3 Unforgivable Character Sins

unforgivable character sins

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We as readers can forgive a sympathetic character for almost anything (we’re likewise just as willing to condemn a character we dislike for even the mildest of bad behaviors… but that’s another post for another day.) We’re willing to overlook theft, destruction of property, lying, and even murder if we like a character and we’re able to understand where they’re coming from and why they did it.

There are, however, certain acts so vile that they can cause your readers to despise your character in so visceral a way that they can taste it. Warning: Use the following with care – they can greatly alter how your audience reacts to not only your characters, but your work overall.

First, we’ll go over each sin, then we’ll discuss what makes them unforgivable, and finally, the ways you can use this knowledge in your story.

Trigger warning: the following contain NON-GRAPHIC references to rape and child abuse.

Unforgivable Character Sin #1: Child Abuse

Children are seen as innocent and pure, and in most people, trigger a protective response. In real-life prisons, guards are often forced to separate pedophiles and other child abusers from general population because they are targeted by murderers and other violent criminals. That means even sociopathic murderers think people who commit child abuse are the scum of the earth.

Unforgivable Character Sin #2: Rape

Rape is one of the most de-humanizing of crimes. It is a crime of power rather than sex, and most people don’t like to think themselves capable of it – read the ‘why unforgivable?’ section for more information on how this affects your reader.

One example of this in recent literature is in the Walking Dead novel Rise of the GovernorAbout halfway through the book, one of the main characters rapes a woman. After that, he is marked as unredeemable in the minds of readers because he has crossed the moral event horizon.

Unforgivable Character Sin #3: Killing the Dog

If you’re only going to take one thing away from this article, let it be this: Don’t kill the dog.

Many editors and agents will immediately reject a book if the dog dies, and some authors even have clauses in their contracts that say they’re not allowed to kill off canine companions. This is because an ill-thought-out doggie death not only spells out doom for Fido, but can often kill off a readership as well.

And that’s just if your dog dies of benign causes – a character actively killing off a dog (or even just kicking a puppy) is a surefire way to make sure that character is instantly hated.

Should you decide to kill off a dog, it’s usually best to do so at the end of your story. Think of Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Why unforgivable?

Why, when audiences are willing to forgive so many vile behaviors, are they unwilling to do the same for these three? To find this answer, we need to examine why audiences are willing to forgive so much in the first place.

The answer to that lies in your reader’s connection to your character. Effective characters – and all their acts – need to be sympathetic, meaning that we need to be able to understand what they’re going through. We need to be able to look at all the information that’s presented to us, and think, Yeah, I could see myself doing something like that if I were put into that situation. No one wants to feel like a bad person, so in order to forgive ourselves, we’re forced to forgive others for doing the things we can see ourselves doing.

Rape, Child abuse, and dog-killing, however… well, no one sees themselves as capable of doing these things. Even if they are. There’s also this feeling that rape, child abuse, and hurting dogs has absolutely no justification, ever, while many people might think the victim of a murder ‘had it coming’ for whatever reason.

This offers one loophole: if you can make the audience empathize with why the character abused a child, raped, or killed a dog, then they may be willing to forgive it. There needs to be that figurative (or literal) gun to their head. For example, in I Am Legend (spoiler warning), the main character is forced to kill his dog after the dog was infected with the zombie virus. It was a heart-wrenching moment, forcing us to sympathize with Will Smith’s character because we understood.

Don’t act like this didn’t break your heart. via bing images

Be warned, though – your audience’s view of your character and your work will be skewed, and you’ll have to deal with the character’s mental reaction. There’s no coming back from these three things.

How to use these sins in your work

So, does this mean these three acts are completely off-limits in your writing? Heck no!

Using them as plot devices can be especially helpful when you have a villain who is becoming too sympathetic. Having your villain commit any of these acts serves as a point-of-no-return, after which they cannot be redeemed. This works especially well for arcs where the villain’s descent from relatively good to truly reprehensible. It signals to the reader that there will be no redemption at the end of the story, effectively helping you manage their expectations.

