No one passes through life unscathed. We are all wounded along the road, in countless large and small ways. Realistic characters have hidden wounds (or not-so hidden wounds) from the moment they appear on the page. Giving your characters a few painful memories does a lot of things for your story: it makes the characters seem as if they existed even before word one, it gives them weaknesses and fears to confront, and it makes them feel real—human.
Some wounds are big, obvious things—childhood traumas, deaths, experiences with abuse—but even characters who have lived generally happy lives will still carry wounds with them, possibly unknowingly.
Like a young man who had a trauma-free upbringing with loving parents, but he sees a kid in the grocery store crying out for its mother, and suddenly he remembers that time he got lost at the mall for hours, and his chest tightens with the echo of that remembered sensation—that clawing fear of abandonment.
In my Marked Series, for example, it’s easy to see Bray’s wounds. She’s a victim of sexual abuse, and this effects her in a whole myriad of ways. It drives her to help the weak, but it also renders her reticent to touch others, and she is too often fueled by anger. My other protagonist, Yarrow Lamhart, also has wounds. They’re just not quite so easy to spot. He grew up in a large, happy family. But, as one of eleven children, he developed the belief that he is expendable, that as “one of many” he would never be long missed. His trajectory throughout the series is one of heroic self-sacrifice, but it’s clear that these early feelings of expendability make him a little too inclined to throw himself away.
The truth is, we’re all a bit bruised, and so your characters should be too. It’s realistic. But, in fiction, it also needs to be pertinent. You need your character’s wounds to play into the plot. And there in lies the challenge. You have to find ways to haunt your characters, force them to remember their worst days, and then make them confront those fears. Maybe they learn how to cope, maybe they begin to heal—or maybe not. But the wounds have to play a part in the story. It’s a Chekhov’s gun situation. If your character is terrified of water, at some point you need to push them off the boat.
And, in my opinion, you should make sure these wounds are not merely motivational. For example, it’s a common trope to spur a character into action by the death of a loved one. We’ve all seen that one before. The “my family was killed by vampires so now I’m a vampire hunter” plot. It’s a fine, functional device (not my favorite, but hey), however it annoys me when these experiences are exclusively motivational. Seeing your family murdered is going to evoke some trauma. Your badass heroine is still badass if she has anxiety.
So, how do you build your neurosis-fueled cast? It often happens organically for me, but there’s no reason you can’t sit down and deliberately plan this out. You can begin with either character or plot, depending on your initial inspiration.
Start with Character:
Let’s say we want to write an Urban Fantasy. We have a vague sense that we want a gothic-type setting, a dark city full of fiends, a place where it’s not safe to go out at night. And we know we want a tough-as-nails female lead.
I’m going to call her Spearmint Jones.
So, Spearmint is a pretty competent lady—she’s snarky, bosomy, handy with weapons—but she’s also human, so we need to give her some baggage. We want to invent at least one wound and grow the plot from there.
We start with a bad experience:
Off the top of my head: Spearmint was 12 when a fire spread through her sector of the city. It’s not safe to leave the house at night, but if she and her family remain inside they will burn to death. So they gather what possessions they can and flee. She is the oldest of four siblings, and her mother charges her with carrying her youngest brother, the wee ginger, Coriander Jones, and they decide upon a meeting point in the event of separation. The streets are chaos, she soon loses sight or her mother. Someone tries to steal her bag, filled with all of most valued possessions, so she sets her brother down and struggles over the rucksack, eventually knocking the would-be thief unconscious with a rock. But by the time the fight is over, she realizes Coriander is gone. She searches, but can find no trace of him. Eventually she has to return to her family and admit that she lost her brother—that he’s likely dead. Her mother insists that it’s not her fault, but she know that it is.
Ever since that day, Spearmint has suffered from the heavy burden of guilt. Feeling accusation in the eyes of her mother and other siblings, she leaves home at an early age. But she can never shake the plaguing sense that she’s forgotten something, that she’s letting someone down.
She spent years replaying that night over and over in her head, and realizing all of the mistakes that she made. She should have just let that boy take her bag. The childish things she valued then—dolls and nicknacks—were actually worthless, and retaining them cost her her brother. As a result, she views any kind of attachment to possessions as a weakness.
