Best Served Cold

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.


  1. We just saw a positive evocation of revenge in the just-completed NBA Finals. In 2013, the San Antonio Spurs lost the Finals to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in a heartbreaking, 7-game fashion, blowing certain victory in Game 6. They ruminated on that loss all off season, improving where they could, limiting their weaknesses and hoping they’d get Miami in the Finals again for revenge. They did and they vanquished the Heat in 5 games, blowing them out in each of the last 3. Sports revenge, served in a heaping portion.

    • Candy Korman

      That kind of retribution is emotionally satisfying for fans! And, since the way the revenge was exacted is legitimate (I’m assuming there was nothing under-handed in the victory) it’s a clean. In a fiction context, it would be Justice… The good guys prevail, David takes down Goliath, etc. I’d say it was a dish served warm and toasty, very likely in a sports bar or in front of an over-sized TV screen with lots of cheering!

  2. Great topic! In my current WIP, my bad gal is acting out of misplaced revenge. In that sense, she acts as the mirror for the heroine she’s planning to kill, who underwent exactly the same trauma, but chose a different route. I love revenge in fiction as a motivator! There are so many twists you can take it on.

    • Candy Korman

      Revenge, like greed and lust, is so universal. The object and subjects change, but the need to “set things right” or “balance the scales” or simply “get that b*tch who done me wrong” is ever present.

      I like the idea of the mirrored characters with different responses to the same experience. As my book has an assortment of protagonists, I’m playing with how/why certain characters made critical decisions and others floated in response to a terrible choice.

  3. That’s kind of where I’m at with my drafting right now. I came up with some weird plot twists, now I’m going back and working on making it all ring true. Largely, that means I’ve condensed a ton of stuff and now need to figure out how to fill all those now waiting chapters to come away with a full-length manuscript.

    • Candy Korman

      The more I write, the more I realize it always boils down to process. Writing and rewriting and thinking and rethinking and more rethinking… I thought I’d be done with the draft before I leave on my trip, but life (and freelance work) interfered. In a way it’s good, I’m slooooooooowing down a bit and redoing the grande finale.

      Motivations — revenge and the rest — are muddled in real life. The question I’m asking now, is whether the subtle, confused, muddle mess of motivations in real life is sufficient, dramatically, in fiction?