Update: My surgical scars as of August 2020 (ignore the patterning from my sock 😁)



The other day, my roommate "M" set up an Easter-egg hunt for our roommate group and some of our friends. The eggs were hidden all over part of the local disc-golf course (probably an acre or so), and they turned out much more difficult to find than expected. I jokingly said more than once, "Next year, I'm hiding the eggs!" After about forty-five minutes, my left foot started to hurt, as it tends to do when I walk a lot on uneven ground. I had to sit down, take off my shoe and sock, and rub it for a while. I noticed that not only do I still have incision scars from my last surgery, but I even have some scars from where the stitches were.


As usual, my brain started analyzing. Have you ever noticed that in fiction, it's usually the villainous or morally gray characters who have scars, deformities, heterochromia iridum, or other unusual physical characteristics? I've read some arguments about ableism or stigma against deformity being at the root of this phenomenon, though I don't feel qualified to comment on that part of the issue. But as I thought more about it, something else occurred to me:

Villains tend to wear their scars on the outside. Heroes tend to wear their scars on the inside.

I think this has to do with what physical differences (which I'll abbreviate to PD) represent in fiction. In real life, PDs typically come from either birth defects (such as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) or physical trauma (such as the Joker in The Dark Knight). Even if the original problem is treated successfully, a PD often indicates that the healing has not been perfect, even if only cosmetically. Furthermore, psychological trauma--flashbacks, bullying, major alterations to everyday life, etc.--frequently occurs during and after PD-causing events. These mental wounds tend to get less attention than physical ones, and they frequently take much longer to heal. Thus, in fiction, PDs often become an outer symbol of unresolved inner trauma. Maybe this is why more villains than heroes have visible PDs. Villains tend to channel their trauma as a justification or motivation for evil actions ("I won't be ignored again"; "They'll pay for what they did"). However, villains either don't recognize or just refuse to acknowledge that by doing so, they're actually inflicting further internal damage on themselves. Scars, missing body parts, and so on provide a powerful representation of villains' maimed souls, especially when the audience doesn't have access to the villain's thoughts. (Not that trauma excuses anyone's wrongdoings, of course.) On the other hand, heroes' moral codes usually forbid them from taking their pain out on others, so they find other ways to deal with it. They might use numbing or self-destructive behaviors (self-harm, drugs, excessive gaming, etc.), focus on self-improvement or service ("I'm going to figure out how to ski again"; "I'll start a support group so no one else has to go through this alone"), or simply bottle up their feelings and pretend everything is fine. However, all these approaches can mask emotional damage by constantly distracting the heroes from it, leading them to believe that they're more healed than they truly are.  Because heroes' coping mechanisms tend to cause less internal damage than villains', heroes' PDs are usually less obvious. They're often in places that are covered by clothing and so are only revealed at vulnerable moments. This could symbolize that even though heroes have handled their pain more successfully than villains have, heroes often still need emotional healing. However, that requires them to let their guard down. For instance, in the episode "Parent Hood" of BBC's Robin Hood, Robin removes his shirt so Marian can stitch up his injured arm. She notices a deep scar on his side, and he reveals that he was seriously injured defending King Richard from an assassination attempt in the Holy Land. In other episodes, Robin shows symptoms of PTSD stemming from this attack, but for the most part, he rarely speaks about it.  If you want to use a scar or other PD on one of your characters, give some thought to how you'll use it. Does it hint at backstory, such as a chicken-pox scar or a finger lost in battle? Does it provide a source of struggle or conflict, such as when an amputee must learn to navigate life without the missing body part? Does it represent an unresolved issue, such as the scar one of my characters received while trying unsuccessfully to save his wife from a fatal accident? It's not enough to give a character a scar simply because it looks cool or sinister. It has to have some significance to the story.

Write on, Candice

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