While I was researching my post on “writing engaging characters” I happened to skim my old post on “articulating your character’s greatest desire” and found a mention of K.M. Weiland’s post about the character’s “lie” as something critical to a character arc. I’m not entirely convinced that character-above-all is the only approach, but my specific learning objective in the current novel is to explore character development. I decided that as I was working out my speculative fiction mystery’s main character, I needed to understand better what “lie” meant in the context of character definitions – and fell down a rabbit hole of several dozens of posts about the subject and the related one of “wounds” or “ghosts” behind the “lies.” Here’s what I found.
A “wound” is a significant emotionally traumatic experience in a character’s history, usually in the backstory (but occasionally in the novel, either as a prelude or as a flashback). The experience is sufficiently damaging that the character needs to protect themselves emotionally from anything close to a re-occurrence; the trauma significantly impacts their behaviour and their personality. Events can trigger wounds, sometimes easily, quickly, or unconsciously. People go to great lengths to avoid reminders of their wounds, avoiding anything that can make them feel the same pain again. This can have significant effects on the character’s reactions and choices, which affects the plot.
A wound leads to a “lie” the character tells themselves – what the psychologists call a “negative core belief” – that undermines their ability to live their best life. Such lies, and their consequences, are the core of what many sources considered the best kind of character arc (but there are other perspectives; see the section below on final thoughts).
A character can have many different wounds, and tell themselves many different lies, but the point of focusing on a single major Wound (and consequent Lie) is to ground the character's fundamental motivations so you can write them consistently, and resist having them act out of character because the plot “needs” them to do something. You need to know the Wound, since it spawns the character’s greatest fear (of being wounded again), changes what they see as important (giving up goals in favour of “safer” ones), alters their personality (changing positive and negative traits to protect from a repetition), influences their behaviour, taints their image of self and the world (via the main Lie and perhaps lesser lies), alters their relationships, and impacts life on every level.
At this point you could just go out and buy the book The Emotional Wounds Thesaurus or consult one of the websites associated with its authors, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, whom many of my sources referenced directly or indirectly. Their appendices on character arcs and wound profiles are available as free PDFs. It is a valuable resource (which I wound up buying and reviewing on Goodreads), but part of the scholarly attitude is that considering a variety of sources is valuable.
- disabilities or disfigurements
- injustice, victimization, or hardship, leading to disillusionment with people, groups, or institutions.
- isolation, neglect, rejection
- mistakes, failures, and regrets
- Securing a biological or physical need
- Keeping oneself or family safe
- Feeling connected to others
- Gain esteem from others and oneself
- Realizing one’s full potential.
Lies and Truths
From the Wound arises a Lie: a specific belief, describable in one sentence. There are several categories of Lie; from a psychological perspective, they are variants of “I’m not good enough,” such as
- I can’t do it
- I am unwanted / defective / unlovable
- I’ll get it wrong / be rejected / am at fault
- I am unsafe / powerless.
Other possible categorizations include
- Doubts about their own abilities or someone’s trustworthiness
- Fears, leading to inaction or less-than-optimal actions.
- Flaws, yielding struggles with negative personality traits
- Regret and remorse, believing they are unworthy of happiness
because of past failures.
There are two major categories of lie: inner (roughly, character-driven) and outer (roughly, plot driven):
- Inner lies are birthed, arising from wounds, though the character may have forgotten or repressed the event and perhaps even the wound. They may be obviously negative, or appear to be positive but arise from corrupted motives. Personal blind spots prevent recognizing the lie; cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias protect the lie. Overcoming the lie might provide the knowledge or change needed to resolve external conflicts.
- Outer lies are given
by beliefs and actions of others in the outer world. The lies may be
the best guess others have about the world, rather than deliberate
lies or misinformation, and may even be true for the giver of the
lie – someone whose life experiences are significantly different
from the character. They may arise in the backstory of the world,
rather than the character. Overcoming
them may require transforming the “world” (which can be
of any size, from the universe down to an individual relationship),
leaving the normal world (perhaps returning changed), or leaving a
world that can’t support the truth.
Resolving the external
conflict may result in a change in the character.
Character ArcsMy sources considered character arcs to be fundamental, and almost entirely ignored other kinds of MICE quotient arcs (Milieu, Inquiry, and Event), lumping them all under “plot-oriented.” From this perspective, “plot” is all about a character’s inner journey, whether or not that is evident on the surface. A character needs to change, but resists change; resistance leads to inner conflict, which leads to plot. There are positive arcs (improvement, the most common), flat arcs (no change, typical of “iconic” heroes like Sherlock Holmes), and negative arcs (decline, typical of tragedies and villain origin stories); both positive and negative arcs are based on the Lie.
From this view, a character starts off Wounded, and believes (consciously or not) a consequent Lie. Initially the Lie may seem to be working in the character’s favour – greed might make someone rich, while distrust makes them self-reliant. But they are internally incomplete, and this interferes with or entirely prevents them from achieving their goals; a Wound or Lie might explain why the character misses obvious solutions, acts as their own worst enemy, tells lies, keeps secrets, or misjudges others’ motives.
