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Mind the black hole: how to write trauma

Trigger warning for mentions of rape, physical violence, war related trauma. This blog provides examples and tips to help write trauma respectfully and realistically, based on a psychological background.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in Berlin was designed to
mimic the feeling of despair that the people in concentration camps must have felt.

Trauma is a complicated matter to dissect in a writing blog. It’s something people mostly understand from what they see on tv. The producers mostly pick the stereotypes when it comes to dealing with trauma, and that is having severe consequences for how society views trauma.

Then again, telling your audience that Tom hit three Criterion E symptoms in a CAPS-5 test won’t mean much to your readers. As a writer, you want to frame the trauma based on how badly it affects them. Your character’s trauma might be different than that of their sister who went through the same thing: they can experience different symptoms, coping mechanisms, severity, you name it. In this blog, I’ll help you write trauma realistically and respectfully.

What causes trauma

Psychological trauma is caused by severe situations and experiences. It can be a one-time experience, or it can form after prolonged stress. And, like most complex emotions, it is different for everyone. Some people get out of a war zone unscathed, while others are traumatized after moving out of state. If your characters have been through one or more events that caused mental health issues, that is defined as a traumatic experience.

During this blog I will stick to a few well-known and widely known traumatic experiences, but as with the blog on grief, there are many, many situations that you can apply this blog to.

Trauma sensitivity

It’s difficult to impossible to know up front if something will cause trauma in real life, but with characters, we can. Especially if we don’t pants a plot, us writers can create the space we need to have our characters go through dealing with their trauma. When writing trauma, rushing past the recovery won’t help provide an accurate portrayal.

It’s for that reason I personally hate the Old Crone On Top Of A Mountain-trope, who provides clarity with just one piece of advice. That’s now how you write trauma. That’s how you perpetuate a stereotype that it’s just a matter of wanting to get better. The truth is, being sensitive to trauma is the same as being more likely to get ear infections. It just happens and sometimes there’s little you can do to change that. Some people are susceptible to trauma, while others aren’t.

Like with all mental health disorders, the chances of a parent passing their sensitivity on to their children has about 30% genetics involved. That means there is a connection to the parents, but it’s in no way decisive. So if your character’s father has depression issues they might be at a higher risk, but that hereditary link doesn’t have to be the cause of their own depression.

How do humans respond?

Your character can respond to trauma in a healthy way by actively seeking out help, such as a therapist. Medication often takes the edge of the worst symptoms, though those might take a few weeks to kick in. They will talk to their friends. Typically, those characters will have a good support system in place.

Despite their healthy behavior, your character’s emotions can be volatile. Depending on the traumatic experience and how it impacted them, any number of responses is possible. Your character could still cry all day. They can turn anxious, or grow extremely tired and lethargic. Their emotions can be any form and/or mixture of fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. For example, a soldier may feel furious at their superior for sending them into a dangerous situation. That same character can also feel skeptical that justice will be served, isolated because of poor reactions from their environment or overwhelmed by the support.

Other emotions are more closely related to the trauma and inner turmoil. For example, they can feel jealousy towards those who weren’t affected the same way. Your character might feel embarrassed over their lack of progress in dealing with their trauma. They can feel fragile, as if every other thing that happens is too much. Getting the wrong coffee order could upset them.

What books often show

Most characters won’t respond with healthy behavior. They may not want to see a therapist, or there are no therapists around. Without support and help, your character will most likely display an unhealthy response. These also have no connection to your character’s personality or preferences. In fact, most people will likely show all three types of behavior after stressful, non-traumatic experiences. Which one shows itself is dependent on the character and personal situation. These behaviors are based on one of these three categories: avoidance, overcompensation, or surrender.

Avoidance

When your character avoids trauma-related things, there is still a very broad area of behavior your character can show. Avoidance is about more than steering clear from the people, the place, or circumstances in which the trauma occurred. Those are fairly common ways to describe the aftermath of trauma. But some victims avoid their savior. Their faces are a constant reminder of what happened. These two can of course be avoided at the same time, as well. It depends on your character what is and isn’t avoided; there’s no fixed package with things that get a label ‘avoid like the plague’.

Your character can avoid seeking help. This can come from a fear of confrontation, facing what happened. Or, they could feel disgusted with their lack of action, or about how they reacted during the traumatic event. As Adam Johnson wrote in The Orphan Master’s Son:

“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.”

Example of writing avoidance

If you remember the emotion wheel you can pick anything from the outer ring outside of happiness (fear, disgust, anger, surprise, sadness) to describe how your character feels.

To showcase the versatility of this I will use the example of being administered a rape kit. Your character can avoid getting such an examination. This can be out of embarrassment or they may want to avoid feeling exposed again, as it is an invasive procedure. For other characters, the rape-kit might symbolize stepping forward. They can still experience shock at that point. Or they fear being ridiculed, blamed, judged, or shamed when they help collect evidence to build a legal case. They can feel rushed into it all while they’re still getting their bearings. Or they feel powerless and think it won’t make a difference. These are all valid responses and emotions when faced with a rape kit examination. The important thing is to identify a few core emotions you feel appropriate to your character and to communicate those to the reader throughout the scene.

