Just like real people, our characters have a plethora of past experiences that play a part in molding who they become. While these experiences, good and bad, affect their personalities, it is often the harrowing ones that have the most impact.
An emotional wound is a negative event from the character’s past that causes a hurt deep enough to change who he or she is. It might be a single experience (discovering a spouse’s infidelity), a longer term situation (being so poor one often went to bed hungry), or a series of small cuts that leave scars (a parent who withheld affection whenever one’s performance and grades were less than perfect). Whatever the wound, the result is an all-consuming fear that if the character does not protect himself, this situation (and resulting emotional pain) will happen again.
This intense fear causes flaws to bloom, flaws that act as emotional shields to keep people and situations at arms length, preventing a past hurt from reoccurring. Behaviors, habits, attitudes, and even beliefs may alter. The character who was cheated on will struggle with trust, and may become promiscuous to avoid meaningful relationships that could put his heart at risk. The character raised in poverty may become stingy with money and resources to avoid any possibility of having to go without. A character taught that affection is tied to success may become an overachieving workaholic out of a need to please others. The most important aspect of these flaws is that while they appear to “protect” or “help” the character, they actually do the opposite, damaging relationships and preventing the self-growth needed to move past these fears.
Wounds will help shape our characters. Who someone is at the start of a story is due, in part, to any wounds from his past. As authors, it’s important to identify a character’s unique wounds to better understand what kind of person he is, how he’s likely to react in a given situation, and why.
By exploring EMOTIONAL WOUNDS as the topic for our next thesaurus, we can examine different wounding events and offer ideas on how they could change a character, helping you plot how a wound will impact your character’s personality and steer his motivations.
Wounds are messy, and their effects can be complicated. To break it all down, here’s a brief tutorial on the elements that will be covered in each entry of this thesaurus and how they’re inter-related.
Basic Needs: According to famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, people are driven by 5 basic needs that we all need in order to be fulfilled. If a need isn’t being met, we will deliberately or subconsciously set out to meet that need. Often, a wounding event will steal away one of these needs—i.e., safety being sabotaged when someone is mugged. Even after the event is over, that lack of safety haunts the victim and can affect his or her behavior as she tries to reclaim her feeling of security. Thus, it’s important to identify which needs will be compromised from a given wound so the character’s resulting actions will make sense.
False Beliefs: There’s something in human nature that makes us internalize bad things that happen, even when it wasn’t our fault. In the aftermath of a wounding event, a character will often blame himself and come to believe a lie that begins to erode his self-esteem. For instance, someone who is bullied may start to believe that there’s something intrinsically wrong with him, and this is why he’s picked on. This lie, like any belief, will affect the character’s behaviors, mannerisms, decisions, and beliefs. It’s a highly motivating factor in influencing who a character becomes in the aftermath of a wounding event and so must be identified. For more information on lies and their relationship with basic human needs, check out the Needs and Lies appendix in The Negative Trait Thesaurus.
Character Traits: Because a character will be highly driven to avoid repeating both the wounding event and the negative feelings that are associated with it, he will often adopt new attributes and flaws that weren’t a part of his personality in the past. For instance, a character who was abandoned by a parent might become distrustful of others, rebellious, or withdrawn. On the positive side, he may be fiercely loyal to those who meet his need for love and acceptance; he might also develop and express deep empathy for others who have suffered from abandonment. There are many ways a character might respond to a wound, giving you much freedom in creating a character who is believable and makes sense to readers.
Resulting Fears: Wounds often spawn fears that are born out of a desire to avoid repeating the negative experience and associated emotions. These fears will absolutely impact a character’s behaviors and habits moving forward, so it’s important to identify them.
New Habits: The lies and resulting fears that stem from a wound will drastically alter a character’s actions as he moves into his new normal. The habits offered in this thesaurus may seem contradictory in nature because behaviors will vary from character to character. For example, someone experiencing the violent death of a loved one could begin to act a number of ways: he might withdraw from meaningful relationships out of the fear that he can’t protect his loved ones; he may turn volatile and seek revenge because he wrongly believes that he will never find peace until the culprit is brought to justice; he could throw himself into work as a way of avoiding the negative feelings that resulted from the wound. Once you’ve identified any lies or fears, it will be a simple matter of picking the new behaviors that correspond.
As you can see, wounds are highly formative. Choosing the right wound for your character and your story is a good first step toward writing a believable character who rings true with readers. If you would like more information on wounds, the front matter of The Negative Trait Thesaurus covers this in great detail.
We hope that you find The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to be a useful addition to our Writers Helping Writers collection.