We human beings aren’t always aware of why we do what we do. Most of the time, we just react. To write good characters requires recognition of the patterns humans follow. In other words, psychology.

Welcome to the series on Deep Character Study.

Greetings, fellow writers! I’ve got a doozy of a topic for you today: the psychological effect of forgiveness for your imaginary characters—whether they’re heroes or villains.

Everybody Hurts

Your character has joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions.

They didn’t get there overnight.

Your character arrived where they are. In fact, if your character is interesting enough to hold a plot together, they’ve either gone through hell or are going through it now.

A full treatise on character-arc pain would take pages, so instead, I’m focusing on one single aspect: what happens to a character who’s survived bad things and chosen to forgive.

There’s a recurring cost for that,  you know.

Say What?

All characters have to find a way to move on. Some choose bitterness or revenge.

Some even become an evil scientist.

But those characters who choose to forgive run into an interesting problem: even if they think they’re “over it,” they’re probably not.

This is basic human psychology. We tend to revisit our trauma.

And that’s the thing about forgiveness: it’s never one-and-done. Forgiveness must be repeated because pain resurfaces.

Definition of Forgiveness” content=”Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.

(via “American Psychological Association. Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results.)

Forgiveness doesn’t mean your character didn’t pursue legal action or, perhaps, chase after yon offender with an axe. It means a refusal of victim mentality, a choice to focus on things other than the wrong done.

It means an attempt to come to the place where they can feel some peace regarding the person who hurt them. Put another way, forgiveness means your character chooses not to define themselves by the wrong done them—and it’s going to require more than one try.

For the record, this makes for a helluva good plot device.

Applying This To Your Character

  • Step one: figure out what hurt them. There will probably be more than one thing, but for this exercise, choose one.
  • Step two: figure out the recurring cost.

Does your character have memories?

Your character will likely remember what happened, and it will hurt—requiring them to deal with that thing all over again. What steps does your character take to walk toward forgiveness and away from bitterness?

What about nightmares or flashbacks?

Nightmares and flashbacks are a possibility, too, and more difficult because they are uncontrollable. How does your character handle the day after a bad night with polluted dreams?

How about fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness?

These four emotions affect every single relationship, every decision, every response.

Fearfulness. Anxiousness. Anger. Sadness. Is your character aware of experiencing these four? If so, how do they deal with them? Go beat up some monsters? Eat chocolate? Write sonnets? What?

Summary Questions

  1. Who or what hurt your character? (Parent, sibling, coworker, etc.)
  2. Why did it hurt them? (Shame, guilt, fear, social repercussions, physical pain, etc.)
  3. At what points in your story will your character briefly relive that pain?
  4. What hard, heavy steps back must they take to find some sense of peace?

Remember: the goal is for you to understand why your character reacts. That gives you, the writer, control.

Forgiveness must often be exercised multiple times. When your character faces forgiving yet again, you have the opportunity to show the reader what your character is made of, to develop your character’s arc, and to advance your plot according to those choices.

So What Does Your Character Have to Forgive? Let me know in the comments.


A three-times bestselling author, Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and been the keynote speaker for the Write Practice Retreat. Author of two series with five books and fifty-plus short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom and used up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon in the process. When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away. P.S. Red is still her favorite color.