Last week I blogged about introducing the ordinary Joe or Jane who is about to begin an extraordinary adventure. What about the other end of the process, introducing a character who has already had the extraordinary adventure, and is the worse for it?
Think Bilbo Baggings at the beginning of Lord of The Rings. He’s turning eleventy-one and 111 years is old, even for a Hobbit. He’s tired. He describes himself as, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” In the sixty years since his great adventure, he’s never left the shire, never married, and spent decades working on his memoirs. No one, including Frodo, knows that he intends to disappear from his birthday party, and never be seen again in Hobbiton.
We tend to think of wounded heros as soldiers, police, first responders; in short, people who have been in situations where they were shot at or where things go boom. Over the past few years, we’ve enlarged that definition to people who suffered abuse, particularly when they were children. In fact, any character who has been in a situation that taxed their resources to the maximum can be wounded from the experience.
Ten things writers can use to build ambiguity and tension around wounded heroes
These are dark characters. They were wounded accepting a burden for society. What they want most is to change, be a peace, stop their own suffering, or have hope.
Angst is a poor glue. Blood and suffering does not bond characters and readers. What does bond is hope and the desire for change for the better.
Flashbacks and dream sequences are weak beginnings. It is a myth that readers need or want to see the actual event, so they can appreciate the rest of the book. At the beginning of a book, all readers are disoriented and uncommitted. Like rock climbers they are desperate for finger and toe holds. Toe hold: we’re in rural Ohio in the nineteen eighties. Lois is a fourteen year old girl, whose brother is pinned under a tractor, and she has to cross a flood-swollen river on a rickety wooden bridge to get help. Next chapter: No wait, it’s 2013. We’re in Cleveland. Lois is a middle-aged corporate lawyer who has a phobia about bridges. Which one is it? Am I supposed to bond with the fourteen year old or the middle-aged woman? Start with Lois hoping she’ll have the courage to cross a bridge. Have her fail. Have that failure cost her something, perhaps not arriving for an important meeting. The reader will be right there with Lois.
Not all people who go through really tough times develop post traumatic stress disorder. The most protective measures are having developed good coping skills before the event, no family history of mental illness, no personal history of mental illness, no history of prior substance abuse; and having insight and the ability to express and work through feelings. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be wounded, but it does mean they may be able to put up a more valiant fight. The braver the fighter, the more the reader is with them.
An area of ambiguity is, is it essential and a deterrent to later problems to provide extensive debriefing in the first twenty-four hours after an event? This idea was so pervasive that it spawned a raft of professional debriefers. Some are highly trained. Some do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some get caught up in the cachet of being allowed past the police lines and having first access to traumatized people. Some do more harm than good. Want to conflict your wounded character? Give him or her a professional debriefer. I’ll leave it up to you if this will be a character who does harm or good. Incidentally, further research has suggested that a large part of the average population, particularly those with the protective measures listed in the last paragraph, does well without any counselling, and that immediate counselling may cause a problem to develop.
Triggers for re-experiencing traumatic events include noises, images, words, and smells. Smells are particularly pervasive and they don’t have to be nasty, icky things. Someone who saw a person eating a strawberry ice cream cone run over may have their memory triggered by strawberry ice cream cones.
Memories of traumatic events are intrusive. That means they interfere with the ability to carry on normal life activities. This is great burden with which to laden characters, especially if they try to conceal their shortcomings from others.
Memories of the event are accompanied by intense physical reactions such nausea and vomiting, cardiovascular changes, tension, sweating, loss of ability to focus, loss of ability to make decisions or to make logical decisions. The more the character tries to conceal these, the more opportunity to build tension.
Bureaucracy and medical controversy are the writers’ friends. In a pluralistic society trying to embrace both traditional and alternative treatments, options for how to heal a wounded hero are many and confusing. They are not only often at odds with one another, but also expensive. It takes a strong character to wade through this treatment morass, and to deal with government and private agencies which, after all, have policies and procedures that must be followed.
The future for the wounded character often seems limited. He doesn’t expect normal life events, like getting married, having a career or owning a house to happen to him. For a character to go through life hoping one of these normal things happens to her, but doubting that it will sets up instant conflict. A person who hopes to own a house, but doesn’t think it’s going to happen will behave differently around people who own houses, are house-hunting, etc. Suppose that person is a detective, and the murder occurred at a Home and Garden Show? Her wound is going to show up in all sorts of non-traditional ways. That’s what we’re looking for as writers, different and interesting ways of showing both how badly damaged the character is, and how much that hope for a new beginning keeps them going.
I hope to see you back on Thursday, April 17th for Level Thinking: Easing the Writer’s Uphill Struggle.
Next Tuesday, April 22, I’ll be writing about Part 3 of Character Introduction — Introducing the true hero.
Happy Easter, everyone.