|by C.J. Chase
Recently, I was listening to a recording of a Michael Hauge workshop about character arcs. I frequently return to my favorite books and recordings about story structure while I’m writing, just to keep me on track. This time, I had finished a rough draft and just wanted to focus on character development before I dove into editing.
Character arc is fancy writer-talk for the way fictional characters grow and change through the course of a story. Characters are not the same people at the end that they were at the story’s inception. Whether it’s Rick Blaine, Huckleberry Finn, Luke Skywalker, Edmund Pevensie, the Prodigal Son, or even the Grinch, the character has learned a lesson that will impact him for the rest of his life (usually for the better).
Why did the character need to change? Most major characters have suffered a “wound” at some point in their past. The character usually thinks the wound is old news—over and done with—but the truth is that the trauma still colors the person’s perception of the world. Only when the character fully heals can the character live the life she is supposed to be living.
Consider Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. His excessive pride and reserve stemmed in large measure from the betrayal of former friend Wickam, who abused the trust of Darcy’s sister. Another favorite character of mine is Mr. Frederickson, the elderly gentleman from Pixar’s movie Up. Does anyone think he would have been such a curmudgeonly, lonely old man if he and Ellie hadn’t suffered the heartbreak of infertility?
A wonderful example of a wounded character comes to us from Disney’s The Lion King. Young cub Simba comes to believe himself responsible for his father’s death. This changes his entire worldview. Whereas his father had taught him about leadership and responsibility, Simba instead lives for the moment. “Hakuna matata” (Swahili for “no worries”) he sings with his new friends. Only as Simba realizes that his father still lives—through him—does he become a lion and king his father would be proud of.
Wounded characters engage our empathy. Everyone loves an underdog. We want them to find happiness. Why? Perfect characters are boring and annoying—just like perfect people would be, if they existed. Imagine a testimony delivered by a perfect person in church. How uplifting and encouraging would that be? Could you relate?
Relating is the key. Like characters in a story, we all carry wounds. Abuse at the hands of an adult who should have protected. A friend who betrayed a confidence. Divorce from a spouse who promised “’til death do us part.”
In the original Star Trek episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” a primitive culture mistakes Captain Kirk for a god. At least, until this moment:
Behold, a god who bleeds. The alien knew Kirk wasn’t a god because gods don’t bleed, right? But Christianity offers the world the God Who Bled—for us. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 NIV)
The God Who Bled understands our pain and our frailties because he too was wounded. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are —yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)
And then He commands us to reach out to the rest of the walking wounded. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 NIV)
What are some of your favorite wounded fictional characters? Are there any types of wounds you are especially drawn to? How have you been able to use your wounds to encourage or reassure another person?