While we can certainly be forgiven for not seeing our personal wounds as jewels, our most powerful wounds often have as many facets and hidden depths as an exquisitely cut gemstone. They are sharp, with hard edges that not only reflect back light but distort it somewhat.
As writers, we know that our character’s wounds are some of the most fertile ground for creating a rich, fully realized protagonist. But before we can explore this with our characters, we have to understand it ourselves. And because we have all been wounded in some way—and those places are always tender—it can be uncomfortable to look too closely.
In order to use our characters’ wounds to full effect, we need to understand that wounds aren’t simply an attribute to be filled in on a worksheet. They are the rocket fuel for our character’s backstory, the backstory that drives their motivation and colors their world. It must be deeply organic to that character and so intricately woven into their emotional DNA that it distorts the way the see the world and themselves.
While everyone’s wounds are uniquely theirs, they are also universal in that they’re something we all share. What differs is their nature, how we carry them, and the many—often unexpected—ways they shape us and our behavior.
Because of course the impact of any given wound isn’t limited to that initial injury. I was reminded of that last week when I was out walking and twisted my ankle. It was nothing serious, but by the time I’d limped around favoring it for a day or two, everything else was out of whack as I contorted my body to accommodate the injury.
Emotional wounds are just like that, only worse by orders of magnitude.
Even when we know our character’s painful past, we often don’t use it to full effect. We don’t manage to weave into the very essence of who our character is—because make no mistake, wounds fundamentally shape us, especially those incurred in childhood when we are so defenseless. With wounds of the heart or soul—the ones that violate some deep fundamental part—it is the repercussions of that initial wound that create the most scarring. The blame, the self-doubt, the suffocating shame, all serve as a way to cut us off from our core self.
Emotional neglect, a betrayal, a rejection, a lie, are all painful enough, but often become the lens through which we see ourselves. We accept that rejection. Believe that lie. Justify the betrayal due to something fundamentally flawed within us rather than the betrayer. Or worse, we don’t see it as a betrayal at all, but simple evidence of how flawed and unlovable we really are.
The emotionally abandoned child believes they are undeserving of love.
The abused believes they deserve the abuse, that love will always hurt and often comes coated in shame.
The child of addicts learns to fundamentally mistrust the safety and stability of the world around them.
The child raised in a religion that vilifies all human behavior will inevitably see themselves as sinful and unworthy.
Any kind of abuse—emotional, physical, sexual—is often the starting point for a long, twisted, distorted journey from our true selves. And our worldview takes shape around that bad information we’ve deduced because of it.
One of the biggest challenges we face as writers is how to hook our reader emotionally and forge a connection in those first few pages without becoming the literary equivalent of the stranger in the checking line, blurting out every gory detail of the drama of their lives without even having been asked.
The secret, I think, is to show or hint at the character’s contortions and defense mechanisms that have sprung up around that deeper wound. As readers, we’re trained to look for clues and hints, so we’ll spot those coping mechanisms and be intrigued—we’ll want to know why.
So as writers, we need to ask ourselves: In what ways does our character limp through the world? How do they favor that wounded place inside? What distorted belief do they cling to with both hands? What ways do they disassociate from parts of themselves that brush too closely to that wound? In what ways do they wear their wound like a chip on their shoulder, insisting to the world it has made them tough, impervious to future wounding?
And why are these characters indelibly scarred by these events, when others might brush them off or take them in stride?
I believe the answer to that last question is that because for some, the psychic soil has been well prepared and cultivated—their soil broken down and covered in so much manure before the wound even shows up—that the individual is supremely susceptible to the final blow.
But what about characters who don’t have a tragic or traumatic event in their past? What about lesser, garden variety wounds? The kind we acquire from the simple life lessons of growing older or growing up? Because the majority of the time, these shaping wounds are incurred early in life—either in our childhood, teen, or early adult years.
These less traumatic experiences still shape us, although to what degree will vary widely from character to character and will depend on things like the psychic equivalent of adrenaline, momentum, individual pain thresholds, and how cultivated the soil was.
We all have memories from our childhood, of playing with other kids, either on the playground or in the neighborhood, then taking a fall, skinning our knee or scraping an elbow. Chances are we bounced right up and kept on going, utterly impervious to any pain. At least until it was time to come inside and wash up for dinner. THEN we could feel that sucker throbbing and stinging.
Science has also shown that pain thresholds within the same person vary depending on how stressed our systems are. When we are under chronic stress, our body produces a lot more of some chemicals and fewer of others. The reformulation of our brain chemistry intensifies pain response—both physical and emotional.
So even if the story you’re writing does not involve characters with large traumatic wounds in their past, common everyday wounds can be equally fertile ground for deepening character.
- Why does a character have a gambling problem?
- A shopping addiction?
- Why are they terrified of clowns? Cats? Blimps?
- Why do they feel the need to be perfect?
- So competitive?
Each of those behaviors could be fueled by either a traumatic wound or a common every day one. It is the tone and theme of your story that will decide which it should be. Or rather I should say, it is the nature of your character’s wounds that will determine the tone and theme of your story.
We are often our own worst enemy—there is no denying that. Many writers feel that their character is his own antagonist, and that is likely true. Our desperation to avoid acknowledging our wounds, to avoid awakened that old pain and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of that pain are often an enormous component of getting in the way of our own happiness. It is hard and scary to look that deeply inside and reorient our world view, even it if ultimately frees us. It is scary to be thrust back into the same powerlessness and vulnerability we had in that moment. That is why we need stories to show us how.
Some of our character’s most transformative moments will come from facing those wounds, freeing themselves from the weight of them, and beginning the healing process. And of course, the stories we write aren’t about the wounds—but how we can overcome them.
We need stories to show us that being wounded or broken doesn’t lessen our character’s—or our own—humanity in any way. It is, in fact, what make us deeply human. The best stories show us that having been wounded doesn’t mean we are less than, or broken beyond repair, or unworthy. Instead, they illuminate all the different shapes wounds can take and the many different paths to healing that await us, if only we have the courage to look.
Do you know your character’s defining wounds? Can you brainstorm three to four ways these wounds create behaviors that readers can see on the page?