In the real world, we’re all products of our pasts. Good and bad, the people, events, and situations we’ve encountered have influenced us in profound ways, impacting our morals and beliefs, our day-to-day habits, our personal preferences, even our personality traits. This should be as true for our characters as it is for us.
As we dig through our characters’ backstories, we quickly come to find that the most formative element is the emotional wound—a terrible past experience that was so debilitating they’ll do anything to avoid going through it again. Wounding events are particularly insidious because the harm they cause isn’t limited to the event itself; it’s often the first of many toppling dominoes that alter the character in alarming ways, molding her into who she’ll be at the start of your story.
Her wound, and the emotional shielding that follows, will contribute to her personality, beliefs and morals, story goals, and more. It’s important to understand those aftereffects and what they’ll mean for your character so you can write her in an authentic and consistent way that will resonate with readers.
What is Emotional Shielding?
The aftermath of a wounding event is a chaotic time full of questions with no easy answers. How did this happen? Why me? And the most critical one: How do I make sure it doesn’t happen again? Out of a desperate need to safeguard herself from further pain, the character knowingly or subconsciously deploys her emotional shielding—protections meant to keep her safe. These are universal to the human experience and come in a number of forms that can be applied to your character after a traumatic experience.
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Many times, a character will seek to keep trauma from recurring by adopting new traits that she believes will make her stronger or more impervious to harm. A woman who has escaped domestic abuse may think that the key to avoiding further mistreatment is in controlling every part of her life—and maybe the lives of those around her. The teenager who told the truth about a crime but wasn’t believed may become apathetic. An employee whose work was stolen by his boss could easily become uncooperative, believing that keeping his ideas to himself is the best way to protect them.
On the surface, these new traits seem to be a good way to ward off danger. In reality, they cause ancillary problems that make it difficult for the characters to succeed in many areas of life.
When flaws are adopted, new behaviors inevitably follow. The abuse survivor who needs to now control everything may become hypercritical, making impossible demands of herself and those in her charge. The apathetic boy might withdraw emotionally from others. Our uncooperative businessman could hold back at the office, not contributing in meetings or team projects and thereby sabotaging his success at work. The habits that grow out of a character’s flaws are typically damaging, destroying relationships and making it difficult for them to achieve story goals.
When trauma occurs, one of the first things we do is examine what happened, mentally replaying it to see how it could have been avoided. We want to identify who was at fault so we know who to blame and where to direct our negative emotions. Very often, we end up pointing the finger at ourselves. If I hadn’t been so self-involved, I would’ve seen the warning signs; if I’d been more obedient, my parents wouldn’t have divorced.
The lies that result lead to a form of self-blame or the belief that had the character been more worthy, chosen differently, trusted someone else, paid more attention, safeguarded herself, etc., a different outcome would have resulted. Lies like these undermine the character’s confidence, making it virtually impossible for her to reach her dreams and find fullness and contentment.
In some cases, the victim of a trauma may find blame elsewhere: the government, a corporation, God, “those people.” When this happens, it’s easy for a wider sense of disillusionment to take shape in the form of biases. The abuse victim may come to believe that all men are violent. The teen who told the truth and wasn’t believed may decide that no adult truly respects children. Biases affect the way we view and treat others and therefore impact the character’s ability to relate to people in a healthy way.
As you can see, characters, like real people, adopt emotional shielding as a way of protecting themselves. But this shielding actually does the opposite. It creates dysfunction in relationships and undermines the character’s ability to succeed at work and in her passions.
The emotional shielding resulting from a wound can actually impact her basic human needs, creating a void: new flaws rob her of love and belonging as her relationships are compromised; the false belief takes aim at her esteem, destroying her self-worth; growth and self-actualization screech to a halt because the character is so focused on what happened in the past that she’s unable to move forward into the future.
This is why it’s so important to know your character’s wound and what kinds of shielding have resulted from it. This information will tell you exactly who your character is in your story, what beliefs or habits are holding her back from achieving her goal, and what she’ll have to do to overcome the trauma and take steps toward wholeness.
Once you’ve identified your character’s wounding event, here are a few helpful questions to ask:
- What flaws might my character adopt as a way of keeping the event from occurring again? On the flip side, which positive traits might she downplay or reject because she believes they contributed to what happened (kindness, generosity, obedience, being trusting, etc.)?
- What dysfunctional behaviors could flow out of these changes in her personality traits?
- What lie might the character believe about herself in the wake of her wounding experience?
- Are there any biases about other people or groups that might arise because of what happened to her? How might those biases affect her life?
Wounding events and their aftershocks are as relevant for our characters as they are for us in the real world. But the resulting emotional shielding is really a combination of a lot of factors that pertain specifically to your character: her personality going into the traumatic event, the wound itself, the lie that emerges, the human need that will be impacted, and so on. Putting it all together can be daunting, but Angela and I are making it easier with the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers.
This intuitive tool collects all the necessary information as you figure it out. As you can see with the following example, the Character Builder pulls information from The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, providing a list of emotional shielding behaviors and attitudes that make sense for your character in her situation. It removes the guesswork and simplifies the process for you.
(Brainstorming via the Character Builder)
It’s our hope that the Character Builder and the information in this post can help you better understand your own characters. This will enable you to write them realistically in a way that reads true-to-life for your audience.