Unless you can pull off making these acts sympathetic like I mentioned in the previous section, it’s NEVER a good idea to have your protagonist do any of these things.

Another option is to use less-extreme versions of these sins – your character is simply mean to a child, for example, or kicks a puppy rather than outright killing it.

Inversely, you can make characters more likeable by having them do the opposite. Your protagonist is in a situation where it would be easy for him to take advantage of a woman? Don’t let him do it! Your MC isn’t as likeable as you’d like him to be? Have him care for a stray mutt!

Do you agree that these sins are unforgivable? Did I miss any sins? Let me know in the comments!

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H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

58 comments for “3 Unforgivable Character Sins

  1. Cait
    June 26, 2015 at 11:55 PM

    Someone should probably tell GRRM….

  2. hdziuk
    June 27, 2015 at 12:31 AM

    Thanks for commenting!
    Too true! The first rule of writing is that there is an exception to every rule, and Martin is an undisputed master.

  3. Beccy
    June 27, 2015 at 4:58 PM

    As a cat lover (and most other animals) I get upset when they hurt them too. I immediately put the book down, I don’t want to read that. Why does it seem to be ok in literature for this to happen but not dogs?

  4. Eli
    August 13, 2015 at 2:07 AM

    Beccy, In my mind it’s more a sin to kill a dog, because humans literally invented them, we took them from wild animals and turned them into an extension of ourselves. with out dogs by our side we never would have evolved, and neither would they, we evolved together, we live, breath, and die together. When your dog dies it breaks your heart, and when you die, it breaks your dogs heart. Cats were one of our main predators prior to our evolution, and sure they can become friends, and life long partners to humans, but nothing can break the bond that formed with dogs.

  5. hdziuk
    August 13, 2015 at 8:42 PM

    Wow, Eli – I love that theory. And it’s so true that we have closer relationships with dogs than with any other animal.

  6. chris
    September 20, 2015 at 5:40 AM

    I have to point out one big exception to a this. In Thomas covenant white Gold Wielder the protagonist has suffered from leprosy for well over a decade. He is healed by potion given to him by a young lady. His instantly cured body is so overwhelmed with passion he rapes her. He is largely loathsome throughout most of the book. He has these heroic interludes that puts him on the border of redemption, only to fall into another episode of hurtful actions. He is probably one the most complicated characters I have ever read. He is morally bankrupt and emotionally corrupted. and the survival of an entire planet rests completely in his hands. You have to root for the success of a very unlikable character in order to save the very likable and worthy inhabitants of this amazing world.

  7. September 21, 2015 at 5:58 PM

    Hi, Chris. I’ve never read that book – it sounds interesting!
    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and, unfortunately, if any of these sins will be forgiven, it would be rape.
    While I’ve never read the book you mention, it does seem that the author’s goal is actually to make the character unlikeable, and using one of these unforgivable sins is a way to accomplish that. A similar example is The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor, where the MC rapes a woman. The effect is to make him more unlikeable, and ultimately foreshadows his future role as a villain.
    Thanks for your comment!

  8. darkocean
    September 29, 2015 at 9:25 PM

    These are good tips, thank you. 🙂 I think it should be added that a prologue that goes on for more then two pages is a kiss of death if it is just thinly veiled info dump/backstory.

  9. Laverne
    October 9, 2015 at 2:14 PM

    Wonderful article. Thank you for sharing.

    I have to respectfully disagree with Eli’s theory about humans loving dogs more. Dogs are more subservient to humans than cats, that’s what might make them more attractive to certain people. And yes, humans did create dogs from wild animals, but we created the dog by selectively breeding the more submissive strains of wolves. Way back in the day wolves hunted humans too right along with the big cats.

