Consider the Scars
By Jen Jandavs-Hedlin
I have a small scar on the right side of my face, above my lip. It’s fairly visible in summer when I’m tanned, but in winter it almost entirely disappears.
The thing about a scar, is that it is the fully healed version of the wound. The original cut was much more gruesome—longer, deeper, and bloodied, with stitches needed to hold my flesh back together. The imperfection remaining is just a tiny visual reminder of trauma that occurred there.
In the case of this particular scar, the injury on my face was part of a larger ordeal, a car accident. A friend and I were T-boned by a truck when she lost control on an icy Manitoba highway. It left me with back problems, bruising to my legs, torso, arms and face, and a concussion that affected my memory. My pants and jacket were torn by the impact. I was told it took rescuers over an hour to get me out of the car using the jaws of life, as I drifted in and out of consciousness.
Over a decade later the only physical evidence of the accident is 1 cm long, and sort of shaped like the number 7. Yet this scar—or what it represents—has shaped me. For better or for worse, that accident left an imprint on me. Weeks later, I remember stopping in a busy college stairwell, with everyone around me bustling by, and asking if anyone recognized me from their next class. I couldn’t remember where I was headed. And on dark nights, when headlights catch my eye at just the right angle, sometimes I still brace for impact.
Your characters also need to have scars. Whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, you should know the defining moments that have shaped your characters into who they are today. The more you know about your character’s back story, the more dimensions you can weave into their personality and the more fully developed they become.
I’m not suggesting that you start your novel with, “Tom doesn’t swim. When he was five, his stronger, older brother held him underwater until he passed out. He was left with overwhelming sense of his own mortality, and a justifiable fear of water."
But, maybe Tom doesn’t dive into the lake with his friends when they arrive at the cabin. Maybe that’s why he’s lying on the dock when the neighbour’s chocolate lab sloshes out of the water and gives him a sloppy wet kiss. Maybe the neighbour decides to apologize by inviting him & the gang over for a BBQ that night. And that’s where he meets Sara, who breaks his heart 152 pages later.
Having an in-depth knowledge of a character’s back story also helps you to reveal tiny pieces of their identity throughout the novel, teasing your reader into wanting to get to know them better. (But we’ll save that for another blog!)
I would encourage you to take a few minutes and write down everything you know about each character in your novel. Once you get beyond the surface stuff, what do you know about the moments that have defined them? Maybe their dog ran away when they were young. Or they got in trouble at school and were embarrassed in front of their class. Who broke their heart? Maybe they made the wrong choice in a crucial moment and they’re haunted by that. Or it cost them something (or someone) that was close to them. Maybe she pours herself a shot of pure vanilla when her kids are off at school. Maybe he knows, but is afraid that she’ll leave if he confronts her.
Considering the scars is a great way to discover your characters’ motivations, so you can work those factors into your plot. It’s not necessarily about creating backward looking characters with deep regrets, but about noticing the scar and hinting at the story behind it.
About this Contributor:
Jen Jandavs-Hedlin has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and is passionate about helping authors to share their stories. She enjoys cooking, reading, writing, and organizing her home into boxes and containers. Jen lives in Winnipeg with her husband, and their canine companion, Fritz.