All Wounds Matter: Writing Better Stories
Wounds matter in life and in fiction. The last blog was a bit heavy, true. My goal was to start the dialogue about being wounded. You are not alone. I am not alone. We’ve all been hurt in some way and to some degree. Just goes with being human.
Admitting weakness, failure, mistakes, and flaws isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be downright terrifying for even the ‘strongest’ of us. It’s an especially daunting task in a world that idolizes something none of us will ever be…perfect. Wounds are part of the human experience. When we understand the nature of wounds, our fiction becomes all the richer just by adding in these layers.
All genres and all stories require wounds. No wound and no story. Even The Little Engine That Could had self-esteem issues and a confidence problem 😉 .
Wounds provide friction vital for conflict, No conflict, no story. Conflict turns pages, sells books, and cultivates fans. The entire point of stories is a flawed character overcoming some internal issue (damage) in order to triumph over an external problem. It’s why readers read fiction.
Genre Dictates Damage
This said, the wounds need to fit the genre because genre acts as a guideline for reader expectations. Our goal as authors should be to meet then exceed reader expectations. Stories are all for the reader or should be, which is why genre constraints can be very helpful for writers.
No one expects a cozy cupcake mystery to explore the nature of evil. Readers who gravitate to this genre are wanting a lighter read and will resent us playing Dostoyevsky. Conversely, if a reader is in the mood for a story that probes the depths of the human condition, they’re probably not picking up a novel about a cupcake baker who solves local crimes.
Many emerging writers often shy away from damaged characters and use genre as an excuse to avoid the uncomfortable. Big mistake. A cozy cupcake mystery can give the reader the light entertainment she craves and also offer emotional resonance she needs…without being Crime, Punishment and Cupcakes (though that’s a killer title, LOL).
When we understand wounds better, it helps us cultivate layered characters who’ll make for page-turning stories, regardless of genre. Let’s look at some common sources for wounds.
Pain of Perfect
First, what is perfect? Good question. Humans all across time and in every culture idolize perfect (always have and always will) though what perfect is varies vastly and changes all the time. Just take a moment to check out female beauty standards across the ages and it’s easy to see how, while the world around us might change, people don’t.
We are still ridiculous.
The ancient Incas thought being cross-eyed was super sexy. RAWR. They often fitted infants with a plank between their eyes to artificially create this ‘natural’ beauty for those unlucky enough to be born with ‘normal’ eyes. Ancient Greece was hot for the unibrow.
From ideal body type to what constitutes success to what constitutes normal or abnormal is in constant flux, and is different everywhere. It even varies from household to household depending on culture and you got it…wounds. This is where writers can have a lot of fun creating mayhem in fiction.
No matter what genre we write, a character failing to ‘live up to’ some ideal is gold. Maybe your character has spent a lifetime being measured against the ‘perfect’ older sibling, and struggles with self-esteem. This character might flounder trying to create his/her own distinct identity.
Or flip it.
What if the character happens to be the ‘perfect’ older sibling? This character didn’t ask for family or outsiders to pick on his or her younger sibling for not being as smart, talented, pretty, ambitious, etc.
This character never asked to be the standard unit of measurement to judge another human being. How much guilt might come with that? Think of the pressure or even the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’?
Also, we have another ‘person’ who lacks a distinctive identity. While we have two very different ‘people’ both characters are defined in relation to the other. Outsiders have denied agency to both. It’s amazing how something as simple as birth order can create a wound that drives characters and their decisions (good and bad).
The Diseased Family Tree
Since we’re all in the holiday season, we might be more intensely aware of how wounds can come from those closest. We touched a bit on family damage with ‘perfection.’ Family damage can come in many forms.
Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box does a brilliant job of exploring the ‘anti-goal’ which is a common fruit of the diseased family tree.
Judas Coyne is a famous rockstar, wealthy beyond imagination who has everything (including a lot of emotional baggage). Hate, anger and resentment fueled his incredible success, yet false guilt and profound shame keep him from enjoying any of it. A vengeful ghost determined to destroy him body and soul might be the only thing with the power to liberate Coyne from his emotional bondage.
Sometimes the diseased family tree is not as obvious. Often, parents believe they’re giving their children the best, but are actually deluded about the nature of their motives.
In The Luckiest Girl Alive, TifAni’s mom is superficial, materialistic, and self-absorbed. Her father is an emotionally absentee ghost who resents his life. Her mother pushes for TifAni to attend an elite prep school to give her daughter all the opportunities she missed (code for ‘marry real money’). Dad doesn’t have the spine to stand up and say ‘no.’
Both parents are too self-centered to realize TifAni in that school is a ticking bomb.
Of course, not every character needs to grow up in Season Ten of The Jerry Springer Show in order to take on some damage. The road to therapy is paved with good intentions.
Parents are human, too.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty explores how the best of intentions can poison everything.
Life Wounds All
Life has 100% fatality rate. No one gets out alive. Also we’re all going to get hurt somewhere by someone. Thing is, life is all…pointy. If family doesn’t make us bleed, then school, peers, romantic interests, work colleagues, Facebook or plain bad luck will.
I know. I missed my calling writing inspirational cards 😛 .
Why am I talking about all this? Because we writers have more ‘competition’ than any other time in human history. With no gatekeepers, discoverability is a nightmare. There are a gazillion choices for books and most of them (like cable channels) are a waste of what little free time we have.
More is Not Always Better
From movies to television to books, audiences are deluged with tired tropes, boringly predictable plots and characters with the emotional depth of a goldfish. We can see this ‘glut of meh’ as a problem or use it for our advantage.
If we know why readers read, what they want, then we can work hard on what matters. Readers long for emotional connection and stories that help them deal with pain, ease their pain or maybe even solve/release their pain. They want hope that messed up people overcome big problems in spite of, or perhaps because of, wounds and flaws.
At the other side of the problem is joy, peace, true love, freedom, fulfillment, healing, understanding, wholeness! Wounds are healed and victory sealed. Who doesn’t want more of THAT?
What Are Your Thoughts?
Getting tired of the same old same old? From Hollywood to books it feels like it’s just the same stuff over and over. I get giddy when I discover something truly excellent. What about you?
I love hearing from you and am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of DECEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
I’m running Round Four of my ‘Write Stuff’ Special. 20 pages of deep edit for $40. ONLY TEN SLOTS AVAILABLE. Get your slot HERE.
NEW CLASS! 20% Early Bird Discount
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD (Only $36 with discount)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: January 4th, 2018 7:00 P.M. EST—9:00 P.M. EST
No matter what genre we write, the key to writing unforgettable stories always rests with character. How do we create intriguing characters who hook readers and never let them go? What makes a character unforgettable? How do we write stories that endure?
It is easy to fall into tropes and caricatures if we lack a fundamental understanding of human nature and how this plays out in the dramatic narrative. This class will delve into how to add depth to our characters which will, in turn add, resonance with our plot.
This class will cover:
- Discovering Wounds;
- Understanding Coping Mechanisms;
- How Wounds Collide to Increase Dramatic Tension
- How to Create Dimensional Characters
- Using Character to Plot
***A FREE recording is included with purchase.