    Cats created an alliance with humans, and they were just as useful to us as we were to them. We fed them, kept them warm, and in turn they hunted rats and mice and protected our grain. So the same thing could be said about cats, that humans couldn’t have survived without them. Both species were useful to humans: dogs protected the herds from predators and cats protected the crops from vermin.

    I’ve owned dogs and cats. Each death just about broke me. I’ve seen our dogs go into mourning over the loss of a canine or human family member, but I’ve also seen our cats go into deep mourning over the loss of a human or feline companion. The idea that cats don’t grieve like dogs is a myth. After my dad died my boy Bandit would sit and stare at his empty chair. He would leave his place just long enough to eat and drink. He’d come back and stay there for days, even sleep in that spot, as if he thought my father would be sitting in his chair when he woke up. This went on for months. Cats are not cold and aloof. Another myth.

    “I Am Legend” could have just as easily had a cat in the dog’s place, and the death scene would have been just as heart-wrenching. I don’t like seeing animal abuse period, but if it makes sense in the context of the story I’m willing to go along and see what the author intended.

  10. hdziuk
    October 9, 2015 at 4:16 PM

    Hi, Laverne! Thanks for your comment. I also agree that the deaths of cats – and all other animals – in fiction are certainly heart-wrenching. I don’t want them to shoot the cat, either!
    It’s not quite true that we domesticated dogs from wolves – it’s more that dogs and wolves shared an ancestor, and we bred early dogs into the breeds we have today. I didn’t realize this until recently when watching this documentary on dog training. It sounds similar to what you describe with cats.

  11. Laverne
    October 9, 2015 at 4:23 PM
  12. hdziuk
    October 10, 2015 at 1:01 AM

    “The origin of the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris or Canis familiaris) is not clear. Whole genome sequencing indicates that the dog, the gray wolf and the extinct Taymyr wolf diverged at around the same time 27,000–40,000 years ago.” This sentence was the first sentence in the article you linked to, and it indicates that the modern wolf and the modern domestic dog (along with the taymyr wolf) evolved from the same common ancestor – not that the domestic dog is a descendant of the modern wolf.

  13. Koo
    October 12, 2015 at 5:12 PM

    Interesting article. Would never have guessed that in litterature killing a dog is as bad as child abuse. I guess killing a small child would not go down well either.

    And for the commenters above; I have a cat that grieved so much over my dogs sudden death (accident), that she almost starved herself to death too. Took me a month to notice as I was so filled with grief myself, and by then she was nothing but bones underneath her thick fur. Luckily the cat was saved.

  14. Janice
    October 19, 2015 at 2:39 AM

    One exception re killing the dog being at the beginning the death of story is the play, “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night”. The play opens with a dead dog with a garden fork in it. It is shocking, as are many moments on this wonderful play. Of course we don’t get to meet the dog alive, so maybe that is why it doesn’t ‘kill’ the play.

  15. Inger
    November 6, 2015 at 3:07 PM

    I appoligies for my bad english, it’s not my mother tongue. I loved the article, it makes perfect sense when I read it, but probably wouldn’t figure it out on my own. ¨

    I also have read “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night” and I think it worked both becouse of the reason Janice mentioned, but also becouse the main charecter found the dead dog and it upset him enough to try figureing out what happend to it, so the focus isn’t around the dead dog, but the fact that he got upset finding a dead dog.

    I think the animal killing will be difrent acording to who the reader is, some people will get more upset by killing a dog then a cat, while others will reackt the same way in both cases. It probably will depend on their relationship to animal and/ore the particular animal. For some people killing a pig will get you in this trap. For me hurting an animal is terible no matter which animal it is, ecept spiders, bugs bies etc. That’s probably couse I have a fobia against them and I generely don’t like them, so I have a distance to them. And if it’s a cute animal whit a kind an/or awsome personality you would simpatice more whit it.

