This is another old one. Ever since human evil has existed (i.e., almost dating back to before humans existed) there has been revenge. It was only a matter of time before such an iconic trope made its way into literature. Usually revenge works like an unending chain of events: I kill you, your brother kills me, my dad kills your brother…ad infinitum.
Revenge occurs when one individual harms another. It’s that simple. It can be as little as a stubbed toe (although that’s weak) to something big like unjust imprisonment. The two individuals in question can both be good, they can both be bad, or any variation of the two. But there has to be a definitive hurt between the two, and the one who is hurt takes it upon themselves to right the wrong done to them.
A revenge plotline is very flexible. For one thing, it takes minimal effort to set up and even less effort to carry on. Even better, there are only three resolutions: one, the perpetrator is kills, two, the victim is killed, and three, the victim decides to forgive or forget about the perpetrator.
What’s more, it can be a true revenge archetype without the victim acknowledging that what they’re doing is justice. That’s the subtlety of this plot: the victim is being used by the author to execute justice on the perpetrator. From the victim’s view, they’re likely just angry. Even if they say that they’re hunting for justice, they’re probably wrong or lying.
One thing that the revenge archetype truly excels at is the exploration of moral issues. Is the avenger right in what he/she is doing? Here’s a big one: when it comes to justice, does intent matter? Even if the perpetrator deserves what they’re getting, is it still justice if they’re killed by an accident, on a false charge, or by an angry drunk?
All great issues that you can learn the answers to by exploring them in your book. However, there are a few points of fine tuning that deserve attention. Although I have said earlier that the protagonist and the antagonist of the plot can be of any moral status, I would not recommend it.
Instead, I would go with a more straightforward way of dealing with it: make the victim good and the perpetrator bad. Most of the time will be spent on how the revenge is executed, and, therefore, most of the focus will be on the victim. Making an evil person the victim actually works against you: the reader can only think about how the person in question deserved whatever was done to them, and the protagonist might just end up being a villain.
There’s one cool trick you can employ when writing a revenge story: don’t make it the main plot until later. John Wick isn’t a revenge story when it begins, but certainly is when it ends. The Princess Bride‘s main plot is certainly not revenge, and Montoya’s revenge is only part of the plot. It’s much more important by the end, though.
Telling the story from the perspective of an outside source works beautifully at this. That way, you can never guess the avenger’s true feelings about the matter, except by what they say.
And, by the way, the victim is rarely honest, even to themselves. Revenge is a betrayal of oneself, because the question is this right? is inevitably asked within them more than once. Because they can have no honest answer, they betray themselves to serve their vendetta, which causes them to act dishonestly or contradictorily.
And, (you probably could have figured this out yourself, though) let’s forget all this talk about play-nice-and-honorable avengers. Someone who has given up their all for a vendetta is rarely (Strike that; I mean NEVER) a kind do-gooder. Make the victim a rough, resourceful, taking-chances-with-eyes-open kind of person.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!