Brainstorming the Wound in Your Character's Backstory

Brainstorming the Wound in Your Character’s Backstory

Brainstorming the Wound in Your Character's BackstoryI’ve spent the better part of the last year digging into the topic of character wounds or “Ghosts.” If this topic sounds familiar, it might be because Angela Ackerman and I (among others) have been yammering about it to anyone who will listen. The wound is a fascinating and vital piece of your characters’ pasts, which has lasting, formative effects on who they will be at the start of your story.

As such, it’s super important to figure out which wounds are crippling your characters so you’ll know how to write them realistically and consistently. Whether you’re building characters from the ground up or they come to you fully formed and you just have to figure out their backstory, it’s imperative to identify this important event from their pasts.

What Is an Emotional Wound?

Emotional Wound ThesaurusSimply put, a wound is a negative past experience or series of experiences that causes extensive emotional pain. It could be a devastating moment (a life-threatening accident), repeated traumatic episodes (living with an abusive caregiver), or an ongoing damaging situation (growing up in poverty).

However it manifests, this excruciating event births powerful fears that begin to drive the character’s behavior and choices. New personality traits develop as a way of protecting the character from re-experiencing that trauma or the emotions associated with it.

As you can see, wounds have long-lasting effects that are, sadly, true to life. When we take the time to discover what this event is for our characters and how it might impact them, they instantly become more realistic and compelling to readers.

How Do You Discover Your Character’s Wound?

There are a number of ways to ferret out this information, but today I’d like to share a simple brainstorming method involving the different kinds of wounds. It can be difficult to examine these events closely, but knowing the categories and asking some pointed questions about your character can help you figure out which kinds of trauma are a distinct possibility. The list of potential wounds becomes much more manageable.

1. Traumatic Events

These are the ones that most easily come to mind because of their dramatic nature.

A school shooting, a diagnosis of terminal illness, a fatal car crash—these are singular moments of devastation that easily stand out as changing the course of a character’s life. Because of this, these wounds are often the easiest to identify.

Questions to Ask: Is there a specific traumatic moment from the past that haunts your character?

2. Misplaced Trust and Betrayals

Being betrayed by a sibling, getting dumped, suffering childhood abuse by a trusted adult—wounds like these are often the hardest to overcome because they’re inflicted by the people who should love and protect us. It’s those closest to us who can do the greatest harm, so wounds like these are sadly common.

Questions to Ask: Which people from your character’s past did he trust and look up to the most? How might any of them have betrayed him?

3. Childhood Wounds

I joke a lot about how my parenting mistakes will provide good therapy fodder for my kids. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s true that some of the most lasting wounds occur in childhood. Children are more vulnerable than adults, and they’re less capable of coping positively when something horrible happens. As a result, these traumas can be more difficult to overcome.

Questions to Ask: Which memories from your character’s childhood does she shy away from? Who were the trusted and most-loved people in her life, and how might they have mistreated her? Which of her caregiver’s techniques, beliefs, or philosophies does she adamantly reject and will never use with her own children?

4. Injustice and Hardship

Very often, our difficult circumstances come about due to an inequity (real or perceived) that someone is able to exploit, such as when a character is bullied, experiences discrimination, or is wrongfully imprisoned. Moments like these often result in disillusionment with the people, groups, or establishment that failed the character, making it easy to unearth the wounding event: just follow that trail of breadcrumbs back to the originating event.

Questions to Ask: Does your character harbor resentment or anger toward a person, people group, or organization? On the flip side, does he feel apathy toward anyone, believing the person is too powerful or established to be confronted? What happened that caused these feelings?

5. Crime and Victimization

Wounds in this category come about when the character is targeted and victimized, making them fairly straightforward and easy to identify. Examples include having your identify stolen, being stalked, and having one’s home being broken into.

Questions to Ask: At what point was my character the victim of a crime?

6. Disabilities and Disfigurements

These kinds of wounds can be both physically and emotionally crippling because they set the character apart from others. Her difference (whether physical, mental, or emotional) is often perceived to be a weakness or limitation by the character herself or by the people around her. It makes her “less than,” setting real or imagined limitations on what she can do and achieve.

Questions to Ask: How did the physical disfigurement or disability occur? Is my character haunted by that event or by something that resulted afterward, such as being bullied about her disability or failing in some way because of it?

