Our pasts are filled with experiences, both good and bad, which taught us who to trust, what to believe in, and what to avoid. The painful experiences—the wounds—influence us so deeply that we will do almost anything to avoid feeling such pain again. That past trauma is likely to affect our future behavior as well.
A writers, how do we create characters who feel realistic? By mirroring real life as much as possible. That means developing a backstory for each character that lets us understand him/her on the deepest level. Knowing who and what influences a character gives us insight to what they fear, desire and need most of all. Sometimes even if the character doesn’t know himself.
Emotional wounds are more than just painful memories. Inside each wound is a seed of doubt. Was it my fault? Could I have stopped it? Was there something else I could have done? It’s human nature to second-guess decisions that result in a bad outcome, to rationalize tragedies, and to make sense of them. Many times we blame ourselves for what happened, even when events were out of our control.
Because of this internalization, a lie is born.
When a person is wounded, he wraps himself in emotional armor to keep his feelings safe. Flaws develop, working under the rationalization of protecting himself from getting hurt. Oftentimes, instead of keeping the person safe, these flaws limit him, preventing him from building healthy relationships, or putting a filter of distrust on all he sees.
For the last several months, I’ve had my novel characters, especially my antagonist, under the microscope, refining his “wounds,” focusing all his hurt and pain into a single backstory moment that explains his motivation (and rationalization) to kill. Now I’ll be able to make this killer relatable and tragic, and I think he will also have a redeemable moment at the end of the book.
Interestingly, while delving deeper into my bad guy, I’ve also been able to bring the backstory wounds of other characters into sharper focus.
Sheriff Cooper Jones was easy for me to figure out from the beginning. He was working late (in his last job), and while he was away, his wife was killed in a home invasion. He’s been drowning in self-remorse and guilt ever since. He has locked his emotions away, unable to allow himself to feel affection for a woman he is clearly attracted to. Instead, he has put all of his passion into finding the person who shot a woman in his county, hoping that bringing her killer to justice will appease the guilt he feels about his wife’s unsolved murder.
My female protagonist, Rumor Vargas’s wound has been harder to quantify. But, while working on my killer, I figured her out as well.
Wounds are often kept secret from others because of the little dirty lie embedded within them—the untruth that the character feels about herself. Self-blame (Coop) and/or feelings of shame (Rumor and killer) are deeply embedded within the lie. Fear of discovery compels them to change their behavior to avoid being hurt again.
Rumor is estranged from her father’s side of the family. She is vehemently against her brother Alberto’s involvement with the Mexican cartel. Her father isn’t happy about it either, but he is supporting Alberto’s efforts to get out from under his employer’s hold, and has cut ties with Rumor for fear that will turn her brother over to USA authorities if he visits in the States.
Alberto is involved in the Cartel drug trade. Since Coop’s wife was killed by a junkie, he will also have wound-related reasons to be suspicious of Rumor’s brother.
This sets up some up some interesting extra conflict for Coop. Can he be unbiased in his murder investigation with Alberto, a drug trafficker, as one of his suspects?
After more than a month deepening all of my character’s backstories, and revising my entire outline based on the insights I’ve learned about them, I’m back to writing new pages.
The novel now opens with the killer in the cemetery, rationalizing how he’s going to get even for the death of his wife and unborn daughter. I think it flows well into the introduction of main character Rumor and her friend and victim, Abby, in the following chapter.
Looking forward to sharing the entire book with you in January!
Until then, good reading—and writing!