by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Psychologist Carl Jung popularized a term he assigned to fellow analysts with a desire to heal others because they themselves were wounded in some way. He called these individuals wounded healers. This archetype has appeared time and again throughout storytelling.
The Greek myth of Chiron tells of a centaur who spent a great deal of his time assisting others despite being shot by one of Hercules arrows and incurably poisoned. Arthurian legends speak of the Fisher King who was charged with keeping the Holy Grail despite being wounded in a way that prevented him from fathering the next generation that might take up his task after his death. And of course, television’s Dr. House embodies both physical and emotional scars that are both his Achilles Heel and his motivation to help others. These characters offer an image of how many of us see our own inner lives – broken in many ways but still desiring to make the lives of others better.
Here are five ways to use Wounded Healers to enrich your story.
1. THE SELF DESTRUCTOR
Many of us have people in our lives that seem bent on welcoming conflict and difficulty in their own journeys despite being the most kind and helpful creatures one could ever hope to meet. The Self Destructor reflects the challenges we face that we just can’t seem to ever get past, no matter how many times we try.
A doctor keeps a young gangster from dying of tuberculosis and convinces him to curb his own self-destruction all while battling his own severe alcoholism in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. Jack is a wounded and self-destructive healer in A Star is Born. This archetypal character is often used to bring out the best in another character while running their own train off the tracks.
2. THE SIN EATER
Some wounded characters bring healing to others through their own self-sacrifice. In a variety of traditions throughout history, sin eaters would consume a ritual meal in order to magically take on the sins of someone in their community or in some cases, an entire household, relieving them of any consequences of their actions.
From the mythological Aztec goddess of earth, Tlazolteotl, to Jesus Christ — those willing to take on the mistakes and wickedness of others have long been heroic figures in our stories, especially when those figures have endured great suffering themselves. Mike McDermott is a sin eater that takes on the debts of his despicable friend, Worm, in Rounders.
3. THE EMBODIED WOUND
While many Healer’s wounds are psychological and emotional, others carry their wounds in their bodies. While these physical wounds most often metaphorically represent something greater than a mere carnal condition, the Healer that carries their challenges in a way that all the world can see affects the audience in a very different way than those with wounded psyches. For example, Eli’s blindness offers powerful irony for his Healer character in The Book of Eli. The Wounded Healer’s embodiment often offers an opportunity to explore internal issues in very external and visual ways.
4. THE HIDDEN WOUND
Many characters are very in touch with their own wounds. They know how they are affected by their pain. Other characters hide their injuries behind humor, soft-hearted kindness, or even violently aggressive meanness. Hidden wounds may be invisible to the character who carries them, but at least one of the other characters in the story should be able to see them well.
The writers of Better Call Saul have used multiple seasons of their story to slowly demonstrate the impact of Jimmy McGill’s brother on his life, as well as showing us the meaning behind the wounds he will carry long after his brother’s death. Hidden wounds will eventually be brought to the surface at inopportune times in well-crafted stories.
5. THE CULTURAL WOUND
A Healer’s task is lofty even when it is only a single person that needs help. However, when it’s an entire culture or institution that needs healing, a Healer’s wound can be overwhelming. In The Handmaid’s Tale, June Osborne not only must carry her own painful hurts, she is also tasked with trying to heal an entire broken system. To make matters worse, the system she is up against does not want to be healed.
Starr faces a similar struggle in The Hate U Give. Her character is scarred by what she has witnessed, but must overcome her wound in order to bring healing to the larger community. Cultural wounds often take a long time to produce even the smallest amount of healing. It is essential that you give your character enough time to believably affect change in their environment, which is often why these tasks are better suited to feature films or multiple seasons of television than shorter forms of media.
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 the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.