NaNoWriMo #23: Harness the Power of ‘Resentment’

Ever wonder what separates a great book from the pack?  The published from the unpublished?

The question becomes perhaps more intriguing when you consider that, when it comes to modern commercial fiction (novels and movies), most stories unfold from pretty much the same architectural paradigm, imbued the requisite properties reaching for universal criteria.

That fact alone is empowering and challenging.  Some writers reject this, and thus, their works may end up being less than commercial, which in turn leads to… self-publishing at best. 

If you want into the game, you have to know the game and play by its rules.

Stories are like human faces, we all have the same dozen or so properties properties and variable.  If you have two noses, you’re a freak show, you can forget about a career as a model (analogous, perhaps, to being published and read).  And yet, with billions of us on the planet, how often do we encounter an exact replica?  And when we do, once we look inside at the inner person, even those similarites vanish.

We are all unique.  As are our stories.  Even though both are assembled from the same stuff.

So if it’s all the same, what is the difference between good and great? 

With stories, those in-common things comprise craft.  What separates the great from the mundane is art.  You can execute craft, within the boundaries of professional and commercial expectations, in all sorts of ways, some more appealing that others.

And that becomes the art behind the craft.

When it comes to art, there is an entire grad school year full of tools, opportunities and tricks-of-the-trade that the Big Guys know and implement, and the rest of us either strive for or completely miss.

You think hitting the basics is hard?  Wait until you wrap your head around the subtle stuff.

One of the most powerful aspects of a highly successful story is hero/characater motivation

Not just the stakes behind the win-or-lose nature of their story journey, but the driving inner landscape that define who the character really is, and thus, what they do.

And one of the most powerful of those forces is resentment.

Most of us resent something.  From our past, in our culture, in politics, in specific people.   The list can be quite long.

In my workshops I sometimes ask writers — before I introduce this concept — to make a roster of everything they resent, no holds barred.  Mothers and fathers and politicians and greedy rich people usually populate the list.  Sometimes they resent their kids (ties them down), their jobs (unfair, trapped), their DNA (too short, too tall, don’t look enough like George Clooney).

But there’s the unexpected, too.  The deeper you go, the more gold there is to leverage as a writer.

They I ask them to consider how they respond to those resentments.  They vote Democrat.  They don’t drink.  They do drink.  They ignore their partner.  They avoid crowds.  Whatever.  There are actions attached to resentments.

When you study human behavioral psychology — and if you’re serious about writing fiction, you should, even at the Dr. Phil level, which is actually quite illuminting — you’ll see that resentment is a palpable, surface motivator.  And, it is the spark that ignites a chain of behaviors that, while not seeming like resentment at the time, begin with a seed of unresolved resentment.

What ensues from resentment? 

Resentment leads to resistence… which in turn can lead to revenge.

Now we have a story.

Think about what this means to your stories.  Not just the ones you’re writing, but the ones you’ve loved to read.

Bad guys often resent authority.  They resent structure.  They resent being controlled. They resent being poor, being fired, being lazy.  They are bitter.  They resist a healthier past, they resent positive choices because the negative ones are so available and, to them, easier.  Selfishness is the offspring of resentment.  So is cruelty.  So is laziness.  And so they act from this inner landscape to steal, to abuse, to scheme and to kill.

Same with good guys.  At the beginning of character arc your hero may have issues that need to be resolved in the course of your narrative to empower them to become the primary catalyst in the resolution of the story (this being an essential context for how a great story ends).  They may, in fact, have the same unresolved resentments as do the bad guys, but with different choices going forward.

They choose positive, a higher moral ground, over easy and available.

Resentment doesn’t define good and bad.  Decisions, behavior and action do.  It’s how characters respond to their inner landscape that juices a story to a level worthy of success.

Want to test this?

Let’s look at marriage, the wheelhouse of the vicious resentment-resistence- revenge cycle.

Let’s say a husband is caught cheating with a hooker.  That alone, from his perspective, is likely the outcome of this cycle (he resents his wife’s lack of passion, or her intolerance of his kinky desires), but while it’s important (as an author) to recognize that there are two separate cycles in play here, let’s look at it from the wife’s point of view. 

