Episode 133: Motivated by Forgiveness

On February 13th, we continued our trek through character motivation by talking about forgiveness, atonement, and redemption. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Motivation: Forgiveness, Atonement, Redemption


  • Character Motivation Series
  • Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic motivation (review)
  • How to write a character seeking forgiveness
Whether it’s faith-based, family-oriented, or regarding perceived crimes, forgiveness is a challenging motivation.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Link to podcast

Segment 1

But first, housekeeping:

South Carolina Writers Association starts a new sprint for those midday sessions this week. We’ll be visiting with Ray McManus of the South Carolina Academy of Authors. His topic, “Writing About Love” comes right after Valentine’s Day — Tuesday at noon. Register for this free and open-to-the-public event on myscwa.org The Writing Conversations series is brought to your by SCWA and made possible by the South Carolina Humanities.

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Okay, so this blog suggests we categorize motivations and I think they’re on to something, so let’s start with the Extrinsic and Intrinsic conversation.

Extrinsic motivations are things like money, promotions, tangible goods. Intrinsic motivations are things like pride, self-worth, and fun or entertainment. Extrinsic motivators come from other people — they offer us stuff — rewards, recognition, validation, toys, gifts, and prizes. 

Intrinsic comes from within — we bring those to ourselves — curiosity, passion, purpose, growth.

Your character can be motivated by extrinsic things. Can those motivations be sustainable for an entire novel? Can we only be looking for the Ark of the Covenant for how rich it will make us? Or must we also have some intrinsic motivation that we can pair with the extrinsic to give the story more depth?

Frequently the extrinsic motivation is the plot of the story — think Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant, Wreck-It Ralph and the Medal of Heroes, our favorite hero Maverick and his quest for the Top Gun trophy, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. 

The intrinsic motivation then becomes the secondary plot, or the “internal struggle” that the character must fight through to achieve the extrinsic motivator. So, Indy has to overcome his lack of religious faith, Ralph is really pursuing the acceptance that the medal will earn him, Maverick wants to erase his father’s questionable legacy, and Ahab … well he’s a big metaphor for the avarice of human nature and our fruitless battle against God and the natural world.

Segment 2

Today we’re working on the motivation of forgiveness, redemption, or atonement. The idea came to me from last week’s discussion of Ian McEwan’s Atonement because it’s a revenge plot that gets the heroine, Briony, into trouble in the first place, and then she spends the rest of the book trying to make amends.

But my book, After December, is also about forgiveness. It’s about Brian being a real jerk — using drugs, lying to his parents, cheating on his girlfriend, taking his friends for granted — and then being forced to navigate those damaged relationships in the acts of mourning that are part of the aftermath of Tony’s suicide.

Atonement, redemption, and forgiveness are Biblical motivations. They’re as old as time, right? We’ve seen Greek myths where Gods are punished for their behavior and required to complete tasks of atonement. While the Greeks didn’t have a concept of forgiveness or mercy, in the way that we would understand it, they did have a sense of “pity” and justice (link). 

We get some of our most powerful stories of punishment from the Greeks: Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock where an eagle would eats its liver every night, Athena turned Medusa’s hair into monstrous snakes (here’s a whole list).

So let’s start there — is the desire for forgiveness or atonement a product of punishment? Or a fear that punishment is inevitable?

Why do characters want forgiveness?

From whom do characters seek forgiveness? Is it a faith thing? A Biblical thing?

Can you other characters offer the forgiveness your main character seeks?

This list claims to have the five best books about forgiveness and this one has nine books to consider.

A few others: The Kite Runner, Pride and Prejudice, An American Marriage, Les Miserables, All the Light We Cannot See

Segment 3

There are tropes associated with the “forgiveness” angle. Of course there are.

  • The biggest trope is the revenge-in-lieu-of-forgiveness. This link talks in depth about that.
  • The second is the “too easily forgiven” trope. This link talks about that.
    • What are the problems with forgiveness coming too quick?
  • The forgiven-but-not-forgotten trope is about “yeah, sure, but when I need to be mad, I’m gonna be,” and it can’t be trusted. This link talks about that.
    • How do you know if the forgiveness is a trick? Is this a “twist” you should consider.
  • And at last, there’s an entire list (an index!) of the different kinds of forgiveness your secondary characters can offer to your main character. (this link)
    • Forgiveness requires death — in order to be forgiven, the character must be killed
    • My fist forgives you — forgiving the character by attacking them
    • Turn the other cheek — repaying evil acts with forgiveness (think Melanie Hamilton)

Segment 4

How do you do it?

First, decide what kind of forgiveness your character is seeking (link):

  • Self forgiveness
  • Forgiveness of others
  • Forgiveness of situations beyond human control

Then decide how forgiving your characters are, as in, what would they need to be able to forgive? There’s actually a quiz linked to this blog.

This link does a great thing on how forgiveness enables us to move past the trauma. So envision what “moving past” would look like for each character.

So, figure out what hurt the character. Then figure out what the recurring cost is.

Some helpful tools: memories, nightmare, flashbacks; or anxiety, anger and sadness

Summary questions (this link):

  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?

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