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. 😉
Most 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
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
Our 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 check out Tamar’s books on her author website.
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James C Warren says
Sorry. Thanks also to Becca.
James C Warren says
Writing my first fiction novel. It has been fun but very challenging. My outline plus is done, now I need to build a believable character. I’m really at a Loss as to why backstory via Prologue is so tabu, since it is where everything stems from. I wrote one and deleted it. This blog is great and helped me a great deal in formulating a character. This is really good. Thanks KMW and Tamar and Angela.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Hi, James. I think the main reason Prologues aren’t always well received is because the information there isn’t part of the character’s current story; it’s part of a story from the character’s past. It’s often a good idea to share that backstory information with readers, but a prologue isn’t usually the best way to do it. When I see a prologue at the beginning of the book, I assume it’s going to be telling me about the character’s backstory, very often a wounding event. This is important information, but revealing it in this way—separate from the rest of the story, just plopped down on page one—there are more effective and engaging ways of getting this information across to readers.
The other issue with prologues is that readers start reading, and (if the writer has done their job), they begin to empathize with the main character, to bond with them and want to see them succeed. Then, the prologue ends, and BAM! The hero they were getting to know is twenty years older and is a very different person (likely due to that backstory event). The setting is different. The secondary characters and the protagonist’s relationship with them are different. It’s jarring, and the reader has to kind of get to know the hero all over again.
I’m not saying that prologues can’t work; we’ve all read ones that do. But so many of them are not done correctly that they’ve gotten a bad rap. And, honestly, instead of plunking that background information down at the start of the story, why not reveal it gradually through the character’s current story? This way, readers aren’t pulled out of the story to listen to the author explain what happened to the character; they’re able to figure it out through the character’s thoughts, dialogue, fears, coping mechanisms, interactions with others, emotional shielding, etc. I think most readers would prefer to be given clues that they can piece together to figure out the mystery than be told right up front what it is.
For a couple of resources on prologues and starting your story right, you might find these posts helpful:
Prologue Done Right
Finding the Sweet Starting Spot
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 🙂
BECCA PUGLISI says
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 says
Hey Becca, isn’t interesting how different perspectives create a more a layered understanding? Thanks for the opportunity to share 🙂
Michele Droga says
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 says
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 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
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 says
I agree! It keeps the character from being shallow. We need those deeper roots to connect like you said.
Tamar Sloan says
I totally agree, Angela. Our wounds are what ultimately equalise us 🙂