Welcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction. Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about that great character driver – the psychological wound. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board in the New Year)
Some characters in fiction have suffered a psychic wound before the story opens, or suffer it at the time the story opens. They spend the rest of the novel trying to heal it. This effort at healing is what the narrative is about, and is a great motivator.
The psychic wound and the healing activity are a common feature of crime fiction. Harry Bosch, for example, Michael Connelly’s series hero, suffered a psychic wound in his boyhood when his mother was murdered and her killer was not found. Thirty years later, now a homicide detective with the LAPD, he is driven to stand up for all victims of murder, no matter who they were, and do his utmost to find their killers. His work is his attempt to heal his psychic wound.
Jenny, your next novel features several characters who have suffered a psychic wound.
Yes, Sydney, in my next novel more than one character will be suffering from psychic wounds that have happened before the story opens. I like to call them their back story ghosts. Since I know what they are already, I can work backwards to give characters convincing and relevant emotional arcs. These wounds will determine their flaws, how they see the world, what they think they want, what they actually want, and how they go about trying to get it. Their search for healing will drive the narrative forward. They’ll go (hopefully!) from being haunted by ghosts, to resolution and living their fullest lives.
You make a good point, Jenny. There is a vast difference between what a character thinks they want and what they really want. They create plot by doing things in pursuit of what they think they want―and wonder why their wound isn’t healing. It’s only when they finally understand what they really need that they are able to start the healing process.
Again, Harry Bosch is a good example of this. He thought what he really wanted was to solve the murders of people he has never met, doing it as part of his job. It’s not until he realises that he has been overlooking the one murder that matters most to him, the murder of his mother, that he is able to start the healing process by searching for her killer. He does this in The Last Coyote. The novel signals in the first chapter that something is wrong. He’s been placed on stress leave and must see a police psychologist three times a week. He’s having a breakdown. Michael Connelly shows it very powerfully and poetically (yes, crime novels can be poetic!) through his house, which has been irreparably damaged by an earthquake. Though it’s too dangerous to be lived in, Harry keeps trying to fix it. He’s doing the wrong thing to heal his psychic wound―that is, he’s trying to fix something that is broken beyond repair in order to go back to the old way of living. It’s only when he sets out to find his mother’s killer that he is able to begin the long and painful process of healing.
In my characters’ case the wounds will be big ones, but small ones can also be great motivators. A man may be ridiculed for being small, and develop a Napoleon complex. The story goes that Napoleon compensated for his lack of height by seeking power, war and conquest. A woman might have had to raise her siblings, due to the neglect of their alcoholic mother. The perfect recipe for a control freak who believes if she doesn’t do it, it won’t get done. It’s only when wounded characters develop some insight into their lives, that they can see the world as it really is and begin to achieve their goals. I’ve outlined my new book very roughly, and this insight will come in the middle, which I think is just about right.
I absolutely agree with you, Jenny. Insight comes in at around the midway mark. That gives the characters time to sort out all the mistakes they made and begin to set things right.
The wound can apply to antagonists, too. I love a good antagonist. To me, a novel stands or falls on the strength and complexity of its antagonist. The wound can be a great way to give this character a back story ghost that keeps haunting them. A wound they feel driven to heal. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Wickham has a wound. This was caused by Mr Darcy when he discovered at the eleventh hour that Wickham had plotted to elope with Georgiana Darcy. If Wickham had succeeded, he would have got his hands on her rich dowry, thus giving him a life of ease and luxury to the end of his days. His actions in the novel are his attempt to heal that wound by punishing Darcy. It doesn’t work. It never does for antagonists. Only protagonists are capable of insight and healing. But Wickham’s wound and his efforts to heal it through vengeance make him complex and formidable.
I suppose one of the many differences between a wound in a protagonist and a wound in an antagonist is that the former is sympathetic. It’s possible to imagine that Wickham felt wounded just because he was born the son of a steward and Darcy was the scion of a rich and illustrious family. It’s not very sympathetic, although in fact, I think this kind of wound to a person’s self-love is very common. A Napoleon complex might look different on the surface, but it comes from the same source, a wound to the sufferer’s idea of what is due to them.
But anyway, the point is that healing a wound is a great character driver, one of the best out there.
Thanks Sydney. Excellent advice as always! … To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.) Thank you to all my readers! To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.