7. Failures and Mistakes

Mistakes are a normal, everyday part of life that don’t usually result in lasting harm. But some are more devastating, such as when the fallout is great, the event negatively affects other people, or it impacts the character’s sense of self-worth and esteem. Wounds like these might include making a very public mistake or accidentally killing someone.

Questions to Ask: Which negative experience from the past is my character in some way legitimately responsible for? Is there an event that dredges up feelings of extreme guilt, making him wish he could go back and undo it?

***

Once you’ve decided which kind of wound makes sense for your character, it becomes easier to zero in on the exact trauma that has befallen him. To this end, we’ve put together an extensive(though far from comprehensive) list of possible wounding events broken down by category. Then it becomes a simple matter of examining a short list of possibilities to determine which one is haunting your character, impacting him even into the current story.

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About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by U.S. universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. What a great topic. I was very fortunate in my WIP. My main character starts out as a prisoner so all I had to do was ask how he got that way and the backstory wound was right there waiting for me. 🙂 It’s a lot harder when the character begins as a bookstore owner or messenger or otherwise fairly stable person.

    • It’s so much simpler when they come to us with ample information, isn’t it? Definitely, some characters are easier to figure out than others. This is one way they mirror us in real life :).

  2. A solid brainstorming list.

    I wonder, is this the best order to have it in? It seems like 1, 5 and 6 are types of losses someone suffers (general trauma, crime, and injury), and 2, 3, 4, and 7 are multipliers for them (betrayal, childhood, injustice, and their own failure). This brainstorming might be most effective if it happened in layers: looking for ideas of what kind of thing might have happened to them and then moving on to which circumstances made it most painful. (Or doing those in reverse order, or trying to start with type of loss but just as possibilities to synergize with the multipliers.)

    • Thanks for chiming in, Ken. What I love about exploring this topic for characters is that there are so many ways to go about it, depending on the character and the author’s own process. If you know very little about the character’s past, you could put the categories in any order and figure out the wound by the process of elimination. If you know them a little better, you can likely get rid of some of the categories right off the bat because you know those probably aren’t the culprit.

      As for your ordering suggestion, I would say to go with whatever works for you. 🙂

    • Ken,

      You’ve been around long enough to know that emotion trumps logic almost every time.

      • To illustrate my point. Hannah was married to a loving, caring man. She wasn’t able to have children and was repeatedly provoked by another who could and that became a really deep psychological wound in her life.

        Though he assured her, comforted her and consoled her, she couldn’t shake her grief… Anyone would say that her response was unreasonable, illogical, ‘Why couldn’t she just accept her husband’s love and be happy with what she had? How many others lived with less?’

  3. michael ryan says:

    This is a great article which I am going to share with everyone in my writer’s group. I could not work without your books.

  4. Awesome article! The plot of my WIP is built around several past events that affected individual and multiple characters. I.e., one girl lives with the torment of her sister’s disability and her anger towards the person who inadvertently caused it. And another of the main characters struggles with past failures and abandonment. The plot literally would not exist without these.

    Great advice in this post! Thank you.

    • It really is sad how many different ways people (and therefore characters) can be wounded. I’m glad you’ve been able to zero in on the events that have impacted your characters. So important!

  5. Eric Troyer says:

    Nicely written. Something to keep in mind is that people can react very differently to the same or similar events. Some people gain strength from adverse events, while others find them devastating. This can create an interesting conflict between those characters.

    • Absolutely! You see this all the time when multiple people are involved in the same horrific event and one emerges fairly unscathed while the other is debilitated. There’s a section in our book on factors that can make an event more traumatizing—personality, real or perceived responsibility for the event, support system, compounding events, etc. Those factors should definitely be considered when you’re trying to decide how much (or little) a cast member should be impacted.

  6. Brian Newman says:

    I believe there are only two kinds of wounds. Either someone broke faith with you or you broke faith with someone else. Every other item on your list is a variant of one of those two items. People can have physical or psychological disabilities and live with them quite well adjusted. People can go through traumatic events and be quite well adjusted. But, it is breaking faith which sticks with people. Sometimes, that break of faith is unintentional (for example, a parent the hero had faith in broke that death by suddenly dying or the hero, who is the parent, is struggling with the fact that their terminal illness is slowly causing them to break faith with their child).

    • Brian Newman says:

      err, ” a parent the hero had faith in broke that death by suddenly dying” should read ” a parent the hero had faith in broke that faith by suddenly dying”

    • This is an interesting way of categorizing wounds. It does seem like broken trust (in a loved one, the system, God, oneself) could be behind so many wounds. It’s something I’d have to study more to see if all wounding events do fall into one or the other groups, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. There are honestly so many ways you could categorize wounds; this was the one that seemed to us to organize the list most succinctly and correctly.

