by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
One of the most fascinating and under-discussed characters in Wonder Woman is the villain, Dr. Poison. She is an intelligent woman, immersed in her work, but driven by hatred that causes her to develop vicious methods of inflicting pain on humanity. Her most striking physical characteristic is a mask she wears to hide the intense scarring she has suffered. The mask acts as a character trait and a metaphor for her inner psychic struggle. The mask exists to hide her wound.
Many of the most intriguing characters carry a wound that they are either unaware of or struggle to keep from being seen. This is a universally used trope that not only draws audiences into the story but also causes them to consider their own inner wounds, which can be quite powerful. So, how do you organically incorporate a wound into a character’s journey? What types of wounds connect most effortlessly with audiences? Here are five wounds to consider integrating into who your protagonist is.
The Loss of a Parent
Nearly every member of DC’s Justice League has a backstory that includes the loss of a parent. Batman, famously, saw his parents die at the hands of a thief outside of a theater. Superman’s parents put him in a vessel launched into space before their own death on their home planet of Krypton. Dorothy is being raised by her Aunt and Uncle, suggesting the loss of her parents in The Wizard of Oz. Disney often includes the loss of a parent in their character’s backstories. The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White, and Bambi are just a few examples. Those interested in further examining this phenomenon would do well to examine the work of Joseph Campbell, who often discussed the relationship between orphans and heroes.
The Broken Heart
Storytelling history is filled with protagonists that suffer from love that went sour or has been lost. Often, this has lead the character to avoid situations of vulnerability and new relationships. Almost without fail, the character’s inner journey will involve the risks of learning to trust again. The catalyst in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the heartbreak of the protagonist Peter Bretter. Rob Gordon in High Fidelity makes this same journey of learning to trust again. Gladiator, As Good As It Gets, and Good Will Hunting all feature main characters with broken hearts.
The Ultimate Mistake
Regret is a universal human emotion. We all have moments and decisions in our life that we wish we could take back. This can also be a powerful wound to saddle a character with. One of Tommy Lee Jones’s early films,The River Rat, tells the story of a character trying to put his life back together after being released from prison, where he served time for the biggest mistake he ever made. Les Misrables is perhaps the most celebrated story of a protagonist who spends his entire life trying to make recompense for an early mistake. American History X and Unfaithful both explore characters that spend the entire narrative trying to make amends for a mistake they have made which caused them deep wounds.
The Big Secret
Secrets have the ability to fester and infect the human soul. Over time, secrets become wounds. When we are unable to live our full truths, we struggle to know true happiness and every accomplishment we achieve feels incomplete. Characters also suffer when forced to hide a secret. That secret might be love for someone else, an injustice we have committed, or even a powerful gift we have. The first two seasons of The Office often revolved around Jim’s secret feelings for Pam, which he eventually reveals. Hannah Schmitz in The Reader holds a secret about her past that eventually wrecks her life as well as that of the young man at the center of the story. Catch Me if You Can, Breaking Bad, and Dexter all focus on characters with a big secret that encompasses their wound.
Failure is a part of life. How we respond to failure greatly defines our character and the way we see ourselves. Some failures develop into wounds we carry with us throughout our lives. Our characters can also carry wounds in the present that originate with a failure of the past. Roy Hobbs in The Natural suffers from a secret failure that sidelined him for more than a decade. Back to the Future deals with righting the wrongs of failures in our past. Major League, School of Rock, and Little Miss Sunshine all explore the failures in character’s pasts and how we deal with tending to those wounds.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.