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Character Wounds: Building Character Backstory

Character Wounds

Why are wounded characters such good characters to read about? Do we enjoy seeing wounded characters? Of course not! Honestly, that's the hardest part of writing for me....wounding my characters. But, using character wounds to build my characters is what makes them more impactful.

For that reason, when you're creating characters it's important to think about and plan out character wounds, because they make your characters stronger. Not only does this make them stronger, it makes your characters matter.

It's amazing how bad things have to happen or should have already happened, for us to be able to relate to a character. The reason is because we want to relate to characters, whether we know it or not. We want to know that we're not the only ones going through trials in this world.

Using characters to demonstrate how to journey through wounds, helps readers. Many times, characters' choices can teach us the wrong way to handle our issues, in effect we learn the right way to handle them. In some ways, the way that characters manage their wounds can also reveal the condition of our own lives.

Engaging readers

I read a lot of young adult literature (because I was a teacher and now I'm hooked on it). Authors of young adult literature really understand how to create characters with wounds. Certainly, there are adult fiction writers who understand as well. The books my students really engaged with were the ones that showed them real life issues.

They enjoyed those characters they could relate with. The characters they were able to relate with were real, and the writer used character wounds as a way to engage the readers.

Many people are searching for ways to create a strong character backstories. The backstory will most likely include the wound. For now, let's focus on the character wound. What is it? Why does it matter? How do you use it? When or where do you use?

What is a character wound?

First, let's look at some synonyms for wound. Some examples are: cut, bruise, injury, scar, damage, harm, incapacitate, trauma, sore, slash, tear, disable.

When we look at wounds and relate them to life, they look more like this: abandonment, divorce, grief, breakups (being dumped), being abducted, left at the alter, physical harm, embarrassment.

Figuratively, wounds can be considered a gash in the character's past.

Impactful Wounds

KM Weiland calls it the character's ghost. She says, "Ghost is movie speak for something in your character's past that haunts him. You may also see it sometimes referred to as a 'wound'." (p. 42)

What is your character running from or trying to hide? If this ever got out it would destroy their reputation. Or, if they don't make a change, it will destroy their lives.

The thing about wounds, they work in any type of story. Sometimes comedies show characters navigating through serious wounds, but they make a big impact on how the character changes by the end of the story.

Why does it matter? The more a character changes by the end of the story, the more likely the impact on the reader. Sometimes we see ourselves or family and friends in characters. The right character can teach us lessons we never knew we needed to learn.

Whether the characters are animals, droids from the future, royalty from past eras, or even real life people in a biography, they can teach us about life's condition. Much of the time, our characters are going to include a piece of ourselves. For this reason, when we are creating characters with wounds we should take into account how serious it can get when dabbling into a characters past.

Be careful with wounds

Ackerman and Puglisi , in their "Self-care for Writer's" Chapter advise us to be careful when writing wounds. They say, "Writing about a difficult moment in a character’s life isn’t easy, especially if some of it feels personal to you." They prepared a list of things to help you care for yourself when you're writing a character's wounds. I linked their book below if your interested in learning more. The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological Trauma

It's possible that we can tap into our own feelings and trigger our own wounds. So, take care of yourself if you happen to tap into your own life's backstory, when writing character wounds.

Character wounds matter because they help us explore the condition of our lives and even our world.

How do I use this for my character?

First, when we write a story, most likely we are feeling what the character feels. We're experiencing in some part what they're experiencing (even if the story is fictional). The key is to figure out how to help our audience do the same. That's the hard part.

Your changing character

In her book, "Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel", Lisa Cron talks about an event that changed the characters worldview. Something in their past happened to make them see themselves and/or possibly the world differently. It's not always, but in many cases, it could be their wound.

She says, "The goal isn't to show us that she's changing, the goal is to show us what, specifically, she's changing from and what she's changing to - internally." p. 93

When I read that, I imagine virtual reality goggles or looking through a camera, from a characters point of view. We're looking at their lives from their vantage point.

Sometimes, because we get to know our characters, we may experience some of their feelings. That should be our goal as we think about our readers. This happens, because we're seeing our character change from the inside out. Using wounds, in the backstory, is how we show our characters changing internally, from the beginning to the end of the story.

Character Worldview

Cron also says, "The very specific worldview you're going to unearth is the lens through which your protagonist will see and evaluate everything in the novel." p.87

I hadn't read this in a while. It helps me to refocus on the character I'm writing now. Every decision my character makes should be based on her worldview. It lets me know, I have some work to do.

I know that I do that in my writing, but how can I better show that through the character? Even though I've been writing for years, I'm always looking for ways to make my characters stronger and more impactful.

What about you? How will you show your character evaluating everything based on their wound that has created their new worldview.

When or where do I use this?

When we are wounded, our lives can change in the blink of an eye. Whether the wound is physical or emotional, we change how we view life from that point on.

  • The innocent eyes of a child has learned the ugly truth of a parent, sibling, or society

  • A woman learns her husband has been cheating, or a husband learns his wife has been cheating

  • betrayal by the best friend

  • true spending habits become known by a credit card statement

  • a loved one is tragically taken away

  • an abusive spouse demands that the other spouse doesn't leave the house

Something happens and life is no longer what they thought it was. The security is gone, or it's overbearing, depending on the situation.

Wounds are change agents

All of these wounds change how a person views their world and life in general. When does that change happen for your character and when will they start to deal with it? That's your choice.

Will they deal with it in chunks throughout the story? Or, will they ignore it for much of the story and let it fester to the point of a big blinking warning sign, that is also ignored, and they finally decide they have to deal with it, or die?

Wounds are change agents. Usually not for the better - at least not right away. Our character is working on past issues while living their lives in the present. They make all decisions based on their worldview.

Happy characters can have wounds

Your character can have a happy life, but inside there is a ticking time bomb. At some point they will have to deal with that past wound. That wound that has changed their point of view - their worldview.

Sometimes, we can be moving along through life without a thought about what changed our worldview. What has wounded us. But then, one day, something out of the blue reminds us of that event or series of events that haven't been dealt with in our lives.

The reality of a past wound changes our narrative and now we have to deal with what has been lying dormant for sometime. How can you make that happen for your character?


Cron, Lisa. Story Genius How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write A Riveting Novel. Crown Publishing. 2016.

Puglisi, Becca; Ackerman, Angela. The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological Trauma (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 6) (p. 2). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Weiland, K.M. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development.PenForASword Publishing.2016

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