Some of the best fiction is based on revenge arcs, but it isn’t easy to write a good one. Here are a few tips for writing a revenge arc into your story.
An old staple of any kind of fiction – but especially speculative fiction – is the revenge arc. From Ahab in Moby Dick to Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, there’s something about a good revenge arc that speaks to us as readers. But writing a good one isn’t always easy.
Here are a few tips on writing revenge arcs and the characters who get involved.
Revenge Arcs Are Morally Ambiguous, By Definition
Most of your readers will probably sympathize with the desire for revenge at least a little bit. We all understand the idea of wanting to get back at someone who wronged us. The difference is that most people know better than to actually do that.
That’s where the moral ambiguity comes in. If they’re a villain, we might have an easier time sympathizing with them; even if they’re evil, someone on the other side must have it coming.
And if they’re the protagonist, the act of seeking revenge will paint them in a less than favorable light. They’ll probably start out sympathetic, but that may change as the revenge arc continues toward its end.
For a revenge arc, it’s good to have enough nastiness to go around. But remember: if both sides are too reprehensible, you’ll lose your audience’s interest. Nobody likes a story where you can’t root for anyone.
Determining how good or how evil you want each character to be is an important part of the revenge arc. Which leads me to my next point.
How Evil Are Your Revenge Arc Characters?
There are a lot of factors that determine this. First off, what is your hero seeking revenge for? This is an important factor in how much we’ll sympathize with them. Someone avenging a dead family member will seem nobler than someone trying to get back at their ex who cheated on them.
Second, what does the character want to accomplish through revenge? Will getting back at the person who wronged them actually make a difference in their lives? Is your character trying to find closure or restore their wounded honor? Are they just angry and looking for an excuse to punch their feelings away?
You can build a sympathetic character from any of these motivations, although they’ll seem more noble and justified if they have an actual outcome in mind.
However, any of these motivations can be transformed from a reasonable motivation to the cause of that character’s downfall by the end of the story. It’s a matter of how far they’re willing to go.
There Should Be Consequences in the Revenge Arc
Speaking of going too far, another important part of writing the revenge arc is sacrifice and self-destruction. The protagonist’s revenge might be righteous (at first), but it’s almost never healthy. Before they find closure, they’ll have to lose something else.
Maybe their friends and family disapprove of their quest and they grow apart because of this. Maybe they’ve become so obsessed with finding revenge that they lose their job, their friends, or their spouse.
Maybe the dangers of the revenge arc end up costing someone else their life – especially if that person had nothing to do with it and hadn’t done anything wrong.
How they react to this loss plays a big role in their character development. Maybe they’ll be discouraged, but a lot of characters will be spurred onwards – either because they’ve got a brand new reason to hate the villain, or because they feel like they’ve got nothing else to lose.
Near the End, There Should Be a Crossroads for the Character
At some point in the revenge arc, all this loss and injury should lead the character to a crossroads. Sometimes it’s when the character is at their lowest point, after the revenge arc has cost them everything. Other times it’s right before the character has won. They’ll be standing above the character who wronged them with the sword in their hand, when they have to ask:
Is this really worth it?
After this, your character might turn away from their revenge and try to move on with their life. They may realize they’ve gone too far and seek to fix everything they broke over the course of the story. This is one way to redeem your protagonist.
On the other hand, they might grit their teeth, ignore the voice in their head that’s calling them an idiot, and keep going forward. This is generally how you get a tragic end to your revenge arc. Or a heroic end, depending on how you want your readers to perceive your character and their revenge arc.