Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Healing Character Wounds

by Debby Giusti

As writers, we know the importance of creating flawed characters that change and grow over the course of our stories. Looking back at my first writing attempts, I often chuckle. My heroes and heroines had it all—good looks, great intellects, poise and charm. Free of baggage, they were extraordinary humans whose lives were blessed in everyway. Of course, I had a lot to learn and soon realized that compelling stories involved characters that were true to life.

Last weekend, I attended a Christian healing seminar to learn ways to help those suffering from inner wounds, but shortly into the first talk, I knew that much of the information provided could be used in my books as well. The therapist who presented the program started off by saying all of us are wounded. Our unhealed wounds can trigger a response that negatively impacts the way we relate to others. The pain we experience often comes from the memory of an event that happened in the past. We hold onto a false belief about the memory that adversely affects the way we think about ourselves. If we can identify the false belief by bringing Christ into the midst of that painful memory, we can see ourselves through His eyes, discard the false lie we have been living and recognize the truth about who we truly are—a beautiful creation totally loved by God.

As an example, a person—or character—with low self-esteem may strike out with anger at anyone who questions his authority. When he identifies a memory of his father belittling him in front of his siblings and telling him he’s stupid, the wounded person recognizes the lie or false belief he has lived with, which is that he is stupid and incapable of good judgment. If the person brings Christ into the hurtful memory, he receives unconditional love and acceptance from the Lord and is able to embrace the truth, namely that he is a capable person and able to make wise decisions. In addition, he may also see his father through Christ’s eyes and recognize the pain his father was dealing with that precipitated the hurtful comments.

The first time I heard about character development based on false beliefs of past pain was in a workshop given by Jo Leigh Kramer, who writes as Jo Leigh, which she presented to Georgia Romance Writers a number of years ago. Jo Leigh talked about a misperception she had carried into adulthood, after overhearing a conversation between her mother and father when she was a child. Only when she confronted her parents about the flawed belief were they able to set her straight and free her from a false view she had held as truth. In the GRW workshop, she explained the value of using revelations of the mistaken past as turning points in the characters’ lives to up the emotional impact of our stories.

Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays that Sell, presented a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference I attended, in 2007, that touched on the same subject. Hauge talked about including character wounds and flawed self-perceptions in our stories. He explained how a hero may be inhibited by a wound or source of continuing pain that happened in the past, which he has suppressed but hasn’t healed. The hero draws inaccurate conclusions about the wound to protect himself, while living with the fear that he could be wounded again.

As a self-protective mechanism, the hero puts on a false front, or mask, which is the identity he presents to the world. Within the story, the flawed belief and protective identity must be stripped away to find the essence of the authentic person he truly is. The inner conflict, according to Hauge, is the tug of war between the identity and the essence, or the struggle between the false perception and the authentic self.

In romance, the love interest character sees beneath the identity mask and recognizes the true essence of the hero—his better self, so to speak— and loves that authentic person. Accepted and loved, the hero is then able to lower his mask and face the world in truth. Hauge uses the example of the movie, Jerry Maguire. Renee Zellweger’s character sees beneath the mask Jerry wears and loves the essence of who he really is, as stated in the following line, “I love him for the man he wants to be and the man he almost is.”

For Christian writers, an even more satisfying and complete transformation comes when Christ is the healer. Francine Rivers, in her highly acclaimed novel, Redeeming Love, shows how Angel’s husband saw the essence of who she truly was, but Angel had to accept the Lord into her life before she could be healed and freed from the false beliefs that had held her captive, concerning her own unworthiness.

I’m currently working on a new series for Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense called Military Investigations, featuring heroes and heroines in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, a special group of agents who investigate felony crimes within the military. The Officer’s Secret, the first book in the series, will be out in May 2011, and deals with three people and the painful secrets they carry. The CID hero, the murdered major and her sister, who is the heroine, have each been adversely affected by the past. The hero and heroine must face the false beliefs, or misperceptions, they have wrongly accepted as reality. Only when the truth is revealed through Christ are they able to be transformed into their authentic selves, the essence of who they truly are.

Whether in our books or in real life, the love of Christ heals. When we incorporate transforming moments into the lives of our characters, our stories can impact readers in a positive way. Hopefully, readers will examine their own painful memories and recognize the wounds and false beliefs that weigh them down. Embracing the universal truth that Christ wants us whole and healed whether in fiction or real life, readers, writers and characters alike see themselves in the light of Christ’s abundant love and mercy and are transformed.

Leave a comment and your email to be entered into a drawing for one of my books--your choice.