In Speak, teenage Melinda fights back against her rapist and feels vindicated.

When the abuser is someome you know

One factor to consider is how the victim responds to the trauma if the rapist is from their social circles. With a known rapist, speaking up means the whole environment will know what happened. How will that affect them? A second factor is culture. When victim blaming is a frequent occurrence, your character may be more inclined to keep the rape to themselves and thus avoid the rape kit. Behind the behavior of avoiding is a whirlwind of emotions that is unique for every character. Writing your character as only in denial or ashamed of what happened doesn’t cover the full trauma.

On a related note, other characters will fight back after what happened. They can still develop trauma: that is not the same as incapacitated, passive, or avoidant. Some characters might feel coerced into stepping forward, but others can feel empowered by doing so. The important distinction is that the character should decide for themselves what they want. That sense of agency is very important for recovery arcs. You can read about it here.

Overcompensation 

Another way for your character to deal with trauma is overcompensation. It happens mostly when your character feels that they either have to make amends or when they want to hide how they feel. In that sense it’s closely related to avoidance, and it’s hard to make a clear-cut distinction based on the emotions involved. What does differ is the behavior that your characters show.

In mainstream media, a character going into party-hard mode often portrays overcompensation. Lots of drinking, lots of risk taking, and them telling their friends and family they have nothing to worry about. In truth, overcompensation can be much more.

For example, your character may feel worthless. They try to limit the amount of time and energy they can put into remembering what happened. In that sense they avoid additional anxiety and worrying. Some grow obsessed with lists, or procedures, or start hoarding things. In Patrick Süskind’s The Perfume, the protagonist is obsessed with smells: the scent of a teenage girl intoxiates him. She fights back the creepy sniffer, but he overpowers her. Her scent disappears, triggering his trauma. He then overcompensates by learning the craft of perfumery and dedicating his whole life to making the perfect perfume. It becomes an obsession.

The book was brought out as a movie in 2006.

Other ways to overcompensate

Another way for your character to overcompensate is to magnify how bad they feel. They can beat themselves down out of guilt until they slide into a depression or worse. Embarrassment might grow to a feeling of humiliation. To the outside world it may resemble overreacting, but for your character, it’s a sign of emotions starting to fester.

Overcompensation can occur in one’s personality, too. Your character can present an image of being beyond chipper every day, or grow over-confident. The behavior hides the insecurity and pain they feel inside.

Surrender

When your character surrenders, they are often in the middle of the traumatic experience. For example, growing up in a toxic and/or abusive household can be traumatic. The traumatic experiences continue to build up while your character already experiences trauma. One way to cope is to surrender to your surroundings. This means that you ‘give up’ on fighting back. It’s closely related to learned helplessness.

Even without prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences, or after your character is removed from the situation, surrender is a valid response option. Your character might think that the trauma was unavoidable, the abusers were right to do X, if only I’d managed to do Y, and so on. Your character accepts what their abusers, kidnappers, or even society told them as truth. Standing up for themselves is too hard and too confrontational.

Aside from being worn down by others, surrender can also occur when your character wants to avoid punishment. Typically, when your character surrenders, they feel worthless, inadequate, fragile; derivatives of fear and sadness. Characters who surrender often feel anger, but they suppress it out of fear of getting hurt again. Other characters learned lessons about how feeling anger means they will get hurt.

But why?

It’s an understandable question, but also a very damaging one. Why can’t your character get out of bed? Why can’t they just move on? The answer is not as satisfying as one would hope, nor is it very specific.

But, generally speaking, characters experience trauma because they have trouble dealing with their new reality. It changed and now challenges their whole world view. When your character returns exactly to how life was before the trauma happened, it undermines the severity of the trauma and the suffering your character has experienced. At the same time, that may be exactly what your character strives for. When you’re writing a recovery arc for your character, be careful not to have the character regress. That means they return to how they were before the trauma happened. Something fundamentally changed in their views of how the world works, what people are capable of, and that will have an effect.

In summary

Whenever I write a traumatized character, I follow three steps:

  • What is the character feeling?
  • How is it related to the trauma?
  • What behavior makes sense for their situation?

That way the emotion is always up front. That’s the heart of what connects my characters to their world and my readers. From there, I link it to a detail or consequence of the trauma. That often gives me a pretty good sense of what your character will do.

When you’re unsure if you’ve handled writing trauma well, don’t hesitate to reach out for sensitivity readers. Those can help you with specific resources relevant to your story and often know where to find stories of people who have undergone something similar.

Stay tuned for the blog about bodily agency and other ways that trauma interferes with your character’s perception of themselves, relationship pitfalls to other characters, and more. Thanks for reading and as always, don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly newsletter and find Pine and me on Twitter.

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