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.
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.
Examples: Suffering from a learning disability such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, slow processing, executive functioning, and visual or auditory processing disorders.
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 stupid.
- I can’t learn.
- There’s something wrong with me…
Positive Attributes That May Result: adaptable, cautious, charming, disciplined, empathetic, flirtatious, funny, imaginative, industrious, meticulous, pensive, persistent…
Negative Traits That May Result: abrasive, confrontational, cruel, cynical, defensive, dishonest, evasive, hostile, inhibited, insecure, know-it-all, lazy, macho, nervous…
- Fear of failure
- Fear of being unable to achieve one’s dreams or goals
- Fear of being picked on…
Possible Habits That May Emerge:
- Avoiding responsibility out of a fear that one will let others down
- Thinking small; limiting one’s dreams or goals so they will be reachable
- Thinking negatively about oneself and one’s abilities
- Withdrawing from others as a way of avoiding ridicule and teasing
- Bullying others…
TIP: If you need help understanding the impact of these factors, please read our introductory post on the Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
photo credit: Kristine Lewis @ 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.
Sometimes being classified in school as learning disabled causes unforeseen problems. My son was diagnosed with ADD (no hyperactivity). He needed to be in special classes because he couldn’t focus in a large classroom and stay on task, but during his testing, the psychologist told us he was one of the most intelligent kids he had ever come across. Unfortunately, the school system he was in had a rule that learning disabled students could “graduate” from high school, but they couldn’t earn Carnegie Units. In other words, their high school diploma would be useless. It didn’t matter that my son was doing grade-level work and passing. Being intelligent, he figured that out quickly and wanted to drop out. Numerous meetings with the principal and school board members were useless. Finally, we had to move to another school district where he would be allowed to graduate with a real diploma. Unfortunately, he had to repeat his first year to regain the Carnegie Units he wasn’t allowed to have at the first school. Needless to say, he doesn’t have a high opinion of most educators.
As a teacher, I would say I’ve seen many of these traits, attributes and habits in students I’ve taught who have learning disabilities. I could add a few positive ones, though. In some cases, students may learn gratitude and develop a special attachment to a classroom teacher, aide, or learning needs specialist who gives them the help and one-on-one assistance it may take for them to succeed academically. Also, they may learn to excel in non-academic areas that not everyone would pursue otherwise. For example, one student I taught with dyslexia who could barely read or write back in 5th grade has developed a love (and talent) for cooking and is excited to attend culinary school when he graduates high school next year.
BECCA PUGLISI says
This is great input! I’m adding some of these in to the entry. Thanks, Annie!
Traci Kenworth says
This is a good one!! My son suffers from a learning and speech disability and it’s so hard sometimes to watch him struggle. He’s getting better but he has a long way to go.
Carol Baldwin says
You do such an amazing job with these wounds. Even if my characters don’t suffer from these– you show possible outcomes so well.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks, Carol. Of all our thesaurus collections, I believe this one is the toughest to write. These wounds are real; people live through and survive them all the time, but each of these entries have vastly different causes, scenarios, and outcomes. We’re really concerned with portraying the wounds as realistically as possible while also being sensitive to our readers who have experienced them. It’s kind of a tough line to walk sometimes.