Characters with psychic wounds engage our sympathies. In this post I’m going to talk about the benefits of loading your characters down with problems, including attitudes toward life caused by childhood psychic wounds.
My purpose is not to play amateur psychologist. Save that for the self-help books. Instead, I’m going to show how psychic wounds cause characters to make misjudgments. These misjudgments are great for building complexity into the character’s inner and outer life.
What Is A Psychic Wound?
A psychic wound is a psychological blow that strikes a character in childhood. One of the most common psychic wounds in literature is that of the orphaned child. Searing loss from the death of a beloved parent is something a person in real life attempts to work out during adolescence, young adulthood, and even older adulthood.
Without a parent’s guidance and limit-setting, adolescents struggle to define themselves. Death causes real people to lose the backboard against which they might have bounced the ball. (Look at the number of self-help books on motherless and fatherless daughters, in particular.)
Women are not the only ones affected by early trauma. Consider the young man whose father has died of a heart attack at 32. How does that young man feel on his 32nd birthday? Strangely exposed.
How Psychic Wounds Change Us
If we look at real people, we know that a parent’s death in early childhood strips away a child’s sense of safety. Anger, sadness, and confusion fill the void.
A parent’s death during adolescence–that critical time in which our life-task is to define who we will be when we grow up–gives us a gut punch that can haunt us the rest of our lives. So, too, the rupture of a divorce, the trauma of alcoholism, or a childhood scarred by abuse. All leave particular kinds of psychic wounds. The same goes for childhoods affected by racism, hunger, war, and economic deprivation.
All the above events leave scars. In a sense, from the moment of trauma forward, the individual’s burning desire may be to keep “the bad thing” from ever happening again. Much as tracks are burned into a CD, early trauma sears the “bad thing” into the amygdala, the primitive survival center of the brain. Those tracks are virtually impossible to erase. With a lot of therapy, most people can manage the most damaging effects, but I don’t believe we can ever wipe the slate clean.
How Have Writers Made Use of Psychic Wounds?
In 18th and 19th-century literature, protagonists were often orphans. Think of Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, for instance. In all these novels the authors tracked the progress of a young person growing through adolescence without a parent’s guidance. The protagonists had to figure out what values they would live by. Their economic circumstances were precarious.
A parent’s early death, while a child is powerless and has an incomplete understanding of how to recover from such a wound, makes it necessary for the adolescent–and then the adult–to revisit this hurt again and again.
Likability and Psychic Wounds
In real life, how do we feel about our friends who slide through life unscathed? Secretly envious. Am I right?
Psychic wounds, on the other hand, induce sympathy. If a person in real life behaves badly, we cut them some slack. Well, it’s understandable that he’s in the Principal’s office again. He just lost his father. We understand that an abandoned child can have problems with trust and intimacy, and that when an orphan does connect with either a friend or lover, the relationship is especially meaningful.
The likability of Diana Gabaldon’s (from the Outlander series) two protagonists, Claire and Jamie, partly arises from their vulnerability as orphans. We understand that, essentially, they have no one to fall back on. In Jamie’s case, even the powerful MacDougal clan cannot make up for his losses.
James Agee’s A Death In the Family and Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine provide two examples of writers who’ve mined psychic wounds for what they have to say about the human condition. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See features two semi-orphaned protagonists, and both win our hearts.
Characters Making Choices
When a story or novel opens, we writers must strive to create an immediate bond between the reader and the protagonist. If we can enlist readers’ sympathies, we’ll create a bond. The bond occurs if we can hint at, or explicitly show, the protagonist’s vulnerability.
Fiction is all about characters who stand at crossroads. Because of psychic wounds, characters often make the wrong choice. Why don’t they do the logical, sensible thing, readers might ask? Often, it’s because the character is trying to avoid the “bad thing” that happened in the past. In a sense, the novel becomes a stage upon which a wounded character can “work out” the baggage of the past.
Strategies to Bring Psychic Wounds Into the Novel
Writers are often tempted to go into a flashback and dramatize the moment of trauma or loss, but any time you skip from the present, ongoing action of the novel and go back to the past, you risk losing the reader. That’s because what’s past is past, and the reader wants to find out what’s going to happen right now.
So try this:
Dramatize (meaning put in scene) moments when the character deviates from normal behavior. A young woman turns away from a proposal from a man she clearly loves (fear of intimacy). Or, a man obsessively keeps track of pennies, much to the annoyance of his dining companions (the result of losing everything in a war).
Put the character under more and more pressure. Expose their vulnerability. The young woman may get away with delaying a marriage, but eventually, push will come to shove, and she will be forced to take a leap into trust, or not. The man who lived through war may find himself increasingly the butt of jokes until the day that his penny-saving behavior either proves that he was wise to be cautious (his friends are proven wrong) or a burglar steals the penny jar on his bureau and forces him to realize that his friends are “there for him.”
If you haven’t thought about a psychic wound for your character, consider stitching one into the preceding chapters. Think about how the climax would be different–and even more intense–if the “moment of truth” forced the character to deal with her or his deepest vulnerability.
If you can give a character a psychic wound, and then have the coping mechanisms around that wound be the very thing the ongoing action of the story forces her or him to change, you will discover the happy marriage between past and present that makes a story rich.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.