Unapologetic Characterization

From Writer Unboxed:

“I’m sorry.”

These two words are like a thick blanket someone will toss over whatever unknown coals might be scorching a valued relationship. The words do not acknowledge the harm that was done—they simply allow the wrongdoer to avoid looking at his or her behavior so the relationship can move on unchanged.

Unchanged? Hmm, that doesn’t sound like good story, does it.

Even so, a character’s blanket apology is a dialogue default I’ve noticed repeatedly over my years of reading client manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about it more since bingeing on 13 seasons of Heartland last December. For me, the Canadian accent (“I’m SOH-ree”) drew attention to how many times per episode it was used. (This is the one and only thing I will criticize about this show, so don’t start with me, because I’ll fight back and I will not apologize!).

If the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian history can get away with blanket apology, why do the words “I’m sorry” bother me as a reader—especially when I’m a fan of their lavish use in everyday life?  It’s because in many cases, they gloss over the real, relatable, and often gritty conflicts the author has strived to build into their story. Yes, we humans must still get along even after hurting one another, or when differing goals or ideologies create chasms between us. But if your characters truly believe they are doing the right thing, should we yank the rug from beneath their empowerment by having them apologize for what they said or did? If they really meant to take the action but feel bad that the other person had to suffer for it, are they really sorry for this?

Let’s say your character is frustrated as to why her children are suffering an ongoing illness of unknown origin. Meanwhile, she discovers that the factory where she works has been covering up flagrant EPA violations. She turns in her findings. She is certainly sorry it has come to this, as it will impact not only her work environment, which is about to turn hostile, but has personally impacted her next-door neighbor, the plant manager who mentored her and who refuses to answer her questions about his children’s health. In the resulting financial restructuring, he’s been laid off, requiring him to sell his home and move his kids to a less desirable school district. Is she really sorry that he has to pay a steep personal price for turning a blind eye toward his company’s practices for so long, if the pollutants have been making her own children sick—and perhaps his as well?

There are consequences for inaction and there are consequences for action—these are your story’s stakes, that you’ve foreshadowed since the beginning of the novel—and in this example, it seems the whistleblower’s “I’m sorry” would feel like back-pedaling. Your character must engage with the stakes or the energy of your story will drain away.

Her inner conflict might be better shown by having her standing in her driveway, hugging her kids to her as they wave goodbye to their friends, as the father—her mentor—averts his eyes. A tear rolling down her face might say more about the situation’s emotional complexity, which will feel more powerful and true than any apology. (One might even argue that he’s the one whose actions beg an apology, but if you’ve written the story right, he’s had good reasons for doing what he’s done.)

Skipping the apology can be hard for some of us women to pull off. A dad might chastise his son for fighting in school while turning away to hide a proud smile—but when his daughter is caught in a dustup, he’ll demand she apologize because girls shouldn’t act that way. In her May 3 newsletter, Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban wrote:

It’s been ingrained in women, especially in moms, that we have to apologize for everything. Saying no at work, not taking on every extra household or child-related task, even just existing makes us feel like we need to apologize.

Urban’s words brought to mind a visual from an essay I’d read long ago in O, The Oprah Magazine, written by a woman who was taking Tae Kwon Do for self-defense. She described herself in an aggressive stance, wearing her stiff white uniform, yelling “kee-yahp” as she practiced the kinds of punches that could disable an attacker. Afterwards, the instructor said to her, “You know you don’t have to smile while you’re throwing punches.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed