Whenever scars are given, it seems to be something pretty important, maybe plot-important, or at least a significant mark. Generally speaking, writing advice is not to add something unless it’s important to the plot somehow so the fact that characters don’t have scars unless the scars are backstory or otherwise plot-relevant makes sense. However, I feel as though scars could be a very important way to pepper detail into a story.
You may think, as I thought about this earlier, “Well, not that many people have scars.” However, on considering this further, I think this is totally false. Just immediately, I recognized that I have two scars, my husband has about four or so, my dad and brother both have at least one, and my mother has at least two (three?) and a cap on one tooth. The only person in my immediate family, including myself, who definitely does not have a scar is about four months old.
Following up on this, I made a FB post asking who had scars and how they got them. There were a lot of replies and almost all who replied had at least two scars. The sources ranged from pock marks, mosquito bites, and acne to falling and furniture to mishaps with knives to a wolf bite. Seems like most people do have scars after all!
But why go to the extra effort? Well, scars aren’t like birthmarks: you got them from somewhere. And while a scars and birthmarks do have in common a unique marking on an individual, scars carry with them stories, and those stories often tell a little bit about who the bearer is, even when the source is really mundane. (As a side note, a birthmark can still bear interesting uniqueness beyond marking, even if not as useful as a scar; I have an oval birthmark on the back of one of my shoulders. When pressed, it tickle hurts and also feels kind of like a bruise. If that was part of a character, would that be an interesting fact or useless detail? Depends on how you use it. Maybe your character has an obnoxious younger brother who has to jab it every time he sees it. Maybe that’s too much. You decide.)
Consider the scars I mentioned earlier and what you learn from their backstories:
I have one scar on the underside of my chin from when I split it open on my knuckle in drama class in high school. I tried to do a cool jump kick with my hands behind my back, blacked out randomly, and was on the floor next thing I knew. My other scar is a long, ugly thing below my belly button from an emergency C section.
What did you just learn about me? Knowing I was in a drama class says a lot about my personality, especially because that wouldn’t be a required course. You can infer I probably really participated in the class judging by my active movements that led to the injury. If you haven’t come across any of my other posts where I talk about my pregnancy or baby, you now know I have a baby and that I know both how much labor and major surgery suck.
My mother’s ‘three?’ comes from the fact that both my brother and I were C sections, and I’m not sure if that’s one scar or two. Now that you know she also had a C section, you know a lot about how things went when I had my baby, since I had a mom who knew just what I was going through when things didn’t go as planned. I haven’t told you the whole scene but it’s probably easy to imagine if you’d care to do so. With just those two scars, a whole section on important-to-me backstory is filled in without much explanation.
My mom’s other scar is an invisible thing on her eyelid from when she sliced it open on a barbed wire fence in Paraguay on her mission.
You now know that she is (or at least was, although ‘is’ is correct) religious, likely of some Christian denomination since I’m pretty sure Christians are the most missionary-est people. You know she probably speaks Spanish, which she does. And learning that someone’s been to another country just oozes of stories and experiences; knowing which country allows for a certain flavor of those experiences, and even if you don’t know any other stories about her time in Paraguay, you can probably guess what a lot of them involved. Again, much backstory is colored in just from one simple scar.
Sometimes scars are more mundane, even if they should have a more interesting backstory. I met a guy in college with Inigo scars on his cheeks.
At one point, he volunteered the information that his scars were from when his older brother (whom I also knew) tried to close a pair of scissors on his face when he was a baby. Is that as interesting as losing a duel to a six-fingered man who killed your father? You be the judge. It does speak volumes as to his family dynamic – and adds something when you know that the brothers are still friends. Also that his older brother once made me want to kick him down the stairs from my third-floor apartment for insulting my writing, although he later apologized.
Likewise, one of my husband’s scars, a small but jagged thing on the back of his hand, is from when he was at a concert of one of his brother’s and he had his hand on the armrest and his sister wanted to use it but instead of asking him to move his hand she just scratched him. Apparently badly enough to leave a pretty vivid scar. Interesting story? Maybe not, but again you know the family dynamic. You know he has at least two brothers now. You know he has a sister. And you know a bit more about his family, and their relationships. I think telling this little story about the scar is more interesting than outright saying, “My husband has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a sister who is the youngest” even if that’s shorter. All that does is tell you what siblings my husband has, and nothing about what their family was actually like. You know one of his brothers played an instrument, since they were at a concert, for example. Telling you a story about his life makes it feel real, instead of like some crappy gradeschool presentation.
What about plot scars? Do away with those? By no means! I think plot scars, so long as they aren’t stupid and/or badly cliche, are just fine. I mean, Inigo’s pretty cool, eh? But maybe consider scars as another way to reveal backstory. They don’t necessarily have to be present or even really visible – you can’t really see the scar on my chin anymore, not even if I’m looking up, nor the scar on my mom’s eye, nor the scar on the tip of my brother’s finger if you’re not paying attention – and therefore you can pull them out for the flavor and then forget about them. Everyone loves telling injury stories, even when they’re stupid and/or mundane, so why not your characters? Considering some of the dangerous or rough lives characters tend to lead, and how scarred we mundane folks become doing nothing, your characters ought to have plenty of scars to share.