Using Characters’ Apology Language to Create and Resolve Tension

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)


Some of the biggest challenges we face as writers are creating characters that feel like individuals and building authentic tension between our characters, especially if those characters are allies.

Today I’m going to look at how figuring out our characters’ apology language can help. (You might also want to read Gary Chapman’s When Sorry Isn’t Enough, which is the book that lays out these concepts for people rather than for characters.)

Our characters will naturally try to apologize using their personal apology language. Which is great if the person they’re apologizing to speaks the same language, but not as effective if they don’t.

We can use this disconnect to create tension. And later, when it’s time to move the characters closer together, we can have them take a step forward by allowing the offending character to apologize in the way the offended character needed.

There are five apology languages. No particular order to this list since no apology language is better than the others.

(1) Expressing Regret or Remorse

This character needs the apology to carry emotion—embarrassment, sorrow, shame. They basically want to know the other person truly feels bad about what they’ve done.

We can do this through dialogue, but, as writers, we also need to make sure to include tone of voice and body language cues around the dialogue for the other character to hear and see.

This language of apology provides an opportunity to reveal the character of the apologizing character as well. We can show the offending character’s regret through actions leading up to the event. Or we can use this to show a character isn’t trustworthy. Perhaps the offending character isn’t sorry at all, but they know how to mimic the apology language of remorse and deceive the other character into trusting them.

(2) Accepting Responsibility

This character needs to hear an admission of guilt or wrong. In terms of dialogue, this is as simple as “I was wrong” or “It’s my fault.”

But now imagine the offending character has the flaw of struggling to accept responsibility when something goes wrong. Not only do you have tension between the characters but a nice growth arc or circle you can build into your story.

(3) A Promise to Change

This character wants to know that the same mistake or offense won’t be repeated again and again. Oftentimes this requires the offender to state what, specifically, they’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

For the character with this apology language, a single slip into the same wrong again can destroy all trust between them and the offending character.

(4) Requesting Forgiveness

This character needs to hear the offender actually ask for forgiveness. For them, the request for forgiveness isn’t implied in “I’m sorry.”

As writers, we can play with the fear of the request being denied. Or we can have the offended character actually deny forgiveness and give them an arc where they need to learn something about the meaning or value of forgiveness. Or we can have them say they forgive, but work with the theme that some wrongs should never be forgiven.

Our personal beliefs will dictate what theme we include.

(5) Making Amends

This character needs the offender to right what they wronged. For example, a husband who ran the lawnmower over his wife’s newly planted flower garden could buy new flowers and plant them himself.

This apology language can be the most moving because it gives us a built-in image to use.

For this apology language, though, some of the most interesting stories grow out of cases where the wrong can’t be righted. A drunk driver can never replace the child he killed.

So there you have it. Next time you’re struggling to make a conflict and resolution between two of your characters feel realistic, try working with their apology languages.

You might also want to try figuring out the apology language of your significant other too 🙂

Do you know your apology language?

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Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Image Credit: sanja gjenero/