Emotional Wound Thesaurus Entry: Growing up in the Shadow of a Successful Sibling

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. It is not our intent to create emotional turmoil. Please know that we research each wounding topic carefully to treat it with the utmost respect. 

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Photo Courtesy: marvelousRoland @ CC

Examples: growing up with a sibling who

  • excels at a sport
  • is gifted in the arts
  • is of genius intelligence…

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:

  • I’m ugly/stupid/clumsy/etc.
  • I’m not good at anything.
  • I will never be able to distinguish myself…

Positive Attributes That May Result: ambitious, charming, courteous, disciplined, empathetic, flirtatious, imaginative, independent, pensive, persistent, private, quirky…

Negative Traits That May Result: catty, childish, cynical, devious, frivolous, humorless, insecure, irrational, lazy, needy, oversensitive, rebellious, resentful…

Resulting Fears:

  • Fear of never distinguishing oneself
  • Fear of inadequacy
  • Fear of failure…

Possible Habits That May Emerge:

  • Pursuing an area of interest other than the one in which a sibling excels
  • Being driven to succeed in a different area
  • Having low expectations for oneself; underachieving
  • Not seeking to distinguish oneself in any area
  • Becoming needy out of a desire to gain affection…

TIP: If you need help understanding the impact of these factors, please read our introductory post on the Emotional Wound Thesaurus. For our current list of Emotional Wound Entries, go here.

For other Descriptive Thesaurus Collections, go here.

Which emotional wounds are haunting your characters and keeping them from being whole and fulfilled?

Emotional wounds are incredibly formative, changing how a character views the world, causing trust issues, damaging their self-worth, dictating how they will interact with other people, and making it harder for them to achieve their goals. As such, understanding your character’s wound is vitally important to your overall story.

To help with this, we have integrated this thesaurus into our online library at One Stop For Writers.

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Each entry has been enhanced and expanded to provide even more helpful information about your character’s wounds and is cross-referenced with our other thesauruses for easy searchability. We’ve also included a must-see tutorial on this topic—a crash-course on how a wound impacts the affected character and the role wounds play in his or her arc over the course of a story. Interested in seeing a sampling of our completed wound thesaurus entries?  Head on over and register for free!

On the other hand, if you prefer your references in book form, we’ve got you covered, too, because this thesaurus is now available for purchase in both digital and print form. In addition to the 120+ entries, each book contains instructional front matter to help you understand wounds and how they’ll affect your character and story. With chapters about the wound’s aftereffects and how the event ties in to the character arc, along with ideas on brainstorming your character’s wound and how to best reveal the trauma to readers, this book will be your go-to resource for connecting the backstory dots and coming up with characters who are well-rounded and realistic.

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About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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20 Responses to Emotional Wound Thesaurus Entry: Growing up in the Shadow of a Successful Sibling

  1. Nancy Denofio says:

    Outstanding information – thank you for sharing. As you might have noticed things are a bit out of hand on facebook and other sites, but – I am trying to end it all in a calm fashion, I had to find out who was compromising my sites.

    But, all and all, I thank you for this great article of honesty and truth. This article was needed at this time!

    Sincerely, Nancy

  2. Victoriah Lloyd says:

    All the conflict between the two sisters doesn’t come to a head until this guy shows up. So, can this emotional wound be caused by a previous underlying emotional wound? Tell me if I’m getting rediculous.

    • Well, there’s always a possibility that you’re over-thinking things, but I couldn’t say if you’re doing that in this instance or not ;). Sometimes we do over-think things and make them more complicated than they need to be. On the other hand, sibling dynamics are complex, and it’s good to understand what’s happening between your sisters. Unfortunately, only you can know the depth of all that. The only other advice I know to offer you is to ask if you’ve tried the Reverse Backstory Tool for your main character. This is a meaty little flowchart that, once filled in, provides you with the important pieces of your character’s backstory. Filling it in may simplify things and help clarify her for you. Best of luck!

      • Victoriah Lloyd says:

        I have a printed copy of the backstory reversal tool and that is what made me come back to ask more questions. But given this new info, Youve govern me more to think about.

  3. Victoriah Lloyd says:

    Okay Becca, I have done the research on this emotional wound. I have studied every negative trait, and every positive trait, and emotion (according to the other thesauruses). Yet, I still can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing from this character’s life. I can see how her intimate relationships are mauled by the wound, even competitiveness when it comes to her sibling, but most of the possible causes of the traits just don’t quite fit her backstory. As an example, the supposed successful sibling took the brunt of her negative actions, protected her, in essence, kept her out of trouble when they were young. Also, overlooking both lives, the one that feels she is living in her sibling’s shadow, has been more successful in her endeavors than the one she feels she is shadowing. Is it possible to have them both experiencing the same emotional wound?
    This character is very outgoing (extrovert), flirtatious, and very insecure. She hangs around with less than desirable people to stand out, to feel superior. While her sibling– a homebody, college graduate, very responsible, and very talented–struggles to survive. When the successful sibling calls on the help of an old friend who just so happens to be the very guy that supposedly broke her sister’s heart, the shadowing sibling steps in and immediately attempts to thwart his assistance to her. I think if I make the story all about this guy, I can really pull out all the characteristics of the emotional wound. However, this leaves a big loophole in her backstory because the most of the possible causes don’t quite fit (from the positive and negative trait thesauruses). The behaviors match to a tee, and even the emotions, but she wasn’t abused, more like sheltered and catered to, where the successful sibling was more likely to have been abused for the unfair treatment by her parents. I’m having a time with this still, even though this post was a tremendous help.

