviously applied to the protagonist’s want versus need in William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Macbeth is both afraid of his wife’s disapproval and the witches’ warnings of his becoming king. After murdering king Duncan, Macbeth is riddled with paranoia throughout the play. The dynamic change between him and his wife exhibits how fear can destroy the minds of people. Interestingly, Macbeth’s wants versus needs change when his character transforms. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is initially satisfied as a mighty warrior who's earned the respect of his peers (want). Despite this, Macbeth continually fails to earn the approval of his wife (need). Playing on her husband’s need, Lady Macbeth pressures her husband to go through with killing the king and taking the throne. Inevitably Macbeth becomes a tyrant leader, no longer caring about the consequences of his actions. Thus, his wants versus needs change: Macbeth clings to his reign, despite his prophesied doom (want). Macbeth ultimately commits to dying a soldier’s death, haunted by the realization that he'll be remembered as nothing more than a traitor (need). This protagonist begins afraid of the risk his wife is urging him to take, then later ends afraid of losing what he's gained. His wants versus needs are entirely ruled by what he's afraid to lose or risk.
We see a similar, albeit more internalized scenario in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The unnamed narrator outright confesses to a murder at the beginning but spends the rest of the tale attempting to justify his actions. The dilemma he finds himself in is how admitting to unjustified murder proves his insanity. The two are so intrinsically laced that he cannot admit to one without admitting to the other. What the narrator fears most, above all else, is admitting to the fact that he's completely lost his mind. Over the course of the story, the narrator is literally tormented by his guilt, which worsens when a trio of policemen arrive in search of his victim. The narrator wants to convince himself his actions were justified so he can believe himself sane. The narrator needs to accept both that he’s succumbed to madness and that he’s unjustly murdered to end his suffering. Fear in this story damns the narrator's ending in tragedy. The narrator's desire for his torment to end ultimately leads to his confessing his crimes to the policemen. The narrator's inability to get away with murder only adds to the gravity of his crime. It's a weight that is literally destroying the narrator from within.
The opposite becomes true in Arthur Miller's The Crucible when we focus on its main antagonist, Abigail Williams. Unlike the nameless narrator of the previous example, here is a character who doesn't give spreading hysteria in her community a second thought. Speaking of which, hysteria plays a major role in Miller's novel. Following a simple act of adultery between Abigail and locally respected community member John Proctor, the deadly witch hunt in a puritan community commences. The Crucible offers a particularly interesting example of a character needing to sacrifice their want. Abigail Williams is vengeful towards John Proctor after he rejects her for his wife. Driven mad by jealousy, it doesn’t take long for Abigail to accuse John’s wife of being a witch amidst the growing chaos of the trials. The entire town is tossed into a mistrustful and paranoid frenzy, and Abigail enlists the girls of her community to join in on the...fun. Abigail’s want is clear before the events of the story even take place. Abigail wants to rid herself of her competition for John Proctor while maintaining a virtuous appearance. It isn’t until the trials are in full swing that her need becomes established. To survive the frenzy of her making, Abigail needs to sacrifice the very thing she wanted in the first place. Abigail excites the court into convicting John as a witch to spare the accusations against her of faking the presence of witches in their community. Safe to say Abigail eventually suffers the consequences for her action but she didn't go down without a fight.
As we’ve seen from the above examples, sometimes an unexpected interaction changes the character’s perspective regarding what they want and eventually need. Other times, our characters experience exponential enough change that their initial want versus need is replaced completely. The first sign of failure or tragedy forces the character to adapt and thus reevaluate their needs. Not surprisingly, the concepts of fear and forgiveness are great motivators to make such a change happen. Motivations for a character’s wants versus needs to change aren’t limited to the extremes of fear and forgiveness, however. Love and selflessness are equally powerful motivators that affect characters in very interesting ways. We’ll explore just how interesting in the next post.