Characters are all about self-discovery, finding meaning, and achieving goals. They’re usually seeking to improve themselves in some way—at work, in personal relationships, spiritually, or through self-growth. But time and again, their flaws sabotage them, blocking them from gaining what they want both on a conscious and subconscious level. It’s ironic, really; who they are and what they want are often at odds, making it difficult for them to achieve success. So why do they have these flaws? Where do they come from?
It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the past is to blame. Many factors play a part in determining who our characters become, including the way they were raised, their role models, environment, and genetics. If the character’s world is anything like ours, it’s filled with flawed people, and life isn’t the perfect, well-balanced nirvana they’d like it to be. Specific events and long-term exposure to unhealthy ideas, behavioral patterns, and relationships can hamstring a character. An ignorant character, for instance, may be ignorant due to years of poor teaching, or from being sheltered in a way that limited his ability to connect or get along with others. This history of not being taught the whole truth creates a deficiency in his personality that undermines his ability to reach his full potential.
But the most crippling factor—the one that authors should always strive to unearth from their characters’ pasts—is emotional trauma. Old hurts can have a huge impact on our characters, influencing their current behavior. Emotionally painful events like these are called wounds and are profoundly powerful. This defining emotional experience from a character’s past is so debilitating that he’ll do anything to avoid suffering the same kind of pain again. It colors how he views the world and alters what he believes about himself and others. This traumatic experience instills a deep fear that the hurt will happen again if the character doesn’t protect himself against it.
Physical defects with a lasting psychological effect, such as a crippling illness or disfigurement, can have the same result. In both cases, the mistaken belief that the character must harden himself in order to be emotionally safe is what allows negative traits to emerge.
The Character’s Wound
Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—an untruth that the character believes about himself. He may think that he deserved what happened to him, that he’s unworthy of love or affection or happiness, etc. Self-blame and feelings of shame are usually deeply embedded within the lie and it generates fears that compel him to change his behavior in order to keep from being hurt again.
For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love (the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancée from being shot during a robbery (the wound), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women. If he does grow close to someone, he might sabotage the relationship before it can become too serious. He may also avoid situations in which he is responsible for others, believing that he will only fail them in the end.
To use a less dramatic scenario, consider a daughter growing up with a father whose work was more important than his family (the wound). This girl may become a workaholic adult due to her belief that the only way to gain the attention and acceptance of others is through career achievement (the lie). Although she wants a family of her own, she may sacrifice that desire so she can dedicate herself to work. Her health declines, friends become marginalized, and her life revolves only around activities that promote her career, leaving her successful at work but unfulfilled in her heart.
The lie plaguing your character should center on one of five basic human needs:
1) To secure one’s biological and physiological needs
RELATED LIE: I’m not capable of providing for myself or anyone else
2) To keep oneself and one’s family safe
RELATED LIE: I don’t deserve to feel safe
3) To feel connected to and loved by others
RELATED LIE: I am not worthy of love or affection
4) To gain esteem, both from others and from oneself
RELATED LIE: I can’t do anything right.
5) To realize one’s full potential
RELATED LIE: I’ll never be a good ____ (parent, employee, friend, etc.)
Many secondary flaws result organically from one’s upbringing or environment rather than birthing violently from a traumatic wound, but a character’s major flaw should always be traced back to a defining hurtful experience. This flaw will compromise his path to achieving his dreams and prevent him from reaching his full potential. It is this weakness that the character will eventually have to overcome by revisiting the past and coming to terms with his old wound.
Wounds are powerful, both in real life and in fiction. Taking the time to probe you’re character’s past to find their emotional pain will help you better understand what motivates them and how they will behave when crises arise and choices must be made. One tool to help with understanding a character’s past, motivation, emotional sensitivities and more is the Reverse Backstory Tool. Full guidelines are in the book, but a downloaded version is on our site, Writers Helping Writers.
Does your hero have a wound? What fear does it mask? What lie does the character believe about himself as a result? Let me know in the comments!
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a writing coach and co-author of the bestselling writing resource, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, as well as the newly released Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Attributes and its darker cousin, The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and at Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse).