Every person alive has experienced some sort of trauma. These painful experiences shape who we become, and they influence the way we make decisions.
As writers, our characters' backstories play a critical role in deciding what story to tell.
Today, we'll talk about how to choose the right wound for your character, and I'll share my list of four questions you should ask yourself before you start writing any story.
What is a character's "wound"?
In storytelling, a character's painful (or uncomfortable) past experiences are called "wounds". Wounding events can be irritating scratches or debilitating heart strikes. They can pile up like death by a thousand paper cuts or cut straight to the bone.
The most important question you must answer as a storyteller is not what wounds a character has experienced, but which one Wound is stunting their personal growth right now?
Identify the trauma your character needs to heal, then focus on that journey as the heart of your story.
Why are character wounds important?
Past experiences are what make our characters feel authentic and complex. Every single sentient creature who has ever lived—even a puppy or newborn baby—has experienced at least some sort of wound, even if they didn't realize it. Wounds, no matter what type, cause psychological damage. If you want to write a compelling character, you must show that character becoming a better version of themself.
Wounds motivate critical choices in a character's growth journey.
So let's talk about two specific types of wounds you need to think about.
What is truly hurting your character? Focus on how to heal that as their story journey. This is the heart of your story.
Character wounds vs. story Wounds
When I'm deep into a developmental edit for an author, my eyes are always open for clues about why a character reacts the way they do. I look for references (big and small) to anything that might have happened in their past to change the way they approach decisions today.
For example, meet Charlie, the protagonist of my story:
Lactose-intolerant Charlie has gotten sick the last three times he's ordered a supposedly dairy-free latte from the new barista at his local coffee shop. Now, Charlie is ultra-careful about who makes his coffee and even calls ahead to see who's working before he drops by.
Now let's take a closer look at Charlie's backstory.
As a child, his parents forbade him any sort of sugar or caffeine, so he's adamant about treating himself to a supersized vanilla latte and blueberry muffin every morning now that he's an adult who can make his own decisions.
He grew up in a strictly religious household and was forced to attend church even though he didn't share his parents' spiritual beliefs. In Charlie's senior year of high school, he was leaving the church service one Sunday morning in the vintage white Firebird he'd saved up so long to afford and got distracted by changing the radio station. He drove right into oncoming traffic and totaled his car. His injuries were so severe that he lost his university football scholarship and had to settle for attending a local college.
Wounds change everything
The first paragraph gives an example of a shallow, cumulative wound. Charlie's negative experience with the barista leads him to be extra cautious when he visits the coffee shop. This wound is probably not meaty enough to base a story around—unless you're writing a vignette or short—but it's a relatable human experience that gives us some insight into how Charlie makes everyday decisions. This would be an example of a simple character wound. It gives his character flavor, but it's not the focus of his growth journey.
Charlie's parents were clearly restrictive and controlling, so the physical events that Charlie remembers as being uncomfortable or frustrating—like being forced to attend church or being denied caffeine and sugar—represent psychological wounds. Adult Charlie makes choices that help him feel more in control than Young Charlie did. Like the barista example above, his wounding events are cumulative, but the actual wound itself is to his psyche. This is also an example of a character wound, but with more layers of potential complexity, so the central theme of control might be strong enough to base a story around.
Compelling characters become a better version of themselves.
Charlie's most traumatic experience is his car accident. His physical wounds were substantial, so he might still have some lasting side-effects that change the way he navigates his everyday life (like walking with a cane). But he also experienced psychological and emotional pain when he lost the future he craved and the car he had worked toward for so long. This single wounding event represents multiple character wounds, all of which are complex and interesting enough to drive his growth arc in a story and act as a story Wound.
Now that we have a better understanding of how a character's past can affect their present, it's clear that the characters we write can (and should) be layered and dimensional. The challenge all storytellers face is deciding which story to tell.
And that decision rests almost solely on what one Wound you want your character's journey to heal.
The characters we write can—and should—be layered and dimensional.
How to choose the right Wound
One of the joys of being a storyteller is being able to explore your creative freedom. You get to choose what story you want to write and what message you want that story to tell. So when you're deciding which past trauma to base your character's growth arc on, listen to your instincts. Unforgettable characters resonate with readers on a human level. And all humans are flawed.
Once you've dug a little into your character's backstory, one theme or event probably stands out more than the others. Focus on that one thing and ask yourself these questions:
Consider the Wound's emotional range
If I were writing a heavy emotional story about overcoming loss, I might focus on Charlie's transformation from angry and jaded to grounded and hopeful. Even though we know Charlie has several other character-defining wounds, his car accident would be the story Wound, the painful event that changed the way he made decisions and led him to embrace a false belief or choose "safe" paths out of fear.
If I wanted to focus Charlie's story on an internal struggle but not something terribly traumatic, I could set him up for a psychological transformation. Instead of making defensive choices—always protecting his personal agency and power of choice—his character arc might show him choosing to commit to a healthier lifestyle and stop trying to control all the moving pieces in his life. All those cumulative growing-up experiences where his parents denied him choice could be his story Wound.
Pro Tip: Notice that I'm using lower-cased and upper-cased versions of "wound" intentionally.
Since a character, like a real person, can have many past experiences that change the way they make decisions, I call those "wounds" (lower-cased). But the one experience that is holding them back from being their best self in the story you want to tell right now—the past trauma that inspired the fear they now live by—is their story "Wound" (upper-cased).
Story Wound is the North Star you can use to keep your character arc on track and avoid spinning off on side tangents.
TLDR: How to choose the right Wound for your character
Think about your character's past. Look for moments or series of events that inspired a lingering fear or changed the way they make big decisions in their life. The past moment or events that are holding them back at the beginning of the story are their Wound.
All traumatic wounds fall into one of three main categories—physical, emotional, or psychological—and almost every wound causes ripple effects that cross over into the other categories. So even when you've nailed the story Wound, be sure you don't ignore the character wounds.
Ideas and resources for Wounds that hurt
Need some inspiration for a powerful Wound that can amplify your story's character arc? Or, just want to entertain yourself with how rough a backstory can get?
One glance at the Emotional Wound Thesaurus should inspire at least a few plot bunnies. From "growing up with a narcissist" to "being trapped with a dead body", there's sure to be something here to satisfy your inner sadist.
Keep learning: More self-study resources
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Today we're talking about the part of the story that isn't actually part of the story. Except... ... [Click below to keep reading!]
What do you struggle with when you're choosing a character's story journey? Did the techniques in this article bring any Aha! Moments you'd like to share? Are there any points you'd like me to go into more detail about? I'd love to hear your thoughts below!