LACK OF CLOSURE
Because she never found any trace of wee Coriander, she has spent the rest of her life unconsciously searching for him—knowing that he must be dead, but still haunted by a shred of hope.
1.) Fires. They’re common in the city, and every time she’s reminded of running through those streets, choking on smoke, her baby brother in her arms for the last time.
2.) Seeing him in strangers. It happens now and again—she’ll catch sight of a red haired young man on the street, and for one heart-rending second she thinks its Coriander. And when it isn’t her brother, she scolds herself for being so foolish: He’s dead, Spearmint. Let it go.
3.) Anyone saying “It’s not your fault.”
And, finally, we need to come up with plot points to force her to encounter her past. It depends on the kind of book you want to write, whether this is something that will be healing or not. This could be the kind of story where she finds Coriander and he’s alive. Or she finds him and he’s a fiend. Or maybe she follows a trail and, once again, it isn’t really him, and she needs to deal with the fact that she’ll never have an answer. She has to accept the not knowing. Or maybe at some point she has the opportunity to save some other kid, and it feels like a proxy for young Coriander. Regardless, we have to invent some specific scenes prior to the climax that will poke at her wound.
Encounter Scene 1: Spearmint has been hunting a pack of fiends and thinks she has found their hideout. Little does she know, they’ve allowed her to pick up their trail and it’s a trap. She’s locked inside the building and soon she smells fire. They mean to burn her alive. The taste of the smoke reminds her of that night, and for a moment she’s overcome with the memory and feels twelve years old. She allows herself only five seconds to panic, and then turns off her emotions and focuses on how to get out.
Encounter Scene 2: She gets into a tight spot with one of her fellow fiend-hunters, a boy she thinks is too young to be on the streets at night. He’s injured during a fight and she hauls him back to their hideout, but he’s dead by the time she gets back. “I shouldn’t have let him take point,” she says. “It’s not your—” one of the other hunters begins. “Don’t say it’s not my fault,” Spearmint cuts in harshly. People only ever say that when it is.
Of course, we could just as easily start with plot and work backwards to character.
Start with Plot:
Now let’s imagine we’re writing a dystopian YA story. The goal is for it to be action-packed, mostly light hearted, possibly Robin-Hood-esque (because who doesn’t love Robin Hood?). Our broad-stroke plot ideas: third generation colonists on a farming planet, their ancestors signed contracts with the corporation who funded the expedition, giving over significant percentages of their crops. Over a century later, that corporation is still bleeding these communities dry. Employees of the corporation have tech and advanced weaponry that the commoners do not.
A band of young rebels begins to steal back the food-tax shipments, as well as generally interfering with all of the company’s goals. There is something within the compound that they need to get. In the climax, our heroes realize that if they allow the corporation to feel that it has won, by letting a large shipment of food through, they can effectively trojan-horse their way into the facility. So they are stuffed into crates full of various produce, stuck on a cart, and must wait and hope to pass through without detection.
One of these heroes is our protagonist, and we want to give him a wound. Let’s say the leader is our main character, and I’m going to call him Wolfgang Cooper.
So, if that scene is an “encounter” for good old Wolfgang, what might be his Trigger?
Simple answer: being stuck in a small, dark space. He’s Claustrophobic.
If he suffers from claustrophobia, what is his wound?
Fear of restriction and lack of control.
And what experience might be the impetus for this?
Maybe Wolfgang, unlike most citizens on this planet, is a new arrival. He was part of a second wave of colonization, but when mechanical failures compromised the ship, his parents put him in a single-man escape pod. Miraculously, it made it safely to the planet, but the device was damaged upon landing so that he could not open it. He spent a day locked inside, in that cramped, dark metal pill, pounding on the hatch until his hands were bruised, believing he would die.
Alright, yet another long winded post! But I really feel strongly about this. It’s such a simple thing to give your protagonist a past, and yet I read books all the time in which the character seems to come out of some kind of stasis in the moment the book starts. Or the dreaded “my life was perfect until” opening.
Let your characters be wounded from the start. They will be so much more interesting for their scars.