    • Eric Troyer says:

      How about when you break faith with yourself?

      • I think this one is huge, since we so often blame ourselves for what happens to us, even when we’re in no way to blame. So our characters will often feel like they’ve broken trust with themselves because their instincts were unreliable, they couldn’t react quickly enough, they acted selfishly, etc. So no matter how you categorize the wounds, breaking faith with oneself is a common problem.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Becca!

  8. Preferably the writers here won’t go the simplistic route of making a disability itself a “wound” for their character. You can find many great critical writings by disabled people, readers, and authors, about how damaging this trope is. If you want to write about disability in a story, the discrimination people face because they are disabled would be a more insightful, realistic, and unique “wound” to write than the disability itself. Disability also shouldn’t just be something you “tack on” to a character to make them interesting. It’s a complicated identity and experience, one which real people live with and are impacted by the constant negative and simplistic portrayal in media. Hopefully your character will also come by the “Truth” of disability acceptance and pride, rather than “overcoming” the disability. You want to write something that’s never been done before, right? Stories that reinforce the negative perception of disability, heal or cure characters in the end, or are what we in the disability community call “inspiration porn”, have been done to death. So, do something different!

    • I agree! Disabilities are so often portrayed as limiting when, in fact, we’ve all seen that those with disabilities are incredibly capable and powerful. However, when a disability happens, there is often a transition period as the person learns to adjust and comes to grips with their new normal. For some, this happens quickly, with few long-lasting effects. But for others, it can be a wounding event that causes them to see themselves in a negative light and become stuck as they perceive themselves to be unable to accomplish certain things. This is where the character arc comes in, to help them overcome—as you said—not the disability but the incorrect perceptions and though patterns that are holding them back. And it’s so true that this should be a critical part of who the character is and not something that’s just added to the story for dramatic effect. This is why it’s so important to explore the backstory and ask those important questions: to figure out exactly what is haunting the character and holding him or her back that will have to be faced before the story’s end.

  9. Natalie Shannon says:

    Oh yes, Disabilities or Disfigurement. The book I am currently writing has a male character who was born with a port wine birthmark on the right side of his face. He gets bullied in school and drops out in the eighth grade. As if this was not enough for him to deal with: An idea came to me that he would be burned very badly when his father sets him on fire because of an inheritance dispute. Now I wonder if this is “too much” disfigurement for my character? (One side of his body is covered in 3rd degree burn scars, the other is covered in a port wine birth mark) would it be believable?

  10. Natalie Shannon says:

    My WIP is actually a Romance/Love story. It is about my character (JD) and his struggle to find someone who will love him despite how he looks. (I am so sick of reading romance novels with perfect looking characters! Good looking men with six packs. Uggh!) At first JD is with a woman who only wants him for his money. (He inherited a large amount of money from his rich father. Then he meets a woman who treats him with love and respect. The woman who mistreats him says that no one else will love him She says the new love interest only feels sorry for him.

    • Natalie, I love your idea for twisting the stereotype for your romantic lead :). Knowing very little about your story, it’s hard for me to say what would work or what wouldn’t, but my first instinct is that having two major disability-related wounding events may push the boundaries of believability. My question here would be: what’s the purpose of that second wounding event? The dramatic events in your story should always be propelling the character forward in his arc, so you want to choose situations that are going to challenge him and provide him options to dig himself out of his hole.

      It sounds like his need for love/belonging is being impacted due to his birthmark, but there are no doubt other areas where he feels empowered or strong—maybe though a hobby or interest that he has, something he’s good at that allows him to keep more to himself and keep others at a distance. If you want to up the ante for JD, instead of adding another disability-related situation, consider introducing something that attacks that area of strength and comfort. This would remove the crutch and force him to face his fears. I don’t know what this would be for your character, but it needs to be meaningful to him and his situation, providing the chance for him to look closely at himself and his past and eventually come to grips with what’s happened to him. I hope this helps!

    • Spoiler: As my MC meets several women throughout the story, how he describes them (in 1st person POV) demonstrates how his character is changing.

      For the first two, he describes how he’s immediately taken by their physical beauty and attributes. For the third, she comes up and talks to him at work. There will be little or no description, just the action. When a friend asks him what she looks like, he replies, “I don’t know…” – but that’s the one he ends the story with.