She’s hurt.  She resents what he did.  She resents him, in addition to what he did

From that resentment she resists intimacy.  Withholds affection (a form of resistence).  Resists being his life partner in both big picture and daily ways.  Resists moving forward in a positive manner.  It’s just too easy, too gratifying, to hate this guy.

Finally, with all that resistence borne of resentment, they grow apart.  She feels justified in her coldness, because after all, he was the schmuck who cheated.  She’s snarky, unforgiving… directly because of her resentment.  And then one day she meets a handsome stranger (who looks a lot like George Clooney).  The flesh is weak, and so she sleeps with him. 

On the surface of her justification  is revenge.  But when you go deeper, you find her own needs liberated (from resistence), and in turn, the seed of it all… her resentment. 

None of this happens if she makes different decisions from that initial point of resentment.

Your story is full of decisions and actions. 

And most of them — perhaps all of them — can be connected in a psychological sense back down through the cycle in reverse: action… springing from the need for revenge… springing from resisting healing and loving… in turn arising from some form of resentment.

Real life complicates these decisions and thus disguises them… but if you break it down, this cycle is almost always there in some form.

And all of it is… motivation.  Which is the emotional engine of an effective story.  Nothing moves without it.

Implementing this with a light, functionally-veiled touch is the art of writing fiction.

Look back at the stories you love and see how this psychology comes into play. 

Look at Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s iconic detective hero.  Is he movitated by his job description?  Sure.  Is he motivated by injustice and the need to right wrongs?  Sure.  But why?  Look at that, at the psychology of why he chose this profession instead of truck driving or baking cookies, and you’ll see a deeper, illuminating backstory at the heart of his true motivations.

As you will for all compelling heroes and villains.

As you craft your protagonist and bad guy (in whatever form) for your NaNoWriMo story, ask yourself what makes the character tick

What is the chain of events that may have resulted from resentment of some kind… where did that resentment come from… how has the character handled it… what has the character resisted (i.e., some cops don’t want a promotion, or go on the take, because they resent guys in suits)… how does that resistence manifest… and what ultimately constitutes revenge in the the form of decisions and actions?

How your character navigates this complex psychological landscape is the stuff of compelling fiction.

How an author implements it is the art of writing compelling fiction, stories that stand out not just because of stellar core competencies, but from emotional resonance and reader empathy, both of which are issues of underlying story physics.  Which, in literature, is all psychological.

Shoot for this, with a light touch, and do it in your story planning if you can.  When you meet your hero on the page, you’ll be amazed at how nuanced and clever you will be with the decisions and actions you give him/her.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

9 Responses to NaNoWriMo #23: Harness the Power of ‘Resentment’

  1. Oh, wow! I had never thought of this, so thank you! This has just given me a whole new train of ideas (and backstory) as to why my character is the way she is…..Gah! I am SUCH a newbie at this, lol

  2. Wow is right!

    We see the child who resents the emotional abuse of her family, who resists allowing them to lower her self-esteem, and who gets revenge by excelling in her chosen field and showing that she’s better than they ever imagined she could be. Now we know why that high-powered executive character is so focused on her work and unapproachable.

    Magnificent post, Larry. You’ve boiled down the motivation for so many characters. What a great help this can be for all writers. Thank you.

    BTW, I’m in the process of buying all your books. Not only because I want to learn from them, but also in gratitude for your unselfish devotion to assisting writers to improve our craft and lift our stories into an artform. As the kids would say, You Rock!

  3. Fancy

    WOW again! I have lots of backstory (that’s not necessarily going to be in the finished novel) which informs my character’s actions, but this post helps me see it at a whole new level. It’s one thing to have dramatic backstory, it’s another to really see down to the core of why that backstory informs those actions, and, as a result the ability to really zero in on believable reactions. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! And I love Nann’s idea of buying all your books to support this valuable gift you are giving us. I think I will jump on that train, too!

  4. I had never thought much about resentment. Wow it carries a lot of power. When I am developing my characters and my next novel I will ask what my characters resent. Thank you! I am learning so much from the Nanowrimo series.

