I was privileged to have been randomly selected to do an early review of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. As excited as I was to have early access to another invaluable resource from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, I was nervous about tackling a text of several hundred pages of wounds and traumatic events that not only shape the characters we create as writers (antagonists and protagonists) but also resonate with us as human beings, because we have also experienced life in ways that were not always happy.
Having said that, working my way through the text was made less traumatic because of the skillful way the authors introduced the material. I was impressed that the Foreword clearly spelled out the purpose – for writers to build depth and believability into their work by being sensitive to wounds as they impact motivation and goals.
Reading the definition of Emotional Wounds and how/why they manifest in certain ways reminded me of walking through a tunnel – even though the space had the potential to be troubling, the path was laid out clearly and the lights were on.
The first major entry was called: Self Care for Writers, which laid out four principles for us to be mindful of as we deal with sensitive topics:
Use it in a safe place; Incorporate time buffers; Take breaks; and have someone trustworthy on call, just in case.
I kept saying to myself as I turned the pages, “Yes, it starts with the Lie, then the Fear, then….” And I realized that Angela and Becca have written a primer that encourages writers to acknowledge some of their own issues, how they impact the characters we craft – do we have them reflect our fears and coping mechanisms or do we use them as a jumping-off points for delving deeper into POV and forging bravely ahead as we wish we’d been brave enough to? Answering these gentle questions helps us show more dynamically how living, breathing characters deal with motivation, goals and setbacks.
That self-awareness alone is invaluable. Where does on our protagonist reside on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? What is it they want in your story? We are urged to “poke around in (our characters’) dark places” so that we can know them intimately and understand their backstory (without dumping it into the writing).
This is how we uncover the emotional wounds they’ve experienced and realistically shape their reactions. We’re talking past mistakes, pain, fears, victimization, anger, betrayal – they can be hidden but not erased. Our characters (usually) aren’t us, and using the tools in EWT enables us to move away from personal limitations and standard tropes and dig deeper, making our protagonists’ experiences and responses to events more unique and the villains less predictable. Not every conflict has to be earth-shattering – perceptions of wounds is extremely personal, so there will be variations in how two individuals respond to the same event.
We’ve all learned about the Virgin’s Promise/Heroine’s Journey and the Hero’s Journey – how their character arcs shift from brokenness into wholeness.
An added bonus was an overview of the Villain’s Journey. We know that without the foil of a credible antagonist, the hero or heroine tends to live in a flat, uneventful world without significant struggle or conflict. But it is those challenging events brought on by something or some one outside the heroine’s control that allow us to show character growth. If there is no monster/villain/enemy, it’s not easy for readers to get excited about her prevailing. But they’ll keep turning the pages if we gradually peel away the layers to discover what makes our heroine tick. Has she got moxie or does she wilt under pressure? Can she McGyver her way out of a tight spot and save herself or does she hope for someone to rescue her?
The section on Problems to Avoid delivers a handy list we should all keep by our keyboards. The items go far beyond the “show don’t tell” mantra and detail not just the pitfalls, but give tips on how to improve. The key takeaway is: Authenticity. And The Emotional Wounds Thesaurus is an authentically fantastic resource.
I haven’t studied all the entries. As well-written as the book is, reading page after page of content about the events that cause pain was difficult and I stopped then started several times – but I will get through it. There’s no sensationalism or lack of sensitivity on the part of the authors – far from it. They are incredibly skilled and have created a very helpful resource.
My approach was to hop from wound to wound as each applied to my novels. I was seeking confirmation that I had made my characters come alive on the page as flesh and blood troubled, conflicted, determined individuals coping with the baggage that life piled on their shoulders.
I began with the wounds my protagonist Kenora has: being stalked, being assaulted, infidelity, having a controlling or overly strict parent, having parents who favoured one child over another, getting dumped, divorcing a spouse, finding out one parent had a second family, finding out one was adopted. Seems long enough, doesn’t it?
The thing is, she characterizes her life as being “boringly normal”. Why? Because the overarching context of her life fits that perception. Because the events took place over the span of 42years and although they shaped her life, most were temporarily devastating and allowed her time to recover and build strength. So yes, Kenora is the woman I want to write about; because of her emotional wounds, she’s resilient, inventive and feisty – and still making mistakes and learning. For me as a writer, knowing that about her allows me the freedom to have her act in ways that ring true to the person she develops into over the course of three novels.
This is not a reference book you should go through from beginning to end. That’s why I’ve re-read the Self Care section several times, to ground myself in what the book is about and the purpose for applying the essence of wound entries to my writing.
But I have such respect and am in awe that the authors had the wisdom and courage to conquer their own concerns and produce such a useful book – not just for writers, but for everyone with an interest in human behaviour.
The Emotional Wounds Thesaurus will be released on October 25th. You owe it to yourself to get a copy, read it, talk about it and apply the principles to power up your writing.