30 Days of Tips for Character Development: How to Identify Your Character's Inner Wounds

A character's inner wound not only grounds the story, but also provides valuable information for creating plot points full of conflicts to push your character. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman explores ways to identify your character's inner wounds.
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How to Identify Your Character's Inner Wounds

To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. It's updated with every new tip, so bookmark that baby.

For the next few days, we’re going to put our therapist hats on and explore how to discover your characters' inner wounds. These exercises go beyond our basic character bio from Days 2, 3 and 4. So, think deeper. 

The importance of fully understanding the psyche of your characters cannot be emphasized enough. Too many writers rush through the character development process, which makes me want to scream! Creating characters is the best, and most important, part of writing! Without rich and unique characters, there is no story. 

Why? 

  • No one wants to follow a boring character.
  • If the reader doesn't care about the character, they don't care if they achieve their goal.
  • A character should never be perfect. They need flaws in order to be relatable.
  • In order to achieve their outer goal, they MUST overcome their internal wound and evolve.

A character's inner wound not only grounds the story, but also provides valuable information for creating plot points full of conflicts to push your character over the edge and out of their comfort zones, which we'll work on in the coming days, too.

Day 6: Let's focus on how to identify a character's wounds. 

First, let's explore how the pros do it. Day 5's tip was to read professional screenplays. Hopefully with the screenplay resources list, you were able to find your favorite. 

Did you find a character who really stood out as unusual and compelling? I'm sure you did. If not, go back and keep looking for a script with amazing characters. We'll wait.

If you're struggling to find one, start with Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is a psychiatrist. Take some tips from him. He expertly got Clarice to reveal a lot about her childhood, and one's childhood is the period of life where their emotional wound is typically born. 

Before you do this exercise, read Hannibal's Wikipedia page. Oh, yes, fictional characters can even live on Wiki.

Here's an excerpt describing Hannibal's character: 

"In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter's keeper, Dr. Frederick Chilton, claims that Lecter is a 'pure sociopath' ('pure psychopath' in the film adaptation). In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, protagonist Clarice Starling says of Lecter, 'They don’t have a name for what he is.' Lecter's pathology is explored in greater detail in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which explains that he was traumatized as a child in Lithuania in 1944 when he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved sister, Mischa, by a group of deserting Lithuanian Hilfswillige, one of whom claimed that Lecter unwittingly ate his sister as well."

Hannibal's inner wound runs deep. But also notice, he has an extremely unusual life circumstance that helped form that wound. Remember that. Be original. The author took the murder of one's mother a big step further, to cannibalism. Yowzer. 

Roger Ebert write in his "Great Movies" article on Silence of the Lambs, "He is a dispassionate, brilliant machine, superb at logic, deficient in emotions."[8] In the same essay, Ebert theorized: "One key to the film's appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter...He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn't eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie...He bears comparison, indeed, with such other movie monsters as Nosferatu, Frankenstein...King Kong and Norman Bates. They have two things in common: They behave according to their natures, and they are misunderstood. Nothing that these monsters do is "evil" in any conventional moral sense, because they lack any moral sense. They are hard-wired to do what they do. They have no choice. In the areas where they do have choice, they try to do the right thing."

A murdering cannibal who we actually like. I'm all in. I'd follow Hannibal anywhere.

Now, for your homework. Take one of the characters you read in a screenplay on Day 5, and see if the way they were written allows you to imagine the answers to the following questions. If you didn't read one, see if you can answer these questions for Hannibal Lecter:

  • How did they feel about their father/mother?
  • Were they raised in a family… adopted, orphaned, or maybe raised by wolves?
  • Describe the people they spent the most time with in childhood, friends and/or siblings. Maybe they didn't have either. That's important to know, too.
  • What was the most unforgettable experience in their life – good or bad?
  • Identify the worst thing someone did to them – bonus points if it was a parent or someone they trusted more than anyone.
  • Do they trust people? If not, why? If so, why?
  • How did that character learn coping skills? Read this post about a therapy session I had, answering that question, it might help. 
  • What person had the most impact (positive or negative) on them and why?
  • If they knew no one was listening, how would they describe themselves?
  • What makes them cry? 

That last one may seem trite, but it isn't. For a period of my life, I was in therapy. I've even shared a picture of my gigantic therapy file before. Whenever I cried during a session, my therapist would push harder, saying, "Always pay attention to what makes you cry." There is no truer statement for understanding a person's pain. We often cry about the things we aren't brave enough to change. 

Read that again. We often cry about the things we aren't brave enough to change.

This is why evolution is critical for our survival. We NEED to be brave enough to change in order to find happiness. Readers want our characters to achieve happiness, so we HAVE to help them find a way to evolve past their internal wounds. That's the only way we'll have a satisfying ending to our stories that leaves a reader thinking about our scripts for days, maybe longer.

Smaller issues also come up when you look deeply at a person's behavior. After several years of exploring my wounds, my therapist and I both noticed that whenever I was extremely stressed by our discussions, I would yawn. Yawning is a "tell" for me that I'm uncomfortable and stressed. No one would know that unless they knew me extremely well. Those are the kinds of details you need to explore with your characters. YOU need to know them as well as a therapist would.

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DAY 7: Now, it's time for your story's characters. 

Take the same exercise from Day 6 and ask the questions of your own characters. Do NOT rush through this. 

Remember, when people are in therapy, it takes years to get to the root of their wounds. Do not whip off some cliché problems in minutes! Dive deep. Think outside the box. Be original. Be real and raw. This is the time to shut the door and bleed out every organic emotion you can muster. 

  • How did they feel about their father/mother?
  • Were they raised in a family… adopted, orphaned, or maybe raised by wolves?
  • Describe the people they spent the most time with in childhood, friends and/or siblings. Maybe they didn't have either. That's important to know, too.
  • What was the most unforgettable experience in their life – good or bad?
  • Identify the worst thing someone did to them – bonus points if it was a parent or someone they trusted more than anyone.
  • Do they trust people? If not, why? If so, why?
  • How did that character learn coping skills? Read this post again, thinking about your characters.
  • What person had the most impact (positive or negative) on them and why?
  • If they knew no one was listening, how would they describe themselves?
  • What makes them cry? 

BONUS EXERCISE: Ask yourself the same questions about your own childhood. I double-dog dare you. Yeah, I saw that tear... and yawn. 

Next up, Day 8 and making your character really uncomfortable... and maybe even you.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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