    You could probably get away whit it if the animal atacs someone and you have to kill it in order to survive or save their lives(and this goes mostly to wild animals or farm animals i guess). And also if you kill a farm animal or a wild animal for the sake of food. In both cases wil it probably only work if the reader don’t have been introduced to the animal before the killing and it has to happen in a way that gives the animal litle to non pain.

  16. hdziuk
    November 6, 2015 at 6:40 PM

    Hi, Inger. Let me just say your English seems pretty darn good to me!
    I love all your points. For me as well, killing pretty much any animal in a book or movie is an upsetting thing, especially if the animal’s personality is shown beforehand. I still feel like dogs are the MOST upsetting, at least for me, though. Not sure if it’s because I have a dog (I’d have cats, too, but I’m allergic to them), or if it’s because of the archetypal bias of dog being ‘man’s best friend’. All I know is it’s a bias many people share.
    I also think that if a dog is trying to attack you (or your characters), that immediately overcomes the dog bias because the dog is no longer acting like that archetype. In effect, it is no longer a dog in practice, so we don’t feel as bad about its death.
    Sorry if that’s a little rambly or nonsensical. I wrote this comment in a hurry.

  17. Gwen
    December 9, 2015 at 2:19 AM

    I think killing the dog is acceptable if it is done through pain and reluctance. The dog is terminally ill and in agony and the protagonist is alone in a cabin on a storm riddled mountain. Or in some other situation in which the main character is in unreachable conditions and the dog is suffering for it. Also, if the dog is becoming a nuisance and/or will suffer if it continues it’s journey with the protagonist. As long as it’s not done with pleasure or want, it’s fine.

    I completely agree with the others though

  18. Lana
    December 18, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    Red Dragon comes to mind for this.

    No the main bad guy didn’t commit any of these, but a counter point for a feeling close to sympathy for the person committing this unforgivable act is mentally illness and distortion of ethics. You can make the audience pity the villain instead of hate them. They are still at a point of no return, but you can change the opinions of your readers in jolting ways. So essentially you are applying the idea of breaking these unforgivable rules, but not actually breaking them because its about the villain and your feeling is of pity rather than anger.

  19. January 1, 2016 at 5:13 PM

    Exception to the rule every romance book from the 80’s, or at least a good majority of them. The mine love interest often rapes the mc, of course there’s lots of dominance issues with romance.

  20. hdziuk
    January 1, 2016 at 5:41 PM

    That’s a very interesting point, Michael! I’ve never read any 80’s romance novels. Is it straight-up rape (would the characters/readers describe the events as rape?) or is it more veiled than that? I think this speaks a lot about how our society has changed in its views on gender politics in the last 20-30 years.

  21. Joseph Scott
    January 3, 2016 at 10:01 PM

    Very true about the abuse and the rape. Nobody likes to read that, and nobody wants to forgive that, either. Killing a dog, or cat, can go either way depending on the plot and the author’s intentions. But I think that killing a child is more frowned upon and unjustified than abuse…

  22. Kendra
    January 3, 2016 at 10:33 PM

    It’s very sad how in literature “vague rape” suddenly become more forgivable. Flowers in the Attic is an example of this. The MC’s romantic interest rapes her, but it’s discribed in a clinical way and afterwards she tells him she could have stopped him if she wanted too. He’s also shown to be emotionally distraught at the time and there’s a clear history of emotional and physical abuse we’ve watched him go through that he has bottled up until then. All this is set up to make the audience forgive him enough that you don’t get upset when they get together.
    Some foreign cultures are known for making both child abuse and rape forgivable sins. I read a book once where a woman talked about how much stress her husband was on at work and how once she understood that she no longer blamed him for taking out his stress on her and their son. He was shown as sympathetic once his work stresses where known, leaving me, an American reader, confused on how that justified him abusing his family.

  23. Amy
    January 4, 2016 at 4:20 AM

    What about cannibalism?

    Even if justified by starvation, its hard to think about someone the same way if you know they’ve eaten another human. And its definitely something that most people can’t ever see themselves doing.

