On Scars

Scars are the part and parcel to our life experiences. They are the marks left behind that we can point to and say: when that happened, I got this. Every character will have a few scars. However, whether they got those scars on the battlefield or from running into a piano when they were six is anyone’s guess. It’s important to remember that all scars can have meaning and they do not necessarily rate importance based on how traumatic the experience receiving the scar was. Scars are part of your character’s physical history and a memory inhabits each that only they may know.

Scars can be an important physical indicator of a character’s life experiences and whether your character is a casual martial artist or a soldier, it’s likely that they’ll have at least a few. The character who the scar belongs to is the only one that can tell other characters what it means, only they really know the full extent of its history and what it reminds them of. So, when you are writing about scars, it’s important to track what a character will say, what they won’t say, and what the scars they carry can give insight into who they are and where they’ve been.

In fiction, scars are mostly used to indicate that a character has a tragic past. In YA, it’s become common to show that the character is special or different in some way. However, scars can mean a lot of different things and not all of those are stories that indicate a tortured life. Not all scars are obvious and not all scars are ugly, some of them are almost nonexistent and they do fade over time. A character may be proud of their scars. They may pull them out to show when telling a funny story at parties. Depending on the character’s attitude, even the most doom and gloom scar can become one they show off.

It’s important to remember when you’re writing that scars aren’t universal. Each one can depict a different experience and, in that, a different emotion. I have several scars that I will tell stories about and some that I generally keep to myself. I used to have one on my abdomen that I got when pulling a cookie sheet out of the oven at sixteen. It was a long, thin, brownish red stripe that hung out just below my belly button. I still find it embarrassing, and even though it’s been gone for the past four years, I end up checking for it if my pants slip down too far. On my left hand, I have a scar that is a concentric circle on my palm. It’s just below my index and forefinger, and hidden in between the pads. I got it when I was eight and accidentally leaned down on the top of an electric lamp during a family camping trip. Our Head Instructor George used to say that he thought it was cool, but I have to stretch my hand to see it now. Midway up the outside of my right forearm, I’m missing a chunk of flesh. I lost it to a brick during my third degree test when I broke the first with a palm strike, but failed to break the second two. I lost the flesh during an adrenaline rush when we forgot to clear away the broken brick before trying again. The most noticeable of all are the four perfect circles from the external fixator that are located on my left leg, just above my ankle and below my knee. These scars are a milky white and made of smooth, waxy skin that differs from the rest of my pale complexion. I’ll often talk about my broken leg, but I rarely show the scars. One they are difficult to get to and two, the external fixator was a source of fascination among my peers in middle school and I don’t like to be reminded of the way they used to stare.

A character can use their scars to do many things. If they are ashamed of their scars or feel that others find their scars disgusting or off-putting, they may try to hide them. If they are the sort of loner who wants to drive others away, they may show them off and leave them exposed. Scars can be a source of great pain, showing a wound that never properly healed or be the reminder of wound long after it did. Scars can be a source of shame and disgust, but they can also be a source of pride. When other characters look on a character with obvious, visible scars they may shy away or feel afraid. Scars can make someone appear dangerous in ways that tattoos never can.

However, it’s important to remember that what other characters may feel when looking at a character with obviously visible scars is not necessarily a genuine assessment of who that person is. What a character may be trying to achieve by showing off their scars is also not necessarily true to how they got that scar.

It’s okay for your characters to lie about stories they’d rather keep hidden and okay for them to be wrong about each other. No one can ever fully understand the breadth of another’s life experiences.

So, think about your scars. Think about what they mean to you, good or bad. Then take those feelings and try to apply similar ones to your characters. What scars do you have that are funny? What scars do you have that are sad? What scars do you hide? Which ones do you show off? Come up with those and you can add some realistic details into who your character is and their backstory.

-Michi

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