Characters are the heart of a novel, and within that heart is the Hero’s Inner Journey. The protagonist’s path is much like yours or mine–one that will (hopefully) bring him closer to lifelong happiness and fulfillment.
In real life, people strive to become something more, to be something better. But the wounds of the past never quite leave us. Old hurts, betrayals, and injustices stay in our memory. Worry that a bad experience could happen again causes us to hesitate, and sometimes readjust what we want, and what we’re willing to risk. In other words, fear gets in the way.
Just like you or I, a hero has wounds, a trunk full of scars he lugs with him wherever he goes. And like us, his determination to not repeat a painful emotional experience carries the high cost of lessening his feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Because wounds influence a protagonist’s behavior so deeply (to the point he will do almost anything to avoid feeling such pain again), it’s important to have a good grasp on what emotional trauma from his past is now shaping his present. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Every Wound Contains a Lie
Emotional wounds are more than just painful memories. Inside each wound is a seed of doubt. Is this somehow my fault? Am I to blame? This doubt blossoms, eroding one’s self-worth.
When something bad happens, it’s human nature to try and rationalize it, make sense of it. We often blame ourselves, believing if we had chosen differently, done something else, there would be a better outcome. Most times there’s no logic to attributing a personal failure to what happened (especially when events were out of our control), but we do it anyway. Because of this internalization, a lie is born. We believe we are somehow deserving of this pain, or we become disillusioned in some way.
Let’s say a character discovers her husband plans to leave her for another woman (wound). Under all the anger and rage and heartache she would look within, to what she did wrong. The lie she might believe could be: He cheated because I am not worth loving. This lie burrows deep into her self-esteem and self-worth. Moving forward, she may avoid relationships because she believes this lie of being unworthy. Or, she may choose men who are likely to be unfaithful, because deep down she thinks these men are the only ones she deserves.
When a character is wounded, he straps on emotional armor to keep his feelings safe. Flaws develop, working under the ‘guise’ of protecting him from being hurt. For example, a female character who was mugged and sexually assaulted (wound) might develop flaws like mistrust, paranoia, and evasiveness to protect herself from being targeted again.
On the outside, these flaws “appear” to help her be safe, but they limit her instead, preventing her from building healthy relationships, hampering her spontaneity and placing a filter of distrust on all she sees. This in turn steals her her freedom, and puts a choke hold on self-growth and true happiness. (For more on flaws & their role in Character Arc, please reference The Negative Trait Thesaurus.)
Dig Into The Character’s Backstory
A character’s past will be a minefield of negative experiences, but at some point, there should be an event you as the author can define as “the wound.” Small, painful events change a person bit by bit, but to focus all this hurt and pain into a single backstory moment can really help you better understand who and what damaged your character, and why, as a result, they question their self-worth. This also guides you to the false belief they must see for the lie it is in order to become healthy and whole, strengthening them so they can achieve their goal.
To help you pinpoint what your character’s wound might be, here are some common “themes” that could be the root of this psychological damage.
7 Common Wound Themes:
A Physical Wound. A defect, scar or condition causes real life complication, doubt, low self-esteem and can make it difficult to feel like one fits in. Handicaps are real and can alter a character’s path, limiting them and hurting their confidence.
An Injustice. Being a victim of crime, witnessing a traumatic social injustice or living in a time period or reality that is unbalanced or full of corruption will all leave a mark.
Failure or Mistakes. People are naturally hard on themselves when things don’t happen as expected. The guilt associated with a failure or mistake (even if it is only a perceived failure) can paralyse a person, and send them on an alternative life path.
Misplaced Trust/Betrayal. Trusting or relying on someone and feeling let down in some way can cause deep hurt. This could be a parent/child dynamic, a friendship that goes sideways or even a deep betrayal of a loved one (infidelity, etc.)
Isolation. If the character felt left out or isolated in the past, it has lasting effects. Isolation might be relationship-related (a mother who favored a sibling over the protagonist), power imbalance (educational or social “status” barriers) or even simple economics (living in poverty, etc.) that restricted opportunity, achievement and fulfillment.
Neglect/Abandonment/Rejection. Some relationships are cardinal when it comes to care giving: a parent and child. Siblings. Partners in a marriage. And to a lesser degree, a citizen and his government, parishioner and his minister, or a doctor and his patient. When the person in the care giving role neglects or rejects the other party, this can cause deep feelings of abandonment to form.
Disillusionment. Believing one thing to be true and then discovering it is a lie can shake a character to their core. This might be a world views or political beliefs (discovering leaders that one has supported have been negligent or corrupt), a revelation in religious or spiritual beliefs, or uncovering immoral behavior. It could also be something closer and more intimate like a role model who was not who they pretended to be, or personal (like finding out one is adopted, for example.)