Wishing you abundant blessings,

Debby Giusti

KILLER HEADLINE ~ still available from Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense!

Watch for my new Military Investigations series and the launch book, THE OFFICER'S SECRET, May 2011.


  1. Great post Deb, I think some of my best healing of characters is my own. I've used many situations from myself and family and found the working through helpful. I think I portray the outer signals okay most of the time, using my foibles. Using others I probably could tie them better.

    I'd share some great food but it's late how bout cup of tea.

    Till tommorrow anyway

  2. I agree with Tina: great post! It is important to remember to make our characters real. Thank you for the tips and ideas, especially showing how in romance stories the hero/heroine needs to see what lies behind the other's mask.

    It's not too late here, but I'll turn on the coffee maker and get those scones in the oven so they'll be ready for other night owls (or early risers on the East Coast). ;)

    Thanks again! By the way, I really enjoyed Killer Headline! :) I would love a chance to win one of Deb's other books!


  3. This is a powerful post, Debby, with a great reminder of the importance of giving our main characters weaknesses which are the result of wounds they've received. Like you, I find it hard to connect with perfect people in fiction--or in real life for that matter. I feel a kinship with those, like me, who have been banged, battered, and bruised by life experiences that were less than ideal.

    We writers are often advised to make our characters sympathetic. One of the easiest ways to do this is to give them emotional wounds and lead them on a journey to healing and wholeness.

    My pastor often refers to those in our congregation as wounded healers and advises us to reach out to others from that place deep inside where we've connected with the Lord and received healing. Often, I'll have one character serve as a wounded healer, helping another who isn't as far along on his or her journey. They connect though their weaknesses and neediness, and the one helps the other as he or she was helped.

  4. Great reminders, Debby. I really look forward to the new series.

    Amber, thanks for the scones. Bring on the butter!

    Keli, your comment reminded me of something my pastor says about how we can witness God's love and forgiveness to someone else: one blind man showing another blindman where to find food.

  5. Great post Debby. I have a quick question that may seem a little 'dumb'. As someone who is just starting to write, how do you keep too much of your own personality from becoming your character's personality? I'm finding that my current lead is looking more and more like me everyday (which is scary since it's a WWII historical and I wasn't even born yet)?

    I have enjoyed every book that I have read of yours Debby and look forward to your new book.

    I would love to be entered into your drawing.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  6. Debby, this is wonderful stuff for writers! Thank you! Your new series sounds fantastic!

    Characters' back stories taint every interaction and provide powerful conflicts between them. Maybe I'm sick-o because I love writing characters' emotional wounds. But I, also, love giving them healing through an emotional encounter with faith. Sometimes coming to faith is their biggest struggle.


  7. Wow, Debby. Very insightful and helpful. Did you and Cheryl plan this? Cause y'all's posts go hand in hand.

    I've been able to recognize those hurtful things in myself, but now it's time to analyze my characters a little deeper...

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. Don't enter me in your drawing because I think I have all your books. :-)

    Anyway, have a great day on Seekerville ladies and enjoy your breakfast!

  8. Hi Tina,
    Thanks for being first online today! And for your great comments.

    The coffee's ready! And the full breakfast bar is up and running. I brought in a chef from a local restaurant, and he's preparing made-to-order omelets. Plus there's sausage, biscuits, an assortment of pastries, fresh fruit and grits!
    Dig in.

  9. Hi Amber,
    Thanks for plugging in the coffee in the wee hours. I'm enjoying my first cup!

    Thanks, too, for the kind words about Killer Headline. Leave your email address to be included in today's drawing -- one of my books--the winner's choice.

    Michael Hauge says the love interest character is the only one who sees behind the hero's mask and not only recognizes, but also loves, the authentic person she sees.

  10. Keli,
    You've shared wonderful insights into how the Lord heals, which can be used--as you stated--so beautifully in fiction. We've all been wounded. When we can experience the Lord's love and find healing, we're able to take what we learned and reach out to others with similar pain. Often we see that in grief experiences. The mother who has lost a child is the perfect person to offer encouragement and support to a woman whose child has recently passed away. Her words of comfort and hope ring true to the grief-stricken woman, searching for consolation.

  11. Hi Deb,
    Great quote from your pastor. No doubt, a wise man.

  12. Hi Cindy,
    You're in the drawing. Thanks for leaving your email and your comment! Loved your comments about my stories -- made my heart smile!

    Some say our first books are really all about us! Whether that's true or not, I'm not sure. I know my first manuscript--which will NEVER be published (LOL)--was set at Fort Irwin, CA, where my hubby, children and I had lived for two years. If I was in the book, I was an Army officer trying to investigate a training accident that claimed the commanding general's life. :)

    I do know that many of the issues I felt strongly about did come out in that first story, so I believe there is some truth to our first writings being somewhat autobiographical.

