Monday, December 07, 2009


Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will be released through Abingdon Press (March 2010) and the first book in her military thriller series, Nightshade, will hit shelves July 2010 (Barbour Publishing). An active member of ACFW, Ronie volunteers as the assistant to the conference appointment coordinator; she also does speaking engagements. Visit Ronie at her website or her blog.

Maybe . . . maybe he could it for Emelie.

Colton Neeley, the hero in
Digitalis, book 2 of the Discarded Heroes series, suffers mightily from guilt. As a Marine sniper, he’s been in combat and done things that he’s not “proud” of but knows he’s done his job. Couple that with the death of his sister in a suicide bombing and Colton is both paralyzed and mobilized. He’s paralyzed in that he’s unable to move on, but he is also mobilized in that he will do anything to make sure he doesn’t open his heart or put anyone in harm’s way.

In this, the last of the emotions series, we’re tackling Guilt. Wikipedia defines guilt as a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that they have violated a moral standard. In essence, it’s a natural response that can have powerful results, which can be either positive or negative—and perhaps, both.

There are two main types of guilt: healthy and unhealthy/false guilt. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to something the person has done that broke a law or moral standard. In example, Rob feels guilty for not returning the twenty-dollar bill to the person who dropped it. This guilt serves to help the individual redirect their actions in the hope of preventing a recurrence of this violation, and in the future, make the “right” decision.

Unhealthy guilt is usually in response to a situation that the person truly had no control over. For example, say you did everything to the best of your ability, but the boss still wasn’t happy. This form of guilt is borne out of a sense of unworthiness or healthy guilt. However, it is this guilt that can be the most devastating, as it’s results are negative—punishing the person for something they did not cause or control.

Some experts suggest that false guilt is a third form of guilt attached to those who are abused or taken advantage of. The “If I had only been better . . .” or, “I shouldn’t have provoked him . . .” questions stream out of a sense of false guilt.

Guilt—all types—weighs heavily on a person and can lead to depression. In a worst-case scenario, it can also lead to suicide. When guilt is not worked through and allowed a healthy progression, another debilitating result is shame. Self-condemnation is swift on the heels of shame, and systematically, an individual has been dismantled and divested of any confidence or self-worth.

Another very strong type of guilt, that is also a form of false guilt, but comes armed with its own unique set of troubles, is survivor guilt. Probably the most common form of survivor guilt is thought of in relation to our soldiers and tragedies like 9/11, but it can also appear in those who survived a massive lay-off, or a writer who didn’t get a rejection when the rest of their friends did.

Back to Colton—he suffers from survivor guilt as a soldier, false guilt due to feeling responsible for his sister's death since he’d taken her on the trip that killed her, and true guilt, a complication of being a soldier and doing things that are required of him but press against his moral compass. Thus, he’s determined not to fall in the love with the woman who’s captured his heart, and a deep resolve hardens in him to make sure his family is always safe.

The best thing you can do for a character is force them to confront those issues. Don’t be afraid to peel back the bandage on those festering wounds. Don’t let your character off easy. Whether true/healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, false guilt, or survivor guilt--we've all done things that make us less than proud.

What kind of guilt plagues your character?


lynnrush said...

Great post. I have a novel, in which unhealthy guilt plays a big roll. Sure, there are little sprinkles of healthy guilt throughout (you know, when she does something intentionally mean and feels bad), but ultimately, most of her actions are in response to the unhealthy guilt.

Oh, and that survivor's guilt, that's a vicious beast, isn't it? I'd seen a lot of it when I was a counselor (in a former life) for adult addicts. And yes, it fuels a few of my characters as well.

Thanks for this post.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Oh wow, loved reading this. Helped me more than my characters. LOL! I'm thinking I need to pray about that unhealthy guilt... Great post, Ronie!