Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound

By Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: It's a special treat today! Angela Ackerman takes the podium to share thoughts on the emotional wound and how it benefits our characters--and our stories.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus, as well as five others (including The Emotional Wound Thesaurus). Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an powerful online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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Take it away Angela...

In fiction, a single piece of information usually drives the action, whether writers realize it or not: the protagonist’s emotional wound. Wounds are painful events that lurk in your character’s backstory, and in some way they changed how he or she views the world and themselves…in a very unhealthy way.

A wound might be a single event (like a terrible car accident or the death of a child), repeated episodes (such as domestic violence or a string of toxic relationships) or an ongoing detrimental situation (perhaps living in poverty, or suffering neglect at the hands of addicted parents).

Regardless of it’s shape,this shattering event leaves behind fear, pain, and destruction in its wake. Your character will adopt biases, negative attitudes, personality flaws, and other dysfunctional behaviors as emotional shielding to prevent more hurtful events from happening. While this shielding does help create a “buffer” around the character, it comes at a cost: fracturing his relationships, preventing self-growth, sabotaging his ability to achieve meaningful goals, and ensuring fear is ever-present in his life, steering his actions and choices. This is a recipe for unhappiness and unfulfillment…unless it can be reversed. If this sounds like character arc territory, you are correct. The character must learn to let go of the past and move forward differently if he is to achieve his story goal.

Because wounds are invasive, shaking even the strongest character’s foundation, choosing the right one is no small (or easy) task. While some authors prefer to let a protagonist’s fears and wounds emerge as they write, spending time up front to dig around in his or her backstory can save countless hours of revision.

There are a variety of ways to unearth what particular past event (and the fear it generates) is steering your character’s actions within the story. Here are a few areas to brainstorm which may help lead you straight to that painful past wound.

Past Influencers

It’s unfortunately true that those closest to us are in a position to inflict the most pain. In this way, the people our characters interacted with prior to the start of the story are often tied to their wounding events. Caregivers top the list, with their maltreatment birthing deep fears, generating irrational beliefs or biases, creating a legacy of abuse, or even causing unintentional parental failings to be passed through the generations.

For example, imagine a girl who helplessly watched her four-year-old sibling choke and die. She, in turn, could become a controlling mother, her fear causing her to hover over her own child to keep him safe. She may choose his friends and make most of his decisions for him because she believes she knows what’s best. And her son, growing up in this tightly monitored environment, will likely have lower self-esteem because he doesn’t trust his ability to make good decisions. Place this young man into your story as the main character and you have someone who struggles to be independent, obsesses about what others think, is hypersensitive to criticism, and avoids responsibility because he thinks he’ll screw up.

The ability to inflict pain is not just reserved for family, so think about people who left a negative mark on your character, perhaps restricting her growth, sabotaging her self-worth, inflicting a humiliation, or undermining her self-confidence. Mentors, past lovers, ex-friends, and people in positions of power may have imparted negative life lessons. Try asking this question: Whom from your character’s past would she never want to run into again and why?

Unpleasant Memories

Wounds hide within negative past experiences, such as a particular time of hardship, an event that cannot be forgotten, or a moment your character wishes she could utterly erase. Don’t be afraid to interview her about difficult situations she’s endured. Every person’s past is littered with mistakes, failures, disappointments, feelings of inferiority, and fear, so try your best to learn about these painful memories.

Personality Flaws

For some, personality is the first thing to emerge when brainstorming a new character. Maybe she has an amazing sense of humor, loves to learn, and is the most unmaterialistic person you might meet. But along with these qualities, she’s incredibly temperamental, going from hot to cold in a flash and taking offense when none was meant. Do some digging to uncover the why behind this flaw. What causes that reactiveness and hypersensitivity? Why is she so quick to see enemies where none exist? Identifying the situations that lead to this knee-jerk response will help you spot the emotions the character doesn’t want to feel, which will help you brainstorm the wounds that could be the cause of her emotional armor.


Fear is something most people are reluctant to experience, because while it can push us to strive harder for what we want, it also comes with a host of uncomfortable emotions. Clearly, your character will have a deep fear sitting at the heart of the defining wound that must be faced, but other fears and worries can also be markers of a wounding event. If you realize that your protagonist is afraid of water, why is this? If her heart rate picks up when her sister calls, delve into that response for more information. Fears don’t manifest by themselves, so search for their underlying reasons.


