Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Wound

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?

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her next book, The Reluctant Earl, will be available in February of 2013. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at


  1. Oh, nice transition from writing to faith. Good stuff. I'll go with the first character that popped to mind. The heronine of Mary Lu Tyndale's Blue Enchantress. She's a loose woman and a trouble maker, but then you learn the reason and it turns around the way you see her. I guess Angel in Redeeming Love would be the same sort of character but more extreme. Love her too. Oh, and that reminds me of The Last Sin Eater and the little girl who thinks she's responsible for her sisters death. Yep, a good wound makes the story.

  2. I'll echo Dina. I was thinking this was a great article on wounded characters and character arcs when showing how it relates to Christ's wounds for us took my breath away.

    The wounds in mystery are often the things that spur the detective on to solve crimes--the death of a spouse, family member, or friend is common.

    My favorites have to be Monk and Monk.

    Adrian Monk from television, who was wounded by the death of his wife and plagued with psychological issues aggravated by it.

    The other Monk is William Monk, from the Anne Perry historical mystery novels. He starts off the first book with amnesia, which could mean the end of his career (and livelihood) in the police department. His struggle as he tries to understand and reclaim his identity, while keeping his problem hidden, was original. Genius.

  3. What a great post!

    Edmund Pevensie is one of my favorite wounded heroes. Such a bad little boy, but redeemed, he becomes a true hero, a king who understands both justice and mercy.

    It's amazing how much Lewis packs into his deceptively simple "childrens' books."

  4. As soon as you mentioned wounded characters, CJ, I thought of the mentally and physically scarred character played by Mel Gibson in the movie, Man Without a Face.

    For those who don't know the fictional story, the main character was a teacher accused of being a pedophile after suriving a fiery car crash that killed the only other occupant, a young boy. Horribly scarred on one side of his face, he only wants to be left alone.

    Yet a fatherless boy who's struggling educationally is drawn to him and the teacher realizes he must ignore his past to help the boy's future.

    Great post on wounds - both in fiction and in faith.

  5. Excellent post, CJ! Seeing that character arc as beginning with a wound of some kind and progressing to being whole helps me see that process more clearly.

    I can't think of a particular favorite...

  6. Oh, CJ, good post. I thought of Lord Peter Wimsey from Dorothy L Sayers classic mysteries and the Percy Blakeney. Outwardly rich and frivolous, but both had hidden depths and brilliant minds that they masked from the world. Oh, and Anita's comment reminded me of Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot. That movie is an amazing example of character development.

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    The wound is just the beginning piece of the character arc. For the lucky dogs going to the RWA conference later this month, Michael Hauge is doing a workshop about character arcs. I'm guessing it will be similar in scope to the recording I have--but I'm still jealous that I won't get to see him in person.

    I had pulled my MH recording out last month when I was going to work on revisions. I wanted to make certain I had a visible arc (visible to me, that is). And as I was listening to him talk about characters' wounds, I realized we all carry wounds...and that's why fiction can speak to us. Those wounds let us minister to others. There are people we can reach simply because we understand their hurts.

    Anita, when you mentioned Mel Gibson, like Lisa I was thinking of some of his other characters like The Patriot and Braveheart. He really did a lot of very wounded characters.

  8. Now that you mention it, I believe Mel Gibson was the father of a kidnapped kid in Ransom too.

    Another one I thought of was Capt Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. His emotional wounds at the death of his wife put an insurmountable barrier between him and his kids that only another true love could overcome. A dysfunctional family before anyone even coined the term.

    Not only the Captain, but his children changed and grew under Maria's loving hand, while Maria herself learned that life wasn't all fun and part of being an adult was accepting responsibility.

    Most of all, I love that The Sound of Music is based on a true story.

  9. Great post, CJ. How beautifully you segued into faith, too.

    I will definitely have to check out MH!

  10. Anita, The Sound of Music was one of Son #1's favorite movies when he was little, so I've watched it over and over and over. What always amazed me is how romantic the dance scene is. They barely touch, but oh, my! Every time I watch the movie, I try to figure out how I can capture that scene with words. (For some reason, Son #1 didn't like animated movies when he was little. He preferred TSOM, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, etc.) I think you'll find that in most successful stories, the main character has a wound that must be overcome.

    Susie, do, do, do go to the MH workshop. I will be supremely jealous, but don't let that stop you. His website (I linked to it above) says he's going to be analyzing Pretty Woman (am I the only person in America who's never seen that???), so you might want to watch that beforehand.

  11. No, there are at least two of us who haven't seen "Pretty Woman."

    I'm just not much into movies with a modern setting. Give me a period piece every time. Plus I'm not all that into Gere or Roberts. (That IS who stars in that movie, isn't it? Shows what I know.)

  12. There is a lot to like in Pretty Woman because of a well-done character arc... ugh, I guess that's why he chose it. Both characters.

    I think I could list quite a few. Great post, C.J. I also re watch The Hero's Two Journeys often, and that will have to do for me.

    You know... you really make me want to get back to my writing with this post. Thank you.

  13. DeAnna, my problem with PW is the whole premise. Just couldn't get past the ewww factor. (Did I ever mention my roommate the call girl? Someone I'd known before, but then she decided to earn a second income. ewww)

    Deb, glad to oblige. Now get back to work!


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