Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! In a brief prologue, Xu Wenwu discovers the ten rings which grant godly powers and uses them to establish the Ten Rings organization, through which he basically takes over whatever he wants in the world. In 1996, Wenwu searches for Ta Lo, a village said to harbor mythical beasts, but is stopped by guardian Ying Li. The two fall in love, and when the Ta Lo villagers reject Wenwu, Li chooses to leave with him. They marry and have two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing. Wenwu abandons his organization and locks away the ten rings.
When Shang-Chi is seven, Li is murdered by Wenwu's enemies. Wenwu massacres them with the help of the ten rings and resumes leadership of his organization. He makes Shang-Chi undergo brutal training to take over for him one day but does not allow Xialing to train with the others so she teaches herself in secret. When Shang-Chi is fourteen, Wenwu sends him to assassinate the leader of the gang who killed his mother. After completing his mission, a traumatised Shang-Chi runs away.
In the present day, Shang-Chi works as a valet with his best friend Katy. They are attacked on a bus by the Ten Rings, who steal a necklace Shang-Chi's mother gave him. Worried they will go after his sister, he flies to China with Katy, who insists on helping him. They find Xialing at an underground fight club she founded. The Ten Rings attack the fight club, capture the three heroes, and take them to their lair.
Here, Wenwu reveals a map leading to Ta Lo and explains he has heard Li calling to him and believes she has been held captive there behind a sealed gate. He plans to destroy the village unless they release her. When his children and Katy object, he imprisons them. The group escapes and goes to Ta Lo, which exists in a separate dimension. They meet their aunt, who explains Ta Lo villagers protect against an evil they call the Dweller-in-Darkness and that they believe it has been influencing Wenwu to think Li is still alive so he will open the Gate.
Wenwu and his minions arrive and attack. Big fight scene ensues with the three factions: the villagers, the Ten Rings, and the minions of the Dweller-in-Darkness. Shang-Chi fights his father and ultimately chooses to spare him, but the Dweller-in-Darkness, which is really a super cool evil dragon demon, escapes the weakened Gate and attacks Shang-Chi. Wenwu bequeaths Shang-Chi the rings before being killed by the Dweller-in-Darkness. Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy manage to kill the Dweller-in-Darkness with the help of a protector dragon, and then they go back to their normal lives. Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?
Jeni: This is the best Marvel movie I’ve seen in quite a while. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see it, to be honest, but I saw so much good stuff about it from people I trust that it piqued my curiosity. And I loved it! Beyond having really strong Chinese representation, I think it touched on a lot of issues people struggle with in real life, which as you know, is one of my favorite things fantasy can do. For example, there’s a strong theme about Shang-Chi and Katy note really belonging in either world they exist in. For Shang-Chi, that’s this mystical world of evil organizations with his father versus a normal life as a valet. And for Katy, it’s more about being the child of immigrants and feeling like she’s not fully Chinese and also not fully American, which I think is something a lot of first and second generation Americans experience. This story was so much more than the martial arts movie I feared it might be. And omg, just the visual element of the movie was amazing. Those dragons alone were so stunning, but the costumes, props, and sets really created the sense of being immersed in this other world. And don’t even get me started on Simu Liu and how excited I am to see more of him. What did you think?
Carly: So I’ve been pretty burnt out on Marvel movies. They are fun, but I haven’t had an interest in a while. But I really enjoyed this movie. It is funny, lovely to look at, and I really liked the characters. Awkwafina was wonderful and I could totally watch this movie again. Marvel can do funny really well, and I think this movie exemplifies that. But at the same time it did have a lot of heart too. True to form, I had way more interest in his sister’s story than Shang-Chi, but ya know, that happens in every movie. So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Emotional wounds. Like I said a minute ago, I was super impressed with the depth of this story. All these characters have real issues they’re trying to work out, and on a storytelling level, it stood out to me that the main character and the main villain are essentially two sides of the same coin, even when it comes to their emotional wounds and their goals as characters. There’s a lot to mine there, especially since they are father and son so there’s all this Oedipus stuff to think about and a bunch of mythological and hero’s journey kind of stuff I don’t think we are really going to get into in this episode haha. But I think that can make for really compelling storytelling. The classic example for me is Professor X and Magneto in X-Men, maybe because I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in those movies I refuse to think of as old. But the emotional wound is this really foundational element for a character. It affects everything they will say and do, and I think it’s a huge part of what makes characters feel psychologically real to readers. It really helps us identify and engage with characters, even characters we may not like. Looking at you, Wenwu. I also think it’s important to note that every important character needs an emotional wound, even those who won’t really change over the course of the story.