  24. Tamara Reuveni
    January 4, 2016 at 6:58 PM

    I get the whole “there’s always a way to do it right” thing, but I have to say I could never root for a character who was a rapist or a child abuser, no matter what else was at stake. Killing the dog is for me the most forgivable of the three, and I happen to love animals of every kind, except spiders. I think that when you try to make a rapist or child abuser a sympathetic character, you’re walking a dangerous line and your writing could do real damage in the real world. Writers have tremendous power over the way their readers view the world on a subconscious level. Do you really want to be responsible for making someone think that rape is forgivable as long as you then go out and save the world? A disproportionate number of rape victims are female soldiers who were attacked by their male comrades in arms. You can bet that those rapists had also saved a few lives in their time. Does that make their crime any less severe? Many child abusers were themselves abused as children, and while I sincerely empathize with their suffering, you can’t change the past. Your first priority must be to protect the children who are being abused now. Writers have a responsibility to use their power over public opinion to make the world a better place. If you’re going to write a story about rape or child abuse, concentrate on the voices of the victims.

  25. Debbie
    January 6, 2016 at 5:13 PM

    Absolutely agree with you, some friends recommend to me show house of cards…in the first episode he killed a dog, that did it for me, and some of my friends that recommend it were not aware of it. The show might be good, but has everyone else seen the scene it wouldn’t be so popular.

  26. RObbie Knight
    January 8, 2016 at 7:55 PM

    I actually thought you were going to say “protests rape” as an unforgivable sin because if you’ve ever dared to say you DON’T like rape you get punished for saying that. It’s even considered “wussy” to admit to having triggers.
    SPOILER for Downton Abbey Season 4 (3?) a very, VERY sympathetic character gets brutally raped, and it was graphically portrayed (at least for those of us who have these triggers) but the broadcasting company told people they had no right to be offended by it, the actors told people it was done “delicately” (yeah, a delicate RAPE) and critics blasted people who dared to hate that story arc. At least in Got (SPOILER) rape is a horrible act, equated with torture and death, and rapists tend to get their horrifying comeuppance eventually. In Downton it was just breezed over, and badly. Still, try saying anything! People who hate that story line end up being the Bad Guys.

  27. Robbie Knight
    January 8, 2016 at 7:58 PM

    What Tamara said. And Tamara, please say this MORE. The world needs to hear this! Thank you for being that voice.

  28. Frankie
    January 9, 2016 at 8:18 PM

    I have to disagree with you condoning the use of rape if you want to make a character seem less sympathies. Rape isn’t something that should be thrown around and honestly the use of rape as a plot device is sickening to me. I don’t think they need to be in writing most of the time, people just like to add them in because they don’t understand the severe effect that it really has on someone. I can think of few times I could really justify rape being present in literature.

  29. Adrian
    January 11, 2016 at 10:55 PM

    I’m guessing no one on here has read;The Broken Empire Series by Mark Lawrence? The protagonist; Jorg (who’s something of an anti-hero) rapes and murders impudently and yet it’s definitely one of the best books out there. Granted he doesn’t make you feel all warm and toasty but i found myself rooting for him over and over again.
    AND, i am STRONGLY against rape, child-abuse and dog killing (i have five dogs myself)

  30. Ivy
    January 12, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    I couldn’t stop thinking of Cormac McCarthy as I read this post. How despicable is that Judge character?

    McCarthy’s works were set as readings in my Lit degree. After the initial sensory shock of his writing had passed, I felt as if his fictional world was no longer amoral because I was looking for the tiny nuances of character. Like adjusting your eyes in a dim room. It made me think of what people weather in conflict zones.

