Jessica Lee Anderson on Remorse Minus the Cheese

"Let your characters make mistakes."

Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of Calli (which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here), about a teenager who grapples with regret and guilty feelings after a bad fight with her foster sister, Cherish, which lands Cherish in a juvenile detention center.  We asked Jessica to give us a few hints about writing remorse into a story without being cheesy or a total downer.

Many of us get caught up in what we wish was or wasn’t. Buddhist writer Ajahn Brahm says that these are some of the most useless emotions, and those who have dealt with this type of anguish might agree. But in fiction, remorse doesn’t have to be useless, especially if it is genuine. It can be a great tool to move a story forward; take the way Clay wrestles with the guilt of Hannah’s suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, for example. In Solstice by PJ Hoover, Piper endures the seemingly endless consequences of raising her best friend from the dead, and this action fuels Piper’s internal and external landscape. In my newest novel, Calli, my protagonist, Calli, decides to seek revenge after her foster sister, Cherish, steals her stuff and kisses her boyfriend. Things don’t go as Calli plans, though, and she’s soon burdened by the weight of her choices.

Calli’s remorse helps trigger her growth as a character, but I had to go through several drafts before this began to feel authentic. When working on an early draft of the story, one of my critique partners pointed out that Calli feels bad about things when she shouldn’t—the actions and emotions didn’t pair up. Looking through my critique partner’s feedback, I realized she was right.  As I edited the story, I knew I needed to “earn” Calli’s emotions by adding more conflict. I also tried to layer in more psychological depth to the entire cast of characters. I can’t say enough about the importance of savvy critique partners!

When writing genuine remorse, here are some things you can consider—what makes your characters tick? What were your characters’ pasts like, and what are things they’re holding on to? Any nightmares they keep reliving? Are your characters hurting, feeling shameful, or have they done something violent? How do these pasts influence future actions? In what ways do your characters respond or not respond, and what are their motives? How does this impact others?

Keep in mind that not only must character actions and emotions pair up, but personalities should, too. A character like Calli will have a different reaction to conflict than, say, Artemis Fowl or Oliver from Josh Lieb’s I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. The more you know your characters, the stronger your story will be.

Guilt. Regret. Remorse. There is a definitely a place for these emotions in stories, and for some works of fiction, it is imperative. Al Berstein said that, “Success is often the result of taking a misstep in the right direction.”  Let your characters make mistakes, and allow yourself to take missteps in your writing as you work through several drafts.

Want to learn more about Jessica? Check out her answers to our questions here.


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