Unapologetic Characterization

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

“I’m sorry.”

These two words are like a thick blanket someone will toss over whatever unknown coals might be scorching a valued relationship. The words do not acknowledge the harm that was done—they simply allow the wrongdoer to avoid looking at his or her behavior so the relationship can move on unchanged.

Unchanged? Hmm, that doesn’t sound like good story, does it.

Even so, a character’s blanket apology is a dialogue default I’ve noticed repeatedly over my years of reading client manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about it more since bingeing on 13 seasons of Heartland last December. For me, the Canadian accent (“I’m SOH-ree”) drew attention to how many times per episode it was used. (This is the one and only thing I will criticize about this show, so don’t start with me, because I’ll fight back and I will not apologize!).

If the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian history can get away with blanket apology, why do the words “I’m sorry” bother me as a reader—especially when I’m a fan of their lavish use in everyday life?  It’s because in many cases, they gloss over the real, relatable, and often gritty conflicts the author has strived to build into their story. Yes, we humans must still get along even after hurting one another, or when differing goals or ideologies create chasms between us. But if your characters truly believe they are doing the right thing, should we yank the rug from beneath their empowerment by having them apologize for what they said or did? If they really meant to take the action but feel bad that the other person had to suffer for it, are they really sorry for this?

Let’s say your character is frustrated as to why her children are suffering an ongoing illness of unknown origin. Meanwhile, she discovers that the factory where she works has been covering up flagrant EPA violations. She turns in her findings. She is certainly sorry it has come to this, as it will impact not only her work environment, which is about to turn hostile, but has personally impacted her next-door neighbor, the plant manager who mentored her and who refuses to answer her questions about his children’s health. In the resulting financial restructuring, he’s been laid off, requiring him to sell his home and move his kids to a less desirable school district. Is she really sorry that he has to pay a steep personal price for turning a blind eye toward his company’s practices for so long, if the pollutants have been making her own children sick—and perhaps his as well?

There are consequences for inaction and there are consequences for action—these are your story’s stakes, that you’ve foreshadowed since the beginning of the novel—and in this example, it seems the whistleblower’s “I’m sorry” would feel like back-pedaling. Your character must engage with the stakes or the energy of your story will drain away.

Her inner conflict might be better shown by having her standing in her driveway, hugging her kids to her as they wave goodbye to their friends, as the father—her mentor—averts his eyes. A tear rolling down her face might say more about the situation’s emotional complexity, which will feel more powerful and true than any apology. (One might even argue that he’s the one whose actions beg an apology, but if you’ve written the story right, he’s had good reasons for doing what he’s done.)

Skipping the apology can be hard for some of us women to pull off. A dad might chastise his son for fighting in school while turning away to hide a proud smile—but when his daughter is caught in a dustup, he’ll demand she apologize because girls shouldn’t act that way. In her May 3 newsletter, Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban wrote:

It’s been ingrained in women, especially in moms, that we have to apologize for everything. Saying no at work, not taking on every extra household or child-related task, even just existing makes us feel like we need to apologize.

Urban’s words brought to mind a visual from an essay I’d read long ago in O, The Oprah Magazine, written by a woman who was taking Tae Kwon Do for self-defense. She described herself in an aggressive stance, wearing her stiff white uniform, yelling “kee-yahp” as she practiced the kinds of punches that could disable an attacker. Afterwards, the instructor said to her, “You know you don’t have to smile while you’re throwing punches.”

Even while trying to save our lives, we women have been acculturated to take down those who want to harm us ever-so-politely. This kind of deeply ingrained acculturation may be difficult for people to sidestep in real life, but we need not perpetuate it unconsciously on the page.

There is no room for unconscious use of anything in great writing. Every word should enrich your story.


An unapologetic list of things to think about

Let’s face it, your novel will be full of strife, and in drafting a response, “I’m sorry” on its own has all of the force of a worn-out cliché. How can you improve on that?

  • Assuming most of us want to be loved and appreciated, think about the external and internal pressures it takes to push a character into taking an action that might hurt a loved one. Instead of “I’m sorry,” might she instead say, “I know your pain”? Best if this declaration floats on subtext already established rather than needing explanation at this moment.
  • If “I’m sorry” isn’t heartfelt, it’s either lame word bloating or manipulative—but it always throws attention back on the speaker, who doesn’t want to feel bad for doing what she’s done. Manipulation can deepen a novel’s conflict, yet in manuscripts, I rarely see a manipulator called out for their blanket apology. Would doing so—or at least showing your character’s inner conflict about whether or not to do so—help your scene?
  • “I’m sorry, but…” This passive-aggressive response is painful enough in real life; need we perpetuate it in our novels? If you use it, consider that this and other forms of half-assed apology can actually reinforce the trauma of the initial wound. Consider what effect that might have on your story, and whether the words that come next might work better on their own, without the preamble.
  • If you do use the actual words “I’m sorry,” consider using them in reaction to something so monumental (think accidental implosion of a high-rise), so life-changing (hundreds lost their lives, thousands lost livelihoods), and so highly charged (your protagonist lost a beloved friend and mentor), that their lameness speaks volumes.
  • “I’m sorry” can serve not only as a blanket, but as a closed door. With an accepted apology, characters have put this issue to bed (how many more metaphors can I mix in here?). Think about whether it’s in your story’s best interests to relieve this tension. Some conflicts will have more power if they are left to smolder.

I get that most of us want to improve on life in our fiction. In real life, it may be your greatest wish that your adversaries will come to you in full understanding of all the ways they’ve steamrolled you, and then make amends. But by “amends,” were you really only needing to hear “I’m sorry”?

The reason these incidents continue to bother us is because there was no apology—don’t you want the conflicts in your story to resonate in your reader’s soul, in like fashion? Or to be the fly on the wall at the book club where one reader says, “If only he would have apologized to her!” and another says, “He did, remember? After the divorce was final, he came back at night and replaced the dead rosebushes by her back door.”

If your novel is going to agitate your reader into rethinking some sort of complacency in their own life, will you apologize for writing it, or will you be thrilled that your point hit the mark? Why not allow your characters that same thrill?


Try out your mad skills

Writers have access to a superpower that the common man does not: when words can never be enough, we can still find all the right words and actions to evoke contrition and regret and a changed heart. So toss the blanket and dig deeper: what would you want to hear, if you were in your character’s shoes? Or even better, what would you want the antagonist to do?

  1. Think of a situation from your real life in which you would have benefitted from a heartfelt apology—and write it without using the words “I’m sorry” or “but.” This exercise forces you to explore what might have been going on in the antagonist’s mind when s/he took the action to begin with. Even without their apology, you might find yourself willing to forgive.
  2. For fun, go back through your work-in-progress and check: who apologizes more, a man or a woman? Bonus points if your book does not contain the phrase “I’m sorry” at all. Anyone?
  3. Flag each drafted apology as an inclusion that you will later reassess for dramatic impact. At your story’s end, is it possible for you to address your story’s central question in a satisfying way while also suggesting that relationships can continue on, without apology?

If you can do so without apologizing for it, share how many times the words “I’m sorry” appear in your novel. Do they need to be there, or would the scene read stronger without them? Did you add an interesting twist to their usage, such as calling out the antagonist for their insincerity? Could you use the words as a clever form of understatement? Share any other ideas.

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.