The Psychology of the Character Wound: Understanding the Negative Core Belief

Character wounds are the foundation of a strong, memorable character. Why? Because they make characters complex, authentic (I challenge you to find me a person that isn’t carrying a wound, consciously or unconsciously), and they provide the foundation for the most moving moments a story can contain — the character arc. Yep, wounds are the birth of the change and growth your reader is there to experience. I believe it’s what made 50 Shades of Grey so popular – watching Christian overcome his self-hatred, a perspective that was challenged by a blossoming love, was deeply touching (okay, so the gratuitous sex may have played a factor too). Sure, not all stories need a character arc, there’s New York Times best sellers out there that leave the character the same way we found them. But who doesn’t love the story of the underdog, the one that perseveres, the hero that overcomes? I’ve never done the maths, but my guess is those stories are disproportionately represented in the coveted #1 ranks.

So to capture a character arc you need a character wound. A character wound is a painful past event that changes who your character is. In psychological terms it’s called the ‘negative core belief’, whose definition is almost identical to that of a character wound – ‘a negative, broad, and generalised judgement an individual has made about themselves, based on some negative experiences they have had during their earlier years’. Whether you define it intuitively, or scientifically, in essence, it’s a thinking pattern rooted in our past. One that will impact how your character perceives the world, and ultimately the choices they make.

sad boy

And because psychologists have spent so much time exploring this, we get to benefit. Those who study our minds have discovered there are broad belief patterns, which most of us can easily identify in each of our characters. But what can make for a particularly authentic, nuanced character is the hundreds of personal variations that exist within these broad categories. And it’s this fine grained analysis that can lead to greater understanding of your character, which translates to a character your reader will more readily connect with and an arc that is that little bit more satisfying.

 

So have a look, peruse which category is most applicable to your character, then drill down to the particular statement they believe about themselves, consciously or unconsciously.

 

I can’t do it I am unwanted I am defective I am unlovable I’ll get it wrong I am not safe I am powerless
I am no good I don’t belong It’s my fault I am not special I am always wrong I am vulnerable I can’t do it
I can’t get it right I am alone I am dirty I don’t matter I am a mistake I have no control I am weak
I am no good I don’t fit it anywhere I am stupid I am unworthy I am no good I am helpless I am a failure
I am incompetent I shouldn’t be here I am imperfect I’m not interesting I can’t understand I am afraid I’ll always be second best
I am unsuccessful I don’t matter I am unattractive I am plain and dull     I am inadequate
I’ll never make it work I don’t exist I am flawed I don’t deserve to be loved     I can’t say no
I am insignificant   I am a loser       I don’t have a choice

You’ll notice there’s some overlap, and that’s due to a couple of reasons. First, all the categories are a variation of ‘I’m not good enough’. We all carry this belief to some degree, it’s what universally connects and equalises each and every human being. Second, negative experiences and the beliefs they spawn have a complex relationship. The same negative experience endured by two different people can give rise to very different core beliefs. For example, Jack and Jill may have experienced bullying in high school, but Jack develops a sense that he is helpless, whilst Jill ends up believing she doesn’t belong. Conversely, the same negative core belief can be reached through very different experiences. For example, Hansel has a speech impediment whilst Gretel experiences infidelity; but they both reach the same conclusion that they are flawed.

What is this negative core belief going to mean for your character and your story? Well, psychology has spent years (and who knows how much money) on proving negative core beliefs, or wounds, colour our world. We know they are triggered, sometimes easily, sometimes quickly, quite often completely unconsciously. We’ve shown they can be the foundation for a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that we go to great lengths to hide them. And ultimately, we’ve learned these beliefs drive our actions as we avoid anything that could make us feel that same pain again.

What this means for you, as the supreme being of their story world, is you can start to understand how they will react when you throw a plot twist at them. Heck, you’ll get to see what plot twists are really going to trigger and test them. Ultimately, you’ll get to define and forge the challenges that will spur them to overcome it…or not.

