How To Shape Characters With Emotional Bruises

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Written by JJ Barnes

Characterisation is one of the most important keys to hooking your audience. If your characters are flat or don’t feel real, your story will feel flat and unreal. I’ll be writing about how to use emotional bruises to shape characters in a way that keeps them feeling real and captivating for your audience.

What Are Emotional Bruises?

Emotional Bruises, JJ Barnes Writing Advice
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Emotional bruises are experiences that have changed your character. Experiences that have either brought great joy or great pain, that change their behaviour in some way. Imagine that every intense emotional experience leaves a bruise on you. That bruise acts as a permanent reminder of the experience you had. These bruises are on our emotions not our bodies, but they’re still sore.

For most people, they’ll be protective of their emotional bruise. You avoid poking that bruise because it hurts, so you avoid trying to repeat the action that caused it. If you’ve had your heart broken, you might want to avoid love, or change the people you date. If you’ve had a friend betray you, you’ll avoid that personality or become insular and untrusting of others. That bruise is something that shapes and affects how you respond to people and events.

A self destructive personality might seek more experiences that cause the bruises. Poke them repeatedly, blame themselves for the pain caused by others. Each emotional bruise will grow and become more painful with every single poke, but still they keep poking. Their responses to people and events are also affected by that bruise, but in a different way.

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Why Do They Improve Characterisation?

We need our characters to feel like real people, and real people have had experiences. Even the most protected and happy person in the world has had experiences they’ve been changed by. If your bruises are all things you’ve experienced that are positive, you’re motivated to find that experience again. Your bruise pain is from not having it and seeking it out. If you’ve had sad experiences, you want to avoid them and the pain can be fear of repetition.

If your characters aren’t carrying these emotional bruises, they’ll feel like they only exist from Chapter One to The End. They should arrive at the start of your story as if they’ve been alive this whole time. And by The End they should have been shaped and changed by the events of your story. If there are no emotional bruises, nothing that has impacted them enough to change them, then nothing interesting or important has happened. Ever. And that won’t feel real.

Emotional Bruises Prior To Your Story

The emotional bruises your characters develop prior to the start of your story are known as their backstory. When you’re creating your characters, imagine them living before you started writing about them. What impacted them? Why are they angry or vulnerable or hopeful? What events in their lives gave them those emotions?

Emotional Bruises in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven
Emotional Bruises in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven

These characters only exist to serve your story, so you give them emotional bruises that serve your story too. You need active conflict at all times, things people want and work for and disagree on. So what emotional bruises can you give each character in their history that create interesting tension in their lives now.

For instance, in my book Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, I used emotional bruises. One of my characters, Celeste, is a Christian. She wears a crucifix and her religion is important to her, so she is motivated to live a life according to the teachings of her religion. She is also used to having to defend her religious beliefs and sensitive to the hostility of others towards her because of it. Tig, on the other hand, is an atheist who was abused as part of a religious cult in her childhood. She, therefore, is very anti religion, and mistrusting of anybody who believes.

These characters are friends and love one another deeply, but these emotional bruises get poked. It changes their reactions towards one another, it challenges them and causes conflict. Without those emotional bruises flaring up, the scenes would be less interesting and the characters would be flatter.

Emotional Bruises Developed During Your Story

Emotional Bruises, JJ Barnes Writing Advice
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Your characters should start and finish your story different. As well as responding to existing emotional bruises, your characters should develop new ones. They should be shaped and changed by the events of your story, because that means your story is a significant event in their lives. Which makes it interesting enough to read and experience with them. If nobody is impacted by the events of your story it suggests your story is dull and nothing much happens.

Make your characters suffer for what they want, because that means it’s worth fighting for. They should be fighting and over coming challenges all the way through, because that means your story is worth the effort. And each obstacle they fight through should leave them changed as people. They have learned and grown and changed by how much your story matters.

As they move forward in their lives, even though you won’t be going with them, you know they are new people. They will carry those emotional bruises into future events in their life. The time you spent with them, that period of their lives in which your story is set, was important. It was worth experiencing.

Your Audience Will Love Your Characters

Your audience will love your characters because your characters reflect humanity. We are all carrying pain and we have all been shaped by events in our lives. Watching someone in pain respond badly because they’re scared of an emotional bruise being poked is human. We can see ourselves. We are flawed and we are vulnerable, but that doesn’t make us bad people. And showing that in your characters will draw your audience in.

When your audience loves your characters for all their flaws and pains, hopes and fears, they will love your story. They will come back for more, they will root for these people that they care about, and you’ll have had a powerful impact on them because of your writing.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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