In yesterday's email, we talked about the shard of glass and why it's important to a character's development. For some characters, this detail is easy to identify. In the Harry Potter series, the Mirror of Erised reveals the shards for several important characters (though Harry's ultimate shard is, of course—spoiler alert—the piece of Voldemort's soul inside him). In Disney's Frozen, Elsa's fears about her powers are her shard, and Anna's shard is her damaged relationship with Elsa.
But what do you do when you're not sure what a character's shard of glass is?
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi provide a useful tool in their book The Negative Trait Thesaurus (a great book to keep in your author library). The book's Reverse Backstory Tool offers a way to organize your thoughts about a character's motivations, positive and negative traits that affect those motivations, and what lies beneath the motivations and traits.
Two important steps in this tool are finding the wound and finding the lie. To me, these are the two components of the shard of glass, though Ackerman and Puglisi don't use that term. The wound is some kind of trauma in the character's past that completely changed how they see themselves and the world. This experience causes the character to embrace an idea that, while it seems true, is actually false and causes them more problems (the lie).
For example, let's take the character Zuko from the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and fill out the Reverse Backstory Tool for him:
Character's goal (outer motivation): To regain his honor by capturing the Avatar
Attributes that help this character succeed: Resourcefulness, courage, persistence, passion
Positive emotions the character feels because of these attributes: Confidence, determination, hope, pride
Emotionally speaking, why does he want to achieve his goal (inner motivation)? So he can return home and win back his father's love
Need(s) that drive(s) this character's behavior: Love and belonging, esteem and recognition
Flaws that work against the character: Abrasiveness, impatience, obsession, moodiness
Painful emotions these flaws help the character to avoid feeling: Hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, hurt
Traumatic life event that changed how the character views the world and himself (the wound): Being scarred and then banished by his father and having to remain in exile until he completes a seemingly impossible task
The lie the character believes about himself as a result of this wound: I'm nothing without my honor. I have to regain it at any cost. My father will love me again once I capture the Avatar.
In many cases, a character is fully aware of the wound component of the shard of glass. After all, the wounding event had an enormous impact on them. (In Zuko's case, he's literally scarred for life.) You don't forget stuff like that easily.
But the character is often unaware or only partly aware of the lie. In their vulnerable state after the wounding event, the lie sounds like truth, and it helps them get through the aftermath and find a new normal. That's why it's so difficult for them to confront and reject the lie. In fact, villains never do it.
Some of you might say, "Well, it's easy to figure out Zuko's shard of glass. His story's already been told, and he had a whopper of a wound. But what about my character? I hardly know them yet, but I know they don't have anything that traumatic in their past."
This is a good point. Not every character has dealt with something as awful as an abusive parent. Luckily (especially for those who are tired of disproportionately tragic backstories), a wound doesn't have to be genuinely earthshattering to cause a character to believe something untrue. This is especially true for wounds that occur in childhood, when the character is too young to see events in their proper perspective.
For example, in the short Secrets of the Furious Five from the Kung Fu Panda franchise, Monkey loses his pants in front of others as a child. While embarrassing, this experience wouldn't normally have long-term effects. But Monkey is so hurt by his peers' laughter that he embraces a lie: "No one can humiliate me if I humiliate them first." As a result, he torments the other residents of his village and pantses anyone who tries to drive him out—until Master Oogway arrives to teach him about compassion.
The shard of glass/wound+lie is key to understanding why a character behaves the way they do, so it's important to get these things right. If you'd like some help figuring them out for your characters, click here to book a consultation call with me.
(Thanks to Paul Kapischka for sharing their work on Unsplash.)