In past posts, I talked about establishing emotional connections between readers and your characters. Today I am adding a new method – accusing your character of some kind of wrongdoing or fault and later vindicating him.
When a character is falsely or unfairly accused, readers often feel righteous anger at the accuser and sympathy for the accused. Readers want to see the accused character vindicated. When the writer delivers that vindication, readers feel relieved, and the emotional satisfaction the device creates is powerful.
This device can have many nuances:
- A long-lasting accusation in which the vindication waits until the end of the story.
- A short-lived accusation that gains vindication relief quickly
- An accusation involving a single character versus another
- An accusation in which everyone seems to agree with the accusation and the accused stands alone
- Accusations of incompetence
- Accusations of lack of integrity
- Accusations of crime or other wrongdoing
- Accusations that lead to severe punishment
- Accusations that lead to doubts that affect a character’s performance
- Accusations that cause allies to depart
And the list can go on and on.
Here are some tips to remember when you try to raise the emotional connection by using this device:
- If the accusation lasts a long time, give the character an ally who believes in him.
- It can be even better if the ally comes to the accused’s side because of the accusation, that is, this is a new ally. And if the new ally takes a risk by taking the side of the accused, the effect is even more powerful.
- When the accused has no allies, readers can feel a sense of hopelessness. Providing an unexpected ally alleviates that feeling without taking away the tension.
Expanding on #3, a writer can abuse this device by showing everyone agreeing with the accuser, thereby isolating the character. Writers probably think isolation will provoke even more sympathy.
In reality, this isolation can harm the story by stretching the device beyond reasonable limits. Why? Because readers know the accusation is unfair and think, “Why doesn’t anyone else see that?” Such unanimity among the accusers can make readers uncomfortable and suspicious of the storytelling. Readers can feel their emotions being abused.
The heroic character needs to be vindicated by at least one important side character as soon as possible, someone who is not yet an ally of the hero and who might side with the hero over this accusation. This will relieve the sense of disbelief and provide a character readers can focus on as the carrier of their emotional burden for the hero.
Following are two video clips from the TV show “Prison Break” that provide a simple, small-scale example of this device. In order to understand it, I need to provide some background.
The first scene is in a prison in Panama. Our heroic character, Michael Scofield (the guy with the buzz cut and intense eyes), is trying to break a man named Whistler (the guy who is bleeding) out of this prison. In fact, that is the reason Michael is there. He has committed no crime.
They are in an underground tunnel and are trying to dig their way upward to freedom. Michael’s enemy, Sammy, interferes and tries to take over the operation. The upward, vertical tunnel is fragile. Michael, being a brilliant structural engineer, knew exactly where to place a short piece of rebar to stabilize the supporting framework. When Sammy goes up into the tunnel, Michael watches intently, knowing how fragile everything is.
Now watch the short clip.
Since Sammy is now dead, they have the freedom to continue trying to dig out, but the collapse badly hurt their schedule. In the next clip, you will see Whistler making an accusation against Michael by questioning whether or not he is a real engineer. This accusation is unfair. Michael knows it’s unfair, but he won’t defend himself, because he is ashamed of being the reason for Sammy’s death. He is not a killer, and he despises killing.
A flashback (tinted blue) shows that Michael, knowing Sammy was coming, intentionally removed the rebar before Sammy arrived. The other man in the scene is Alex, a man who was Michael’s mortal enemy for a long time. They are still not friends, but he becomes the vindicator.
Now watch the scene, and I will continue the discussion.
Michael’s shame prevented him from defending himself, a good choice by the writers. It is far better for the hero to gain vindication from someone other than himself. When Michael thought he was alone, he brought the rebar piece into the open. Alex returned and saw it, then noted that “it never gets any easier.” Easier to what? To kill someone. Long-time viewers of the series would know what he meant, because Alex has killed many times and has remarked on Michael’s unwillingness to kill even if not killing might cost him his life.
In any case, Alex realized what Michael did, that Michael planned the collapse, killed Sammy, and saved the escape plan. Michael was, indeed, a skilled engineer. Alex vindicated him.
The accusation was minor, and the vindication was veiled, but the device worked to raise up an ally for Michael and to provoke emotional angst for his sake and then to bring relief to viewers in a quick span of time. It didn’t really matter that the accuser never found out the truth. Viewers need only one person other than the accused to know the truth, one person to nod and say, in a sense, “I see what you did. Good job.”
The device also brought out significant character qualities in the heroic character. Which would he choose, to let his accuser know that he planned the death of their adversary, thereby painting himself as someone who is casual about the sacredness of life, or would he allow the accusation to fall on his shoulders unchallenged and accept the damage to his intellectual reputation?
Viewers, therefore, want Michael’s reputation vindicated. The tension increased their emotional dissatisfaction with the situation and also increased their positive connection with Michael. Then the vindication relieved the dissatisfaction, and the positive connection stayed in place, because Michael was steadfast in refusing to defend himself.
I think the writers did an excellent job with this accusation/vindication sequence.
(Disclaimer: I do not endorse Prison Break as an acceptable program for viewing.)
Any comments or questions?
Categories: Writing Tips