Emotional wounds hold incredible power, steering a hero’s motives, actions, and beliefs. They damage their sense of self worth, filter how they view the world, and dictate how they interact with other people, making it harder for them to achieve their goals. So what exactly is a wound?
An emotional wound is a painful past event so emotionally damaging that it changes who your character is. This negative experience triggers a psychological reaction: the need to protect oneself from further emotional hurt. This need is so great that behaviors change, new negative traits (flaws) form as the character dons emotional armor to create a wall between himself and others. The idea of experiencing this kind of emotional trauma again becomes a deep fear, one he will do anything to avoid.
Because wounds act as a devastating emotional blow caused when one is in a vulnerable state, they often involve the people closest to the protagonist. Family or caregivers, lovers or friends. Betrayals, injustice, neglect, isolation or disillusionment are all common themes that lay fertile ground for hurt, mistrust and the desire to avoid situations where that same pain might reoccur.
Like in real life, characters suffer many different smaller wounds throughout their lives, but the “wounding event” that factors into your character’s internal arc should be symbolic of the false belief they must reject in order to become whole once more. This false belief is known as “the Lie” the character believes about themselves as a result of the emotional wound. Let me show this through an example.
Let’s say our main character is Tim, a teenager who was turned over to Foster Care at age ten (Wound). His parents were alcoholics and neglectful. As a result, when he enters the foster system, he is mistrustful, uncommunicative and moody. Because of his parents’ abandonment, he believes that he’s defective, that he’s not worth loving (The Lie he believes about himself or the world is because of the wound–this is covered in detail in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma).
Tim stays with families who provide the essentials to live but no love or affection. This suits him after what he went through. He keeps his emotional armor on, keeping people at a distance, because he’ll just be moving on in a month or year, and getting attached means getting hurt. However, as Tim is fostered out for the fourth time, something changes. His foster family shows genuine interest in him and they work at trying to pull him out of his shell. There is another child there, a foster child who was adopted the year before. Hope enters the picture…could this somehow be different?
At this point, Tim must make a CHOICE (as all protagonists must.) If he continues to keep his emotional wall in place (using his flaws of mistrust, moodiness and an uncommunicative nature to keep people from getting close) he will not forge a bond that will make him part of the family. But if he is able to move past his wound (fear of neglect/abandonment) and open up to this family to receive and give love, he might at long last get his happy ever after.
This is what character arc is all about: growth. Learning to let go of the past, learning to see The Lie for what it is, and moving forward free from one’s fears. Once a character can let go of the past, they can find the strength to achieve their goals, finding happiness and fulfillment.
Do you know your character’s Emotional Wound?