|Author Sarah Fine|
Writing Traumatized Characters by Sarah Fine
It’s hard to deny that trauma and its aftermath make for good fiction. Trauma is, by definition, a threat to life or personal integrity, which makes it dramatic, wrenching, and compelling. Not only that: 25-40% of youth experience at least one traumatic event, and for adults, it’s 60%. Life is dangerous, and for the majority of us, that becomes very real at some point (though not everyone who experiences a trauma will develop PTSD). It’s no wonder these topics come up repeatedly in the stories we consume. And if you happen to be a writer, the odds are good that you will, at some point, be writing about trauma in some way.
I recently concluded a ten-part (I know, ridiculous) blog series on writing traumatized characters. I did it because trauma is something we see PLENTY in movies and books, but it’s not always well-understood. If you haven’t studied up on it, my guess is, when you hear “PTSD,” you think: flashbacks! It’s the most commonly portrayed symptom and the thing people talk about, but it’s only one element of PTSD and trauma reactions.
type of trauma: Was it a single event (like rape or an accident)? Was it multiple events (like sexual/physical abuse or combat)? Was it chronic (like childhood neglect or living in a warzone)? How close was the character to the trauma—was s/he a personal victim? A witness? Did it happen to a loved one? How invasive was the trauma? How physically damaging? The nature of the event has implications for your characters’ reactions.
You also must understand how vulnerable your character might be to lingering aftereffects of trauma: Had he experienced other traumatic events before? Was there anyone around to support her through the aftermath? How drastically did his life change after the trauma? These things deepen or buffer the impact of trauma, so you’ll want to consider them.
For teens with truly tough backgrounds—those who’ve been abused, neglected, tossed into the system, their needs never met—they might exhibit behaviors people won’t even recognize as trauma. If you’re writing a character like that, read up on how developmental trauma alters people’s paths through life. It’s striking and often misunderstood—so it’s important to do research (here’s an example of doing it right, by one of YAH’s very own).
Once you’ve nailed down your understanding of the event(s) and your character, it’s time to understand symptoms. First and foremost, PTSD can be understood as a fierce and desperate struggle to keep the person safe. It’s basically our brains’ survival mechanisms gone haywire.
Traumatic memories get encoded differently than ordinary memories and “behave” differently, too. Unlike those we consciously control, traumatic memories can punch through without being intentionally called to mind, at the slightest cue. This symptom cluster in PTSD is called “intrusive recollection of the event.” “Flashbacks” are indeed on this symptom list—but only one of many.
The second symptom cluster is avoidance and numbing—people with PTSD work pretty hard to avoid reminders of what happened, but that’s not the only symptom. Again, PTSD is survival gone glitchy, and these symptoms are the brain’s (unsuccessful) attempts at psychological Novocain as it tries to protect itself by walling off certain memories and experiences so the person can continue to function.
The third and final symptom cluster is hyper-arousal. When something life-threatening happens to us, our minds switch from learning/exploration mode to STAY ALIVE mode, and we have one of three reactions: fight, flight or freeze. Except in PTSD, that STAY ALIVE setting is on a hair-trigger, and even non-harmful cues can set a person off without him/her even knowing why. Like while on an idyllic beach, simply because the person saw someone opening a green beach umbrella out of the corner of her eye, which triggered a memory of being shoved into that green sedan …
The good thing: there are effective treatments. If you’re including PTSD treatment in your story, here is some info on the basic phases of effective treatment. One thing that’s key—healing can’t really begin until the person is safe. Another thing to avoid—a character with PTSD is highly unlikely to walk in and start chatting about the trauma (see: avoidance and numbing). Many times, it’s hard to get someone to enter treatment in the first place. It takes a ton of courage to face one’s worst fears.
When people ask me how to tell this kind of story “right,” I’m happy to say there are countless ways. If you understand the core concepts, you also understand that humans—and therefore, characters—are endlessly complex and relentlessly unique. If you delve deep and write from the inside out , though, you’ll have an easier time. Knowing the “why” and letting it drive behaviors/decisions/dialog = MUCH better than writing actions and then trying to justify why a character might do that. Also—there are many, many thoroughly excellent examples of well-written trauma reactions in fiction, both YA and adult genres. In the best stories, authors don’t tell us the character is traumatized—they show us with not only the content of the story, but with the styling and structure of their prose. As is true of so many other things in the craft of writing, reading is often the best learning tool.
So: are you writing a story that includes trauma, and if so, how are you researching it? Can you add some recommendations for complexly and authentically written traumatized characters? When trauma feels inauthentic in a story, why do you think that is? Conversely, what convinces you that the reaction is plausible and genuine?