    In a way that's good. You feel deeply about certain subjects and that passion will come through on the written page. I'd say just write and enjoy the process. See where the Lord takes you. I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised. And while you may see yourself in the story, I'm sure others will only see the fictional characters you've created.

  13. Hi Janet,
    You do a wonderful job weaving the painful past with the healing, coming to faith moments in your stories! Don't change!!! It works so, so well!

  14. Hi Diana,
    Always a joy to see you in Seekerville each morning. Have a great day, teaching the kids at your high school!

    Thanks for reading my books! My heart's still smiling!!!

  15. Morning Debby, What a wonderful post and so true. Isn't it amazing how much of real life can impact our characters. You write such powerful characters and this helps me understand how.

    Thanks Amber, the scones held me over until Debby's feast arrived. Sausage and grits. Yum.

  16. Hi Debby

    What a gorgeous post. It really moved me! You're right - identifying and moving beyond falst beliefs is a great lesson for us all and not just our characters.

    With love,
    Nicola x

  17. Hey Deb,

    Goodness, this post was so insightful and moving, I could bypass my Bible study this morning altogether! But I won't ... :)

    You also told Cindy that "Some say our first books are really all about us!"

    I certainly know that's true in my case, as all three daughters in my Daughters of Boston trilogy reflect parts of my personality and convey experiences that I mined from my own life. I think that often lends an authenticity to the story, and frankly, I think ALL authors do it to a degree.

    So, Cindy, I wouldn't worry about it too much as long as the lessons you learned are lessons the hero/heroine learn and the reader can apply.


  18. Deb, Thanks for explaining identity and essence a little more. I had read a bit about that, but didn't quite get the meaning...or the difference.

    Now I do!


  19. Good morning! Debby, great post about character. I love Michael Hauge's idea of the deep wound from the past that influences our present. It makes a story so much richer.

  20. Debby, I enjoyed this post as well. I've thought a lot about this subject for the past year after purchasing Michael Hague's DVD on The Hero's Two Journeys.

    I love the concept of the wound, the mask or the false identity, and the lie the character believes because of it. It sets up a perfect Black Moment near the beginning of Act Three, when "the lie" comes back to overwhelm the character.

    As believers, we have so much material to work with in the Bible because we know the truth that sets them free.

    Susan May Warren always asks: what lie does your character believe. But she also asks for "proof". Something near the beginning that proves your character believes the lie.

    Great stuff on Seekerville today!

  21. Very good post, Debby! So true that we're all wounded. In my current WIP, the heroine is an orphan who's been abused all her life by the woman who took her in as a servant, but her fellow servants have shown her love and care. Still, she believes she is too "damaged" and broken to marry someone who's grown up in a privileged, happy home.

    The hero was wounded by a society that says men have to fight and be big and bad and good with a sword to be really worthy. He isn't interested in the fighting arts, so his older brother has always made fun of him. Also, he feels pressured to marry an heiress for her fortune since, as the younger son, he won't inherit much.

    I like exploring these inner wounds. It creates depth in the story.

  22. Deb, thanks for blogging about this. The concept of a false belief is an excellent one to understand when writing romance. In a presentation she gave at the Washington Romance Writers' retreat this year Susan Meier, another great Harlequin author, called that false belief an "incorrect core belief." She said that people don't really change all that much, but core beliefs shedding light on them in much the way you described.

  23. I really like this, Deb.

    It reminds me of a book I read a while back that the hero had a learning disability.

    The one thing he could not STAND was being called stupid. His father had done that to him as a child and it was a huge trigger for him.

    He was a successful, charming man with his own business and plenty of money but he just had this knee jerk reaction to that particular insult.

    Which the villain used against him at just the right moment of course to destroy his chance for true love.

  24. Debbie,
    I really benefited from Michael Hauge's Inner Journey and his focus on the "Wound." When I pinpoint the difference between the secular and inspirational romance, I always make a point that God wants the ABUNDANT LIFE for all of us. The heart of a romance is releasing the hero and heroine from whatever is keeping them from this ABUNDANT LIFE--which always includes love.

  25. This is great information and so helpful in developing our characters. I'm working getting to know my heroine's past right now and what makes her feel trapped, like she's always trying to be control, so it will really help to explore this idea. Thanks!

  26. SHERRINDA!!!!!
    FINALIST IN THE TBL!!!!!!!!!!

    I got the email list of finalists today.


