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.
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,
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.