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.
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.
PAST CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE (BY A FAMILY MEMBER OR TRUSTED INDIVIDUAL)
Sexual behaviors, touching or penetration by:
- a sibling or cousin
- a parent or step-parent
- a parent’s romantic partner (a boyfriend or girlfriend)
- a close relative (aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.)…
Basic Needs Often Compromised By This Wound: physiological needs, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and recognition, self-actualization
False Beliefs That May Be Embraced As a Result of This Wound:
- My own bad decisions/choices/behavior caused my abuse to happen
- I deserved it because I am worthless/a bad person
- I am not safe; even those closest to me cannot protect me
- Love is a lie…
Positive Attributes That May Result: analytical, assertive, brave, decisive, determined, empathetic, independent, introspective, intuitive, knowledgeable…
Negative Traits That May Result: abrasive, addictive, anxious, cagey, closemouthed, close-minded, constrained, controlling, cruel, cynical, defiant, explosive, foolhardy…
- fear of being alone
- fear of intimacy and sexual feelings
- fear of being touched or exposed…
Possible Habits That May Emerge:
- becoming reclusive, avoiding family or friends
- mood swings (being quick to anger), experiencing anxiety (panic attacks) and depression as an adult
- changing one’s manner of dress to cover oneself more completely or feel less noticeable
- giving up passions, interests or activities that one associates with the abuse
- worrying about the worst case scenario and adopting pessimistic thinking…
TIP: If you need help understanding the impact of these factors, please read our introductory post on the Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
Image: DGlodowska @ Pixabay
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.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Thanks for this post. Very timely, as I had decided on this as a wound for my female antagonist. I got a lot of stuff right from my own research, but it feels nice to have it validated and to see that others came to similar conclusions about the fears and lies that can arise from enduring such trauma.
*trigger warning: discussion of sex abuse/rape follow*
It also works quite well with what an adult survivor of rape/sexual assault would experience. As a survivor myself, I can attest to that. The only aspect I am puzzled about is the inclusion of “cruel” in the “negative traits that may occur” category. Cruel to self I can see; do you perhaps indicate that the character would be cruel to others to push them away and avoid intimacy? I know I am not cruel, and other survivors I know of both adult and child sex abuse are not cruel; in fact, they are all exceptionally empathetic and kind, which I would like to point out are positive traits that many predators look for in potential victims to groom. I don’t dispute it’s right to be included in that category, as I can see intellectually where it may come from; I just have never experienced this personally and was wondering what lead you to include it here?
At any rate, thank you again for a timely post and for handling such a delicate topic so well.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Hi Jean, thanks for the thoughtful question and I am glad you asked it so I am better able to elaborate.
My choice to include cruel is to acknowledge that not everyone heals (or works toward it) in a healthy way. For some, abuse suffered becomes the root idea that causing pain is a form of release and gratification. There are many people out there who inflict harm because this is what they were shown at the hands of others.
The past events that hurt people can do great damage and lead to a cycle of suffering that is passed forward. When you think of cruelty, Think about serial killers or those who victimize or torture others. Trauma is almost always in their past, and often it is sexual in nature.
Negative traits and behaviors are coping mechanisms and when a victim is in their formative years, They may not have had love and support, or been taught right from wrong.
A perfect example of unhealthy coping are people who bully. In almost every case, a bully is a victim themselves in some form, and they feel their only way to vent or gain power/control is to take it out on someone else.
Abuse as a child is one of the deepest hurts. Children are raised to believe that parents, adults, the system we live by, etc. all value kids and look out for them. When a child is abused, it is a betrayal on many levels, and the veneer, the implied safety children believe in, is ripped away. The effects of abuse can go in many directions and be healthy or not, because a child’s coping skills and moral beliefs are still in development. Make sense?
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my question. Your reply was so thoughtful and thorough! And completely logical. I see now why you included it, and I can feel ideas spawning in my brain as I type thanks to your explanation. Thank you so much!
I hope I was clear that I was not criticizing, and if I came off that way I apologize so much. I was honestly flummoxed, but now I feel very much educated and enlightened. Thanks again!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Oh don’t worry, I didn’t feel it was criticism at all! Very glad you asked for clarification–if you were wondering, others would be too I am sure 🙂
Mandy Smith says
Angela, this is a wonderful post, it’s so spot on. I used your Emotion Thesaurus to write my story of childhood sexual abuse. It was a way I could “show” and not “tell” and I think, from what my early readers tell me, it will do well. In my first draft one reader said, “I think you used the word “terrified” way too many times (about a 1000!) and I said, “but I was!” Writing what terrified felt like reopened a lot of the wounds, but I think it helped in my healing. So I thank you for that, Angela. Secrets in Big Sky Country was written solely for the purpose of helping other adult abuse survivors find their way out of the shame and, hopefully, write their own stories. Again, thanks for this great post.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I am so sorry this wound is part of your past but so glad you have found a path to healing. I hope you sharing your story does help others learn to move past what happened to themselves. Abuse is a difficult and painful event that can make people feel very isolated. Thanks so much for writing in 🙂
Rachel Leigh Smith says
Thank you for this entry! I have a heroine that this is her wound, and this is incredibly helpful in making sure I get her right.
Her reaction as she grew was to become controlling and rather cold to those she doesn’t know. She’s the oldest of five girls, and decided what happened to her was not going to happen to them on her watch. She’s insanely overprotective of her little sisters. Her position in the society she lives in (it’s SF romance) means she can’t be invisible, so she’s gone the opposite direction and is known as a flamboyant dresser with an attitude that you better stay away from. Nondescript and blending in is what her abuser wanted of her and how he made her dress.
It’s a joy to write the hero chipping at her walls of isolation and teaching her what love really means.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Sounds like you have a really strong bead on your characters personality and motivation…great stuff!
Mary Jo Caffrey says
What a thoughtful article on this difficult subject! I’d add to your list of possible effects a refusal to be victimized again. It might also help to look at this crime from the eyes of the child through time, seeing how the assault effects can change with the years. It’s also good to consider that children targeted for this crime might be victimized by others: bullies, mean teachers, and other adults who like to hurt the defenseless, in general. Sexual abuse just adds to the pile of other wrongs a child like this faces.
Here is my caveat to writers: please encourage your writer group to warn members when chapters to be shared include childhood sexual abuse. It is inconsiderate to force any victims of this crime to vicariously relive it in another’s WIP, thoughtlessly shared.
Again, thank you for presenting this topic in a sensitive way.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
This one I know will be especially hard for many, which is why I appreciate your comment all that much more. As someone living with this particular wound, I can only imagine how it would feel to be critiquing someone’s work and not realize what was about to unfold. Such very good advice, Mary. As writers we never know what might be a trigger for someone else, and definitely when dealing with unfortunately common raw issues, we should definitely let readers know what they are getting into before exposing them to it.
Thanks for those adds as well!