the power of self-preservation, in ourselves and our characters, and how the need to protect our secret wounds can drive a book through secrets, lies, and mistakes. Self-preservation forces our characters to act, and characters who act are engaging and interesting to read about. The fact that it is self-preservation making them act makes them relatable, and if it is self-preservation arising from a character's deepest emotional wound, you may have a recipe for a compulsively readable story.
But how do you create a convincing wound? Or one that hasn't been written before a thousand times?
Keep the Wound a SecretThe trick to a convincing wound is in building the backstory that created the emotional wound and in making the character respond to everything in the story through the filter of that wound. But the very fact that a wound is usually a secret makes it more powerful. Any kind of mental or emotional health issue is so often kept secret because any damage that isn't visible is stigmatized. If you fall off a bicycle as a child or break a bone playing football or in gymnastics, the bandages and casts are worn like a badge of honor. If a veteran comes home from Afghanistan with a bullet wound or physical hurt, they are given a Purple Heart. But what about the wounds that people don't see? The wounds that stem from words that shred our sense of safety or self, or the images that can't be forgotten? From experiences that replay in our heads on constant loops?
An emotional wound is no less significant than a broken bone. It stems from an experience, or a series of experiences, so emotionally painful that the trauma from it changes the way we see ourselves and the way that we live our lives. Most often, this happens because we've never acknowledged that the wound exists. That's an instinctive reaction. We flinch when we press a thumb into a bruise. Often, we flinch even before we press a thumb into a bruise. That flinch is the body's way of protecting us from the physical pain, and we are similarly programmed to avoid pressing the emotional buttons that hurt us.
Establish How Ripping off the Bandage Would Have Been Healthier
Ever heard that expression? Ripping the bandage from a physical injury is painful, but removing it is a necessary part of the healing process. Prolonging the inevitable can lead to wounds that fester--and it can prolong the pain. The same is true for emotional wounds. If we avoid dealing with them, we don't give them the opportunity to heal. And we are programmed by society not to deal with emotional wounds. We are told not to cry. We are taught not to talk about them. Openly discussing them--or showing them--makes other people uncomfortable, heaven forbid, so too often, we don't. We go to doctors for help healing broken bones and removing physical scars, but we're still too often stigmatized for seeking help for the hidden scars. And that makes the emotional wounds worse. It makes the infection spread. How did your character's wound begin to fester and why?
Think of Your Character's "Arc" as the Story of Her Emotional Infection
You're entering the story at the moment just before she sees the first symptoms. Though she's already infected, she doesn't know it. But then something happens that makes her flinch and raises a bit of pain. She reacts to avoid the pain. Or perhaps she embraces it. Either way, she sees the world in a way that is filtered through the lends of her infection. In her increasingly fevered state, her reaction leads to events that ultimately cause her to keep secrets, tell lies, and make mistakes. What are those secrets and lies? What mistakes will she make? What ENORMOUS mistake will she make that will ultimately break her down and force her--or someone else--to rip off the bandage and begin to clean the wound so that the infection can subside and burn itself out? What choice will she have to make between what she thinks she wants and what she needs in order to heal and move on successfully through life?
Those are the questions that create a powerful character arc. But there are some questions you need to ask before you can even begin to build the story of that infection.
1. How did your character get the wound?
What was the cut or concussion that she covered up and left to fester? How did it happen?
The deepest wounds often involve the people closest to us, family and friends, the people responsible for taking care of us. Strangers don't usually mean enough to matter, but in the same way that repeated small head injuries can create the same or worse neurological damage as a single big concussion, repetition of painful words or experiences can leave a deep and lasting impression. So consider this as you begin to consider your character's wound. Here are a few more questions:
- What happened to give your character a skewed or warped view of herself and the world around her?
- Who caused the incident?
- What trusted person/people did she tell or not tell about it?
- How did those people react or fail to react in a way that caused her to cover up the wound?
Think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I researched this extensively for Persuasion, and in some respects, all emotional wounds have some of the components of PTSD.
