How To “Level Up” Your Character’s Wound

Every writer who has spent time studying the craft writing knows of the character wound, and that they are the foundation of a strong, memorable character. Why? Because they make characters complex, authentic (I challenge you to find me a person that isn’t carrying an emotional wound, consciously or unconsciously), and they provide the foundation for the most moving moments a story can contain—the character arc. Yep, wounds are the birth of the change and growth your reader is there to experience.

Sure, not all stories need a character arc (and therefore a wound); there’s New York Times best sellers out there that leave the character the same way we found them. But who doesn’t love the story of the underdog, the one that perseveres, the hero that overcomes? I’ve never done the math, but my guess is those stories are disproportionately represented in the coveted #1 ranks. I think it’s safe to say a character wound is an important part of your writing repertoire.

A character wound is a painful past event that changes who your character is.

In psychological terms it’s called the ‘negative core belief*’, whose definition is almost identical to that of a character wound— ‘a negative, broad, and generalised judgement an individual has made about themselves, based on some negative experiences they have had during their earlier years.’ Whether you define it intuitively, or scientifically, in essence, it’s a thinking pattern rooted in our past. One that will impact how your character perceives the world, and ultimately the choices they make.

*You may have seen Angela and Becca refer to this as the lie, misbelief, or false belief. Read more about it HERE. 😉

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional woundMost writers acknowledge this and incorporate a character wound into their character’s backstory, but what the simplistic definitions above don’t capture, is that wounds (and our negative core beliefs) are multiply determined. What do I mean by ‘multiply determined’? Essentially, every belief, thought, bias, and perception we’ve built about ourselves and our world is a product of not one incident, but a layered and dynamic interaction of nature and nurture.

In psychology we call it the biopsychosocial model, but I wouldn’t spend any more time on that term that the seconds it took you to decipher it. What writers need to know is that the wound their character carries has been created by the interplay of a variety of factors. Consider the following:

Your Character’s Biology

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional wound

Early scientists subscribed to the “tabula rasa” theory of development; that at birth the human mind is a “blank slate”. In fact, every one of us arrives in this world with certain predispositions programmed into our microscopic DNA sequences, which means any character in your story has the same roots. Consider the play of genetics and neurology that influences your character’s temperament, personality traits, intelligence, and physical attributes. If your character is extremely introverted and short, they are going to respond very differently to an abusive father than a character that is brash and built like a barn. If your character has a family history of mental health issues and they see something no one else can, they are going to jump to a whole different set of conclusions than someone who doesn’t. To create an authentic person on your page, you need to reflect these biological building blocks, because they play a part in how your character internalises their experiences and how they engage with others.

Your Character’s Psychology

This component focuses our lens on how your character thinks and behaves. Heavily influenced by both biology (nature) and the social context (nurture), your character’s wound is a reflection of their perceptions, thoughts, emotions, motivations, personality, and behaviour. Sure, you can have a hero whose ex-wife cheated on him (and is about to meet his soulmate…who’s a shifter), or a young, orphaned boy who lives on the streets (and is about to discover he’s the only hope for an ancient civilisation he didn’t know existed), but is your character an optimist? Are they a quick thinker, or do they need time to process the events that unfold around them? When it comes to crunch time, do they avoid, do they rationalise, do they go on the attack? A wound, the belief that we’re unlovable for example, doesn’t exist within a vacuum. Your character’s psychological traits are going to mold that belief into something very nuanced and unique (and the awesome bit is that you, the writer, get to say what that is!).

Your Character’s Social World

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional woundOur social world has been molding us since the day we were born. Our parents, our broader family dynamics, our communities, and our culture are all layers that define us. Social factors are probably the most invisible influence when it comes to the private and often unseen thoughts that live in our heads, but it’s equally as influential as biology and psychology. Your character may have been through trauma, abuse, grief or loss and have reached some conclusions about themselves or their world. But when they decided that adults can’t be trusted, that they are a failure, or that they don’t belong, what world were they living in at the time? Were they isolated and discriminated against, or did they have economic security or a strong cultural identity? How did these factors impact on the wound your character carries? Did they reinforce it or challenge it?

We all want our characters to be authentic and realistic. Capturing that on a page, heck, in a book, is a challenge considering how complex and complicated Homo Sapiens are. But it’s a challenge worth investing in, because crafting a character that becomes as real for your reader as they are to you is something every writer strives to create. And ultimately, that unforgettable character is a key factor that will have readers coming back for more.

What do you think? Have you considered all these layers when crafting your character and their wound? How do these layers weave together to challenge or reinforce your character’s wound?

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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[…] Sloan shows how to “level up” your character’s wound, Jo Eberhardt explains how to get the English language dialect you want correct, and Fae Rowen has […]

2 years ago

There is always SO much to consider with every aspect of our writing and I love when it’s “listed” and pinpointed this way. Thanks, Tamar 🙂

2 years ago

We’ve talked a lot about wounds here, but I love how you’ve focused on all the psychological layers. Thanks for adding to this conversation!

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago

Hey Becca, isn’t interesting how different perspectives create a more a layered understanding? Thanks for the opportunity to share 🙂

Michele Droga
Michele Droga
2 years ago
Reply to  Tamar Sloan

This is also another way to approach the importance of the wound for writers who have difficulty articulating their characters’ motivation & goals. Sharing this with my writing group! Thank you, Tamar.

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago
Reply to  Michele Droga

I agree Michele, getting down the a nuanced understanding of our character’s wound can really develop our character and their motivations. Thanks for the share 🙂

2 years ago

It is always so interesting for me to see the crossover between human psychology and the character’s experience. The closer we can make the two, the more authentic a character feels to readers because they recognize themselves within that character. The circumstances may be different, but the struggle and the human pain–that’s something we can all connect to because it’s common ground.

Traci Kenworth
2 years ago

I agree! It keeps the character from being shallow. We need those deeper roots to connect like you said.

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago

I totally agree, Angela. Our wounds are what ultimately equalise us 🙂