Carly: So what is a character’s emotional wound? I’ve heard an emotional wound referred to as your character’s ghost from the past. I think it was KM Weiland who said that, or at least that was the first place I heard it referred to as such. It is a great descriptor. Think of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he has a literal ghost of the past bring him to see the wounds that have been festering his whole life. The fears that he holds on to and the lie he has been telling himself. Now that I think of it, why didn’t we do that movie this month?? Anyway, an emotional wound is a negative event or series of events from your character’s past that colors the way they see things, that causes pain on a deep psychological level. They are usually caused by someone close to a character, and often have been festering for years. We could give a million examples of emotional wounds because there are a million ways that people can be hurt. We all as humans have emotional wounds. It is part of life. Your character needs one too. They need something in their past that was harmful and they must grow to overcome that past event. Think of your book/plot as therapy for your character. Their emotional wound is what the character has to learn to overcome.
Jeni: The really important thing about emotional wounds is that they work together with the plot to create the backbone of your story. Ideally, the plot should really trigger your protagonist’s emotional wound. Think about your own life and all those deep, painful things you try to suppress just to get through your life. It is freaking hard to address those in any circumstance, but we all know that things can bring up those difficult emotions and memories all the time. So in a story, what basically needs to happen is that you have this character with this emotional wound that they are trying really hard not to think about, but what they have to do to suppress it is causing them real problems in their life. For example, if someone was bullied, they may have a difficult time trusting people with their feelings and so it might cause them to push people away. A good plot will force the character to acknowledge that they are this way, examine why they do this, and eventually make a decision to try to overcome it or not. The icing on the cake is when their emotional wound is tied to the skills they have to uncover in order to resolve the main conflict. So, in this example, the protagonist would have to deal with this lack of trust in some manner in order to achieve the goal of the main plot. Depending on the story and its structure, this may or may not end up being a full arc, but the best stories are those where the main character has to confront their internal pain because of the events of the plot.
Carly: How do you figure out a character’s emotional wound? You can find the emotional wound in a few ways, depending on where it makes sense to you to start. You can start at the end, where you want your character to end up, or you can start at the beginning, where your character is. A few months ago we did an episode on Get Out and satisfying endings. In that episode we talk about creating a satisfying ending through a character arc which includes: the goal, the lie, and the truth. I’m not going to delve into it all again, but the lie is something that a character tells themselves that stops them from achieving their goal. And the emotional wound is the cause of that lie. It is the evidence that the character points to that validates the lie. So if a character believes they are incapable of being loved (the lie), the emotional wound could be that their fiance left them because they weren’t good enough. In that instance you are starting with the end. You are starting with where you want your character to end up and what they need to overcome to get there. In that way you work backwards to figure out the emotional wound. But you can also start at the beginning. Sometimes you as an author have a wound that you want to explore. Some traumatic or harmful event that you want to see how a character could overcome. Or maybe you have a major plot point/inciting incident that you want to see a character grapple with. While emotional wounds stem from events that take place off screen, one of the important aspects of an emotional wound is the way that the plot pokes at it. So if you want to poke at the wound by having a cheating spouse, you can easily figure out the wound by figuring out what would make that poke hurt the most. I always like to say that you want to hurt your characters. It is what makes them compelling. So go forth and poke all those wounds!
Jeni: Okay so I mentioned that Shang-Chi and Wenwu have very similar emotional wounds and goals, and that’s part of what makes them so interesting to me. Shang-Chi believes that his mother’s death is his fault because he didn’t defend her against her attackers, even though he was a child and couldn’t possibly have saved her. It’s really what drives him to do everything he does. When he’s a teenager, running away from his father and the life he envisions for him might have been what was best for Shang-Chi, but he also tells himself it’s just another thing that proves he’s a coward. So when we meet him at the beginning of the movie, he’s sort of happy with his life, but there’s this sense that he’s hiding his past and this part of himself because he feels a lot of shame over all of it. When the Ten Rings attack him, it forces him to very literally face his past and make a choice about how he’s going to deal with it. His wound over his mother’s death drives him to try to protect his sister, which becomes an important part of his motivation over the course of the story, although you could definitely make the argument that she doesn’t need his protection. In this story, Shang-Chi does have a change arc–he accepts his past and the fact that he is more like his father than he wants to admit, and it ultimately empowers him to take on the strength of the Ten Rings but not let their power change his core values as a person. I suspect that, if we were to see a full story of Wenwu, we would likely see it didn’t really change his values either, but that’s a topic for another time ha ha Essentially, when faced with the same choices, Shang-Chi and his father each made very different choices based on who they are as people. And that’s why emotional wounds and how characters deal with them has such a huge impact on a story.
