Monday, April 30, 2007

Forgiveness and Redemption

When I was in the eighth grade, there was a boy in our class who loved to do pen and ink drawings of battle scenes. He was smaller than the other boys, got good grades and kept to himself. I was new to the school that year, but I think it was a painful year for almost everyone in my class. There were two girls and two boys that the rest of us were all afraid of because it was only a matter of time before everyone was the target of their mockery. Most days it wasn’t too bad because we all shared the wealth pretty equally when it came to being teased. When it was your turn in the ring, if even for a few minutes, it was excruciating.

We were in art class one afternoon and the number of the boy who loved to draw, was up. Someone walked behind him and swiped a brush loaded with blue watercolor paint across the collar of his button down shirt. Someone else did the same. Another pulled the drawing from beneath his hands and tore it to pieces. He looked down at the detailed rendering, now destroyed and I heard him say, very quietly, that took me two weeks. By the time class was over, everyone had put paint on him or done something. I had done something.

We had a history class after art was over and as the humiliated boy climbed the worn wooden stairs to the third floor, I heard him say to himself, this was a brand new shirt. I imagined he had to go home and explain to his parents what happened to the shirt and I thought they would be angry and want to call the school. He, of course would have to beg them not to because it would only make things worse.

It’s been over 30 years since that day and I can still remember that boy’s name and his delicate features. I remember the white shirt with the blue pattern and his corduroy Levis. His 13 year old image comes into my mind every once in a while and I feel new shame at what I did. In my mind, I've told him how sorry I am a thousand times and I've hoped that by some miracle, he'd hear my thoughts. I wonder if he remembers what happened and if he’s angry when he thinks of it.

We inflict and receive a lot of pain over a lifetime. When we’re young, all the hurt is magnified and we remember every thoughtless, cruel thing that happens. If we’re lucky, the feelings fade over time and we realize it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes it is bad and if we can, we forgive the perpetrator. Sometimes we can’t forgive and we can never release the pain.

There are things that were said to me as a child or a teenager that I took great offense at and felt angry about for years. In a child’s mind, adults should be infallible and never make mistakes. My stepson, a wonderful young man of 26 has reminded me of things he now finds funny that were said in the heat of emotion when he was an adolescent. I am so grateful for his easy going nature because in the retelling, I recognize they were exactly the kind of heated words that I would have burned into memory and held a grudge over for years. I feel sorry for ever being mad at comments made by people who were just doing the best they could.

We’re all doing the best we can. It’s my mantra when things become emotional and people act irrationally. I’ve forgotten or forgiven all the real and perceived wrongs done to me. But I’ve collected memories over decades of things I wish I could take back. I don’t know how many people there are in the world who don’t forgive me.

I have a story idea that I like a lot, but I may have an insurmountable problem. My main character is flawed. She’s fundamentally a good person, but I'd have her make some pretty big mistakes. I love this character because she's fallible and I want her to have the chance to eventually get it right. Real people, interesting and likeable people, make mistakes and they hurt people and hopefully, they eventually find themselves and do the right thing. I've tried to think of books with flawed female characters and all that comes to mind is Madame Bovary and The House of Mirth -- look what happened to those two ladies!

When you read a story, can you forgive a flawed character her mistakes and allow her to seek redemption, or must she always come to a tragic end? Maybe we're more forgiving with real people than the ones we want to read about. I’d love to hear what you think.


Leslie said...

Reading this made me very emotional and I'm trying to hold back tears because I'm at work...forgiving and forgetting is a long road sometimes. I experienced too many times being the kid that got picked on and to this day it can be painful to remember. I was able to confront one of my taunters as an adult and let me tell you it felt good to do so! (It's a good story - some day I'll tell you about it.)
I also know that I've done things I wish I could take back and hope that those I've hurt have forgiven me. I can't change whether they do or not, but I try very hard to be a good person and not make the same mistakes.
As far as your story, I think a flawed character is compelling because it means she's human. We're ALL flawed - and to read about such a character with a positive ending would be encouraging. I'd certainly forgive her for her mistakes - and I think most of us would do the same.
Keep up the great work, Lisa!

Shirley Quaid said...

We all have painful memories, I think. It is part of life and helps us grow if we can overcome the negative emotions that come with them. Forgiveness - what a wonderful vehicle to a happy life! I only hope that those I have wounded with my poor choices can find forgiveness in their hearts. And I work on forgiving myself on a regular basis.
Your words are now something that I look forward to. You are very talented and have the ability to touch others in an important way.
As to your question, flawed characters are those that we can learn from, if only to learn what not to do. Please do allow her/him to seek redemption.
Who of us does not like a happy ending?
Happy Trails,

The Writers' Group said...

I love how honest this post is, I wasn't expecting you to claim any role as tormentor. We've all done it, we've all been on the receiving end, too. I think you've just discovered how it is that a three-dimensional character must be flawed - your readers will sympathize because it's universal.


Lisa said...


I appreciate you sharing your feelings about this and I also appreciate that despite them, you'd be willing to forgive a character who has been less than perfect.


I'm so glad you brought up the important issue of forgiving ourselves. Truly, it must be the only way to evolve. There are so many instances where forgiveness from other people just isn't possible and our ability to accept ourselves as human and forgive ourselves is probably the hardest, but most important step we can take to grow. Thank you for your thoughtful insights.


As always, you've given me a lot to think about. Perhaps the challenge is to frame a character's transgressions in a way that's identifiable to everyone. You're right, maybe the flaws are what makes a good character identifiable and universal.

Anonymous said...

I think a reader will forgive a flawed character her mistakes. My main character, Jack, is passive aggressive and is his own worst enemy in terms of growth.

From reading this post, so painfully honest, I can already tell your characters will have that magical combination of being fallible and sympathetic at the same time.

You've brought me back to my own childhood. While I was never quite the aggressor, I stood by and giggled or said nothing while kids were bullied. Which makes me every bit as guilty.

Tish Cohen
P.S. Thanks for the support on the Deb Ball!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf