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3 Ways Your Characters Could Forgive… Or Not

Forgiveness isn’t as simple as it first seems. Actually, your characters could forgive (or fail to forgive) in three distinct ways. Can you guess what they are?

Writing about the natural evolution of forgiveness, without it feeling contrived, can be a pretty unforgiving task for an author.

How many times have you read a book where a character forgave someone without a good reason or solid basis for it, seemingly because the writer felt it was the ‘right thing for them to do’?

Here’s the problem. Without laying the foundations for your character’s change of heart, you risk coming across as moralising or simply unskilled at character development. You don’t want that. You want to guide your characters down a path of forgiveness—or send them careening off it—in a way that’s as natural, believable and interesting to your readers as possible.

The way to do that? Look first at the real-life intricacies of forgiving.

I’ve talked previously about the steps involved in forgiving, but this only really applies to forgiving other people. Actually, forgiveness isn’t that simple. Today, let’s look at forgiveness in more depth, and in doing so, give more depth to your characters.

First of all, forgiveness—what is it, exactly? According to Thompson et al. (2005), it involves changing a response to...

  • a wrongdoer;
  • a situation in which wrong has been done (to you or another person); and
  • anything that happens as a result of the wrongdoing

...from a negative to a neutral or positive response. Remember: forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to feel positive towards a transgressor, just that the negative feelings are now gone.

Looking at forgiveness as just one process is pretty simplistic, however. The emotions you experience, what you direct those emotions towards and the process you go through to forgive can be very different, depending on the source of your negative feelings. And what are those sources?

Yourself, other people, and situations beyond human control.

Let’s elaborate.

Self-Forgiveness

When do you need to forgive yourself? Usually, when you’ve wronged someone else. You’ve done something to someone and you feel guilt or shame about it. You can hang onto those negative feelings towards yourself, which can have some nasty consequences, or you can let them go. The latter is self-forgiveness.

Forgiveness of Other People

Sometimes people do things that hurt you. You could go on feeling bad towards them, or maybe take things further and seek some form of vengeance, or you could let those negative emotions go. Other-forgiveness involves just that—replacing negative emotions towards wrongdoers with neutral or positive ones.

Forgiveness of Situations Beyond Human Control

Say a huge storm blows in and destroys your house. A family member gets ill and ends up in the hospital. A tree branch falls on your brand new car. All things you have no control over, but situations that cause you to feel, think and act negatively nonetheless. You might blame fate or God or the world, but there’s no actual person, either yourself or others, to focus your blame or forgiveness on. It’s a situation beyond human control, and because there’s no one to blame, it can make forgiveness more complicated.


How Forgiving Are Your Characters?

You can find out exactly how forgiving your characters are of themselves, others and situations beyond their control by completing the Heartland Forgiveness Scale from their perspectives.

This next bit is an important bit of info. The Heartland Forgiveness Scale measures trait forgiveness, or how forgiving you are across time, situations and relationships. In other words, how forgiving you are generally, not in a specific situation. Keep this in mind when filling out the questionnaire and using the information it reveals.

All right, got that questionnaire filled out? Then let’s score it.


The Scoring

For statements 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18, score them with the same number you wrote beside the question. For example, if you answered the first statement (‘Although I feel bad at first when I mess up, over time I can give myself some slack’) with a 5 (‘more often true of me’), then its score is a 5.

If you gave answers over 4 for this set of statements, your character is more forgiving in this area. If your answers were below 4, your character is less forgiving in this area.

For statements 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17, score them in reverse, as shown in the table at the end of the Heartland Forgiveness Scale. For example, if you answered the second statement (‘I hold grudges against myself for negative things I’ve done’) with a 3 (‘more often false of me’), then its score is a 5.

If you gave answers over 4 for this set of statements, your character is less forgiving in this area. If your answers were below 4, your character is more forgiving in this area.

After scoring each statement, add up the scores for each subscale (self-, other- and situation-forgiveness). You can also add the scores for each subscale together to get how forgiving your character is overall, though I find the subscale scores to be more enlightening about my characters, which is why I’ll be focusing on those.

Okay, so now you should have three scores, one for Self-Forgiveness, one for Forgiveness of Others, and one for Forgiveness of Situations. The average score for each subscale is 31, so if your character scores less than this, they tend to be less forgiving in this area. If they score higher than 31, they’re more forgiving than the average in this area.

Now you can use the scores for each subscale to give you an indication of how easy or difficult your character’s path towards forgiveness will be (if they remain on it, that is—they may choose to hold onto their negative feelings after all). Use this information to guide your character development, flesh out your cast and complicate your plot.

If you have any problems scoring your characters’ answers to the Heartland Forgiveness Scale, include their responses in a comment below and I’ll lend a hand. Same goes if you’d like some help interpreting what your characters’ scores mean. I’d be more than happy to help. (I had to score, calculate and interpret 192 completed questionnaires for my dissertation, so I like to think I’m pretty good at it now.)


Alternatively, Work In Reverse

If you know you want your character to find it difficult to forgive in a certain area, you could use the scoring system on the questionnaire to indicate which statements your character should agree or disagree with. Use these statements to shape their personality, their thoughts and their actions, and guide their responses to transgressions throughout the story.

Let’s have an example. Say you want your character to struggle to forgive situations beyond their control. Therefore, they need to give low scores to statements 13 to 18. Their answers to statements 14, 16, and 18 will tend to be higher than 4 and their answers to statements 13, 15, and 17 will tend to be lower than 4 (as they are scored in reverse, with opposite scores to the answers you gave).

So now, if something beyond their control happens to your character, like a landslide destroying their house, you’ll know that they tend to get stuck in negative thoughts about it (statement 13) and that they just can’t make peace with this bad situation (statement 16).

So what exactly can you do with this information? All is revealed in the next post, How to Add Realism to Your Story: The Complexities of Forgiveness!


Don’t treat forgiveness as an afterthought. Add realism to your story, depth to your cast and conflict to your plot.

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