Family Secrets, Rejections, and Wounded Characters

Overnight, I realized one way to craft emotionally scarred heroes, and bitter antagonists & villains.

The explanation — an authentic backstory — was right in front of me.

(No, I’m not talking about my husband, though he can be a curmudgeon — but a thoroughly lovable one — at times.)

Instead, it’s a cousin.

Kitten
photo courtesy GraphicStock

Through no fault of his own, my cousin has been rejected by his immediate family.

Now, it’s heartbreaking to watch him in free-fall. He’s changing from a thoroughly cheerful guy to a wounded man with a bitter edge.

I’ve done everything I can to intervene. Worse, it’s the second time he’s had to deal with this issue.

The first time, he understood the dynamics, and the social pressures placed on his immediate family. It was a different era.

This time…? It’s not so easy to reconcile. I’m still hoping for a happier outcome.

Meanwhile, I can see how his dilemma fits perfectly in historical fiction. In a less enlightened time, my cousin’s “sin” was enough reason to act as if he’d never been born.

I’m keeping this generic, for privacy. You can probably think of a variety of issues that fit, from “secret baby” (the person is one, or had one) to gender identification, and from learning disabilities (in a family with high academic standards) to rejection of the family’s harsh religious beliefs.

Here’s how it can work in a story:

To a stranger, the handsome young man (or woman) might seem to “have it all.”

But, he may also have a secret. The evidence is well-concealed. He doesn’t talk about it, and no one knows (or clearly remembers) his family.

His hidden anguish drives him to push people away, or even treat others cruelly.

But, to him — perhaps like the family that rejected him — it may seem like “self-preservation.”

In other words, in his (or her) mind, he’s still the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for himself, and perhaps for those around him. (His motto might be: “Life is hard. Learn that early.”)

As an author, that gives you a LOT to work with.

Today, I’m revising a romance novel that stopped making sense. One of the lead characters had devolved into a cookie-cutter “angry young man.” The more I wrote, the less I liked him.

Now, with these overnight insights, I know exactly how to give him an authentic (and perhaps poignant) backstory. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping that solves the plotting issue.

And, I’m still hoping for the best for my cousin. It’s not too late for a happy ending to that story, too.