How to Create Character Mannerisms from Backstory Wounds

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From Jane Friedman:

The best way to deepen and enrich our characters is to develop them from long before they enter the story we’re writing. Every character (really, every human being) struggles with one or more wounding experiences that create life-long emotional responses. These backstory wounds result in the lies our characters tell themselves, or what Lisa Cron in Story Genius refers to as “misbeliefs.”

By borrowing from acting techniques, especially those developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, writers can follow a logical sequence of development to create a character that feels real and alive while their wound and misbelief may remain buried and invisible—even to the character.

Backstory wounds in action

Backstory wounds come in all shapes and sizes, but they share one thing in common: Whether seemingly trivial or clearly debilitating, the wounding experience is unforgettable and causes lasting pain. The wounding can be singular or repeated, and because we each experience pain in our own way, even small wounds can be damaging. Examples include bullying, abuse, poverty, loss of a loved one, physical disability, fear during a natural event, failure.

Because we process pain by trying to make sense of it, we turn to self-reflection, and that can quickly turn into self-blame. Self-blame forms the lie or misbelief that dominates all future behaviors.

Here’s an example of the wound and the misbelief in action in a character:

A child witnesses her father leave when her parents divorce. She reflects that the divorce must be her fault—she was naughty, or cranky—and the lie that forms is “My dad left me and Mom because he doesn’t like my behavior, so I must be defective.”

The lie begins to emerge as a statement of fact: “Defective people (like me) can’t form relationships.” This fact perpetuates fear: “I’ll be abandoned again, because I’m defective.” And fear of further wounding holds this character in thrall: “To keep myself from being abandoned again, I won’t form relationships at all.”

This character will grow up with an emotional shield that could result in all sorts of possible character arcs: a cold woman who callously murders her partners; a broken woman who hops from one affair to the next; a timid woman who walks away from any possible partner; and so on.

Character behaviors and traits emerge from the wound

Character behaviors are patterned by the character’s emotions that result from the misbelief. Actors study human behavior to develop mannerisms or tics that are outward physical manifestations of those misbelief-generated emotions.

We can use the same sequence of developing our characters to create mannerisms, traits, and tics that reflect their deep-seated emotions in a way that shows the wound and misbelief emerging through those gestures.

Here’s the step-by-step exercise to help you uncover your character’s wound, its lasting impact, and how it reveals itself through your character’s actions on the page.

  1. Choose your character, and brainstorm 5 possible wounding backstory events for that character. Try to make them each a little different, with different impact. Remember that these events happened long before the start of your story.
  2. Choose what feels like it could be a powerful event for your character and write a full scene around it. You may or may not use this scene in your story; if you do I suggest burying it deep in the narrative.
  3. Identify the lie or misbelief that results from the wound that emerges from this scene. For example, bullying might result in the lie that your character must protect himself.
  4. Identify the lasting emotions in your character that are produced by the lie. The bullied kid feels that to protect himself, he must act tough; or, he might fear that trying to protect himself will lead to abuse.
  5. Identify the behaviors that result from those emotions. The tough kid might bully other kids, or take up boxing, or wear clothing that feels/looks like armor; or the fearful kid might run and hide from any conflict.
  6. Identify the mannerisms, traits, or tics that result from those behaviors. The tough kid might affect a swagger, or a sneer. He might wear all black. He might push others out of his way in his rise to the top. He might abuse substances, or conversely refrain from them in order to be fully in control. The fearful kid might have a speech impediment, or an odd way of not looking directly at others, or he might have OCD.

To take this back to our woman who was wounded by divorce, she may have traits like standing rigidly and speaking forcefully, or tugging on her sleeves as if to hide her skin, or insisting on perfection in everything and everyone around her because being less than perfect results in abandonment.

The traits that define your character will rise directly from their wound.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman