Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Review: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus

This is another of my birthday presents. The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is basically a handbook on how to break people and what happens when they are broken. However, it also illuminates some ways they could heal. It's aimed at writers, but you could just as well use it for art, music, dance, or any other liberal art that aims to convey emotion through some storytelling medium. You'll just use different methods to portray it.

The front matter has some heavy-duty material for writers on how to construct characters with attention to their damage. In this regard it is much more useful than most writing classes I have taken. Seriously, this would make a magnificent textbook for a college writing class. But most of the writing classes were all the same, everything smushed together, while the really good detail classes were in some other subject, like how the language department had classes on grammar or phonetics.

This part of the book begins with "Self-Care for Writers." Read that and it will save you a lot of headaches. Those are also good tips for readers when handling material labeled Warn All The Things. Next, "The Mirror of Fiction" explores how we use our own experiences to tell stories, and use stories to mull over how to respond to challenges in real life.

"What Is an Emotional Wound?" considers the nature of psychological injury, its tendency to create lies or false impressions (but be wary of assuming all negative lessons are false, because sometimes they're accurate), how they can reshape characters, and unmet needs. Note that the nature of this book, a guide for writers, inclines it to conflate two separate things: the original injury, and the emotional scar tissue it leaves behind. It's entirely possible for even a serious wound to heal cleanly, if the person is lucky and has a lot of resources for recovery. Bad as it is, most grief heals well enough that it doesn't form contractures which distort the person's life afterwards. So consider that characters may have well-healed wounds, badly-healed wounds, or a mix of both. While the book isn't designed to cover well-healed wounds, you can use it to figure out how they'd work if you do some extra thinking.

"Character Arc" looks at different ways that characters can change, or not, through the course of a story. It includes a very good set of concrete steps for working through a personal problem or limitation. "The Villain's Journey" explores the divergence between heroic and villainous paths, and how wounds affect them differently. Most villains suffer more from their problems and fail worse as solving them compared to heroes. Remember the game Call to Adventure? It deals with the same split, and really shows how trauma can influence someone's life.

"Brainstorming Your Character's Wound" includes a lot of aspects you can think about in the construction phase. It also has an overview on the broad categories of wounds. "Pain Runs Deep" goes into factors that affect the wound, for better or worse. You may find the Measuring Trauma scale helpful in this regard. "Revealing the Wound Through Behavior" lays out how characters may respond to past trauma and how you, as a writer, may disclose this to readers.

"Problems to Avoid" lays out some common mistakes in writing and steps you can take to avoid them. I really like books that do this. When you have both the right and the wrong ways explained, it's easier to get the story right. Again, more useful than most writing classes or books I have seen.

These are the broad categories of emotional wounds and some examples of each:
"Crime and Victimization" (A Carjacking, Being Held Captive, Witnessing a Murder)
"Disabilities and Disfigurements" (A Traumatic Brain Injury, Being So Beautiful It's All People See, Losing One of the Five Senses)
"Failures and Mistakes" (Accidentally Killing Someone, Failing at School, Making a Very Public Mistake)
"Injustice and Hardship" (An Abuse of Power, Being Fired or Laid Off, Prejudice or Discrimination)
"Misplaced Trust and Betrayals" (A Toxic Relationship, Having One's Ideas or Work Stolen, Misplaced Loyalty)
"Specific Childhood Wounds" (Being the Product of Rape, Growing Up in Foster Care, Living in a Dangerous Neighborhood)
"Traumatic Events" (A Parent's Divorce, Being Tortured, Having an Abortion)

Note that some emotional wounds cross over categories, even though they are only listed once: child molestation is a crime, an abuse of power, a betrayal, and a childhood wound. It's worth reading across categories for this reason, as you may find inspiration in other sections.

Each entry includes examples, basic needs often compromised by this wound, false beliefs that may be embraced, the character may fear..., possible responses and results, personality traits that may form, triggers that might aggravate this wound, and opportunities to face or overcome this wound.

One thing the book doesn't mention directly is that trauma fucks up your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. An obvious example is that you may develop coping techniques which work for a while, but then something changes, and they stop working or even start causing problems. Much more insidious is the fact that your beliefs may be true but then become false due to changing circumstances, or even vice versa. So it is essential to determine which of the things a character learns from trauma are true, partly true, or false; and helpful, unhelpful, actively harmful, or mixed. "Nobody loves me" is a statement which is true for some people but false for others. "The world is a dangerous place" varies over time, and also depending on what part you are standing in -- far more true in Somalia than in Norway, but climate change hangs over everyone's head. Consider especially this diagram of trust and distrust, because trauma really tends to undermine trust. Was the trauma a fluke and an accident? Or was it pretty typical of what people face in that setting? Those lead to very different accuracy ratings of character beliefs.

The back matter is more practical stuff like worksheets. "Wound Flowchart" thumbnails the process of emotional wounding and scarring. "Character Arc Progression Tool" is a list of steps for constructing emotional wounds and their effects. "Wounding Examples from Popular Stories" talks about the type of wound and its effect in a few famous characters. This would've been a lot more useful had it been bigger -- enough to cover a wide range of sexes, ages, ethnicities, ability levels, and at least one example from each major category of wound. "Backstory Wound Profile Tool" is a much more detailed worksheet on how to map out a character's damage. "Recommended Reading" has only a handful of titles. They're good, but again, more would have been better.

This is one of the most useful writing books I've seen, and I have a couple shelves' worth at least, including some other damn good ones. I'll be using this a lot for making supervillains. They're all damaged in one way or another, because happy healthy people just don't take the black. Granted, my supervillains average a lot healthier than the ones in worlds that have whole asylums full of nutjobs, but some of them are still packing some pretty serious damage. More often than not, trauma caused their superpowers to manifest, or if not that, the manifestation caused trauma -- occasionally both. Some patterns repeat a lot: I have a great many supervillains who came through the foster system, or were abused/neglected as children, and so on. Much of this applies to villains in other genres too.

While this book aims at teaching writers how to craft damaged characters, it is also the most useful and comprehensive guide to human brokenness that I have found. What I've seen of medical guides are much more concerned about labels than about people, and that narrow-minded focus makes them less than helpful. But here's a list of many broad categories and many specific examples of things that can really fuck people up, and what's likely to go wrong as a result. It touches only lightly on how to fix things, but once you've got a good guide to what's broken, it is a great deal easier to figure out how to fix it -- and what content there is on fixing personal problems is quite excellent. So if you have wreckage in your past, and you have found other resources unhelpful in addressing that, then this is about a third to half of an effective handbook for working on it. Combine this with a topical book about a specific problem, and one with a good set of coping skills or other headwork techniques, and you've got what you need to make a solid try. Don't be afraid to use fiction, or fiction-writing references, if you haven't found a nonfiction book that suits your needs.

Also, this completes my set of the currently available titles in this series, the others being: The Positive Trait Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus, The Urban Setting Thesaurus, The Rural Setting Thesaurus, and The Emotion Thesaurus. \o/

Most highly recommended.
Tags: how to, nonfiction, reading, review, safety, writing
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