  31. Liz
    January 17, 2016 at 2:59 AM

    The “Killing the Dog” section immediately made me think of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness. In this book – and may I just say that, yes there will be spoilers ahead – the main character has a dog with whom he travels, as well as a friend. The main antagonist of this book (but not of the following two) kidnaps the girl with whom the main character is traveling. The boy is injured and weakened, but sets off, with the dog, to save her. In the end the two characters, both weak from either being drugged (in the case of the girl) and injury, escape in a boat, the dog and the antagonist (or anti-hero?) close behind. Should they save the dog, they would allow themselves to be captured, but if they left him, they would safely escape. They leave the dog, and witness the antagonist/anti-hero murder him. This all takes place in a world in which the thoughts of every animal, and every male human (not the women though) are broadcasted, out loud, in a never-ending stream of Noise. This means the reader is subject to the final thoughts of the dog, as he is roughly handled, watching his boy leave him. It’s a heart-wrenching death, but it is critical to the progression of the story. As stated, there is always an exception to laid-down ground rules, and I feel this is one of them. This was an excellent list, and the explanations are eloquent but succinct. As an avid reader, I have come across these things in many books and have indeed found them unforgivable. and as a writer, would only very carefully, and very rarely, assign these actions to a character.

  32. Katie
    January 31, 2016 at 1:45 AM

    This was a great article! The sin where it says not to commit child abuse makes me think about the Divergent series because ever since I found out that Tobais was abused by his father, I never liked Marcus, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the time. The sin about not killing the dog made me think of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” The dog was killed and I nevre forgave the murderer.

  33. Lisa
    February 1, 2016 at 10:47 PM

    As the another commentor wrote, Thomas Covenant is the most well known protagonist with a bevy of sins from Stephen R Donaldson best selling High Fantasy Novels. Lord Fouls Bane is the first, and is an excellent novel. Different genres have different rules, and how you portray your protagonist. In the Graphic Novel The Walking Dead, The Governor is not a protagonist he is an enemy and the rape and other activities are meant for the reader to determine this. The seeming good guy in reality is bad. Just like Sanctuary really isn’t safe.

  34. Casey J.
    February 9, 2016 at 5:12 AM

    Alright, after reading the article and scrolling through and reading every last comment it would seem as though killing the dog takes the cake. Why? Simple, nearly 50-60% of the comments were about animal abuse. If not directly related to the topic was still brought to light. As for my 2¢ I do like dogs, and have loved a couple. However, cats are my babies (:

  35. April 1, 2016 at 10:46 PM

    Most of the times I encounter rape in my reading, the net effect is to make me think the writer is lazy and can’t/won’t think of anything better to create tension. I don’t read those writers again. There are a few exceptions, like GoT, but not a lot. Usually it’s handled as badly as the Downton Abbey episode mentioned above.

  36. J.
    April 8, 2016 at 10:00 PM

    Great advice. I’d like to say not unforgivable, but I am good at seeing things.

    Also, must say finding out that Ralph was guilty of one of these, definitely changed him from “Harmless and ineffectual” to “loose cannon and completely irresponsible.” Though the narrative was chilling because it could have been anybody.

  37. Patricia
    April 24, 2016 at 11:50 PM

    I can understand the rape and child abuse, but as someone whose not really an animal lover. The dog thing is mind boggling. I’m a little upset because I was going to have my vampire main character eat a dog, but now I cant.

    But I do know what you say to be true because I was watching a tv show. Where one of the main characters bought a dog and his girlfriend didn’t want one and they got into a big fight over it. And surprisingly to me people actually blew up the facebook page talking about how they wish they had’ve cut that scene out. When she didn’t even do anything but say she didn’t want a dog lol. No abuse of any kind.

  38. hdziuk
    April 26, 2016 at 6:24 AM

    Hi, Patricia. Humankind’s attachment to members of the canine persuasion can seem nonsensical, but it is a very visceral one. Though I’m a dog-lover myself, I understand your pain. I’m assuming you want people to like your MC, yes? Could he perhaps eat something people are less emotionally attached to? A raccoon, maybe?
    Best of luck and let us know how it turns out!

