Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Guilt Again

“Guilt is the price we pay willingly for doing what we are going to do anyway.” Isabelle Holland

JAN: I'm fascinated by guilt, in part because it is so destructive, but also because I've known and profiled a few sociopaths. The complete absence of guilt is startling. You can actually see the ability to feel guilt missing from someone's eyes.

I used to think I always felt guilty because I was Irish-Catholic, but I'm starting to think it's just an inborn trait. A tendency to self-criticism. Too much of that tendency is self-destructive. Too little and you can destroy others with abandon.

Anyway, murder mysteries are all about guilt, right? Only I find that I use guilt more in the creation of my protagonist, Hallie Ahern, than in the creation of my bad guys. In past books, Hallie has wrestled with the lines she crosses in journalism to complete her investigation. In this book, she is wrestling with the lines of humanity she crosses to do her job as a journalist.

I know Hallie Ephron wrote an entire mystery entitled Guilt, and will have a lot to offer on this topic. But I'm also wondering how everyone else makes literary use of the incredible power of guilt.

RO: I've got the Catholic thing, too, so guilt is a part of my life. I feel guilty about something every day (I'm really revealing all of my neuroses in this blog, aren't I?)- even if it's something as small as not sending a thank you note fast enough. (Thank you Alice and Alison...the notes are coming.)Perhaps that's the reason my characters are remarkably guilt-free. Maybe that's my fantasy...the way nebbish-y guys write superheroes.

Since I write cozies, I haven't dealt with hardened criminals yet. My bad guys seem to fall into the amoral greed-lust-revenge crowd, and - at least as I've created them - they have the ability to do what they think must be done unfettered by anything as annoying as guilt.

ROBERTA: I'm with Jan on this one though I was raised a white-bread Presbyterian. Even so, I generally feel guilty about everything and my protagonists do as well! It is a real motivator: Let something go long enough and the guilty feelings start to snowball until that item finally gets moved up the list. I think the kind of guilt we're talking about is related to feeling privileged too. Is is possible to feel lucky and happy without that underlying sense of guilt? The villains in my books tend to have some pressing need or grudge that feels strong enough to completely overwhelm any sense of guilt.

HANK: Guilt. One one end of the spectrum is feeling one "ought to be" doing something because of responsibility in a relationship, to society, to a job, to a loved one--but instead, they do something else.

Something, probably, that's bound up with one of the other prime motivators, selfishness. But still, if I use frozen brown rice for dinner instead of making the 45-minute kind, or if I don't fold the fitted sheets perfectly because it's too much of a pain, or if I leave work the tiniest bit early because I want to work on my book--yeah, I feel twinges of guilt. But not GUILTY.

On the other hand..when the human foible selfishness twists and morphs into greed and vengeance and it outpaces responsibility and morality--then guilt turns to guilty. As in--the one who becomes the bad guy.

And I think what makes the best bad guys so interesting is that they can all tell you a reason why they've decided whatever they're doing is okay. I love the moment in a mystery when you find out whodunnit--but whydunnit is more interesting and certainly more fun to write when you're creating a character. When the reader finds the 'why'--and suddenly all those clues that have been so carefully laid out in the 300 pages before click together like a Rubik's cube and you see the real picture--that's very satisfying. Because then you've got a real person.

HALLIE: Exactly! Guilt is what the villain in a mystery novel doesn't feel, because from his/her point of view, there were utterly compelling reasons for the and it HAD TO BE done. Whereas the rest of us feel overwhelming guilt for all sorts of things over which we, in fact, have absolutely no control (our children's unhappiness, the price of fish...) What I'm fascinated by, from a plotting point of view, is the difference between guilt and shame. Characters feel compelled to hide whatever it is that causes them guilt or shame, and secrets are the lifeblood of a mystery novel.


  1. How RC am I? I felt guilty if I read this blog and didn't post a comment! Seriously, guilt is a tremendously powerful character motivator, but in the case of my Black Widows who cover almost every religious spectrum, their "guilt" is heavily wrapped up in a moral obligation to help other women because they themselves have been wronged.

    To further explore this, I've thrown an interesting twist into the next book, SPUN TALES, in which Katie Mahoney is faced with the dilemma of having to come to the aid of her arch nemesis - who happens to be a woman.

  2. My Dad's prescription for anyone who is stressed, anxious, depressed includes getting rid of what he calls "The Shoulds." Most of the things we think we "should" do aren't all that important, but boy do they make us feel guilty.

    Another great way to use guilt in a story: All those little things people feel guilty about lead them to tell little lies that can gum up an investigation. EX: Time frame is off because the witness didn't want to admit she stopped at Dunkin Donuts for a triple chocolate muffin and Snickers hot chocolate.

    I'm feeling guilty just thinking about that.