  27. By the way, Deb, this series sounds fantastic.

    Brilliant idea.

  28. Awesome post! I was searching for my notebook and pen to write down some revelations about my H/H and their wounds.

  29. Insightful post. You've made me take a deeper look at my characters' inner conflicts, always a good thing!

  30. Awesome post! It's amazing how much deeper/relatable characters become when they have a wound. It makes us believe they're real people instead of perfectly painted fairy tale characters.


  31. And the CID series sounds intriguing!

  32. Oops! I suppose I should leave my e-mail if I want a chance to win! ;)


    Thanks again!

  33. Back from Bible Study...

    So good to see your comments! You're right, real life impacts our writing. That's one of the reasons, IMHO, I need to stay involved in "life," no matter how tight my writing schedule.

    I have to interact with people to draw stronger characters, who experience many of the struggles found in today's world.

  34. Hi Nicola,
    Thanks for being with us today and for leaving your comment.

  35. Julie,
    Thanks for sharing your great insights today. Loved each of your books! We do weave bits and pieces of who we are into our stories. Perhaps that's part of the challenge of sending them off to the publisher...we're never sure how the world will receive our work and the part of us contained in that work. If our story is rejected, we feel personally rejected…and that is always painful.

  36. Pam,
    Hauge's idea of identity and essence dovetails with human life. He's is a brilliant teacher and will present an in-depth workshop at GRW's Moonlight and Magnolias Conference, the first weekend in Oct, held in Atlanta. Should be good. I believe folks can register for Sat only, if they can't make the entire weekend.

  37. Debby, this is such a keeper blog. The more I learn about this art of writing, the more impressed I am with you authors. It's no wonder you all deliver such spellbinding reads again and again! And I'm uber-excited to read your new series. I love your style of suspense!

  38. Hi Julie,

    My weekend seminar on healing was especially powerful and revealed how God wants to heal all our wounds and pain. Unfortunately, we usually stand in His way.

    Often our hearts can be softened and our fears assuaged when we read a story that deals with healing and redemption, such as River’s REDEEMING LOVE. The fictional tale opens us to the “what if” possibility…what if God DOES love me…what if He wants me healed/whole/redeemed…what if His love is unconditional and doesn’t come with restrictions…

  39. Oh, my gosh, Cara!!! I received your debut novel, LOVE ON A DIME, in the mail yesterday!!! Thank you so much!!! What joy to see your name on the beautiful cover. Can't wait to get started reading.

    I'm so excited for you and want the same success for all our Seekerville friends!!! Can't wait until everyone has published!!! Won't that be fun!

  40. Hi Terri,
    Susie May Warren is a fantastic teacher so thanks for passing on her tip about showing proof of the character's lie early in the story. Makes good sense, doesn't it?

    I need to get Hauge's DVD. I have his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, and it's dog-eared from use. Can't wait to hear him speak again in October at the GRW conference. I'll try to soak up every bit of information he provides...and, of course, I'll blog about it here in Seekerville.

  41. Melanie,
    Your story sounds fantastic. I'm so glad you're writing Young Adult. That generation needs good fiction that takes wounded characters and redeems them through Christ's love. I know teens, as well as adults, will benefit from reading your debut and the others you'll publish in the future.

  42. Hi Leigh,
    Thanks for sharing Susan Meier's ideas about wounded characters. An incorrect core belief is exactly what a person or character accepts as truth when there's an unhealed past wound.

    So many of us are handicapped by false beliefs that inhibit our relationships with others and hold us back from living life to the full. As writers, we can delve into our character's pain and help them to see the truth. Hopefully, we'll look at our own past pain and ensure we're free from anything that might keep us from living up to our potential.

  43. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for mentioning the villain's role in inflicting harm on the hero, especially by using the buried pain. We need to arm our bad guys will all sorts of nasty tricks to undermine the hero and heroine. Of course, they'll win in the end, but only after a tough battle!

    This is my lucky week! Wildflower Bride arrived in my mailbox along with Cara's debut. Can't wait to read another exciting Connealy story. Thank you, Mary!

  44. Hi Lyn,
    Thanks for joining us in Seekerville today. Your stories are wonderful and you do such a great job incorporating the faith elements into your work. Thanks for sharing how you use Hauge's tips.

  45. Hi Cindy,

    Control issues for a heroine could be the result of a domineering dad who made her feel unworthy and unloved. As an adult, she might struggle anytime she feels pressure to conform because of the false beliefs she embraced as a child.

    Or maybe mom said something that...

    Well, I know you'll come up with an intriguing backstory that will fit your story and the character you've created.

    Thanks for being with us in Seekerville today!

