June 28th, 2021

Exploring a Character’s Past Wound

by Tasha Seegmiller

About five or six weeks ago, I rolled my ankle while walking to work. It wasn’t significant, I didn’t even lose my balance. Just a slight not okay and then okay and I continued on my way to work.

To you, this may seem like a non-story. People roll their ankles ALL the time. But this ankle has been traumatized. Many times. Over many years. This ankle was first really sprained when I was fourteen years old, then again throughout the rest of high school. This is the ankle that I had reconstructed nine years ago. This ankle still swells when there is a massive switch in the weather patterns, one that I am intentionally rehabbing once a week.

So a minor roll, a quick not-even-worth-noticing not-quite injury is, six weeks later, still sore, still slipping, still swollen. The small, non-injury is clearly an injury, and the emotions that I had after tearing two ligaments, after having it reconstructed, after trying to come back with atrophied muscles and incredible soreness are all living in the forefront of my mind.

When we are looking at why a character is the way they are, why they act or react the way they do, we need to make sure readers understand the emotional impact of events in their past and remember/recognize that even purely physical traumas can be accompanied with significant emotional contexts.

Honoring the Past

While we don’t want to detail every single thing that has happened to a character in our book (really, please don’t), we, as the creators of these people do need to have a familiarity with what has made them who they are at the time of the story. People aren’t just self-conscious. They don’t “get big” when confronted for no cause, and they don’t shrink away in the same situation without a reason to be cautious.

Then, after you have learned/created/acknowledged this, you need to make sure that your readers have the same opportunity to understand. You need to pick the just-right time that will deepen the moment of the current situation by allowing the memory of the past to penetrate the awareness we have of what made the character who he/she is.

Merging Then with Now

One of the reasons reconciling with the past is so powerful is that it can often serve as catalyst for where the character is when the story begins and where the character would like or should like to go. Their past can be something that happened a day or week ago, or it can be something that is months, years or decades old.

What is important is that the character can first learn what it is to reconcile what they did or what happened to them with the reality of the situation. Secondly, they must brace themselves for the reality of what this means -- how they have to heal, and how they have to move forward. This may mean a candid conversation with themselves, and it may mean the incorporation of a therapist, counselor, or trusted confidant.

The Reality of a Past Wound

There may be some wounds, some damages, that do not allow someone to heal completely. This, too, is something that needs to be explored: how will the character continue while a little bit broken? How will they adjust to a new reality that is different from what they wanted?

Exploring a character’s past with intentionality will solidify an arc and improve the quality of a story as a whole.

Have you defined your main character's emotional wound? Do they confront it, resolve it...ignore it? Feel free to summarize this for us down in the comments! Also, Tasha is open for questions. 🙂

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About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller writes about womanhood, families, mental wellness, and faith. She is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program and teaches composition at a regional university in the high mountain desert where her husband and three kids live.

14 responses to “Exploring a Character’s Past Wound”

  1. Thank you for this, Tasha, it's a favorite topic. I'm currently on the first revision of my fantasy noir novel, Case of the Deadly Stroll. It's an otherworld novel, but at its heart its women's fiction. Talma Loyal was, in many ways, someone else and the deeds of that other self haunt her in the present, blocking the rich life she could have. That past self wasn't evil. Instead, assumptions were made and years were spent running away from what was uncomfortable. Now, with the opportunity to start again, she's making the same mistakes while weighed down with guilt over the old ones.

    I've written a long novella about her backstory, but it's for me, not the reader. I wanted to understand each little mistake that led to tragedy. That allowed me to see how it manifested in her in the present. Instead of a dreaded info dump (character or worldbuilding, they're all awful), the wounds she's trying to hide, even from herself, are hinted at in trigger moments. The essential details don't come to light until Chapter 10 when she's cornered by someone who cares about her.

    The plot is about stopping the killer she encountered in that old past, but her arc is about facing her past and the person she could be in the present. A part of me wanted to hide her backstory for much of the novel, but I also wanted the reader to cheer her on while she struggled to become whole. Basically, Talma's tragic life has been about ignoring her emotional wound. This novel is about, first, facing it, but then taking the path to resolving it. That killer? He knows she's in town and knows her triggers. Oh how I hope I get this right.

  2. First, I hope you have relief soon in regards to your ankle. I know what it's like to live with ongoing pain.

    Thank you, Tasha, for this thoughtful article. It's important to remember that even supporting characters who seem to have it all together are wounded in some way and that impacts how they act.

    The protagonist of my first novel was an adult who had suffered abuse in childhood. His woundedness and how that impacted his relationship with his closest friend was the focus of the novel. I'm sure it's obvious to anyone that understanding what he had he had gone through and where he was in his healing process was essential to my writing process.

