In life, when we open ourselves up and show people our faults, we make ourselves vulnerable.
When we do this in our writing, it pulls us towards the characters even if the wound is unpleasant. We even get drawn into a wounded Antagonist if his wound is relatable. Humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, ideas, and reactions. Our character’s wounds need to do the same thing.
When creating the wound, writers will sometimes fall back on wounds like war or death or a huge tragedy. These are viable wounds, but the smaller and more relatable emotional injuries are something our readers can empathize with.
Not everyone has lost their family to a war, but they can empathize with being bullied or not fitting in, or trying to excel to prove to their parents they are worthy.
Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity. My son is driven – and I mean driven. He pushes himself to the limit daily and I often wonder if this is because he is the middle child and what I did to make him feel such determination. My eldest, also a son, is trying to forge his path and is getting it right, but he has wounds he doesn’t talk about and I can only guess at. The baby of the family gets away with murder because she’s the baby and a girl – a double whammy. What ramifications is this going to have on a 20-year-old?
When looking for realistic and powerful internal wounds, we sometimes need to go no further than looking at family dynamics.
For instance, my father was never around, and my mother was no June Cleaver. I was left to grow up too fast and was given far too much freedom at an early age.
That wound drove me to seek approval for everything I did and to please others. I had to “arc” if I wanted to stop this need. I had to realize that my childhood doesn’t have to shape who I am today. It took years, but once accomplished, my life is fuller than before. My wound made me vulnerable.
Some wounds are situational. The character is unemployed, the house they rent is being sold and they have nowhere to go, they are stranded at the side of the road.
Your character may be facing some danger or has been wounded badly. These are existential wounds.
Some vulnerabilities are moral dilemmas for which the character will be judged.
All vulnerability includes an element of threat.
This threat can be emotional, physical, or psychological. Growing up, I lived under constant threat of poverty. We were always just one step away from a really bad situation (wound). This left me vulnerable to constant worry over money in my adulthood – something I’ve never gotten past. That wound drove me to devote ten years working for the City of Toronto, Social Services Dept. to help impoverished people. I had to do something to help even though I was ignoring my wound the entire time.
Our characters must face their wounds, become vulnerable, and overcome them – that is their character arc.
How does your character’s wound affect what they believe about themselves? What do they believe will make them happy (the lie)? What needs to change for that character to face their wound? You must give them a problem that will force them to see the truth of the wound.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White is a murderous drug dealer that we should hate. But his vulnerability make us root for him, to hope he beats cancer and gets enough money to finally satisfy his ridiculous need to build a nest egg for his family in event he dies.
Thelma and Louise capture us immediately because we are shown their vulnerabilities early in the movie, before they start their crime spree. It’s important to note that you will create greater empathy for your character if you display his wounds/vulnerability before showing us his faults.
Remember, our characters should reflect real life and our plot should be real life situations (even if you write sci-fi or fantasy). The problems our characters encounter need to trace directly back to his wound. Every scene should show the character overcoming the lie, changing, and realizing his true worth.