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How to Add Realism to Your Story: The Complexities of Forgiveness

How can you add realism to your story? Through writing about forgiveness in a way that’s as natural, believable and interesting to your readers as possible.

Forgiveness is complex. Treating it as such in your story can add an extra layer of realism and depth to your characters, yet it’s a topic that’s often glossed over in books. Characters forgive, but there’s little thought given to how and in what ways.

Let’s change that.

Forgiveness (or failing to forgive) may be a critical part of your character’s development. Don’t simplify or skim over it. Do it justice by factoring in various aspects of your character’s psyche and crafting a natural (though by no means easy) progression towards forgiveness. Here’s how.

If you read the previous Psychology & Storycraft post, 3 Ways Your Characters Could Forgive… Or Not, you’ll know that it’s simplistic to look at forgiveness as just one process. Actually, forgiveness could be divided into three distinct processes, each very different from the others in the emotions experienced and what those emotions are directed towards. What are those processes? Forgiveness of self, other people and situations beyond your control.

You can get a good idea of how forgiving your characters are in these three areas by completing the Heartland Forgiveness Scale from their perspectives. Once you have your characters’ scores for each subscale, you can start having some writerly fun with that information. Today’s post includes a few suggestions for how to do that.


Using Your Characters’ Forgiveness Scores

How can you put the answers you worked so hard to score to good use? Well...

CREATE A REALISTIC PROGRESSION TOWARDS FORGIVENESS

I hope that the information packed into this and the last Psychology & Storycraft post will give you everything you need to integrate a natural, realistic evolution of forgiveness into your character arcs. Exactly how to portray this process has been covered in Can Your Characters Learn to Forgive and Forget? Remember that you can apply the stages of Enright’s model of forgiveness to the three types to give your characters a natural progression along a path of understanding.

So that’s how your characters might forgive covered. But what might be the repercussions of doing (or failing to do) so?

USE FORGIVENESS TO CREATE CONFLICT

How forgiving your cast is can generate some interesting complications in your plot. Be creative. If your character is pretty unforgiving in any of the three areas, there’s a lot of potential for conflict. For example, guilt, shame and self-destructive behaviour can result from a lack of self-forgiveness; revenge-seeking and punishment of others may spring from low interpersonal forgiveness; and clutching at the need to unfairly blame others and oneself can occur when something happens beyond your character’s control.

And don’t forget the other end of the spectrum. If your characters are too quick to forgive themselves, particularly if they’ve caused great hurt to others, it can send sparks flying. Forgiving others too quickly or easily can lead to your characters being hurt again, emotionally or physically, such as in cases of abusive relationships. Brushing off negative situations beyond their control could illustrate a trend towards being too lenient, something your other characters may find frustrating.

While forgiveness is about resolving negativity, it doesn’t always have to lead to resolutions in your story. Be imaginative in how your characters’ propensity towards forgiveness can create conflict, as well as end it.


Did you know that forgiveness can cause conflict in your story as well as end it? @Writerology reveals how here.

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INTERACTION WITH OTHER PERSONALITY FACTORS

When deciding how forgiving your characters are, keep in mind other aspects of their personality and how these interact with their forgiveness levels.

Locus of control is a big one. If your character has a more internal locus of control, believing that they have control over their life and environment, then how willing they are to forgive themselves may differ substantially from a character with a more external locus of control. An external type may be more willing to shift the blame for a transgression onto something or someone else and so feel less of a need to forgive themselves.

A character who believes their life is controlled by external factors, like other people, luck or fate (in other words, someone with an external locus of control), may approach other- and situation-forgiveness in a very different way to an internal. As they attribute control to factors other than themselves, they may find it harder to forgive other people and situations beyond control.


Breathe Life into Your Writing: Dramatising Forgiveness

Yes, it’s that ‘show, don’t tell’ thing again. You can explicitly tell your reader that Miss Sara Protagonist feels bad for forgetting her sister’s birthday, but cuts herself some slack given time, or you could subtly show Sara’s process of self-forgiveness through dramatising the statement.

Let’s explore exactly how you can dramatise the different types of forgiveness through internal and external means, breathe life into your writing and create an immersive experience for your readers all at once.

EXPRESSING FORGIVENESS TYPES INTERNALLY

You can show how forgiving your characters are of themselves, others and situations beyond their control through internal, or unobservable, means. This could be through the emotions your characters are feeling, their thoughts or, if you’re writing in deep point-of-view, through the narrative itself.

The statements in the Heartland Forgiveness Scale are a handy guide to what your characters may be thinking and feeling with regards to the different types of forgiveness. Try dramatising them to give an indication of your character’s thought patterns and emotions.

Example self-forgiveness statement: ‘I don’t stop criticising myself for negative things I’ve felt, thought, said, or done.’ (Item 6 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

You could show agreement with this statement through interspersing the character’s narrative and thoughts with criticism directed at themselves, layering in feelings of guilt and shame.

Example other-forgiveness statement: ‘Although others have hurt me in the past, I have eventually been able to see them as good people.’ (Item 10 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

Over the course of the story, your character’s perception of the person who hurt them may change. Their interpretation of the transgressor’s actions, their thoughts about them and their feelings towards them could shift towards the positive. As this happens, your character lets go of their negative emotions, such as anger towards the transgressor, and gradually forgives them.

Example situation-forgiveness statement: ‘When things go wrong for reasons that can’t be controlled, I get stuck in negative thoughts about it.’ (Item 13 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If this statement sums up your character, then you can illustrate that through threading negative thoughts about the uncontrollable event through the narrative, potentially along with a sense of helplessness and other similarly negative emotions.

EXPRESSING FORGIVENESS TYPES EXTERNALLY

Demonstrating your character’s agreement with a statement through internal means isn’t the only option available to you. You could also show them outwardly, in an observable fashion, through your character’s actions and dialogue, for example. If your character agrees with a statement, especially so if they strongly agree, then communicate that to your reader through these external means.

Example self-forgiveness statement: ‘Learning from bad things that I’ve done helps me get over them.’ (Item 3 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

It’s possible to illustrate that your character does this through their actions. For instance, if, in a similar situation to the original transgression, your character learns from their mistake and acts differently, they may be more inclined to forgive themselves afterwards.

Example other-forgiveness statement: ‘I continue to punish a person who has done something that I think is wrong.’ (Item 7 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

It’s not hard to see how this could be illustrated through your character’s actions and dialogue. They could punish the person who hurt them directly or indirectly, by physical or psychological means, potentially as a way of seeking revenge. The severity of the punishment and how they go about it will, of course, depend on other aspects of your character’s personality.

Example situation-forgiveness statement: ‘It’s really hard for me to accept negative situations that aren’t anybody’s fault.’ (Item 17 on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale)

Here’s something you could demonstrate through your character’s dialogue and reactions. They may express this explicitly to other characters or search for people to pin the blame for an uncontrollable situation to, as it hurts for them to not blame anyone. This statement’s one that could bring a lot of conflict to your story, so have fun with it.