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Fremdschämen, or Feeling the Character's Embarrassment

A baby facepalming into a blanket.
Babby is ashamed!
Guess who learned a new German word while on hiatus?

Good ol' TV Tropes helped me define a certain type of feeling that keeps recurring again and again to me while reading or watching television.

Have you ever seen a sort of situation where a character gets into a totally awkward situation and starts embarrassing themselves?

And for some reason, you're feeling ashamed?

Or you're plugging your fingers into your ears and going "la, la, la" until the scene is over?

It's not just you; it's not just me.

What is Fremdschämen?

Fremdschämen is a German word that means "external shame". Mutual embarrassment, vicarious shame, cringe-worthy, and those "la, la, la" moments.

Someone, especially a character, is making such a fool out of themselves, that you just want the moment to end so you can stop feeling embarrassed.

It's the type of train-wreck you don't want to stay around to watch.

One classic scenario that induces fremdschämen is a case of Freaky Friday going on. With the two characters trying to pretend to be the other, their fumbling and failed attempts at replicating the other's behavior is anything but boring. Because it can go both ways.

The Double-Edged Sword

So why does this matter to you as a writer?

You can achieve a fremdschämen situation with ease and easily get an emotional response out of a reader! For example:

  • As above, a Freaky Friday Flip.
  • Preferably with some dramatic irony, have the character act or talk like a complete idiot.
  • Or have the character try to cover something up, like a boyfriend hiding under his bed.
  • Have the character discover something like a body, and when he leads the local authorities to the site--the body's gone! Awkward!
  • Have the teen protagonist's teachers make an absolutely corny music video for the sake of education! Hey, you're emphasizing with the protagonist's shame that "adults are so out of touch with us".

Plenty of writing prompts there, eh? Be careful though: if the reader decides to plug their ears right in the middle of a scene, they'll lose their spot!

Or they might try to read past it.

But yet again, it's a quirky kind of intensity.

YOUR TURN: Do you have an instance of fremdschämen in your work? Do you have a great story about it that you witness or you were apart of?

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