Understanding Character Wounds: A List Of Common Themes

Characters are the heart of a novel, and within that heart is the Hero’s Inner Journey. The protagonist’s path is much like yours or mine–one that will (hopefully) bring him closer to lifelong happiness and fulfillment.

In real life, people strive to become something more, to be something better. But the wounds of the past never quite leave us. Old hurts, betrayals, and injustices stay in our memory. Worry that a bad experience could happen again causes us to hesitate, and sometimes readjust what we want, and what we’re willing to risk. In other words, fear gets in the way.

Wounds Change Everything

woundJust like you or I, a hero has wounds, a trunk full of scars he lugs with him wherever he goes. And like us, his determination to not repeat a painful emotional experience carries the high cost of lessening his feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Because wounds influence a protagonist’s behavior so deeply (to the point he will do almost anything to avoid feeling such pain again), it’s important to have a good grasp on what emotional trauma from his past is now shaping his present. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

 photo credit: allspice1 via photopin cc

Every Wound Contains a Lie

Emotional wounds are more than just painful memories. Inside each wound is a seed of doubt. Is this somehow my fault? Am I to blame? This doubt blossoms, eroding one’s self-worth.

When something bad happens, it’s human nature to try and rationalize it, make sense of it. We often blame ourselves, believing if we had chosen differently, done something else, there would be a better outcome. Most times there’s no logic to attributing a personal failure to what happened (especially when events were out of our control), but we do it anyway. Because of this internalization, a lie is born. We believe we are somehow deserving of this pain, or we become disillusioned in some way.

Let’s say a character discovers her husband plans to leave her for another woman (wound). Under all the anger and rage and heartache she would look within, to what she did wrong. The lie she might believe could be: He cheated because I am not worth loving. This lie burrows deep into her self-esteem and self-worth. Moving forward, she may avoid relationships because she believes this lie of being unworthy. Or, she may choose men who are likely to be unfaithful, because deep down she thinks these men are the only ones she deserves.

Wounds Cause Flaws To Form

1NTWhen a character is wounded, he straps on emotional armor to keep his feelings safe. Flaws develop, working under the ‘guise’ of protecting him from being hurt. For example, a female character who was mugged and sexually assaulted (wound) might develop flaws like mistrust, paranoia, and evasiveness to protect herself from being targeted again.

On the outside, these flaws “appear” to help her be safe, but they limit her instead, preventing her from building healthy relationships, hampering her spontaneity and placing a filter of distrust on all she sees. This in turn steals her her freedom, and puts a choke hold on self-growth and true happiness. (For more on flaws & their role in Character Arc, please reference The Negative Trait Thesaurus.)

Dig Into The Character’s Backstory

A character’s past will be a minefield of negative experiences, but at some point, there should be an event you as the author can define as “the wound.” Small, painful events change a person bit by bit, but to focus all this hurt and pain into a single backstory moment can really help you better understand who and what damaged your character, and why, as a result, they question their self-worth. This also guides you to the false belief they must see for the lie it is in order to become healthy and whole, strengthening them so they can achieve their goal.

To help you pinpoint what your character’s wound might be, here are some common “themes” that could be the root of this psychological damage.

7 Common Wound Themes:

A Physical Wound. A defect, scar or condition causes real life complication, doubt, low self-esteem and can make it difficult to feel like one fits in. Handicaps are real and can alter a character’s path, limiting them and hurting their confidence.

An Injustice. Being a victim of crime, witnessing a traumatic social injustice or living in a time period or reality that is unbalanced or full of corruption will all leave a mark.

Failure or Mistakes. People are naturally hard on themselves when things don’t happen as expected.  The guilt associated with a failure or mistake (even if it is only a perceived failure) can paralyse a person, and send them on an alternative life path.

Misplaced Trust/Betrayal. Trusting or relying on someone and feeling let down in some way can cause deep hurt. This could be a parent/child dynamic, a friendship that goes sideways or even a deep betrayal of a loved one (infidelity, etc.)

Isolation. If the character felt left out or isolated in the past, it has lasting effects. Isolation might be relationship-related (a mother who favored a sibling over the protagonist), power imbalance (educational or social “status” barriers) or even simple economics (living in poverty, etc.) that restricted opportunity, achievement and fulfillment.

Neglect/Abandonment/Rejection. Some relationships are cardinal when it comes to care giving: a parent and child. Siblings. Partners in a marriage. And to a lesser degree, a citizen and his government, parishioner and his minister, or a doctor and his patient. When the person in the care giving role neglects or rejects the other party, this can cause deep feelings of abandonment to form.

Disillusionment. Believing one thing to be true and then discovering it is a lie can shake a character to their core. This might be a world views or political beliefs (discovering leaders that one has supported have been negligent or corrupt), a revelation in religious or spiritual beliefs, or uncovering immoral behavior. It could also be something closer and more intimate like a role model who was not who they pretended to be, or personal (like finding out one is adopted, for example.)