Carly: His dad also has a really strong emotional wound. He was the cause of his wife’s death. He gave up everything for her and then she was taken away. However, he tells himself multiple lies to explain the wound. He tells himself that had he not taken off the rings, no one would have dared to harm her. He tells himself had Ta Lo taken them in, no one would have been able to hurt her. We see his wound through the flashback, but then we see the lies when he tries to explain away his actions. Every time he talks to Shang-Chi he finds a new way to explain why he must make the choices and actions that he takes. He tells Shang-Chi that he shouldn’t have put aside the rings, he tells Shang-Chi that even though he was a child he should’ve helped his mother. He projects his insecurities and failings onto his son. When he arrives at Ta Lo he uses it as an excuse to destroy the home that his wife loved. He is so desperate to fix his emotional wound, to not be to blame for his wife’s death, that he believes the Dweller-in-Darkness is actually his wife, despite very clear evidence that it isn’t her. We as viewers know that his wife would never ask him to destroy Ta Lo, to harm her children, but his wound has blinded him to reality. People are survivors, but they are also self-saboteurs. They will sacrifice a lot while focusing on one aspect of survival. They will cling to one need and risk everything else. His father focuses solely on saving his wife, meanwhile he is willing to risk his children. While we as viewers don’t agree with his motivations, his emotional wound is so relatable that we understand his actions, even if they aren’t excusable. Humans deliberately blind themselves to self-destructive tendencies. So when an emotional wound is present, it adds meaning to actions taken by your character. Suddenly everything has meaning and makes sense, even if you as a reader or viewer don’t agree with the actions. Shang-Chi takes actions that have meaning and the viewer agrees with, but his father takes actions that have meaning and the viewer doesn’t agree with them. But because it has meaning, it makes sense, it is believable, it is understandable. And that is what a strong emotional wound can give you. It can allow your villain to be believable and compelling, even if your readers hate them.
Jeni: This is all fine and good for a movie, but how do you show that in writing? One thing we have discussed over and over in this episode and on previous shows is the need for that psychologically sound motivation. We don’t necessarily have to agree with the character, but we need to at least understand how they came to the place they’re in emotionally. Wenwu isn’t really a sympathetic character, but we can really see his pain over his wife’s death and how genuinely he believes he could have prevented it. We can sympathize–better yet, even empathize–with that. So how do you show that motivation? Throughout this episode, we both keep mentioning the decisions the characters make. Authors sometimes talk about how the characters just sort of take over a story and do what they want, but the truth is that readers can tell when a character’s motivations don’t line up with their choices and actions. These two elements are your greatest tools to show a character’s emotional wound. On some level, everything they decide and do needs to come back to this pain they’re trying to hide and having to face. So, that’s the big-picture element. On a scene level, we need to see how the character’s reactions and interiority reflect their emotional wound. In other words, use their thoughts, emotions, and visceral responses. Show them weighing options and how they come to the decisions they go with. Guide the reader down the path to make the connections between what the character is experiencing inside and how that is reflected in their actions and decisions. That’s how we end up with stories where we care about not only what happens but also why it matters to the characters.
Our query this month is a middle grade science-fantasy. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: The setup of this story is so cute and interesting. You pulled me in right away. But then it feels like we get caught up in the setting and the world and we lose focus on the plot and stakes. Who is the character and why is she the one to save the world? What makes her compelling? We obviously don’t want to know her emotional wound exactly, but we need to know why she is special and what we can connect to with her on an emotional level. Basically, we’re missing that piece that connects us to the character. This sounds like a fun romp through a fun world, without an emotional connection. You can create that emotional connection by upping the personal stakes, so it isn’t just about saving the world. And you can do it by upping the personal conflict, so it isn’t only a conflict for people at large, but your character specifically.
Jeni: I totally agree. This is actually a great query for this episode because I think the heart of the problem with this query is that it doesn’t really touch on the character’s emotional wound. What is your MC’s big internal problem before the story even starts? What does she need to learn or how does she need to grow over the course of the story in order to resolve the main conflict? And then, like Carly said, what happens if she fails or if she just doesn’t do the thing? What would she lose? Give an idea of how that will impact your protagonist and how she sees herself and her world. Lastly, in that final dilemma, show us how she has to confront that emotional wound.