  39. Helen
    May 22, 2016 at 5:38 AM

    I find it very interesting how proscriptive many of you are about what to write and it seems to me that in essence you are searching for the right formula to write a book that will offend no one… Whatever happened to truth in writing? Life is hard, bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. With so much analysis you seem to me to be ham stringing your own creativity and not allowing yourselves to be challenged. Surely the essence of good literature… And YA fiction can be very good literature… Is that it teaches you to look at things in a different way, confront hard truths, challenge your own thinking and grow from it. You can choose to read (and write) easy stories where everything turns out ok but if you do you are reducing yourselves and limiting what you are capable of. Aim higher, write freely – without second guessing how your words will be received. Your loyalty belongs to your story, not to your future readers interpretations of it.

  40. Luna Selas
    June 2, 2016 at 4:09 PM

    I’m writing a story now wherein the antagonist kills a dog, which finally propels the heroine to quit an abusive relationship with a narcissistic man. I hope the rule does not apply to villains. Interesting read, thanks for posting.

  41. Haruhi
    August 8, 2016 at 3:35 AM

    I was reading this and thought of an anime character when you talked about child abuse… because they showed him getting slapped by his father and I instantly hated his father even though the guy was probably about 16 or 17 at the time…. child abuse is definitely something that I couldn’t easily forgive a character for.
    Also the whole thing about killing the dog? I’ve always cried at all the stories where the dog dies… I like to cry at books… but there are some times I can’t really stand it…

  42. Evan Williams
    September 11, 2016 at 2:31 AM

    I found this article quite helpful, with new info to consider, and responses I might have neglected to consider. Another unpardonable sin I’ve heard often, is don’t let children be killed/die, which is an extension of the child abuse rule. Do you have any thoughts on that? It’s close to my work, in which a four-year-old slips away from home and drowns, as a pivotal incident within the first third of my novel manuscript.

  43. hdziuk
    September 13, 2016 at 7:54 AM

    Hi, Evan. Thanks for the comment.
    Often we see children dying at the beginning of a story in order to motivate the main character(s). Of course, we haven’t gotten the chance to get to know them yet, so this type of child death does not hit us as hard (and frankly, we’re desensitized to it because we see it fairly often in crime novels and thrillers).
    The death of a fictional child whom we get to know as a member of the ensemble is more difficult, and recommended only for horror and other genres where you want to inspire such strong negative emotions. It’s all about your intended effect. Manner of death is also important–even the most hardened people don’t want to read about a child (or anyone, really, but especially a child) suffering in an extreme way.
    I will also point out that the 3 unforgivable sins are things you don’t want a character to do if you want them to ever be liked again, not necessarily things you shouldn’t include in a novel at all.
    Happy writing!

  44. Dart
    November 29, 2016 at 6:19 AM

    But what about Travis? Travis killed Old Yeller!

  45. Kathryn Long
    December 13, 2016 at 7:42 PM

    I think having a man beat up a woman is just as unforgivable, or nearly so, as child abuse. Rape is definitely an act of violence, but so is beating a woman. Any woman who has lived through a genuine beating from a man knows how helpless and powerless it makes you feel. I would add this to the list.

  46. hdziuk
    December 17, 2016 at 12:38 AM

    Kathryn, that’s a really great point. I agree–there’s a similar loss of control and dehumanization inherent in both acts, and also an abuse of a physical power differential.

  47. Sarah Harris
    December 20, 2016 at 2:40 AM

    I read up on a blog entry once about a story where a woman’s sister raped her brother-in-law while the woman was in a preeclampsia-induced coma (she had to have an emergency C-section in order to save their triplets). Said sister then wound up pregnant with her victim’s child. It managed to raise some interesting questions about double standards and the like (she did eventually redeem herself throughout the story, but I digress). Anyway, I’d like to know what you thoughts are on this. How would you have reacted if you were reading along and you came to that part?

