05 September 2013

Regrets, I've had a few....

by Brian Thornton

(After a month-long hiatus it's nice to be back. And I don't regret skipping one of my turns in the least!)

While wrestling with the middle of my current WIP, and putting in some hard work to keep up the tension and the plot moving along during the portion of the book that by many accounts is most likely to be where "the doldrums" can set in, it occurred to me that there's one tool in the writer's toolbox that frequently gets misused.


This is not to say that writers don't use it. I'm saying that "regret" as a character-defining aspect of a character's personality is something most writers tend to either over-use or under-use. Regret is one of those aspects of a character's personality that is really easy to get wrong, and damned hard to get right.

But when it's done wright, it can work wonders character exposition and moving plot along.

Because regret is a foundational emotion. It undergirds and enhances other emotions. Envy, fear, sorrow, guilt, even greed, are all made more palpable, more vivid by being coupled with well-demonstrated and carefully delivered (by the writer) regret.

Take one of the touchstone pictures of the 20th century, Casablanca. If ever a story was about a mountain of regret, and how it drives the actions of the characters within the framework of the narrative, it's Casablanca. The trick is in the nuance.

We all know the "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world" scene where Rick Blaine drunkenly demonstrates his profound regret at having loved and lost Ilse Lund. And the next day when he's sober he expresses regret what he said the night before while drunk.

For her part, Ilse is the definition of regret. It fuels her guilt and indecision at loving loving two very different men.

Her husband Victor Laszlo regrets not being able to guarantee his wife's safety, to the point of asking Rick to take her with him out of town, because "I want my wife to be safe."

Even Captain Renault, the calcuating French collaborationist prefect of police allows regret to work on him to the point where he betrays his own instincts and throws in with Rick, who has just shot and killed the top nazi in Casablanca.

Director Michael Curtiz, better know for his command of light and shadow that of his ability to get the most out of his actors, nailed the nuance here. His command of just how much to show and how much to let simmer below the surface is dead on. It's one reason why Casablanca has remained a classic for so many years.

And it all comes down to one word.


Today's question for the readers: how much regret is too much for you? Whether you're writing it or reading it, at what point does a character stop being interesting and start seeming like a whinier version of a Woody Allen protagonist?


  1. Is there really anyone whinier than a Woody Allen protagonist? My best example of too much regret in mystery fiction is Elizabeth George's Thomas Lynley in her first book, A Great Deliverance. In the TV version, they not only took out the backstory of Lynley having crippled his best friend Simon in a car accident, but threw in a line for Simon about dancing with his wife.

  2. That's a topic I never thought about, Brian. Nice analysis of Casablanca.

    One series that comes to mind is the Mitch Tobin books by Tucker Coe (alias Don Westlake). Tobin is an ex-cop, thrown off the force when his partner is killed while Tobin is off cheating on his wife with the spouse of a man he arrested. How do you come back from THAT mess?

    All Tobin wants to do is build a ten foot wall in his backyard but people keep asking him to solve crimes (always involving groups as marginalized as he is feeling). By the end of the series he is beginning to feel his way back into the world.

  3. (In case you haven't noticed by now: my comments tend to be ridiculously long.)

    I think your mention of Casa Blanca makes a lot of sense in this context.

    I’ve (unfortunately) seen quite a few films in which the director evidently chose to explain a character’s regret by letting that character provide a voice-over in which s/he explains why they feel this regret. Casa Blanca tends to avoid this, which I believe sheds light on why the angst-ridden characters avoid becoming too cliché. Instead, we see that Ilse angers Rick when he sees her, and later the effective use of flash-back scenes allows the viewer to see what transpired, which caused that anger.

    Though flash-backs scenes may sometimes break the tension, in a written work, when used properly (and sparingly) I believe they can help explain a character’s regret without turning him/her into a caricature. I think this is most valuable when the climax of the main story line hinges on said character’s response to his/her regretful feelings. In Casa Blanca for instance, Rick delivers his “…hill of beans,” speech to explain to Ilse why she and Lazlo are flying away without him. Simultaneously, the viewer understands that he’s responding to his long-held regret, and that he’s releasing it, when he tells her words to the effect of: “If you stayed with me, you’d live to regret it.” This is something he’s learned through his own experiences with her.

    The film imho is less successful when Rick explains his feelings of regret in the “…you wore blue, the Nazis were dressed in gray” (or something fairly close) line. And, I suspect this is because he seems to be wallowing in his regret.

    So, I vote for (1) enough flash-backs to sell us on the reason for, and depth of, the character’s regret, (2) main story line actions that show us the effect this regret has on the character, and (3) this regret influences the outcome of the main story climax.

    I vote against a character mooning on about his/her regret, the way a high school kid verbally pines for the boy/girlfriend that dumped her/him. Such mooning makes me close the book and throw it against the nearest wall.



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