“What’s your damage, Heather?”
We all carry damage around with us in some way, shape or form, like an unwanted hitchhiker. Damage from things that were done to us as children. Damage from things we did to others. Damage from the world and society at large.
I carry the damage of homophobia. Of being called a faggot and queer and a sissy, damage from the nasty looks straight guys sometimes gave me when I was a teenager. I carry the damage of shattered hopes, dreams, and expectations, and the damage of a few hundred writing rejections that feed my imposter syndrome (but that’s a whole ‘nuther story)
In real life humans, damage causes great harm. It can shape and channel our lives, and unchecked, it can ruin us.
In characters, a little damage makes things far more interesting. Consider:
Riane has wanted to be a starship captain their entire life. They worked hard, studied hard, got into a good school, and by twenty two, were chosen by the UAS for their elite star ship captain training school at Moonbase Alpha. They became a captain at twenty five, and their family was immensely proud of them.
Warm and fuzzy and heartwarming. And I know, I can see the appeal. I was a huge fan of Melrose Place in the first season, a lighthearted look at new adult life by the poolside in L.A. Until they dropped Amanda in the middle like a hand grenade. Talk about damage.
As the hubby pointed out, happy, well-adjusted characters can also be boring as hell. So how about this instead?
Riane was abandoned at an orphanage at the age of twelve, told by their mother that they would never amount to anything. This created a deepseated mistrust of family and authority in young Riane, something they would never entirely outgrow. Passing through a series of foster homes, they learned to be self sufficient. They also vowed to prove their mother wrong. They got into the UAS on a hardship scholarship, but were almost thrown out because of their regular run-ins with teachers at the school, who Riane thought were all too cautious and less intelligent than they were. But Riane's fast thinking and willingness to do what everyone told them not to saved half the school when a rogue ship engine almost blew it to bits it, and only their quick action-against orders-stopped it in time. Still, they were thrown out of school for disobeying the school authorities, and ended up signing on for scut work on a cross-system hauler. When they finally rose to the role of captain on their own merit, with the respect of their crew mates, they sent a six word message to their mother, now living on a meager pension in Queens. "What do you think of me now?"
Damage is one of the things that can create fault lines in your characters, which can become both motivations and self-imposed blockades that they need to find a way to overcome.
Maybe they drink because of something their uncle did to them when they were three, and your story is about learning to find the light again (and spaceships, of course).
Maybe they broke up with someone who was sick, and have lived with the guilt for three years, culminating with the receipt of a funeral invitation for that person. On Mars.
Here’s a little exercise. Think of your own close friends and family, people you know very well. Was there a tragic event or hard decision in one of their pasts that shaped the course of their life later? Something that dictates, even now, how they approach their lives and future decisions? For my grandmother Hazel, it was the great depression. She learned to live with very little, and saved anything that might be useful later. She also learned to be generous and give whatever she could to whomever needed it.
Now take a character from your current WIP, and give them a similar trauma. How would it make them act/react differently in your story? What if Mirkey was born on Vega Seven just after they lost contact with Earth, thrusting the planet and its economy info a horrific spiral from which it took two decades to climb out of? What did that do to young Mirkey’s psyche? What scars does she still carry from it, as she looks up at the stars and tries to imagine a distant Earth?
In my current WIP, Eating the Dragon, Raven’s mother was killed right in front of him in a horrific fire when he was a child. Now he’s none too thrilled with fire, of course, but on a deeper level, he is afraid to let anyone in, because they might leave him at any time. He chooses to be a thief, an occupation where he can have minimal contact with others and take back something to help fill the void of what he lost. He turns away his dearest friend (who wants more from him) because he can’t bear to lose him. And he overcompensates by giving some of his ill-gotten goods to the poorest of the poor.
So find your character’s damage. What was it? When did it happen? How did your character react? And how does it shape them, even now? Will they overcome it, use it to further their own ends, or let it destroy them in the end?
Then you’ve got a story.
To my writer friends, how do you use damage and trauma in your work?