  48. hdziuk
    December 29, 2016 at 6:08 AM

    Hi, Sarah. Good question. It’s difficult to predict a reaction like that without more context–do you have the link to the blog entry you’re referencing? That said, while I think female-on-male rape is just as bad as male-on-female rape, I do have to admit that it feels less “bad.” I’m sure part of that is due to social conditioning, and a part due to a physical strength difference between men and women. Definitely something to ponder.

  49. Frank
    January 15, 2017 at 6:08 AM

    This article is so true. Whenever I read an autobiography about a sports figure who casually mentions that he was beaten with a belt as a child, I instantly loathe his parents no matter how much the book attempts to gloss over the subject. I don’t want to read about child abuse in fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, or any other genre imaginable, period.

    If an author kills or abuses a dog, I put the book down. If I stumble upon a rape scene, I’m done as well–onto the next book.

    Unfortunately, Stephen King commits all three of these sins often in his novels. Greg Stillson kicking a dog to death early in “The Dead Zone”. Danny Torrence having his arm broken by his drunken father in “The Shining”. Norm Cluett mentioned as having a heavy hand with his kids in “The Stand”, along with countless other mentions of parental child beatings in “The Body” and “It”. It hasn’t stopped King from being successful, but it has stopped me from respecting his work.

  50. Anonymous
    March 3, 2017 at 3:46 AM

    Old Jules. That guy was messed up, abusive. But it doesn’t keep you from rooting for him somehow.

  51. Terry
    March 3, 2017 at 5:37 AM

    Great article and interesting conversation in the comments! There’s a lot of discussion about whether killing a dog or a cat is worse (sometimes based on one’s personal preference or experience and sometimes based on which has been domesticated longer), and some debate about whether a character killing an animal is worse than abusing or killing a child. Personally, I think all of the “unforgivable sins” discussed in the article fit into one category: deliberately harming a being that is smaller or weaker than you in some way. At some level, cruelty is cruelty. If a character beats or rapes a woman because he can, or if he or she abuses a child, or abuses an animal – dog, cat, horse, turtle, it doesn’t matter – that character will lose my respect and my loyalty. If they’re the villain, it will certainly level up their villainy; if they’re the main character, I will stop reading. I’m not going anywhere with a sleazeball like that.

  52. Paulette
    September 10, 2017 at 12:43 PM

    Abusing animals of ANY kind makes me want to quit reading. I don’t agree that we have a closer affinity with dogs than cats, horses, or whatever…love is love, no matter what kind of animal it comes from. As you have probably guessed, I am a cat lover. And as for our primordial past, please be aware that wolves, coyotes and feral dogs will often attack us just as easily as any other prey, and it has always been so.
    Another real deal breaker: elder abuse, especially abuse of parents. May people like that burn in hell.

  53. Jess
    October 27, 2017 at 12:48 AM


    This is long past and you may not see this, but Travis saved Yeller from a long, agonizing death. Yeller was bitten by the rabid wolf and was showing unmistakable signs of rabies (in the movie, at least. I don’t remember whether they waited until he developed symptoms in the book or not). Rabies is a horrible thing to die from and putting a bullet in him was the kindest thing they could have done for him.

  54. Matthew
    October 27, 2017 at 11:26 PM

    Dogs and cats are indeed living breathing animals, but what makes their death any crueler than the death of a human? I love animals and all, but I can respect their death as an important part of the plot, just like I can the death of a human.

    Anyway, I agree that needlessly killing or abusing, regardless of the age, species, and/ or gender, is a quick way to make a character hateable.

    Despite this, I disagree with the opinion that someone is “Unredeemable” or “Unforgivable”, as it is always possible for someone to find redemption. Although if you want people to like your character, I would also recommend avoiding these “sins”.

  55. November 18, 2017 at 6:24 PM

    Well, that wraps up my tips on Show, Don’t Tell. If you have any other tips or tricks for balancing the showing and telling of your work, make sure to let me know in comments below. I love that we can learn from one another and work together to stay inspired. High fives for all of you!

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