  11. Ooo, good method and list! I used to be very confused about how to come up with a character’s backstory because it seemed to me there were infinite possibilities, and I had no idea how to narrow them down. Then I realized that a character’s backstory can and should relate to the story at hand, deepening the conflict and leading to it, if that makes sense. It isn’t arbitrary; its the reason the story is happening at all.

    Accordingly, I have found that a character’s wound is usually directly linked to the main conflict of my story (particularly for my main character and antagonist, but for side characters as well). If it isn’t, then I know its either not the right wound, or I need to tweak it till it is, because for me the whole point of the wound is to either cause the main conflict of the story or add more layers to it.

    #7 is one of my favorite wounds/ghosts. I seem to have at least one character in every story haunted by a failure or mistake, haha.

    • Yes! The wound shouldn’t be random and should tie into the present story. And the failure/mistake wounds are so common, so it’s not surprising that those are popping up in your stories :).

  12. My MC wants to help a particular group of people, not out of a wound, but because she’s willing and somewhat able. However, she’s definitely not on a flat arc – she’s on a positive arc because she learns at the end it’s more important to be a friend than a leader/ savior. So I’m racking my brain here trying to find her Ghost.

    Or perhaps not every character on a positive arc has a Ghost?

    • No, not all characters have wounds. As you mentioned, those with flat or static arcs don’t usually have wounds because the story is about the overall goal being reached rather than the character overcoming his internal ghosts.

      So in your case, it could be that the story is about that goal rather than the character’s internal growth. But I would ask you one question: why is it so important that she help this group of people? (Why does she want/need to be a savior to these people?) Almost every story goal is being driven by a personal motivation that very often comes down to a basic need that isn’t being met; the character is missing love and belonging, or her safety/security has been compromised, etc. The character sees (usually subconsciously) the story goal as a way of filling that missing need, which is why she’s pursuing it. (I don’t want to be all self-promoty, but I wrote another post that goes more in-depth on this topic than I can go into here: http://writershelpingwriters.net/2015/05/the-connection-between-emotional-wounds-and-basic-needs/). So explore those 5 basic needs and see if one of them is missing for your character, if this story goal is a means of filling one of these voids. If the void is there, poke around in her backstory and see if anything may have happened that compromised that basic need. It’s very possible that you won’t find anything, that there is no wound here. But it’s just as possible that there is, and adding that internal growth piece will add to the overall story.

  13. Robert Billing says:

    I really liked this article, particularly as I have written a novel where both protagonist and antagonist are dealing with different ghosts. When Jane, the protagonist, was a teenager she’d taught a friend called Andrew to perform a country dance called “Farmer’s Daughter” with her, but his father was involved in kidnapping Jane and the end result was that Andrew was shot and injured. Now she’s a young lieutenant, but while working undercover she is teaching Farmer’s Daughter to a friend called Alan. She’s fighting off some serious flashbacks. Arthur, the antagonist, had tried to escape from an abusive, violent father, and made it as far as the spaceport ticket desk. The nice lady in uniform working the desk misunderstood the situation and took him home. Now Arthur has a burning hatred for women in uniform. Arthur sends a sniper to kill Jane, but in the darkness he shoots Alan. Now Jane has twice seen her lovers shot and has some serious issues to deal with. As an officer she is still chasing Arthur. Then it gets really complicated…

  14. Thanks Becca, I’ve already visited your site several times to research the thesaurus.

    My protagonist is based on myself at the age of 19. While a college student, he’s still living at home and suffering ongoing childhood wounds in the form of verbal abuse from his father, who can seldom be complimentary, turning even accomplishments into criticisms, such as, “Why can’t you do this more often?” This causes him to be quite fearful of actual mistakes and creates an emotional disability of being terrified around girls.

    I did add a traumatic event, where a couple of years before a crime struck too close to home and as the first act develops he fears he may have too much in common with the perpetrators. It comes back to self doubt, which originates with that childhood wound.

  15. I find this post, and the Wound Thesaurus, indispensable. I have saved these links for future reference. I generally only write short pieces, and so far haven’t fully completed a short story (I have a few in progress–probably need to cut back on that), but even so, a backstory of some emotional wound will help fill out my protagonist.

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  1. […] turning points, Janice Hardy asks if your characters are too stupid to live, Becca Puglisi shows us how to brainstorm the wound in your character’s backstory, Jayme Mansfield explores being your character inside and out, September C. Fawkes has 10 methods […]

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