    My current WIP, however, may not immediately seem to be about woundedness but it is. The novel is a YA fantasy in which the protagonist chooses a different path in life than the limited ones allowed by her society. In the course of this, she embarks on a dangerous quest. At the heart of actions is the fact that her father left her and her mother when she was nine. Unconsciously, she goes in search for him. She isn't aware that's what she's doing and she does not even acknowledge her woundedness, but I had to realize it and be aware of it while writing.

    Best wishes.

    • One of the most interesting conversations I have with people in real life is that everyone has had trauma and everyone has wounds. We often think because there wasn't A BIG EVENT, that there aren't wounds, but they are alway present and definitely influence the way we navigate our lives. Good luck as you continue writing!

  3. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    That super funny comment on the "While we don’t want to detail every single thing that has happened to a character in our book (really, please don’t)," made me laugh as i sipped my coffee and remembered trying to describe, yet not describe, my characters wounded backstory. I have since those many years ago, found that dialogue answers a ton of this for me. But I still have one story that has a prologue that my Critiquer's (a new title I've given my beautiful volunteer readers) told me should be worked into the story and not shoved in the readers face as backstory that while touching and meaningful, was just extra backstory. I think i hate SKings The Stand book the most. He spent 100 pages on writing backstory after the plague was released. I loved it and hate that he is able to just do that when we simpler creatures cannot. So, while my characters wounds were healed in a flawed state...I just cant say that. I have to reveal that in so many tiny, indistinct ways. And that is the craft of writing a good story. Each word means something different to someone and as the writer we have to make that puzzle piece picture fit...just...perfectly. . Thanks for the read.

    • Hi! Thanks for taking the time to read and share you experience. I am an absolute wuss when it comes to most things Stephen King, but I have read other books that I end up asking when they are going to get to the point of the story. Sending great writing vibes your way.

  4. tracybrody says:

    My current WIP is all about the wounds. The 6'5" Green Beret hero was born of a teenage pregnancy and his mother gave him up. He was raised by his father/grandparents. He wants the love of a woman, but won't fight for it after being turned away by his mother and her parents and feeling like a burden to his paternal grandmother. The story open when he returns from a deployment to find his girlfriend is back with her not-so-ex ex.

    The heroine was raised by her abusive ex-Marine (he was dishonorable discharged for beating her brother.) Her mother refused to leave her abusive husband because she had no place to go. In her early 20's, the heroine married an older man who was very controlling and sexually abusive. She took dramatic steps to escape that marriage and is now a therapist specializing in recovery from trauma and helps other women learn to make better choices and break the cycle of abuse to get a fresh start at a happy life.

    The heroine denies her attraction to the hero because she is unwilling to give up control and fears that would happen due to his military service and power due to his size, even though his personality is nothing like her father and ex-husband.

    The hero challenges the duality of her mission to give others a full life, but unwillingness to move past her own fears to have the family he sees she wants. When she tells him she can't give him what he wants in the way of a sexual relationship because of her past, he doesn't fight for her - even though through therapy he's come to see his pattern and wants to fight for a relationship, but knows trying to exert control or pressure her will only push her further away and she has to decide to take the risk and move forward herself.

    When she goes to adopt another dog from animal control, she'll have a revelation and decide to try and open herself up for a shot at love with the hero who she misses even more than his match-making dog. The last challenge comes when he has to deploy unexpectedly and trust that she'll be there for him when he returns.

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    It has been an unending source of amusement for my critique partners and I that despite being funny and twisty and all manner of plot-like things, all of my books are about shame. I might think it's about relationships, or redemption, or creativity, or even non-fiction, but underneath it all it is shame every time. Even when I don't plan it.

    Like every writer, I've had tons of trauma, but it still cracks us up that no matter where I try to go with the plot, somewhere deep the wound or motivation is shame. *sigh*

  6. jamesr403 says:

    Thank you, Tasha. You've articulated areas I need to work on for my current WIP. All I can say now is, "Hmmm." You've made me think.
    Take care of that ankle! My left ankle is permanently enlarged from a skateboarding accident (I thought I could jump my new plank off a curb into the street. I made it into the street, all right.)
    Thanks again.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    I think I defined it, but then I second guessed myself.

    denise

  8. Lara McGill says:

    Wow...your post is fantastic, and made me do some hard thinking. (And, just so you know, that’s REALLY hard before coffee!) My recurring themes are about family, death, and misplaced guilt rooted in the deep belief that the heroine could have prevented that death. Often there is self-exile and loneliness as a result, and a yearning to fix/heal the wound, but not believing she can, either because of her own inability, or because she won’t be welcome back.

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