Helping Writers Become Authors

Brainstorming the Wound in Your Character’s Backstory

I’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?

Simply 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?

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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.