We’ve all heard that characters need backstory, and in particular, an emotional wound that they’re carrying around when we meet them on page one. (As an aside, if you haven’t checked out Angela and Becca’s Emotional Wound Thesaurus, you’re missing out. It identifies and explores just about every major wound a character may have from life before your novel starts.)
But what happens when that wound is murky because you haven’t written out the origin scene that gave birth to it? Or, as I see even more commonly in client manuscripts, you have more than one major emotional wound for your protagonist? Giving a character a primary emotional wound is a must. But giving them excess baggage can start to sound like a stereotypical country song. It’s not uncommon that I edit manuscripts where excess baggage is wreaking havoc on both the written story and the reader’s ability to connect with it.
Consider a character who is hiding who they truly are from their parents and they are struggling with addiction and they lost a sibling and they were the victim of a crime. This type of complexity may seem like a good idea. Who doesn’t want lots of conflict, right?
But what winds up happening in a story that starts off this way is that your reader doesn’t know where to look because bags are everywhere. And perhaps worse, there’s nowhere to go in the manuscript in terms of rising tension, rising stakes, and rising action. As a result, the reader is overwhelmed by all the problems your character already has, and they don’t have a clear idea of the misbelief the character needs to let go of by the time the climax rolls around. In the same way games oftentimes have one objective, the reader seeks a sense of the character’s internal objective in order to gauge success or failure come the end of the book. They need to know how this game, otherwise known as your story, is played.
An analogy I use often with editing clients when describing what an opening must function like is the ski jump. The emotional arc “rails” you build in scene one will set up the trajectory for the rest of the novel, long after your character has taken off. If your character has a past loaded like that country song, the ski jump won’t create a strong, clear path for either your character or your reader. Instead, the beginning will feel more like a complicated freeway interchange, and you’ll have failed to give the reader the directions that point them toward where to go.
By employing one major emotional wound at your story’s onset, you ensure that the character and the reader engage in a smooth emotional trajectory because you’ve given them directed rails. Yes, complications will be born out of the primary wound as your story plays out. For example, having someone die on your watch might lead to depression or fear of trusting one’s self, which might lead to broken relationships and decreased risk-taking. But trust yourself and your story to carry those obstacles out within your story. As the obstacles build up and things become more and more complicated, the stakes will rise, as will tension. This is the arc you want for your story as it moves along, not when it starts. If the character is carrying excess baggage when we first meet them, there are very few places for them or your story to go.
Challenge yourself to identify the one primary emotional wound your character has in the very first scene. If you have more than one wound, how might you narrow down your character’s backstory so that it creates those strong, directed ski jump rails that will keep the rest of your story on track? One option is One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder, which is great for helping you zero in on just one primary wounding event.
Consider how that wound might lead to secondary difficulties throughout the course of your novel and think about how you might plot those as complications. Above all, give yourself the clarity in knowing the emotional need your character has that your story sets out to fulfill.
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.