Don’t Kill Your Darlings–Just Put ’em Through the Wringer

I was reading a piece, recently, on emotional wounds in fictional characters:

“Like in real life, characters suffer many different smaller wounds throughout their lives, but the ‘wounding event’ that factors into your character’s internal arc should be symbolic of the false belief they must reject in order to become whole once more.”

I think this is true, but that’s not what really grabbed me. It was the question of where those emotional wounds come from in the first place, and what that says about the writer.

My characters are all wounded. How and why varies, but always—without fail—I’ve begun to notice a pattern. I’ll usually hit the darkest point of the story, stop writing, then revisit the work a few months later, at which point it hits me like a fist in the face:

I was using these characters to work something out.

Take Darien. Couldn’t be less like me: he’s a man, I’m a woman. He’s a doctor, I’m an editor. Prefers call-girls to steady girlfriends (I’ve been married for five years). Troubled relationship with his father (mine was with my mother). Rejects commitment of any kind because he knows he’s a disappointment.

Hold on.

Back when I was in college, I didn’t’ want to get married. I thought it was stupid, a meaningless institution (stop me if you’ve heard this one). I ended up doing it anyway, because I found someone I cared about and who cared about me, someone I’m happy to call my best friend.

But now, looking back on it…I was terrified. It wasn’t that I thought marriage was stupid– I just thought I’d be bad at it. I had a weird, nomadic life as a kid, and I knew I’d never have the “right” kind of committed relationship because I had no frame of reference. I knew I’d screw it up, so why even try?

And that’s the fear I’d written into this character.

Another example:

Bryan was a vampire, a fashion designer, and a selfish prick. He was also bipolar.

I’m none of these things. But at the time I wrote him, I was doing a lot of research into depression, anxiety, and cyclothymia (a more mild form of bipolar disorder). At the time, I only knew that I was unhappy and that writing helped. If I’d been a little more self-aware, I’d have looked at that list of anxiety symptoms and realized I was ticking every fucking box.

I won’t bore you with the details, but around November of 2016 (gee, wonder what triggered that) I sank into depression, and a month later I started seeing a therapist. I’m in a much better place now, and it’s only in retrospect that I realized what I’d been doing: I was writing about anxiety and mood swings and depression because slowly, subconsciously, I was starting to recognize those things myself and trying to exorcise them on the page.

I might be unique among writers, but I doubt it. I suspect that consciously or otherwise, most writers are drawing on their hidden fears, anxieties, and wounds when they write their characters. I want to stress that it’s not a clear line: our characters are NOT us. But often, they carry a part of us, and it’s not always the best part. Which is why writing can be such a god-awful, gut-wrenching thing to do: you take this deeply personal piece of art, and you throw it at the world, and sometimes the world throws it back. That hurts…but it’s not like you can stop doing it.

So if you’re a writer that’s struggling with a character…if you just can’t seem to connect, if you can’t find a way to make them real…look inward. Figure out what scares you, what hurts you, what rattles you. See if there’s something you can use.

I’m sure you’ll think of something.

Image courtesy Xavier Sotomayor @



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