Giving a character a scar can be a cliché or it can be a fast-track to deeper character development. When you're creating characters with scars, execution is key.
I recently revisited one of my favorite books of 2017, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. It’s a story of a father and his teenage daughter on the run who finally settle down in a small town. In their attempt to have a normal life, the daughter begins unraveling the truth about her deceased mother and their family history through her father’s twelve bullet-hole scars.
Tinti intertwines the father’s scars and their family secrets in a way that propels the story forward. Scars lend depth and tension to the narrative, and we can wield them with our own characters as long as we avoid cliché.
Scars Hold Stories
Sometimes I have students who say they don’t like to write. I suggest that perhaps they haven’t found a subject or story worth writing yet. Then I ask them if they have any scars.
Inevitably, the stories pour out of them, and they point to their arms, their foreheads, and their legs revealing skateboarding mishaps, fights, and sometimes deeper trauma.
Some scars are proud battle wounds. Others are covered and kept from the light. Those stories shape what we believe about the world which in turn shapes who we are.
Scars Hint at a Past
Scars can be a powerful characterization tool because they ground our characters in a past, lending credibility and depth.
I have never been the writer who completes long questionnaires or writes extended backstory on a character. For some writers, those exercises are helpful and necessary.
Instead, when I think about fleshing out a character, it often helps me to think about the physical and emotional scars that my characters carry. Tap into your own scars for ideas, even if it is only in free writing. The moment of injury, the pain, and the healing all mimic the rise and fall of story.
When I know the physical and emotional scars, they become like music playing in the background of a character’s day. They don’t always impact every decision, but they are present and always setting the mood.
How to Give a Character a Scar
The main danger in writing characters with scars is allowing myself to be lazy. I can’t slap a scar on a character like a cartoon bandaid and expect it to be believable or lend depth.
I have to go beyond the stereotypical jagged eyebrow scar for my villain. I have to push past the first love heartbreak. Both of these scars have worked in numerous stories—which is exactly why if I'm going to use them, I need to capture them in a fresh way.
The solution? We have to work to create scars that reveal hints about a character’s relevant backstory, preferably on theme.
For example, if I’m writing a story about a character who struggles with trust issues, I want to make sure there are wounds in her past that resulted in that fear. Whether it was a sibling or close friend who betrayed her or a parent who regularly broke promises in an unusual way, my character needs to carry the weight of that story.
Scars aren’t always visible, but they are powerful reminders of the past.
Have you ever written characters with scars? How did the scar relate to the character’s quest? Share your experience in the comments.
For today's practice, you have two choices.
Are you in the middle of a work in progress? Take fifteen minutes to write about your protagonist. What struggles do they face throughout your story? What history and scars led them there?
Or, take fifteen minutes to write about a scar of your own. When and how did you receive it, and what is its impact on your life today?
When you're done, share your writing practice in the Pro Member Practice Workshop here, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
If you aren't a member yet, we'd love to have you check it out here.
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.