Once source contrasted plot-based with character-based arcs:
Step 5 includes the black “all is lost” moment that is part of several plot structures; overcoming the Lie involves accepting the Truth. From the MICE perspective both are character threads; perhaps the Character column merely means stories where the outermost thread is Character, and the nested one(s) are of other kinds.
Another source recommends a 5-point structure (which I compare to Elizabeth Boyle’s DREA(M), which is discussed briefly in Writing Excuses 13.22):
- A setup phase in the “normal world” that establishes the Lie and the antagonist(s). This seems to correspond to the Denial phase of a DREAM arc.
- A “rising tension” phase where it seems like the antagonist should be easy to overcome, but the character is repeatedly challenged until they recognize their difficulty. This corresponds to the Resistance phase of DREAM.
- A midpoint climax where the lie is partly revealed, but the character still hasn’t changed significantly. There is a partial victory, and the character softens toward the possibility of change. They begin to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to overcome the antagonist (which, when this includes things that oppose the Lie, corresponds to the Exploration phase of DREAM). This is critical to making the character’s rejection of the Lie believable.
- A point where the character thinks they are ready, leading to a false final battle they lose, leading to the Black (all is lost) moment, which forces them to recognize the Lie (the Acceptance phase of DREAM).
- The final battle, where the Lie is confronted one more time, leading to victory (the Manifestation phase). I’m not sure why the last confrontation of the Lie is needed.
In all these models there is a 2x2 matrix of motivation and conflict, inner and outer. The character’s inner motivation is to overcome the consequences of the Wound, but the Lie holds the character back (inner conflict). They have tangible goals (outer motivation) and external opposition to those goals, typically caused by an antagonist (outer conflict). Resolving the inner conflict is a key step in resolving the outer, but doesn’t instantly heal the Wound; the character may still fear a recurrence, but now has the inner strength to face future challenges.
Secondary characters should have their own Wounds and Lies, which would be part of their own arcs (though, of course, minor characters typically don’t have arcs). It is especially helpful to know the antagonist’s wound as part of making sure they have a believable motivation, but that might not be revealed if they lack a point of view.
There are choices about when and how to reveal the character’s wound and/or lie. In movies one rarely sees the event that caused the wound, unless it is part of a prologue. There are several choices: right at the start of the story, then either move forward from there or jump back in time to the actual start; via a flashback; during the inciting incident; or never directly revealed but suggested by the character’s dysfunctional choices and behaviours:
- acting out,
- biased perspectives,
- compensation (trying to prove weaknesses don’t exist).
- denial that the wound happened,
- dissociation from emotions and the world,
- memory loss,
- predictions about what might go right or wrong,
- projecting one’s own negatives onto others,
- rationalization that it wasn’t so bad,
- reactions to triggers
Choosing Wounds and LiesIf you start off from a plot-centric perspective, as I did, you should first look for a Lie implicit in the conflicts you already have. Look for elements of your planned (or written) story that can be products of a Lie; fear, guilt, shame, extreme hurt, inability to forgive, horrible secrets. You can also use The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to choose consequences that suit your plot and work backwards to the wound. I found some examples of trying this approach.
But most of the advice I found starts from a character-centric perspective. You can brainstorm by considering your character’s past influencers (those close to them: mentors, parents, lovers, friends, people in power); unpleasant memories (hardships, moments they want to erase, mistakes, failures, disappointments); personality flaws, fears, secrets, and insecurities.
Several pieces of advice recurred frequently.
- What Lie does your character believe?
- What are they lacking, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually as a result?
- What are the symptoms of the Lie? How do these lacks interfere with the character’s confidence, relationships, happiness, or ability to achieve goals?
- What do they think will bring them happiness or success?
- When do the effects of the Lie become apparent?
- Can the antagonist use the character’s Lie against them?
- What or who forces them to confront their lie?
- How does confronting the lie
Final ThoughtsI found a warning that digging too deep into character wounds can be triggering for the writer; you may need considerable self-care and support from friends, especially if you decide to “gift” your character with your own wounds. On the other hand, writing can help us heal.
I (and some writer friends) aren’t entirely sure we buy into this singular all-consuming Wound and singular overriding Lie. In its favour, “negative core belief” is definitely a thing in psychology. I can see it as a guiding principle to make it easier to write a believable character. I’m a computer geek; there is a fundamental principle of designing software that “the only accurate model of the real world is the real world itself.” You need some abstraction for the limited human mind to understand things; you need some organizing principle that helps you write a character that makes sense, with an appropriate level of self-consistency. It’s worth experimenting with Wound/Lie to see how well it works for me.
Many of the sources on this list have their own interesting examples, which can enrich your understanding of the concepts.
- Emotional Wound Thesaurus author bookstore (with links to several formats); I used Kobo. Some information is on websites:
- How To Write Emotion And Depth Of Character (a podcast by Becca Puglisi that I haven’t yet summarized)