Do you know your character’s wound, and if so, does it fall under one of these  themes?

PSSST! At 5:00PM Eastern you can find me at IndieRecon discussing 6 Smart Ways Authors Can Collaborate When Marketing.

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33 Responses to Understanding Character Wounds: A List Of Common Themes

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  3. Pingback: Understanding Character Wounds: A List Of Common Themes | To Talk Like This and Act Like That

  4. Dear Angela and Becca,

    You guys are so awesome! Out of all the blogs I’m following, yours is one that I always read whenever I get an email or see a link on facebook or google+ (even when I really don’t have time) and I am never disappointed that I took that time!

    Thanks so much for all of your insight and helpful ideas. I’m sure all of us who follow you feel the same.

    Sharon :)

  5. Bronwen Jones says:

    Thank you so much, Angela. You and your team do a fab job with your articles and emotion e-books!

  6. Sara L. says:

    Just thought of a question: How important is it for all secondary characters (or like how Gabriela Pereira put it during WANACon, your “supporting cast” of characters) to have wounds? I understand some of those characters should, as it helps create tension / conflict and give you more of a story to tell… But is it OK for some secondary characters to have a less tainted past if they’re going to encounter hardship during the course of the novel?

    • Great question, Sara, and I don’t know that there’s one right answer. I know people who write up detailed backstories (including wounds) for any character who plays an important part in the story. I know some people who only do this for the main character. I personally usually do this for the hero, the villain, and the love interest. It’s my belief that any character who’s going to follow a character arc that involves personal change or growth most likely will have a past wound. It’s this wound that makes him stuck or discontent or unfulfilled in some way in the beginning of the story. Hence the need for change. So, for me, I like to explore wounds for anyone who’s going to pursue a complete character arc throughout the course of the story. I also like to explore past wounds for the villain, since she’s the one who is fighting against the hero; since her needs/wants are usually diametrically opposed to the hero’s, I need to know why she is the way she is, and what’s driving her. My two cents :)

  7. Jean LeBlanc says:

    In writing memoir my gurus tell me to constantly ask and answer in the story the question Why?
    Why did people do what they did, act the way they did, including the protagonist/author.
    These seven are often the answer and I’m grateful for the insight the list brings.

  8. Very in-depth and helpful. I am at the editing phase in a current ms where character details need to be polished. Will be using this!

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  10. Elizabeth Varadan says:

    This is wonderful. I love the breakdown into seven major causes, too. Such a useful list and examples of how each plays out. Thanks!

  11. Rosi says:

    This is just brilliant. I can’t believe all the great stuff I find here. It’s like an on-going writing course. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be posting the link on my blog.

    • Jade champion says:

      Gosh, this reminds me of english, but without the weird funny and diwnright crazy teacher i had. Hope he didn’t read that!

  12. Jade champion says:

    I have a character who several gets injured, burnt or something and he has a big ego too fill for it. He has such a hard time but this really helps.

  13. Kelly Polark says:

    I love the breakdown of seven common themes. Thanks for sharing with us!

  14. LoRee Peery says:

    It sounds like I’m not the only one fleshing out a character for my next project. Very timely and well done. Thanks!

  15. Great article! Sharing this link in the Tallahassee Writers Association newsletter.

    Thanks for sharing.

  16. And if I use all of these in a single story, is that overkill? Or just epic? ;)
    (Because I do.)

  17. Isolation is the chosen one for my protagonist. It has shaped who he is, influences all that he touches. Such a powerful weapon that can bring one to their knees.

  18. :Donna Marie says:

    Angela, this is fantastic stuff! SO glad I discovered you the other night :) Thanks!

  19. Awesomeness. I love the 7 common wound themes. That helps narrow things down. Thanks, Ange!

  20. Very timely! I’m just starting to scope out a story where the main protagonist is trying to rebuild his life after a very minor accident left him paraplegic.
    This post (as your three thesauri that reside in my Kindle) will help me a great deal.
    Thank you.

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  22. Aaron Davis says:

    This is just what I needed today. Great article!

  23. Julie Musil says:

    Angela, I’m actually struggling with a character right now. This helps me so much. Thanks!

  24. Sara L. says:

    Really enjoyed reading this, as I always do with your articles, Angela! :)

    If I think about the protagonist in my WIP (fantasy story featuring Faeries), her wound might fall into a few different categories. At a young age, she was attacked and then watched her parents be murdered by the same attackers. One of her wings was also severely damaged – a physical wound that healed but is viewed as a cultural / moral transgression by Faeries and could have meant her banishment if the King found out. The lingering emotional pain from both sources later fuels her desire for revenge against the creed who had wronged her. So I think I can see three possible wound types: a physical wound, an injustice, and maybe a little bit of failure. What do you think?

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