Of all the pieces of backstory we should understand as authors, none are more important than our protagonist’s Emotional Wound.
A powerful statement, but here’s why. Think about your own life for a moment. The experiences you had in your past, and the people part of those experiences have made you who you are today. They shaped you, in good ways and bad, and you behave in a very specific way as a result of your personal collection of life lessons. In fiction, we strive for authenticity by building characters as much like real people as possible. To do this, we need to think about their life before the story begins and how formative experiences have shaped them.
And, as we all know, there’s no experience more life-shattering than a psychologically traumatic one.
Past wounding experiences generate fear and pain. Unresolved, they will embed pieces of festering shrapnel into the character’s psyche which will eat away at their esteem and self-worth. The result? A character who holds back in life, adopts dysfunctional behavior as a shield, develops skewed biases about how the world works, and internalizes destructive false beliefs about her own self-worth.
This sounds like a recipe for a deeply unfulfilling life, doesn’t it? It is.
Until our character is ready to revisit this backstory wound, identify the problems and fears that are eroding her happiness, and adopt new attitudes that will help her move forward in a healthier way, the wound will keep what she wants and needs most out of reach.
Are you thinking “character arc” right about now? You’re bang on! This scenario, taking a character from broken to whole, is known as the Change Arc. This is the most common type of arc and is all about transformation and growth. Full of ups and downs, it can be difficult to write, so let me share a blueprint to help.
(I’m including hyperlinks for all the big working pieces, so if you haven’t read The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, they can help to show how everything fits.)
The Journey of Letting Go
At the start of a story, the character is seeking to obtain her goal (outer motivation), which she may be pursuing to either avoid something undesirable or to satisfy a yearning (inner motivation). The pursuit of this objective is difficult or may seems impossible. There might be roadblocks in the way and people or forces standing against the character (outer conflict), but the unmet need continues to drive her toward her goal.
As the story progresses, she gradually gains small insights into the things that are holding her back (inner conflict), what she fears and why (the wound and the lie), and how her habits and biases (emotional shielding) are probably not helping her cope. With these baby steps of self-growth, she learns and matures, adapting to her current circumstances and achieving minor successes that increase her confidence. These successes may be akin to false positives, though, because she hasn’t fully rejected the fear and false beliefs that are causing her damage. Still fearful of emotional pain, a lot of her shielding remains in place. She also continues to embrace the lie; she doubts whether she really deserves the goal but is cautiously hopeful things will work out.
A point will come in the story when she hits an impasse or suffers a significant setback. This is her dark moment, where she hits rock bottom. She sees that she can’t win going forward as she has been—that if she wants her goal, she must examine her position honestly and take a closer look at some of her internal issues. This means she must confront her emotional pain and challenge the lie she believes.
Depending on the nature of the wounding event, gaining insight can be painful, but it has to be done. The character must eventually awaken to two things: first, she must see her wound in a new light, admitting that it has held her back and kept her from being happy and fulfilled. Second, she must view herself differently, in a kinder light, and believe she is worthy of something better and is deserving of happiness.
This self-awareness will change her view of herself, allowing her to replace her disempowering beliefs of unworthiness with empowering beliefs (that she is worthy, has value, and is capable of achieving change). This new, balanced perspective frees her from any feelings of blame, responsibility, or unworthiness she carries about the past, which shatters the lie and replaces it with the truth.
Refuting the lie and putting the wounding event into perspective enables her to forgive herself (if necessary) and be free of the fear that has steered her actions to date. It also changes her misconceptions about the world and how it operates. She is no longer held prisoner by fear; instead, she has hope and is infused with determination. Complete, centered, and embracing her true self, she does what is needed to achieve the goal, even if it means making personal sacrifices.
Moving past the wound will not remove her fears completely, but because she believes in herself, and she knows what she must do, she is able to embrace the challenges ahead. Despite the forces that stand between her and her goal, she is ready to move forward by shedding the negative qualities that are holding her back and either adopting new, positive traits or honing forgotten ones.
As she moves toward her goal, she may be tested by encountering a situation similar to the wounding event. This will trigger the same fear, but her newfound strength and belief in herself allows her to master it instead of being mastered by it. Once she successfully navigates this situation, she will gain her goal (provided you are writing a HEA).
These are stepping stones you can use to show your character’s own journey from incomplete and unfulfilled to satisfied and whole. Remember that wounds will never be forgotten. But once the character faces the past and sees it differently (and lets go of any lies or self-blame she may feel) she has an inner strength she lacked before. Moving forward, she will behave differently, deploying healthy coping strategies and harnessing positive qualities to stay centered and on the path to wholeness.
Do You Write Stories with a Change Arc?
It’s the most common character arc because this type of journey is one we can all relate to. Unfortunately emotional pain is not limited to fiction. As people, we’re all seeking ways to move forward, grow, become someone better, and heal. This is why the transformation (change) arc is so popular with readers.
This is a very condensed version of the healing process, but we hope it helps. If you need more assistance with the impact of emotional wounds and mastering this vital piece of character arc, try the Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.
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.
Carrie Nichols says
I love this approach to character arc. As a romance author, my stories are all about character change! And The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is invaluable in creating my characters.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thank you so much! Very glad you are getting good mileage from your Emotional Wound book, Carrie!
Angela, I really can’t wait to get into fully using these thesauruses. I have them all (as you know), but haven’t yet been able to fully focus on writing. This is exACTly the type info I need to help my increasingly dementia-like brain to focus and hopefully accomplish the writing. You ladies are BRILLiant!
And btw—what is an “HEA?”
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Happily Ever After. (I had to ask too, when I first saw it, lol. It’s something that Romance users mainly use as romances always contain a HEA.) I am so glad this will help you!
Bryan Fagan says
We all need a reminder as well as a teacher when putting the puzzle of our novel together. When you think about it that’s what this is – A giant million piece puzzle. Your article helped us identify those missing pieces and with that I thank you.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
That’s exactly what it is…a very complicated puzzle, but when it’s put together properly, it’s magic!
Kristina Stanley says
I love the way you linked backstory to a personal wound. I find reading books where a character has a wound from the past and the author slowly lets the reader know what the wound it very intriguing. Great article today.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Yes there is an art to releasing bits of backstory through snippets and behavior. Backstory dumps are not necessary at all, and doling it out slowly makes the reader hungry for more. 🙂
Denise Willson says
Awesome post, Angela. I’ll print and re-read for future inspiration. Much appreciated!
Award winning author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT (Gift of Travel)
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks Denise! Glad you found this one helpful 🙂