When you’re writing a character, it’s important to know why she is the way she is. Knowing her backstory is important to achieving this end, and one of the most impactful pieces of a character’s backstory is her emotional wound. This negative experience from the past is so intense that a character will go to great lengths to avoid experiencing that kind of pain and negative emotion again. As a result, certain behaviors, beliefs, and character traits will emerge.
Characters, like real people, are unique, and will respond to wounding events differently. The vast array of possible emotional wounds combined with each character’s personality gives you many options in terms of how your character will turn out. With the right amount of exploration, you should be able to come up with a character whose past appropriately affects her present, resulting in a realistic character that will ring true with readers. Understanding what wounds a protagonist bears will also help you plot out her arc, creating a compelling journey of change that will satisfy readers.
NOTE: We realize that sometimes a wound we profile may have personal meaning, stirring up the past for some of our readers. Please know that it is never our intent to create emotional turmoil. We also recognize that an event that is traumatizing for one person may have only a passing impact on someone else. Emotional wounds affect people differently, so we have tried to include many possible outcomes, to give writers many options to choose from. Above all, please know that we desire to treat these wounds and those who have lived through them with the utmost respect.
Examples: Public mistakes are nothing new and have been happening as long as we all can remember. Luckily, they’re soon forgotten—at least, they used to be. In today’s technologically-advanced world, public mistakes are often recorded for posterity—on YouTube, Facebook, and even on websites set up with the express purpose of never letting anyone forget. This kind of reminder makes it even more difficult to move on after an embarrassing gaffe, such as one of the following:
- Backing a cause or organization that turns out to be fraudulent
- Getting caught having an affair
- Getting caught in a public lie
- Getting arrested
- Being overheard saying something one would like to keep private
- Losing one’s temper
- Making comments one later regrets
- Getting drunk and acting inappropriately
- Flubbing one’s lines during a performance
- Literally “dropping the ball” during a sporting event
- Experiencing a true wardrobe malfunction
- Making public claims that one is unable to follow through on
- Being responsible for a high-profile project or product that either fails or falls short of expectations
- Saying something that makes one look stupid or ignorant
- Making an accusation that turns out to be unfounded
- Accidentally sending an inflammatory email or phone message to a large group of people instead of just one person
Basic Needs Often Compromised By This Wound: love and belonging, esteem and recognition, self-actualization
False Beliefs That May Be Embraced As a Result of This Wound:
- This is all people will ever remember about me.
- No one is ever going to let me forget what I did.
- I can’t be trusted not to screw up.
- I’m terrible under pressure.
- I’m unreliable.
- I’m always going to fail.
- If I get in front of an audience, I’m going to mess things up.
Positive Attributes That May Result: ambitious, cautious, discreet, humble, merciful, private, proactive, responsible, tolerant
Negative Traits That May Result: defensive, evasive, inhibited, insecure, irresponsible, perfectionist, pessimistic, rebellious, resentful, self-destructive, timid, withdrawn, worrywart
- Fear of failure
- Fear of speaking/performing in public
- Fear of letting others down
- Fear of tarnishing one’s reputation
Possible Habits That May Emerge:
- Shying away from ambitious or challenging opportunities
- Becoming very private and withdrawn
- Becoming overly cautious or even obsessive-compulsive in an effort to avoid the same kind of mistake (obsessively checking one’s work for errors, over-planning, etc.)
- Doubting one’s abilities
- Not doing anything without a partner; relying too much on others and not enough on oneself
- Avoiding social networking platforms where one might be reminded of one’s past mistake
- Becoming highly ambitious or driven in an attempt to overcome one’s mistake
- Avoiding the venue that was the cause of the public humiliation (public speaking, online interviews, debates, etc.)
- Giving up one’s career for one that is lower profile
- Going into hiding (becoming reclusive, moving to a new place, changing one’s name, etc.)
- Embracing the false perception caused by one’s mistake (becoming promiscuous, flaky, irresponsible, etc.); living up to low expectations
TIP: If you need help understanding the impact of these factors, please read our introductory post on the Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
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