If you’ve hung around Writers Helping Writers at all over the past year, you’ll know that Angela and I have been kind of obsessed with character wounds. For the better part of the year, we built our Emotional Wound Thesaurus here at the blog and talked quite a bit in individual posts about the topic—because there’s a lot to discuss. Wounds are complex and impact our characters on so many levels.
I thought it would be helpful to provide a simple explanation for emotional wounds and why they’re so important for us to know as authors, so read on for an excerpt from the Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.
Growing up, do you remember something happening that you didn’t expect, something that surprised you—and not in a good way? Maybe you came home with a third-place Science Fair ribbon, and rather than wrap you up in a breath-stealing hug and fawn over the yellow slip, your mother barely gave it a glance, declaring that you should have tried harder. Now, fast-forward to junior year. You auditioned for the lead in the school musical, but the part went to someone else. How did that feel, especially when you had to deliver the news to dear old mom? What about when you missed the cut for a university program that, as she likes to remind you, your brother got into with no problem, or the time you were passed over for a promotion and had to sit through an agonizing family dinner where your sibling was lauded for his accomplishments?
Chances are, this wounded past doesn’t match your own. But if it did, at what point would resentment set in over your mother’s love being withdrawn each time you failed to meet her unrealistic expectations? How long until you stopped talking about your goals or—even worse— refused to try at all because you believed you would only fail?
Unfortunately, life is painful, and not all the lessons we learn are positive ones. As with you and me, the characters in our stories have suffered emotional trauma that cannot easily be dispelled or forgotten. We call this type of trauma an emotional wound: a negative experience (or set of experiences) that causes pain on a deep psychological level. It is a lasting hurt that often involves someone close: a family member, lover, mentor, friend, or other trusted individual. Wounds may be tied to a specific event, arise upon learning a difficult truth about the world, or result from a physical limitation, condition, or challenge.
Whatever form they take, most wounding experiences happen unexpectedly, meaning, characters have little or no time to raise their emotional defenses. The resulting pain is brutal and immediate, and the fallout of this trauma has lasting repercussions that will change the character in significant (often negative) ways. As with us, characters experience many different painful events over a lifetime, including ones in their formative years. These wounds are not only the most difficult to move past, they often create a domino effect for other hurts that follow.
Now, you might ask why we should care about what happens to our characters before page one. After all, isn’t it what they do during the story that matters? Yes, and no. People are products of their pasts, and if we want our characters to come across as authentic and believable to readers, we need to understand their backstories too. How a character was raised, the people in her life, and the events and world conditions she was exposed to months or years ago will have direct bearing on her behavior and motives within the story. Backstory wounds are especially powerful and can alter who our characters are, what they believe, and what they fear most. Understanding the pain they’ve experienced is necessary to creating fully formed and compelling characters.
When we think of emotional trauma, we often imagine it as a specific moment that forever alters the character’s reality, but wounds can present in a variety of ways. It’s true that one may develop from a single traumatic event, such as witnessing a murder, getting caught in an avalanche, or experiencing the death of one’s child. But it can also come about from repeated episodes of trauma, like a series of humiliations at the hand of a workplace bully or a string of toxic relationships. Wounds may also result from a detrimental ongoing situation, such as living in poverty, childhood neglect caused by addicted parents, or growing up in a violent cult.
However they form, these moments leave a mark, albeit a psychological one, just as a physical injury does. Wounds damage our characters’ self-worth, change how they view the world, cause trust issues, and dictate how they will interact with other people. All of this can make it harder for them to achieve certain goals, which is why we should dig deep into their backstories and unearth the traumas they may have been exposed to…
I hope this clarifies what a wound is and what kind of aftershocks it can have. It’s SO important for us to know this important event from each character’s past, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma is now available (print and digital). We hope you find it really helpful!
To see a sample entry, visit this page, or to browse our online version hosted at One Stop for Writers, where this thesaurus is part of the largest fiction-focused descriptive database available online.