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How to Write a Good Revenge

How to Write a Good Revenge

characters plotting writing skills Feb 05, 2024

Revenge is a dish better served cold, right? Well, what if it’s burning hot? What if the dish is prepared with an ingredient that your enemy is allergic to? What if the dish reminds them of someone else's? Someone they cannot reach ever again…

Well, that's the fun about revenge. It can be made just for you. 


I wanna watch the world burn

I don't want to sound crazy when I say that I love good revenge. I believe it's enjoyable to everyone; some might love it more than others, but I'm sure that everyone felt excited when Regina George went running to her Burn Book to put Cady's name on it, but instead, she gave us the biggest plot twist of all cinema: she put her own name in the book. 


And then, she watched the world burn.


This was perfectly evil, street-smart, and really fun to watch. But why is a topic like revenge so appealing to us? I mean, this is a topic that appeals to serial killers and teenage girls at the same time. Why? Well, it's all about grudges and fantasies.


Why is revenge so attractive to us?

I fantasize your demise, says a Paramore song. When someone hurts us, a part of us wants to pay them back. To make them suffer or regret what they have done. But before you give me a moralistic look and say not me, you crazy lady, let me tell you that revenge is not always bloody and psychotic. 


There are a lot of ways to get back at someone.  


Who doesn't wish for their ex to lose all their hair and be a bald guy for the rest of their lives after they break up with us? Who hasn't fantasized about throwing rotten eggs at someone's house? Your boss yells at you every now and then, and you find yourself daydreaming about them losing their job. Or getting robbed or getting stabbed. You get my point. 

Revenge is attractive because it's a fantasy. Because it's not real. 

Brand New has a song that says: I hope you get with something they can't diagnose, don't have the cure for. Wishing that to someone it's hard as hell, but it's just a song. It’s a feeling encapsulated in art, and that way it's better than saying it to someone's face. 

Revenge, as obsession, crime or murder, is better saved for fiction. In fiction, we can explore different versions of ourselves, sometimes even evil ones, without suffering the consequences. If we actually try to do something like this in real life, we’re gonna lose more than what we’re gonna win, whereas in a book, everything is valid.

ALSO: Why Do We Write What We Write?

But when you write a song, a movie, a short story or even a novel, you don't owe anything to anyone. You can say things you wouldn't otherwise. You can do things without the consequences of real life. Revenge is freeing, immoral, does not know about good or wrong, can be fun, and must be obsessive. It has a purpose and gives the real victim a sense of winning. If well executed, it gives a victory.

Some may even believe it's equal to justice. 

So, I don´t say we all should get violent and go get our revenge prepared. BUT! I do encourage daydreaming and fantasy. That's where all great stories come from. Literature is a free pass to do every little thing we’re too scared to do in real life. 

Or even the things we are too nice to do.


To write revenge, provide a motive

That being said, how do we write a good revenge? Let's start with the basics, shall we? 

There's always a who. Revenge is something done by someone to someone. There, we have our character, of course. Revenge is a payback. Is the action to get back for the thing they have done, ergo, there's always a motive

But the interesting thing about this is that the wrong incident that starts the chain is always dependent on the perception of the victim. In other words, anything can be a reason for revenge. 

As it’s about the perception of our character, if crazy enough, a stranger dropping some tea on our character's shirt can be the reason to start a Machiavellian plan to pay them back as long as it has meaning to them. ‘Cause I don't mind the wrongs of a stranger, but maybe our character does. He might have an interview that same afternoon and doesn't have time to change clothes. Maybe he has an insane obsession with cleaning. 

Remember, there is no “wrong” or “right” here. It is just the sense and meaning we give to things.

Strong revenges, though, have strong reasons. You murder my son, so I'm gonna kill your daughter. You broke my heart, so I'll make sure you never get married. 

This is not the way our justice system works, thank God. Otherwise, the world might feel like The Purge. But it's important to say that in our characters' eyes, they have the right to take what has been taken from them. Revenge is their right. 


Let me tell you a short story

An old woman enters a police office looking for her daughter. She has been looking for her daughter for years now. Her daughter disappeared during the time of a military dictatorship. The police offer her neither comfort nor answers. One, in particular, mocks her. He has a white shirt, is very clean, and uses the past tense when he refers to her daughter. 

The next day, the woman enters again. She brings a huge, huge purse. And she is ready to get her revenge. She walks slowly to the cop who offended her. When she gets in front of him, she takes her purse and hits the desk, an ink bottle spilling and splashing all over that white shirt.

She gets out of the police station in a state of absolute victory.

This is La Venganza by Ulises Gorini. 


The best revenge I ever read

If you can, please read this story. It's incredible and beautiful and sad. For my purpose, I'm sorry, I had to sum up and tell you what it was about. Sorry for the spoilers, too. 

The thing is, the very first time you read it, you’re sure the woman is carrying a gun. Why? The narrator keeps telling you about her big purse and how she needs it for the action. She's nervous and has a big plan. You later understand the reason for her revenge. And you think: of course she’s gonna kill him, she lost her daughter. Of course. 

The entire time, the reader is sure something is about to happen. And you want it to happen, cause who wouldn't? This old lady is desperate for an answer she never gets. You think it's fair that she kills him.

But she doesn't.

She just spills ink on his shirt. 

And at first… it feels kinda disappointing. It feels… powerless. But then… you realize that she is happy with her victory and understand why this little act is so satisfactory to her: because she is a kind soul. 

