While I was earning my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Marion Dane Bauer was on the faculty, and she gave a lecture on finding the heart of your work by finding the heart of what moves you. It often comes from your past, and is an issue that you deal with or have dealt with most of your life.
This lecture struck me back then, but not until recently did I realize just how important this idea is for any writer.
If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the “wounded child” and the wound that you carry through life. The wound comes from an experience or set of experiences that you suffered and that you still deal with, and that can negatively affect your adult interactions and behaviors. Some examples of wounds include bullying, abuse, neglect, poverty.
In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron (in one of my favorite craft books) took the concept of the wounded child and applied it to characters. Characters, like the rest of us, have what she terms “backstory wounds” that then influence their behavior in story.
When Marion described the wound that became a large influence in her life she told the audience that hers was wrapped around the concept of abandonment. In her writing, she discovered that every one of her characters at some level deals with the same wound – feeling abandoned or abandoning someone else.
I’ve decided to call this wound, for the writer, our “core value”. Like the backstory wound, it influences us, but it also influences our writing, and in particular the emotional core of our writing and of our characters.
If we can uncover our core value, we can use it to develop deeper characters and richer emotional experiences for our readers.
Finding Core Values
Marion admitted her core value was around the issue of abandonment. A writer friend who often writes about death and loss recently identified hers as “death”, and I would suggest, knowing her work, the fear of death or loss. After some soul searching I discovered that my own core value is wrapped around the issue of “identity” – “who am I/what will I be”.
This is the question my characters ask constantly in my books. Kat in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle asks herself whether she believes in magic enough to save her family and friends (and also confronts her inner dark side). Lulu in my forthcoming Carry Me Home asks herself whether she has the strength to carry on in the face of the loss of all comfort and protection (and confronts her mistaken belief that she has to go it alone).
An Exercise For Writers
To explore your core value find a time in your young life when you felt the most vulnerable. Write a letter to yourself from where you are now, telling that inner child that it will be okay. As you write, you won’t be able to really keep the wound in mind but when you step away, the wound will emerge and with it your core value.
Do some self-care as you explore this, as it can be difficult.
Once you’ve discovered your core value, see how it applies to your work in progress. Make it the core value of your protagonist, and of all your protagonists to come.
Remember that emotion on the page comes from the emotion in your heart.
I’d love to hear what you come up with.