Revenge is a great motivator for all sorts of nefarious schemes. It presupposes a protagonist capable of not only holding onto anger, but of channeling it into a time-delayed plan. Swift revenge feels wrong — it’s too reactive and is likely to be the kind of big, emotional, response that lands the revenge-er in as much trouble as the revenge-ee.
The desire for revenge promotes active evil. An otherwise good character can become obsessed with redressing a wrong and once a revenge fantasy takes holds it is very difficult to shake. Revenge fantasies can also elicit sympathy. It’s hard to fault the father of a rape victim as he plots to kill the rapist who “got off on a technicality” in court.
Of course, most revenge is sought for less-than-sympathetic reasons by less-than-admirable people — the mob boss taking out the snitch, the business rival plotting to take a colleague down a peg, or even the beauty pageant contestant not vying for Miss Congeniality when she feels like she was robbed of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When writing about revenge, there’s a delicate dance around the line between justice and a scorched earth policy. The tendency to start with the intention of putting things “right” easily slides from a restoration of balance to dish best served cold because there is little human warm left in the protagonist. In a real sense, exacting violent revenge robs the character of sympathy.
In my current novel-in-progress, different characters respond to the opportunity to exact bloody revenge with distinct choices. One of my challenges is to get deeply into the characters so that their, sometimes surprising, actions ring true. I’m focusing on the circumstances that bring them to that edgy choice, to that singular moment. Of course, Poe never tells us what Fortunato did to insight the narrator’s desire for revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado” leaving the reader to fill in the dreadful insults that drive revenge.