  5. Your book arrived yesterday – I am hooked already – 🙂 Next time I might do express shipping, because the 6 week wait was too long!

  6. Fiona

    Adding to the above comments – thanks for this post. You’ve just added a whole new layer of complexity to my bad guy. Something I wouldn’t have thought of at all and it fits so well.

  7. Brilliant. I do this all the time, it’s the natural connection between backstory and character. I love the way that I’ve been intuitively doing some things that work, then you look at it sideways and show me why something works.

    I had to smile at your example. Because it goes both ways. If a character breaks the pattern and doesn’t do an expected sin, that can be just as devastating as your infidelity example. Virtue is just as annoying, even if the virtuous side of the debate isn’t getting holier than thou about it and has completely different motivations.

    Roommate A screams “How come you never say anything in an argument you have to apologize for?” He’s used to an idea of fairness that’s “50-50” assuming each person in an argument is always half wrong. His parents always did that and sorted out arguments with apologies.

    Roommate B had an abusive alcoholic father and a mom who apologized for breathing too loudly. He resented his dad and barely survived that childhood but stood up to him. He has a huge chip on his shoulder about apologizing when he’s not wrong. 50-50 wouldn’t have worked between his parents, Mom’s burning the roast because Dad hit her was not on a par with what he did no matter how much she apologized. Along with that he grew up with that alcoholic family’s tendency to look at issues in black and white. He doesn’t get things that might be a gray area, like his roommate’s different habits.

    Once convinced, he apologizes, but he only apologizes if convinced that he was wrong. These guys argue all the time and even if Roommate B isn’t sanctimonious about that, the reader might agree with Roommate A sometimes.

    It’s the fun about writing people from life. How they handle resentment will always get under someone else’s skin – no matter what it is. Heroes are as annoying as villains.

  8. For a good fictional example in a modern classic, Harry Potter versus Draco Malfoy, a boy who within his own world view is just being an upper class privileged conservative, a typical Slytherin. Take away Lord Voldemort and it really is just schoolboy pranks and mischief. Malfoy resents Harry’s rejection, initially he was being friendly within his own terms. Harry could have been seduced into his group of friends easily if it weren’t for personal choices on his part that have to do with the Dursleys. Draco got spoiled like Dudley Dursley.

    Draco goes through a lot of growth during the series and at the end of it, still loves the parents who for all their obnoxious conservative-bigot views, loved him and supported him. In the denouement, it’s crucial that Narcissa Malfoy cares more about her son than about Lord Voldemort. The climax rests on Harry’s Decision but that rests on a vast pyramid of karma, on little decisions by every other character in the book – and they are not black and white, the rotten characters do the right thing within their own terms, the good characters goof up within their own terms too.

    What would have happened if Sirius Black had trusted Harry more, accepted that Harry was already at that much risk anyway and being shoved into premature maturity?

    Deep down most people think that by and large they’re right about things and their resentments are understandable. They may be merciless about punishing themselves when they do something that’s wrong in their terms but it takes a lot to be able to understand the other bloke’s point of view, let alone accept it. Someone who does may well be considered wishy-washy rather than accepting.

    Resentments are always personal. They’re what drives everyone. I love the way you pointed out that it’s not the motive itself but what a character does that makes him shine or fail, turn cruel or kind, virtuous or reprehensible. All those are different dichotomies.

    The more I look at all my characters this way, the richer the stories become. Novels are grand for this because there’s so much elbow room to take off on a tangent, show these quick sketches of side characters and foils, people who made completely different choices when they were presented.

    This is a very powerful vehicle for theme too. Harry Potter and Tom Riddle faced the same pressures, it balanced out well between the emotionally abusive Dursleys and the overburdened Muggle orphanage lady who did care about the kids but could not protect her charges from young Tom with or without powers. It was clear that young Tom Riddle was stealing and bullying even before he got magic, his first reaction to magic was “Cool, I can get away with anything.”

    That’s a powerful technique in itself, to balance the stakes for both villain and hero to shine a spotlight on the difference in their character. Parallel backgrounds create a dramatic effect and that carries theme.

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