Have you noticed a negative core belief in the list? Maybe it helped you define and articulate a belief that wasn’t on that list? I’d love to hear what wound your character is carrying, and how it influences them. Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

Editing

PS Have you noticed that PsychWriter now has services for writers? Why not make the most of my expertise with affordable developmental editing or individual consultation? For more intensive support, I provide regular coaching to bring your story to vivid life and make it shine.

 

 

13 comments

  1. OMIGOD! I forgot to give my protagonist a Primal Wound! So I’m no good as a writer, incompetent, defective, stupid, imperfect, wrong, a failure, inadequate…
    Oh, wait…

    Like

  2. Actually, the young protagonist of my trilogy is partly based on myself, and certainly shares my perfectionism. I was racking my brain to name his Wound but stopped myself for the moment.

    Massively eventful though it is, my trilogy takes just a week to unfold, and the main change that occurs to characters is death! But there are other changes. I’m going stop my second-guessing (another of MY vulnerabilities!) for now and trust myself and my writing.

    Thanks, Tamar.

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    1. Hi John, I made sure I clarified that an arc and wound aren’t necessary for a great story – middle grade and crime/thrillers are classic examples. We learn and enjoy those stories just as much as ‘arc driven’ ones. That said, a wound is something a reader relates to and understands on a primal level, and an arc can be moving and inspiring. A trilogy in a week (now that’s impressive!) doesn’t necessarily need an arc, and death is certainly a paradigm shift. My question is, where does your character’s perfectionism stem from? Why is it so important to achieve such a high standard? Usually (but not always, which is why us humans are so fascinating), its due to a sense that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough…Keep me posted – does this make you think, or do you need to do what second-guessers are not so good at – accept that this isn’t a box your book will tick – we can’t tick them all 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good points, Tamar, and good questions. One trope I decided to avoid in my trilogy is a disastrous childhood for my teen protagonist. I gave him a family that is quirky but nice enough. So I’m not sure where his perfectionism etc. comes from. In the classic nature vs nurture debate I tend to favor the nurture side, but we do seem to have inborn traits to begin with.

        And yes, I tend towards comparing and completism and wanting to tick all boxes, which is impossible and actually counterproductive. I’m particularly vulnerable to the numbered lists of things we must do or not do so as not to ‘kill’ our books! I get at least one every day now in my emails. Some advice is good, like your suggestions, others not so good and some just plain click-bait and/or advertising.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks. You’ve offered a lot of food for thought.

    I think almost all of us have suffered some sort of character wound in our lives, some more grievous than others, but is it inevitable that those wounds will necessarily result in a direct correlation of negative core beliefs? Is it logically feasible for a character who has suffered deep wounds in the past to behave in a manner that’s opposite to what one might expect? i.e. Rather than make the conclusion that one is unlovable, one acts like a narcissist, and assumes everyone loves them? Rather than feel inferior to others, one ends up feeling superior? OR would that “opposite” behavior be more of a smoke screen to veil the negative self-images that are still there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susan, I would frame that suggestion as a defense mechanism e.g. narcissists are understood to be deeply insecure, and the external presentation of superiority is a manifestation of that. How a wound/negative core belief translates in each person is highly variable, they can become anxious and withdrawn, or angry and aggressive. Which means that yes, it can translate into externalising behaviour. Some people work through their negative core beliefs, but these are the people that have been through their ‘character arc’ and have reached a level of self-acceptance. Does that make sense?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Tarmar Your post is right on target. I guess what makes most of us identify with characters in a book or on the big screen, is that we see a bit of ourselves or at least our faults that we have or think we have.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm. The main character in my novel is a mess. Of course, she was made that way by adopted siblings who hated her, and a “family” that trained and used her as an assassin and a prostitute. So, yeah, she doesn’t think she’s flawed, she knows she is. Problem is, she has an important destiny to fulfill and she will have to learn to really love both herself and her “soulmate” to meet said destiny. The novel blends genres of fantasy and Science Fiction, with a little “Age of Sail” fiction thrown in for flavor. Despite the main character being a 19 year old “Eurasian” woman, this is not a YA novel.

    So, yeah, a good character has to have something internal as well as external to overcome.

    Liked by 1 person

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