One thing experience teaches us is that everyone keeps secrets. It’s second nature to hide the things that embarrass us, cause shame and guilt, or leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable. Ask yourself what your character is hiding. What information does she guard closely and would never want others to discover? This most likely touches on a shard of emotional trauma that she wishes to keep buried in the past.


Self-doubt is, to some degree, a problem for everyone. Worrying about not measuring up, making a mistake that impacts others, and disappointing loved ones can eat away at our self-worth. If your character is insecure about fitting in and being accepted, why is that? In which situations is she reluctant to make decisions or take risks? Thinking about her doubts and worries will create a starting point for brainstorming the negative experiences and influencers who left her feeling this way.

If you need more ideas on how to root around in your character’s history to find the defining wound, leaf through your Emotional Wound Thesaurus book, or browse the huge list of emotional wounds at our website, One Stop for Writers.

About The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological Trauma

Readers connect to characters with depth, ones who have experienced life’s ups and downs. To deliver key players that are both realistic and compelling, writers must know them intimately—not only who they are in the present story, but also what made them that way. Of all the formative experiences in a character’s past, none are more destructive than emotional wounds. The aftershocks of trauma can change who they are, alter what they believe, and sabotage their ability to achieve meaningful goals, all of which will affect the trajectory of your story.

Identifying the backstory wound is crucial to understanding how it will shape your character’s behavior, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus can help. Inside, you’ll find:
  • A database of traumatic situations common to the human experience
  • An in-depth study on a wound’s impact, including the fears, lies, personality shifts, and dysfunctional behaviors that can arise from different painful events
  • An extensive analysis of character arc and how the wound and any resulting unmet needs fit into it
  • Techniques on how to show the past experience to readers in a way that is both engaging and revelatory while avoiding the pitfalls of info dumps and telling
  • A showcase of popular characters and how their traumatic experiences reshaped them, leading to very specific story goals
  • A Backstory Wound Profile tool that will enable you to document your characters’ negative past experiences and the aftereffects

Root your characters in reality by giving them an authentic wound that causes difficulties and prompts them to strive for inner growth to overcome it. With its easy-to-read format and over 100 entries packed with information, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is a crash course in psychology for creating characters that feel incredibly real to readers.

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  1. Great post! And The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is awesome! I'm using it now to help me develop my hero. The Emotion Thesaurus is always next to me when I write and now this book will be my bible for developing characters and their stories. Thanks for creating such useful tools!

    1. Aw, thank you for saying so--thrilled the book is helping you, Carol!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for visiting, Robert! Happy writing!

  3. Thanks for the brainstorming ideas, Angela.

  4. This is powerful stuff. I can see it easier in the people around me--harder to develop it for my characters!

    1. It can be, for sure. Try to draw on the people around you for inspiration. :)

  5. Good post, Angela. Just wondering though, does the protagonist always have to have an emotional wound? Why couldn't he/she just have life circumstances that didn't prepare them for what they have to face? In my first baseball novel, the protagonist is a kid from the prairie who breaks into the Big Leagues. He has no emotional flaw; he's just naive because he grew up on a farm in an isolated rural area and has never encountered the big city. His baseball career thrusts him in the midst of the big city, where some bad people try to manipulate him. His character arc is to grow up--fast. No emotional wound from the past involved.

    1. If you are writing a change arc, your character needs to face a fear that is holding them back, preventing them from being able to easily achieve the goal. This fear is tied to the wound, my guess would be it is something self-esteem based on growing up in the country, feeling "less than" as a result. But of you are writing a static arc (highly plot driven), there is little change/internal growth and the focus is more on the character learning new skills and gaining education to achieve a goal.

      I don't know which yours is, but most books are a change arc. Have a read here and see if this helps:

      Ask yourself what is it that is holding your character back from achieving the goal easily? What is causing them to struggle? It could be you are writing a static arc and it is all outer elements, but it could also be you need to go deeper and find the characetr's wound, and understand how this inner struggle will better complicate and add richness to the character's story line as he overcomes obstacles within to gain self-esteem, self-worth, and approach the goal from a newfound position of strength.

      hope this helps--happy writing!