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.
We hope the sample list of ideas below will help you see how emotional trauma will influence your character’s behavior and mindset. For the full entry of this and over 100 other emotional wounds, check into our bestselling resource, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
A Parent’s Abandonment
- Being abandoned as an infant (on a doorstep, in a dumpster, on the side of the road, etc.)
- One’s parents dying during a child’s formative years
- A parent giving up his/her rights and turning the child over to the state…
Basic Needs That May Be Compromised By This Wound: love and belonging, safety and security, physiological needs
Lies That May Be Embraced As a Result of This Wound:
- No one wants to be with me.
- I need to push others away before they have a chance to leave me.
- There’s something wrong with me; that’s why people leave me.
- It’s only a matter of time until he leaves me...
Positive Attributes That May Result: cautious, empathetic, loyal, kind, protective
Negative Traits That May Result: apathetic, callous, cynical, humorless, insecure, inhibited, manipulative, needy, oversensitive, rebellious, resentful, subservient…
- Fear of abandonment
- Fear that there’s something wrong with oneself that makes it impossible to be loved
- Fear of “normal” relationships where abandonment isn’t a possibility (due to abandonment being one’s norm)…
Possible Habits That May Emerge:
- Distrusting authority figures
- Maintaining shallow relationships
- Abandoning others before they can abandon the victim
- Sabotaging budding relationships
- Engaging in unhealthy relationships out of a need for love…
TIP: If you need help understanding the impact of these factors, please read our introductory post on the Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
*Photo Credit: Rega Photography @ Creative Commons
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.
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.
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.
This is wonderful. I would add that another reaction to abandonment is sometimes the need to strive for perfection. This includes great grades, perfect performance, writing tightly with perfectly formed letters and self-abuse for being less than perfect, because less than perfect equals the potential to be abandoned again.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Good addition, Angela–thank you 🙂
I can see I’m not alone in finding this helpful. Thanks!
Caroline Sciriha says
Thanks for this. It describes to perfection what my protagonist is going through and will help me add layers and nuances I hadn’t considered before. I’ll be printing it and keeping it next to me while I edit.
I have found all your thesauruses extremely useful. Thank you for all your help.
Diane Turner says
Thank you for this most timely post. My POV character wasn’t abandoned per se by her parents, but driven away at an erly age by their perspectives (some tied up in the Catholic Church) and inflexibility. In reading through the characteristics you provide here, I find many can be applied to my WIP.
Can’t wait for this to be a fully formed book. I love your other three, by the way. Incredibly useful.
DJ Blackford says
I love the previous thesauri and have all three of them sitting on my ready reference shelf. I am looking forward to when this one becomes a fully-fledged book as well. Thanks for the work that goes into this.
Traci Kenworth says
I, too, have a character or two who will benefit from this!! In fact, I’ve picked some of the traits you mentioned to go with them.
BECCA PUGLISI says
It’s sad how common this wound is and how many variations it has. Because of its frequent occurrence, it seems like a good one to include in this thesaurus.
Carrie Lynn Lewis says
I agree with Robin. This is a fantastic article.
I’ve long been aware of the big lies we believe about ourselves and have attempted to use those lies to create deeper characters.
Recently I realized that two characters can believe the same lie or have the same wound, but react differently.
But I’d never considered just how varied the ramifications can be. Thank you for an excellent article and for my “learn something new” for the day.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Carrie, it also hit home with me, how the same wound can have a profoundly different impact on different characters—largely depending on who the character was before the event and how much support they have in the aftermath. The psychology of this is really interesting, and I’ve seen much of this proven out in my own life.
Robyn Campbell says
Wow, Becca. That is just so awesome. I’d never really thought of this before. I have a character who will benefit from this. And that makes me as a writer benefit too. Thank you, thank you. I guess there will be more of these? Why not do an Emotional Wounds Thesaurus print/ebook? I hope you guys are planning one.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Robyn, we don’t know what will happen with this thesaurus. It’s really a matter of how well it’s received. I do think this thesaurus has a lot of potential to be really helpful. We’ll have to wait and see how it does :).