Want to know how I got these scars? It's part of my backstory!
They say that every scar has a story, and they're right. When you injure yourself, you have to hope there's a fun legend that goes along with the wound. Trust me, you're talking to a guy who got his finger run over by an ice skate, punched someone in the braces, and recently skinned both his knees. Scars hurt, but when you can tell a story about them, they reveal something about you and your past. We see great writers can develop characters this way, and build arcs from there.
The same goes for your characters. So this begs the question, does your character have any scars? And if so, what can they reveal about them?
Today we're going to go over some characters with scars and show you how you can use these physical ailments to build character.
How Do Great Writers Use Literal Scars to Reveal Character?
Look, you came for the Joker in The Dark Knight, so why not deliver up top? "You wanna know how I got these scars?"
Those lines became a real subversion of all the lessons you're about to learn. For Joker, the scars are always being explained to create a backstory that's a lie. He's an enigma of a man. Always playing us for fools and always trying to pull at the heartstrings. Joker's origins have been theorized—is he a soldier back from Afghanistan trying to tear down Gotham? Is he a mafia member who lost his mind? We'll never know. Sometimes unexplained scars are the scariest.
Let's start with a couple of other obvious characters... like Scar in The Lion King and Tony Montana in Scarface! Both have the title of the article in their names, so you know they're interesting examples. Scar is animated, and to set him apart from the other ions, we see a gash that's on his eye. While we never actually hear the reason he got it, we know how likes to scrap. This pays off later as he kills Mufasa and takes over the pride.
Tony Montana is a guy who is not afraid to get hurt rising to the top either. He has a large scar down the left side of his face from when he was a kid. The immigration officer who is questioning him asks if he got it doing special things to a woman. Montana says the classic line, “You should see the other kid. You can’t recognize him.”
This is ominous and hints at the violence he will enact on others. His scars, on his face, also become a way his enemies see him—they know how much trouble they're in when they meet Scarface.
Of course, scars don't just have to be ominous. I love when they're shared to reveal something. Think about the drinking scene in Jaws. Scars are shown back and forth between Hooper and Quint as a dick-measuring contest. Each wants to know who is the king of the sea. But when Quint lays the USS Indianapolis card, Hooper has to bow out. There's even a moment there where Brody looks like he's going to share a scar. The prevailing rumor was it would be a gunshot wound that drove him from New York City, but I'm on the side of it being an appendix removal scar he decides not to tell.
Either way, we're given a heap of backstory here. We fully understand why Quint hates sharks so much and the trauma he's been through turned him into the man he is today.
A great homage to this scene happens in Chasing Amy, where the characters have a similar scene talking about scars they got doing various sex acts. Again, it builds backstory for the two characters. We know they're into sex, we know they're experienced, and all that will pay off later as their sexual escapades become part of what each person needs to confront in order to have a relationship in the present.
There are scars on countless characters. Think about Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, who is looking for the six-fingered man who killed his father and slashed his cheeks. Or Marv, in Sin City, who's covered in scars from which he cannot recover.
But what about the biggie?
Yeah, I'm talking Harry Potter. The dude is completely defined by a scar on his forehead, which carries us over eight movies and seven books. That scar matters, becoming the ultimate clue as to how he can defeat his enemy. It also defines him for the people around him. Either they make fun of it, fear it, or embrace him for it. That scar carries him forward.
As you can see, scarring an individual, big or small, allows you to perfectly segue into their backstory. we can learn how they got it, what they learned, and how that will carry throughout the rest of your story.
So, who is your favorite scarred character? Let us know in the comments.