Friday, March 20, 2015

The Power of Our Character’s Wounds

As novelists we often think “big picture”, don’t we? We think of the absolute worst possible thing that could happen to these characters and then work at making that happen. As well we should!

But the same should not always be applied to their backstory. We often think something absolutely catastrophic has to happen to our characters in their backstory to make them the people they are today. Something as catastrophic as a rape, watching your family be murdered before your eyes, abuse, or some other form of physical or mental trauma need not always be the wound or black moment in our character’s lives.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as something that they were never told while growing up.

A wound does not have to be catastrophic to create a lie that your character believes.

A wound does have to match the character’s personality and backstory to give credit to why they 
believe the lies that they do.

An example: a female character with a strong father’s presence where she knew she was loved, but has issues with accepting that another man she might fall in love with and marry could truly be interested in getting to know and cherishing her.


Because of one thing she never heard while growing up: the value she would have as a wife and mother.

She was never told she didn’t have value. But it was just one thing she never heard. A comment omitted from all conversations. And it wasn’t even something she was aware of until she became an adult.

It was a subconscious truth she didn’t realize she needed to hear that became a wound which led to a lie she believed about herself and her worth. A lie about her worth that would reflect on her friendships and relationships with other people.

Do you see how you could spiral this lie of someone’s worth is a hundred different directions? And it started with something as small as something this character didn’t hear while growing up. She might have had a poor home life, she might have had a great home life. There is a paradox there of being loved and cared for, but desiring the need to be cherished, but not believing she is worthy or good enough.

A characters wounds (there is usually always more than one in a good story for depth) and lies (definitely a plural must) can’t be resolved in the light of truth, unless you know the backstory of why those wounds happened in the first place.

And that backstory does not have to be huge or catastrophic. Now, in that same vein, if you have smaller wounds that lead to bigger lies and life struggles, I would suggest having a couple different wounds. You don’t want your character to come across as weak, immature or incapable of surviving—they have to have an attitude of survival though their circumstances—tied to their wound and lie—continue to knock them down.

Another example of this? Our character meets a guy she really likes, but finds out later, though they have been in near constant contact and interaction, he is not attracted to her at all. Just friends. How would that affect her current wounds and lies and what/who would she turn to in answer to that?

Sometimes what seems to be the inconsequential and “boring” wounds and lies we gloss over, actually turn out to be the better subplots and plots for our character’s lives and stories.

The point of this post? It’s not always in the big, wild or crazy backstory that we have to take our characters—even your action thriller or murder mystery can have a characters with what would seem “small” wounds and lies that have ballooned over the years of believing these untruths. It’s all in the writing and crafting of the character and stories.

Taking my example from above, how would you spin those lies into a novel plot thread? 

Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She is a country girl now living in a metropolis of Denver, Colorado, employed as an administrative assistant at Wordserve Literary. 


kaybee said...

Casey, this is true. One of my characters, Violet O'Connell in the unpubbed "Lost and Found," is a gently-reared young woman whose big issue, and lie, is that nobody, including Violet, believes she can be anything more than a rich man's wife. That's her issue as she stumbles into nursing work in New York's tough Hell's Kitchen. On the other hand, Michael and Pace, the two heroes in my Western series, have both witnessed murders and each has been affected in a different way. It depends on the character and what's shaped them into the person they are when I begin writing. Good point. Actually, doesn't it relate to Christianity in general? People who were raised in Christian homes and always followed the "path" have as valid a testimony as someone who kicked heroin with the Lord's help. We all come to Him in different ways, and so do our characters.
Thanks Casey,
Kathy Bailey

Anonymous said...

Great points, Casey. And food for thought as I reacquaint myself with my characters as I wade back into my sequel. :)

Susan Anne Mason said...

This is a great point, Casey! We tend to think about huge events that shape a child, but quite often it's the little comments of disapproval from a parent that fill a child with lies about themselves. It becomes an ingrained truth.
I must remember this as I work on my next set of characters!

Sarah Bennett said...

It is amazing what siblings can take from the same parents, the same manner that they were raised in, and apply it in their adult lives. Why would one sister blame a father for not hearing that she was valued as a wife and mother when the other sister would have known by his actions? The enigma of their individual choices is fascinating; one chooses to pick at a perceived festering wound while the other takes it for face value. Neither is "wrong," per se. When it boils down to it the bottom line, it is simply a choice. Perception can be a mirror in a funhouse.

Saumya said...

This is so helpful for me to think about as I dive deeper into my characters' backstories. I love the way you incorporated psychology, writing, and character development. Thank you!