This week’s blog post was prompted by a discussion with a fellow writer. This writer reflected that they’d gained useful information in relation their character wound, and were now considering how to reveal this emotional scar without whacking their reader in the face with it. It’s a chapter of the old ‘show, don’t tell’ writing conundrum, one which pops up to challenge us continuously. I believe it’s a question worth exploring, as asking these difficult questions shows a writer is committed to creating a quality product and that they’re writing with their reader in mind (good on you, Lita!).
So I pondered and reflected on how psychology could help us in answering this question. How do our scars impact our daily lives? If an all-seeing being was following me in my day-to-day life (you’d quickly learn that my superpower is forgetting people’s names…!) what evidence would they find of the core beliefs that drive us, the ones we hide so well?
This is what psychology predicts you would show your reader:
1. Inner monologue
This one is kinda obvious, but your character’s inner monologue is a wonderful conveyor of a character’s wound. You can be subtle, sampling the stream of consciousness our brains produce – oh god, what am I going to do? I haven’t stacked the dishwasher! (an example of a perfectionist that can’t bear the thought of not having everything done – because obviously then they’re a total failure…), or it’s no big deal, sure I published a book, but now people actually have to buy it. Or you can capture the bold statements that our minds like to make – I’ll never get this right, or he’d never be attracted to someone like me.
2. Biased perspective
We all know that reality is subjective, that everything we perceive is filtered through our expectations, our beliefs and our personal truth. Just like many other beliefs, wounds are deeply ingrained, possibly more so because your character’s brain has learned a painful lesson that it doesn’t want to experience again. This means they will be constantly on the lookout for when it could happen again. If your character has decided the world is an unsafe place, that’s what they will expect to see. If they’ve decided that they’re a failure, then all the times their arrow missed the dragon or they forgot to buy eggs will jump to the forefront of their mind. If they’ve decided they’re unattractive, then one sideways look from a stranger and they’ve got all the proof they need.
Consider how the belief system that has set root in their mind colours their perception and then capture that in your story.
3. The choices they make
CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) is founded on the premise that our thoughts impact our actions. What’s more, psychology has proven that our wounds impact us deeply, largely because our brains automatic reaction is to avoid any circumstances that resemble the hurt. This means your character’s unconscious response will be to withdraw or attack if a similar threat is perceived. Consider how your character would respond if the threat of rejection was raised, if they have to choose to run or fight, or if they are propositioned by a hunky, rich billionaire…
4. Back story
Typically, wounds are born when we’re young because that’s the developmental stage where we begin defining ourselves, and we do so with the information provided to us by the adults around us. But what happens as we grow reinforces or challenges the conclusions we make about ourselves. If your character’s father left them when they were young and they’ve concluded they’re unlovable, you’ll need to think of other instances this belief was fortified or undermined (and the more varied the circumstances, the better). The more a belief is reinforced, the more entrenched it becomes. Many writers consider the birth of the wound, but don’t appreciate that the negative beliefs we carry are a complex product of big and little circumstances that have built upon each other.
Brainstorm three backstory scenes that relate to your character’s wound. It’ll be up to you how much of that you’ll incorporate into your story, but it will certainly give you a deeper understanding of how this wound affects your character, which will seep into the sentences and scenes you create.
Our wounds are buried so deep that they are often unconsciously triggered, but triggered they will inevitably be (that pesky brain being overly cautious again). Ask yourself, what pushes your character’s inadequacy buttons? Triggers can be external — a frown from a parent, losing the faith of your team, the death of a loved one; or they can be internal — jumping to conclusions, mind reading or allowing yourself to hope.
Think about what will trigger your character’s wound. The answer to the above question will give you some insights into your plot. What could happen that will have your character scared that what they think about themselves is actually true?
6. The predictions their mind’s make
Research has shown that our minds are notoriously poor predictors. We decide that job promotion is all we need to make us happy, or that the one that got away was the turning point for our life going down the toilet. For the most part, we’re pretty inaccurate (and science has proven this). But what your character will predict will reveal a whole lot about them. Show how they know their newfound love is destined to fall apart, or that they’re certain everyone is hiding a dark truth (like the character in my current manuscript).
The fact that we put so much weight, and belief, into these predictions, will influence their actions. They will go to extreme lengths to get that job promotion, they will pine for the lost love, or they’ll dig into other’s people’s lives, so sure they’re going to find a nasty truth (yep, my character once again).
7. Secondary Characters
Use secondary characters to contrast and compliment everything you’ve just articulated about your character’s wound and it’s influence. The people (or aliens if that’s the case) around your protagonist are a fabulous mirror or amplifier of their wound. If your character is scared of making a commitment, then have their best-friend blissfully happy in a long-term relationship, or maybe willing to take a risk on the girl they just met. If your character doesn’t believe they have what it takes to save humanity from the zombie apocalypse, then have an uncle that demonstrates the power of faith in ourselves. Your secondary character’s internal monologue, choices, and predictions will provide a powerful counter-point to those of your protagonist.
Have you used any of these strategies to reveal your character’s wound? Or did you just get some ideas of how to incorporate that negative core belief into your story? 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,
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