We are often our own biggest critics, aren’t we? Whenever something goes wrong, we feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or hurt. The fallout might cause others around us to suffer too, causing further anguish and guilt. When this happens, unless the situation was in no way tied to us, we tend to blame ourselves:
Why didn’t I see this coming? I should have been prepared.
How could I fall into this trap? I should have known better.
I can’t believe I did that. What’s wrong with me?
In other words, we become critical of what we did or didn’t do, how we allowed something to happen…or not. We chastise ourselves for not avoiding whatever happened to us.
To be fair, sometimes we are to blame: Drunk texting an ex may lead to an embarrassing Facebook upload of screenshots the next day. Falling asleep at the wheel can end in a car accident. Most times, though? We’re not to blame. Still, we never let ourselves off the hook. Why is this?
Instinct & The Brain’s Need To Define Cause & Effect
Whenever something negative occurs that we don’t expect, we are desperate to understand why it happened so we can stop it from occurring again. This is our primal instinct to protect ourselves—mark something as “the problem,” then act so it (and the pain it causes) will be prevented in the future. Cause and effect—it’s a law we live by.
If we’re lucky, we spot the problem and follow through with a logical solution: I failed the test, so to pass next time, I will study harder. Or, My car was ransacked, so I must stop forgetting to lock it up at night. We change behavior to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. Logical, right?
Unfortunately, cause and effect aren’t always clear, especially when dealing with something like an emotional wound. Rendered utterly vulnerable, lives are changed in an instant. There may not be a single cause to blame, or if there is, we often hold ourselves responsible for “letting this situation happen.” After all, we (falsely) assume we are in charge of our own lives so when control is suddenly lost, the mind reels – how did I let this happen? On some level we believe it’s our fault. Had we chosen differently, trusted someone else, paid more attention, etc., a different outcome would have resulted.
Our characters should mirror real people–this is what makes them (and their emotions) feel authentic, which captivates readers. So, when we’re exploring their backstory and brainstorming a wound, we need to ensure that in their deepest pain, their minds follow the same detrimental path of self-blame that a person’s mind will.
The Internal Blame Game & Lie It Produces
When the character’s thoughts circle disempowering beliefs (that they are incompetent, naïve, defective, or they lack value) as a reason for their failure, it eats away at their self-worth. This, combined with a need to identify the pain’s cause will lead to a specific effect: an internal lie will form. This Lie (also called a False Belief or Misbelief) is a conclusion reached through flawed logic. Caught in a vulnerable state, the character tries to understand or rationalize his painful experience, only to falsely conclude that fault somehow lies within.
Imagine a character who convinces his wife they should pick up snacks for a movie night at home to save money rather than go out as she wanted to. While they are inside a corner store, a robbery occurs and the the wife is shot and killed.
This wounding event is horrific and will forever change the character. He’s not going to simply blame the shooter and move on. No, he’s very likely going to also blame himself. In his mind, he’ll dwell on how it was his choice to stop at the store because he was cheap and wanted to avoid an expensive ugh this out. He may question his actions in the store: why didn’t I charge the gunman? Why didn’t I find us a better hiding place? Why didn’t I try to create a distraction so my wife could escape?
You and I have perspective this character lacks and know that Losing a Loved One to a Random Act of Violence like this isn’t something a person can blame themselves for. But caught in his confusion, grief, and pain, he believes he failed his wife, failed as a husband, he was a coward, and so on.
His Lie might look like one of these:
I can’t protect the people I love.
I am unworthy of love because I fail those who give it.
I am a coward who runs rather than fights.
My judgement is flawed; I can’t be trusted to make good decisions.
Once a lie forms, it’s like a fungus releasing toxic spores. This false belief seeds itself deep into the character, damaging his self-esteem, sabotaging his confidence, and creating a deep fear, maybe that if he loves again he’ll lose them or if he’s given responsibility he’ll only screw it up and get people hurt.
This lie will affect how he sees the world and himself. It will change how he interacts with others (he’ll keep his distance, afraid of letting himself get close to people he will only fail or hurt), he will avoid chasing goals which will make him be accountable for others, and he will always be on the lookout for situations that will lead to loss and pain so he can avoid these at all costs. He goes from living a full life, to a half-life.
While most lies center on a perceived personal failing due to self-doubt or guilt, not all of them do. In cases where a wound isn’t as deeply internalized, the person may become disillusioned. Using this character’s example, he might come to believe:
People will take what you love because they can
Violence is everywhere; no place is safe
The police can’t protect anyone
This type of lie becomes a critical judgment about how the world works, because, in the eyes of the character, it’s true: someone did take what he had away from him without cause, and the last thing he expected was violence yet he found it, and the police didn’t keep this criminal off the street. His wide conclusions may be skewed, but this wounding experience taught him a negative life lesson. Now, he’ll always be expecting life’s other shoe to drop.
The lie is destructive and until it can be reversed, it will continue to hamper the happiness, fulfillment, and inner growth of your character. Understanding and planning your character’s backstory wound and lie is important. If you are writing a change arc, it is only when your character can shatter this misbelief through internal growth that they will feel that they truly deserve the goal they seek. Their deeper sense of self-worth gives them the courage and inner strength they need to put all their energy into achieving it.