One of my favourite paintings is David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. The picture to the left does not do the painting justice. In person, it is incredible. But paintings like this can teach us a lot as writers as they are a moment in time after a lifetime of backstory. And a moment in time is exactly where we find our protagonist.
Looking at David, I can see ambivalence. He is victorious, but he’s not holding the head aloft in triumph. Killing someone is a dirty business, and this killing was against all odds.
If David were my protagonist, I would want to know what emotional wounds of his childhood caused him to be able to kill Goliath. Then I would add the killing as another emotional wound—the consequences of which would continue to define him throughout his life.
Imagine going from underdog to hero. The possible PTSD resulting from of going up against someone as massive as Goliath (not to mention the Philistine army). The constant stress of Saul’s pressure to become his son-in-law and the endless attempts on his life.
It’s a safe bet therapists were not a thing in David’s day. He might have a rabbi to turn to, but there would unlikely be many sympathetic ears. How then, would he deal with his emotional life? The Bible tells us the he had none other than God as his counsellor. However, if we imagine that God is more likely counselling him on his life choices than is emotions, he would probably tamp the emotions down and try and ignore them until they came bubbling up during his reign as King. Makes for some interesting outcomes—especially in his romantic life!
Why not try the exercise yourself—take a well-known protagonist and hack apart their character until you find some defining moments. Write how their future may be affected by those moments, then use the same mechanics to create new and interesting emotional wounds for your protagonist.