  46. Sherrinda!!!

    Whoo-hoo!!! Congrats on the Touched By Love final. Great contest that catches the attention of the Christian publishing houses. I'm so excited for you.

    Any other finalists out there in cyber-space?

  47. Hi Renee,
    Let us know when you get some insight into your characters. We'd love to hear the direction you're headed.

  48. Hi Lori,
    Deeper is better! You're right!

    BTW, don't forget to leave your email address if you want to be entered in today's drawing.

  49. Thanks, Amber!

    You're in the drawing!

  50. Angela,
    You should have seen the characters in my first attempt at writing a novel. As I mentioned in the blog, they were perfect people -- perfectly dreadful! They could do no wrong! Nor were they wounded in any way. Even I hated them. :)

    Luckily, I learned flaws are good in fiction. So are wounds. :)

  51. Having just completed Winter's End, I can say Ruthy does a great job of this very thing.

    Thanks Deb. I've not had the pleasure of reading any of your work yet. Would love to win!

    may at maythek9spy dot com

    You've given us great ideas and tips. Looking forward to re-reading my WIP to see if these have been implemented properly!

    Congratulations on your new books too! And the finalists. Exciting week in Seekerville!!

  52. Thanks, Mary and Lori, for mentioning my new CID series. I'm having fun writing the first story.

    The series is set in Fort Rickman, Georgia, a fictional US Army post that's a mix of Fort Benning and Fort Knox. My son will be stationed at Benning this June so I'll take lots of trips to visit him and do research as well. I lived at Knox for a number of years and "see" the post when I'm pounding out the story. I love the military and am hoping readers will come to appreciate that unique and special way of life through my stories.

  53. Hi Kav,

    Glad you're picking up some writing tips here in Seekerville. We want to help everyone achieve his or her goals. For writers, that usually means publication. Keep working at your craft and you will succeed!

  54. Hi KC,
    Ruthy is brilliant...and cute...and fun...and sweet...

    Plus she's sold lots of books since she received the first "call," so we'll be able to keep reading her wonderful prose for years to come. Now that's good news! :)

  55. Any of them, Debby? Any of them? The only book of yours I don't have is your first one and I do seek it in used bookstores. (Ah, to complete the collection. :-) )

    I am having a problem with the next step in my writing. I can create a wounded character, but I wonder how well my characters react. Do they react as they should or out of context? I need to do a better job of getting in touch with my characters.

  56. One of things I have problems with is that even thouhg I have flawed characters, I may not have the right internal motivation. It makes me wonder if I think through m characters enough.

    Debby, the only book of yours I don't have is your first one (and, trust me, I'm searching the used bookstores for it).

  57. great posting...i always learn so much.

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  58. I have posted twice today on this piece, but my post disappears for some reason.

    Debby, wonderful post, as always.

  59. The previous anonymous comment was from Walt M.

  60. Hey Debby!!
    What a fascinating post! I loved the part where you mentioned that you were told how "everyone is wounded". Wow, great point. As you know, I am by no means a writer, but hey! this information is still interesting for me. I also think it's very cool how, even though it wasn't a writing workshop, you made it into a resource for your writing ( if I'm understanding this correctly). Way to go, girl!!

    Your series sounds.....intriguing! Lol....I'm sure I will be reading it. Just wish I didn't have to wait so long ; )

    I LOVED Killer Headline and have to admit that it was my first "Debby Guisti" book *shame on me!* But it didn't disappoint, I'll tell you ; )

    I'd love to go in for a chance to win. I also know what I'd choose! Lol....I want to read the 2 books you wrote for your Magnolia Medical (I believe is what it's called) series. Is there a reason there's only 2? Just wondering....

    By the way, I got your new book today, Cheryl!!!!!! YAY! I also got the next in the Protecting the Witness continuity series. And one of the LIH, Janet you've made a monster! I LOVE 'em!!!! Thanks for that *wink*

    Fantastic job, Debby! Off to watch more AI!

  61. Hi Karen,

    Glad you gleaned something useful from the post!

    Have a good night!

    You're in the drawing.

  62. Hi Walt,

    Sorry you had problems posting today! Glad to see you this evening. Have a good one!

    All the best!

  63. I have already gotten the coffee pot ready for tomorrow. Ruthy, don't worry about it.

  64. I am SO excited about your new series, Deb!

    Great post too!


  65. Debby, I don't know how I missed your post this week!! Did I lose a whole day or something?? :)

    Great, great post! Thanks so much for the wonderful summary (and refresher course) of Michael's identity and essence! I'll be able to use it to help me deepen my story during revisions.