In this feature, I’m going to set down in great detail my thought processes as I develop a story that I have not yet written, culminating, if all goes well, in a completed work. Hopefully in due course I’ll also come up with a better title for the feature.
The idea for this particular short story has been turning around in my mind for at least a year. I’m enthusiastic about it, but I’ve done very little in the way of developing it, which makes it a solid start for a first entry in this feature.
The initial spark came from Christian conceptions of guilt and the possibility of grace, i.e., undeserved forgiveness. It didn’t take long before I hit on the idea of an allegory of the psychology of guilt through a sort of metaphysical trial which would, symbolically, determine whether the protagonist would forgive him or herself for a transgression long past. The working (but almost certainly not definitive) title is The Trial of Guilt and Grace.
(It only now occurs to me that certain aspects of this might be politically unpalatable. I’m going to try to be straightforward regardless, in the interest of keeping an honest record. Just keep in mind that I’m setting down vague intuitions without a strong filter of appropriateness. You have been warned. Specific content warning: rape.)
Important to the idea was that the reader should not automatically forgive the protagonist, but still leave room for the possibility of forgiveness through some kind of grace. I know that the reader has a hard-to-resist tendency to empathize with a protagonist, so I have to seriously stack things against him. I settled on a man early on, maybe because of an intuition (possibly wrong!) that people are generally quicker to condemn men than women.
One insight that I came to on the theme is that even though a victim might come to forgive the transgressor, the victim that forgives is in some sense a different person from the victim at the moment of the crime. This led to the idea of having the victim in this story be present at the trial as a witness, and testify to having forgiven the protagonist and moved on; later, a ghost or some other incarnation of the victim at the moment of the crime would appear, bearing visible signs of the crime, and claim greater legitimacy as accuser than the victim in the present, and insist on the protagonist’s guilt. This emphasizes the idea that external forgiveness is not sufficient, and brings in an interesting philosophical dimension about the persistence of identity.
The idea of divine forgiveness was relevant from the beginning, as the flint that initially sparked the idea. I will certainly bring this in at some point in the story, although whether there will be some avatar of God or Jesus I have no idea yet. Still, the conclusion will be the same as for the victim years later: the forgiveness will be discarded as illegitimate, as it does not come from the victim-in-the-moment.
The nature of the transgression was another important early consideration. The above idea made it so that the crime should be contained within a single event (so not a long history of abuse). The victim must survive, so not murder. The guilt must not have been externalized (the guilt must have remained internal and unpunished), so the crime must be private or he must have escaped detection. I had the idea that someone else could have been wrongly convicted of the crime, but that would create two victims and essentially two crimes. My strong impression is that the story would be more effective if focus were maintained on one victim, one crime.
The toughest part is that it needs to strike a balance. It needs to be truly uncomfortable for the reader to contemplate forgiveness, but not heinous enough that the reader will automatically pull back in righteous indignation, unable to identify with the protagonist.
As the content warning has already spoiled, I am currently considering whether making it a rape is the right choice, with a female victim. It fits in a lot of ways. It is believable that the victim may come to forgive her rapist. A Google search reveals a number of stories of women forgiving their rapists (confirming an impression I already held), and I make a mental note to read a number of these accounts when developing the scene, if I decide to go this route. Furthermore, it is believable that the protagonist might have matured enough to come to regret it bitterly. It is awful enough that he might still regret it bitterly many years after, and that the reader would have trouble forgiving. I also think that most people would be able to at least contemplate forgiveness.
The main argument against this route is that it is a highly sensitive topic. I wonder whether too many people will be unable or unwilling to identify with the protagonist. I also worry about whether I can handle the topic with the proper sensitivity. I leave this as a question to consider further, but note it as currently the likely best fit for this story.
There are many considerations that I am aware I will have to decide, but still don’t have any clear notions about. The nature of the tribunal is still mostly a blank, although I have the idea of making it a dreamlike element superimposed on the real world. I imagine it happening in a real-world place, outside, which is somehow transformed. The image of the moment right before a storm comes to mind as a sort of liminal time which always tends to strike me with a sense of unreality, and so might be fitting.
My conception of the protagonist is vague. He must be haunted by the crime, in a way that this has kept him from any kind of true happiness; if he has a family, there must be some underlying bitterness, like a messy divorce, a deep alienation from his wife and children, resulting in some profound way from his guilt. His life must be clearly worse than that of his victim – another detail which should create some ambivalence about the value of continued guilt. On the other hand, he must not be so haunted that his life is a complete wreck (e.g. a homeless crack addict), so as not to tip the scales too far in the other direction.
I am also still undecided about the ending, although I am leaning towards a pessimistic ending, in which the protagonist is lost in guilt and either commits suicide or is condemned to a life of torment. If so, it would be essential that the reader not feel a simple sense of justice at this outcome, but rather be left with a sense of waste, of dissatisfaction, of deep ambivalence.
This is where I am right now. I feel that this is a promising start. It seems to avoid the patness that I tend to loathe in allegories. Ambivalence is a worthy aesthetic experience in itself, and the experience of identifying with someone you would normally not is humanizing. I also have the impression that it might capture something real and significant about the nature of guilt. Let’s see whether I can achieve what I hope to in further development. I’ll check in again in about a week.