- They are persistent.
- They cause great emotional pain or distress.
- They disrupt the course of a person's life in some way.
If your character's wound doesn't meet these tests, it's likely not going to work as a sufficiently powerful motivator to create a compelling character arc.
2. How does the wound change the way your character sees herself and the world around her?
“Keep in mind, Eragon, that no one thinks himself a villain, and few make decisions they think are wrong. A person may dislike his choice, but he will stand by it because, even in the worst circumstances, he believes that it was the best option available to him at the time.”
As the result of her wound, your character tells herself an untruth, something that she believes so firmly that she will flinch away from anything that presses against that point of pressure. She may believe she is not lovable, not attractive, not honest, not important as a person. Or conversely, she may become unable to trust love given to her, focus too much on her appearance, become a chronic liar, become attention-seeking or narcissistic.
- What is the lie your character believes as the result of her wound?
- How does this lie stem directly from the wound?
- What defense mechanisms does she use to protect herself from the truth of the lie?
- What masks does she wear to keep people from seeing her as she really is?
- How has this lie changed her life before the story begins?
- What situations does she avoid because of her wound?
- What does she refuse to talk about or thinking about?
- What has she forgotten as a means of self-protection?
- How has the lie held your character back?
- What has it deprived your character of?
- What events has that lie created that reinforced the lie?
- Who has it brought into her life and who has it ripped away?
- What are the triggers that cause her to react to preserve her delusion or make her act in ways that bring the lie into the forefront?
3. What are the costs of security versus risk within your story?
“Secrets and lies… Everyone in the world deals with these every day of their lives.
To protect themselves. To protect someone else. It is all in the way that you look at the
To protect themselves. To protect someone else. It is all in the way that you look at the
The above questions are all about the past before your story begins, the backstory. Now amplify those same questions for the events within your story. Change doesn't occur without big pain. The previous deprivations and delusions weren't enough to rip away the bandaid. What will?
Character arc is about change. Big change. Huge change. Forced change.
- What change needs to occur for your character?
- What TRUTH does she need to accept that will help her to finally heal?
- What choice or challenge does she face that she will fail unless she can demonstrate acceptance and mastery of that truth?
- What is she trying to protect and what will she risk to protect it?
- What are the stakes for failure? What will she lose that she can't bear to lose?
- What are the benefits of success? What does she stand to gain?
- What are the building blocks of recovery? What are the steps she takes in ripping off the bandaid?
- What secrets does she keep from other characters as a result of her wound?
- What lies does she tell because of her wound?
- What mistakes does she make because of her wound?
- What are the consequences of those secrets, lies, and mistakes, and how do they lead to the bandaid finally being ripped away?
- Who helps her in spite of or because of her wound? How?
- Who holds her back or provides an emotional crutch that keeps her weak and delusional?
Thinking about the psychology of your character in this way can help you do create her as a more rounded and real person, and that will automatically make her more relatable to your readers. You'll see for yourself how much more you like her. That may make you feel more protective of her, more defensive on her behalf. But don't let that stop you from being mean to her and inflicting the kind of emotional damage that is going to be required to help her heal. You're going to have to break her down to build her back up. Love her by ripping the bandage off!
Read More about Emotional Wounds
Reading about PTSD or mental health in general is a great way to start thinking about some of the very real ways in which emotional damage plays out in our lives and in our modern society. The degree of dysfunction your character experiences may be smaller than an actual mental disorder, but it doesn't hurt to learn about the extremes to help you consider the damage.
Understanding more about character wounds can help, and as always, Writer's Helping Writers by the authors of the Positive Traits Thesaurus and the Negative Traits Thesaurus have some fantastic articles.
There's an interesting test for emotional wounds here:
And here are a few additional articles you might find interesting:
What Do You Think?
Do you like emotionally wounded characters with big arcs? What makes you relate to a character as you're reading or writing? What books can you think of that provide a big arc with a huge emotional payoff?
About the Author
Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.