Scarring Your Characters

Everyone has scars. Something that has hurt them that they carry through life, that changes how they act and react. I’ve said it so many times: characters are people, and they are. And characters have scars too—both literal and figurative.

Scars are more than just a tragic backstory. They can be as deep as an abusive past or loss of a parent, or superficial as social rejection or a petty betrayal. They give characters and stories depth. Characters are people, with pasts and lives and feelings, that are constantly changing and growing. It makes your story full and dynamic—living and breathing.

It also opens up a whole new world of story possibilities and makes your story unpredictable. Instead of a linear path following your protagonist and their struggles, now there’s a dozen different paths, weaving and colliding and tangling together.

So how can you add scars?

Sometimes scars are obvious and unavoidable—like a scar slashed across their face. These are a major part of your character, and unavoidably part of the story, but they don’t necessarily have to be focused on. These don’t always have the most impact on your character. They might be more of a trait, another factor of your character, without really affecting how they interact with the world. I think most tragic backstories fall into this category. Usually, it’s added like another tick on a character sheet: brown hair, sometimes shy, parents died tragically when he was young.

Don’t just add something that seems awful and traumatic for the sake of it being awful and traumatic. It might not really have the impact on your character that it should, like I said above. What matters most to your character? What do they want more than anything? And what would hurt them the most?

For instance, the protagonist of Ember, Falcon, lived with a gang for years before she found her family. The abuse she suffered from them wasn’t what was traumatic. In her world, violence was normal, accepted. What was more painful for her was when the gang lord, the only person to ever show her  “love” and the only family she had ever had, cast her out on the street like she was nothing.

Sometimes scars aren’t obvious. Sometimes they peek out of a shirt sleeve, or don’t even show at all. We don’t always see scars, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there. In the same way, your characters’ scars might not even be part of the story, but that doesn’t mean they won’t affect it. Falcon’s father figure, Asa, knows a lot about her past and carries a lot of pain from that time. None of that is ever addressed in Ember, but it changes how he treats Falcon and how he reacts to everything that happens in the story.

Not all scars are major. Most are much smaller, but no less important. Sometimes these are the scars that really affect how a character acts, and taken altogether really shape who they are. And sometimes scars that seem small, have a lot more impact than we think. In Ember, Falcon has a scar on her wrist from when the gang punished her for trying to steal food. It seems small, but we learn later that this is the incident that made them cast her out, so it has a lot more meaning to her.

When thinking of scars, usually we think of our protagonists first. Which is great, because they arguably need to be the deepest and most developed character in your story. But I think what really gives a story depth is when supporting characters have pasts and scars, which then affect how they treat the protagonist and the events around them.

If you are going to scar your characters in the story, then it needs to be dealt with straight on. You need to directly address what happened to them, and how they’re going to change because of it. But if it happened to them before the story starts, I think the most effective way to show their scars is to first show the behavior or how it has changed your character, then slowly reveal the reason behind it.

I could say a lot more about this, but I’ll write another post on it later. What are your characters’ scars, and how do you work them into your story? Are they obvious scars on the face, or hidden behind a sleeve?

Either way, scars are what make your characters.

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