    • Is it possible to have them both experiencing the same emotional wound?

      Absolutely! They each could be suffering from the same hurtful event (or series of events), though they might view the event differently and have completely different responses to it. This happens all the time in real life; two people survive a horrible experience but vastly different traits, habits, and values emerge as a result. This is because they’re different people prior to the wounding event, so they’re going to respond to it in their own unique ways.

      However, this leaves a big loophole in her backstory because the most of the possible causes don’t quite fit (from the positive and negative trait thesauruses).

      It sounds to me like you’ve figured most of this out, and the cause for her actions is the only missing piece. But remember that the ideas shared in The Negative and Positive Trait Thesaurus books aren’t cumulative; they contain a lot of ideas but not every possibility. At their most productive, the books are meant to be a springboard for the author’s imagination, so you can come up with new and specific ideas that work best for your individual story and characters. So if it makes sense that your heroine is the way she is in large part because she was overly sheltered and catered to, then that could easily be an important factor in forming who she becomes.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Wow — I did a web search on this dynamic because I am an aspiring writer and public speaker trying to understand my own challenges with growing up in the shadow of an older brother genius, high-achiever published author, feature film script writer, professor at a prestigious university, and brilliant fine artist. He can also play the guitar by ear, is a handsome, charming extrovert, and a really nice guy. Sheesh. I am the second child of three who has probably above-average skills, achievements and abilities, am more introverted, and feel that the fact I am the only female child in my family system is the only defining role I ever truly adopted with any real certainty. A lot to look at here psycho-dynamically, and very interesting.

    • The struggle is definitely real. I’m no psychiatrist, but with this one, I think that people might even struggle with this when the sibling is only perceived to be hugely successful. We don’t often view the people closest to us accurately, and many of us magnify the strengths or weaknesses of our peers. Even if we only think that a sibling is awesomely great and better at things than we are, we probably still would suffer from some of the same outcomes.

      • Jennifer says:

        Great feedback, and I really get the part about there being probably no difference between the reality of my sibling’s abilities and my perception of it. Comparing my abilities to his and feeling thwarted by self-criticism goes back as far as I can remember. My best approach at this point would to discover how to make this become an asset for me, instead of a lifelong handicap. Thanks again.

        • Unfortunately, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. This is almost never a good or productive idea, since we’re always going to see people who are better than us at whatever it is that we value. It helps me to focus on the things that I enjoy, not just the things I’m good at. Yes, we all want to be good at things, and it’s definitely good for our self-esteem to excel in certain areas. But as I said, there will always be someone who’s better. On the other hand, when it comes to the things that we enjoy, it doesn’t matter most of the time how good we are at them. We like them because they bring us happiness or peace or satisfaction. So try to focus on those things, too. 🙂

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  6. Leslie Rose says:

    Oh, Loki – Loki. What a perfect example. I think you missed the fear of skin turning blue at the wrong moment.

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  8. This trait is a gold mine!!

  9. Marlena H. says:

    Let’s see despite being the oldest, I have two siblings that excelled at sports, I have one who despite her protests in a great artist, one who I am crazy proud of academic achievements, one who is extremely well liked and another who has extremely close friends, and between my siblings they speak three languages that I would like to speak.

    Despite that I know that I am the only one that really

  10. Victoriah Lloyd says:

    God I just love you. I’ve been stuck for months on this. I think I can answer those questions with ease. This is truly amazing. Thank you so much. I’m in tears.

  11. Victoriah Lloyd says:

    OMG this is so great. This is a tremendous help. You were absolutely right. Got a question though, my character feels like she is unattractive, and is very “jealous or envious” of her sibling. Because of this, she secretly dates one of her sister’s ex boyfriends. Would this be vindictive (if one of their rules to sistership was not to date someone that the other dated) even if she feels her sister took him from her? Or that she got roped into a sexual relationship with him out of his spite for her sister? I can see it being a vindictive move on his part, but I’m still unclear about her truest intention. She also tries to find a way to make herself the popular one by showing her sister up in front of her friends as if to embarrass her or belittle her. I guess I have to really flesh out the possible conflicts that can set her off in order to make her change in the end. If you could offer any help or advice it would be great.

    • Whether or not her actions are vindictive will depend on her motivation. Is she dating her sister’s ex because doing so gives her validation and soothes her insecurities? Is she doing it to show that she’s just as good as her sister? Because she really likes the guy? More importantly, you need to know what your character’s overall motivation is for the whole story: what does she want to accomplish, and why does she want to accomplish it? These questions should be the driving force behind all of her decisions. Once you figure this out, the rest of her actions should fall in line with those answers. To use a well-known example, in An Officer and a Gentleman, Zack Mayo wants to be an officer in the Navy. This is his outer motivation—what he’s hoping to accomplish by the end of the story. Why does he want this? Deep down, he wants it because he wants to belong. This is his inner motivation—the “why” behind his goal. The inner motivation is usually also tied to the character’s self-worth. If you can answer these 2 questions about your character, you’ll better know what she wants and why she wants it, which will give you a better idea about the kinds of decisions she’s going to make throughout the story. Good luck!

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