According to the late teacher and script doctor Peter Russell, the character’s core wound powers the story. Writing and speaking extensively on TV and film scripts, Russell advocates a character-first approach to storytelling.
Citing the seven universal plots, good writing is not about the cool things you can do with guns and violence, heists and car chases. Those are ultimately shallow and empty. The story has to reveal the character’s core wound. It’s the aspect that makes us empathise, sympathise, and stay with their story to the end.
It applies to all stories in all media.
Why the Core Wound?
We identify with a character when they reveal their pain and vulnerability. This generates empathy and sympathy.
Showing the core wound is an act of confession or revelation. It demands some moment of insight into the character, whether this is explicit or implicit. Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones opens the novel with hers. Tom Ripley doesn’t express his in The Talented Mr Ripley, but Highsmith shows it clearly.
Why does it work?
On seeing the character’s core wound, the reader says ‘I’m not alone. This character is a screw-up just like all of us.’ Or worse. Vulnerability is attractive, regardless of the character’s moral compass.
Consider: sympathetic is more important than likable. Empathetic is more attractive than good.
If you want proof, consider every classic gangster in movies and TV. Tony Sporano, Michael Corleoni and Walter White all commit heinous crimes in the act of saving family. Of course, it helps that everyone around them behaves worse. Their crimes are not justified or excused, but they are understandable. Often crossing tragic arcs, these characters are compelling because we recognise their pain.
Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and few words, guns down the antagonists for the ‘right’ reasons in genre Western A Fistful of Dollars. The revelation comes when he saves a family. Somewhere inside, loss of family is his core wound.
Back to our favourite, Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie’s core wound is the inevitable destitution of family should none of the sisters marry and produce and heir to Longbourne. Freudian analysis might call it the impending loss of her father. Romance writers will call it the lack of a worthy romantic partner.
Russell adds layers to the character in the way they attempt to compensate for their wound. He advocates writing five compensating factors.
In Lizzie Bennett, we find a quiet rebel against society, refusing to conform. She doesn’t bow down to the Bingleys or to Darcy. Lizzie happily punctures Darcy, Caroline Bingley, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine. Our protagonist sticks to her principles. She refuses to marry for money, because her father doesn’t want her to sacrifice her happiness. Lizzie is fiercely loyal to her sisters and parents, even in the most socially damaging situations. And she will fight injustice, letting Darcy know how his interference wrongs Jane.
Wounds in Fantasy
The notion of the character’s core wound applies in all genres. My characters need more depth than simply riding around having the occasional sword fight. The truth is, in my Westerns With Swords, the sword fights are the least important ingredient.
Jovanka’s core wound; a family that gave her up to a father who hated her. Varla’s wound; a family taken from him.
Considering Russell’s compensating factors, I get:
- Rebelling against authority figures.
- Learning how to fight back.
- Seeking help.
- Seeking truth of the future (making sense of her Second Sight)
- Being selfless in pursuit of her goals
- Rebelling against the injustices of the Empire
- Never surrendering
- Giving help without asking
- Protecting the vulnerable
- Self-sacrifice if called on
While these compensating factors carry different weights and express themselves very differently, there’s a pleasing symmetry in my two rebels without a clue. Ultimately, they can reveal and understand each other’s core wounds despite differences in age, gender and culture. That builds the found-family arc of each story. Let’s hope the readers agree.