Oh sweet revenge. I often tell people never to make a writer angry, because we’ll get revenge on you through angry poetry or killing you in gory ways in our fiction. Everyone loves stories of revenge, according to the box office and the best seller list. But what is revenge, really?
Revenge, boiled down to its simplest definition, is to inflict injury in return for insult. Psychologists have studied revenge responses in a variety of victims of trauma, including rape survivors and children growing up in a war zone. Revenge fantasies typically come about in the late phases of the psychological response to trauma. Cognitive psychology and psychoanalysis (the recent stuff, not the Freud stuff) agree on something for once: both theories maintain that that revenge is a comfort response to fear and shame. The desire for revenge and the perception of the self as a vengeful person comes to take over the mind. People who tend to seek revenge typically believe in right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance.
If I were to list all of the different depictions of revenge, we’d be here all day. People really, really like reading about revenge, and writers are more than happy to give readers what they want. Why? Why are people so obsessed with revenge? Psychological research suggests that revenge is a form of emotional cathartics. So, I postulate that reading about revenge is also a form of emotional cathartics. Reading about it, as opposed to actually doing it, is probably a more healthy emotional release. I also think that it’s popular because of our social structure. We’re not the only animals that take revenge. Society has agreed to a social contract, and we hate when this is violated. Everyone has had harm inflicted on them. Revenge, perhaps, we see as fixing the violation.
Okay, so how exactly does this apply to writing? Well, if you’re going to want the reader to identify with a character who is seeking revenge, they better understand the reason why that character wants revenge, and they better be able to see themselves doing the same. This goes for both the protagonist and the antagonist.
The next bit of advice depends on how realistic you want your character’s revenge arc to be. You know that (kind of lame) trope where the protagonist gets their revenge and it doesn’t make them happy?
That’s kind of how it goes in real life.
Several studies of violent crime victims and societies at war have shown that the punishment of a perpetrator of a crime doesn’t make the victim feel better, and that actually taking revenge doesn’t make someone feel better.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for most of us. We want to feel relief and glee when “bad” people get their comeuppance. And you don’t have to do this in your writing. But if you want to make it realistic, but still climactic, write the revenge arc so revenge accomplishes more than personal gain for the seeker. Have it accomplish, say, getting rid of a powerful and tyrannical person. Maybe have it accomplish a great social change.
Or just have something die. That works too.
Irwin C. Rosen. Revenge—the Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name: a Psychoanalytic PerspectiveJ Am Psychoanal Assoc June 2007 55: 595-619, doi:10.1177/00030651070550021501
Orth, U. (2004). Does perpetrator punishment satisfy victims’ feelings of revenge?. Aggressive Behavior, 30(1), 62-70.
Mardi J. Horowitz, M.D. Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy. Am J Psychiatry 2007;164:24-27. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.164.1.24