She represents all the tenderness that can't be broken through cruelty. 

What is more vengeful than that? 


Revenge must suit your character

When you're writing about revenge, think about the character. You can have a huge revenge plan that includes torture and beating, but if you have a character that is weak, that is naive, that is nice, it’s impossible for it to feel real to the reader. Cause everything is always about our characters. And their actions must represent them accordingly. 

ALSO: Crafting Complex Characters

Keep in mind that good people can want revenge, too, but their revenge must match their sense of justice, their morals and what they’re capable of doing. 

Silly, short-minded people will never come up with a complex plan that requires a time machine and a lot of physical experts to deliver their revenge. They're gonna think of something simple. Impulsive and violent people tend to improvise and make mistakes along the way; there´s no plan there. A compulsive obsessive will have a plan and probably succeed at it. But if you want to add some mistakes, it must also be related to their obsession. You know, sometimes our strengths might be our faults, too.  


Write morally gray characters

Let's remember people are not black or white. Human beings can not be categorized as good or bad, we are more complex than that. Even the nicest person can hold a grudge. Even the bad guy can have a soft spot. The boy who seems rough often cries at Miyazaki movies – I mean, who doesn't? 

Revenge is a “bad” action, but that doesn't necessarily mean the character is too. Showing us their bright side will make us trust and root for them more. Their pursuit of revenge is also ours now. 

On the other hand, pursuing revenge can change us. It can make a decent person lose their mind and their morals on a path full of insanity, ambition and a broken sense of justice. 


How to plot your revenge

Does this character think they can get away with it without paying the consequences? Do they have a backup plan in case something goes down? Do they have space for forgiveness? Do they commit the act when the time arrives or does something – internal or external – stop them? Can they get to the final line? 



Ask yourself whether you want it to be planned; this requires a meticulous mind, strategy, tools and even maybe some accomplices. Here, you play with the audience's expectations; the thing we all know is going to happen, and we are waiting for it. You can find an example of this on The Mentalist. The series is based on Jane pursuing revenge against a serial killer. It has eight seasons, but it never gets repetitive because he evolves through it and gets more immoral with time, but not enough because you are still asking: is he still going to do it at the end?

On the contrary, a revenge can also be a decision in the heat of the moment, a feeling that has been hiding under the surface, like Regina when she took the book, it wasn't planned so the audience is now surprised. 

But it takes a huge character to achieve a high reaction from the audience. How intense, crazy or wrong could it go?



Different types of revenge

The emotion you want to evoke must be clear to you from the start. This is related to genre, too. 

If you want shocking revenge, which the reader might be scared, intrigued, or disgusted about, then you have to plan very carefully. It probably involves a secret, and we are used to seeing this type of revenge in thriller or horror. 

This is sometimes eccentric, and it has to be a little absurd. Not enough that we don't believe it, but something that escapes most imaginations so we can be surprised when we read it. Something far, far away from our reality. Full of guts, blood, and cleverness. 

Remember: The more twisted and creative you get, the more shocking your revenge will be.

But as we saw, some revenge can evoke sadness or even tenderness. It depends on the characters and the story. If it's a child getting revenge, we need to stick with the innocence of the age. 

If the reason is love or obsession, we have two roads ahead of us: we can make the reader feel disgusted by our character or make them root for our protagonist. How? Empathy and reliability. 

ALSO: How to Write Relatable Characters

If your character is likeable enough and has suffered a lot – as we all do for love – we can “justify” the things they do. Even if we don't, we can understand and care for them, leading us to accept things that we never would in real life.


Expectations vs. reality

The character loses their inner peace, and they can´t be saved or live their regular lives anymore. Revenge becomes an obsession. There's a string pulling them towards someone else, almost as if they're in love. 

And, as if they're in love, they fantasize.

Our characters will have a lot of fake scenarios in their heads, just like when you have a crush on someone. They will plan their lines in front of the mirror, the faces they’ll make, and the things they will say in the moment. There´s a heat, a rush, and a satisfaction when imagining revenge.

But is reality equally powerful as the imagination?

Sometimes, what we imagine to happen is better than what actually happens. Desire might be greater than reality. Because in our heads, everything is right. We do right. There's no place for mistakes. 

So, when the moment comes, something they´ve been expecting and chasing for so long, how would you make them feel?

Are they satisfied? Their desire fulfilled? Would they face the consequences and live happily ever after? Do they have peace? 

Do they feel empty? Did they make a mistake? Did they make everything perfect and still, are not satisfied because the thing they were chasing was something completely different?


Internal Conflict: Needs vs. Wants

Revenge is great for an external goal. Something our protagonist believes they need,  but actually they don't. What they need is usually something very different, almost opposite, like forgiveness, letting go of the past, overcoming trauma or loss, dealing with grief, letting go of their anger, or maybe just some peace of mind. 

You can learn more about external goals and internal needs in The Plottery's course, Novel Plotting Academy.

So when you think about your character, it's important that you understand that what they’re pursuing will not make them feel better about themselves. You can choose their fate, as the God you are, and make them evolve as they connect with their internal need, their true need. Or you can send them through the rabbit hole and hit rock bottom in the most awful way. 

But let them lead the way; let the story come together by hearing what it truly needs.

Just remember that revenge is rarely about revenge itself. We might think it is about justice or anger, but it is just about loss and pain. And a way of still holding onto things that are long gone.


Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.




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