October 19th, 2018

5 Tips on Writing a Trauma Backstory

Life is hard and as writers, we aren’t doing our jobs unless our characters struggle. Am I right? Good fiction isn’t borne out in the comfortable and easy living we might dream about, but in the tension and conflict between characters and/or their own desires.

Giving a character a backstory that includes trauma (part of their backstory at any rate, because no one wants to be defined by that one awful thing that happened or they witnessed) is a great device to create inner tension, and often leads to conflict.

When writing in Deep POV (point of view), the intent is to be as authentic and real as possible. It’s a personal observation that trauma backstory either irreparably cripples a character (think Lisbeth Salander from The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) or doesn’t seem to affect them at all (think any of the principle characters from Criminal Minds – I mean, how much trauma can you witness and still not have it affect outside relationships?)And sure, there are outliers who struggle with severe PTSD and some who seem able to brush anything off, but for the majority of us the reality of a past (or backstory) with trauma is somewhere in the middle.

The power of Deep POV is the ability to layer emotion and create realistic reactions.

5 Truths About A Traumatic Past Writers Need To Remember

Trauma Requires Writing Secondary Emotions

Traumatic events, current or historical, are the equivalent of an emotional tsunami. Primary emotions are the raw, knee-jerk emotional reactions to stimuli we all experience and are the most common emotions given to characters. Some primary emotions that could be triggered by trauma would be: fear, frustration, guilt, self-doubt, hopelessness, loss (physical or psychological), powerlessness, loathing, denial, sad, etc.

When someone is hit by a tidal wave of primary emotions like that, secondary emotions are triggered. Secondary emotions are emotions are caused by one or more powerful primary emotion and include things like: anger, anxiety, and shame. Some of the secondary emotions that could be triggered because of trauma might be: anger, shame, anxiety, bitterness, resentment, numbness, and grief.

Don’t be lazy. As a writer, you need to dive deep into these secondary emotions and layer the primary emotions so the reader can experience the loss, anxiety and trauma with your character. Writers Helping Writers has a great entry on overcoming abuse that walks through trauma and character motivation.

Historical Trauma Needs Authenticity In the Present

For someone who’s experienced past trauma, (emotional, physical, sexual, verbal) each time the anxiety is triggered doesn’t mean that the actual events are recalled with any amount of detail except in severe cases (like with combat veterans).

For someone with PTSD, unless it’s severe, their body reacts to the past trauma as though it’s happening all over again but they don’t actively recall the event. They’re more likely to avoid thinking of it at all unless they’ve gone to counseling or there’s some other explanation for that level of self-awareness. Writers need to treat this carefully when using trauma as backstory.

Physiological symptoms are one way to signal to a reader that the character (or at least their body) is reliving a traumatic event even if they won’t think about it. A woman who was abused as a child will not want to relive the abuse in her mind every time a man larger than her walks into a room. Who would want to live like that?

Those who can’t not relive that event often turn to something to numb the memory whether it’s a substance or some other addiction. However, this woman might notice her heart rate accelerate, she might begin to sweat or blush for what feels like no reason. She may maneuver herself to make sure she can make a quick exit if needed or insist on sitting at the end of the row or table. These are all symptoms of anxiety. By providing this evidence of what this woman is experiencing, the reader can draw the conclusion that she’s struggling with something from her past.

With backstory, you want to answer one question and leave the reader with two more.

Past Trauma Has Three Main Lasting Reactions: Fight, Flight or Freeze

Most people have heard of the fight or flight survival instinct humans are typically born with. Victims of trauma (or perceived trauma) when the primary emotions from that trauma are triggered, experience the one of three (or an overlap of) survival instincts: fight, flight or freeze.

If they choose flight they’ll look to escape the situation or the possibility of a similar situation (numbness, isolation, withdraw from society). Fight usually comes out as anger or rage either directed at themselves or other people. If they choose freeze, they’ll stay when they should run, refuse to acknowledge the effect of the trauma, catatonic, constantly overwhelmed, no energy, etc.

Read more about Fight, Flight or Freeze and how they overlap here.

Emotional Triggers Caused By Past Trauma Have A Desire At Their Foundation

When anxiety is triggered, there’s an immediate flood of primary emotions and secondary emotions that come to the front almost instantly. That’s why much of the time, we aren’t aware of the primary emotions causing the secondary emotion. However, at the base of the emotional trigger is a vow, a promise they’ve made to themselves, or some kind of motivation.

Examples of these desires or motivations might be:

never to be a victim again, never let someone hurt me again, not be made a fool of again, never let them see me cry, never let them see I’m hurting, never be hurt emotionally again, never trust a man again, etc.

These inner desires may be expressed through internal dialogue as a vow, but this kind of survival instinct could also be shown through other internal dialogue or choices. What these desires signal is that there’s a wound that’s still festering the character wants to keep covered up and hidden. What they need to do is expose that lie to the air and let it heal, work through the primary emotions causing it all.

The Myers Briggs personality tests claims that a large majority of people are equipped with enough introspection to sort these things out, but some personalities do it better than others so it’s unrealistic to think that your character (barring some other obstacle such as psychopathy or narcissism) isn’t capable of this growth. Here’s a great article that talks more about those personalities and how they deal with introspection.

There’s a lot of room in these situations for character arc. Let these characters learn as they go through the story. If they begin the story having already overcome the trauma, make sure there’s real justification for giving them the trauma to begin with.

Don’t end the story with them as broken and floundering as when readers first meet them, they must grow somehow. Something has to give, right? No one repeatedly signs up to be beaten and abused by their past, either they get over it, they get even, or they find some way to forget about it/numb the pain.

Causes of Historical Trauma

The thing about PTSD and anxiety is that the effects and consequences are very individual. It’s usually a result of feeling powerless (having no voice), and hopelessness at being unable to change the situation or outcome.

Two people can experience the exact same trauma and one person can walk away with PTSD and the other not, they both might, neither of them could have PTSD. They could both have PTSD to differing degrees or have different triggers.

Read more about healing from emotional and psychological trauma here.

Those feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness can be caused by a wide variety of situations that to some people may not seem all that traumatic at all, so personality can play a large part in this.

Having surgery or intrusive medical procedure at a young age can leave someone with anxiety. Neglect, abuse, or simply an unsafe living environment can cause trauma. Loss or separation from a parent at a young age can cause trauma. Basically anything that forces a child to feel insecure can cause trauma.The younger a child is when this trauma is experienced, the more devastating the adulthood anxiety can be.

As a writer, you don’t need your character to experience some kind of catastrophic attack (rape, kidnapping, torture) to experience anxiety. Being locked in a pitch-black room as a child just once can cause lifelong anxiety. The degree to which the adult allows this anxiety to define them, or shape their thinking (often trauma leads to shame), the more the consequences will become evident in day to day life.

Remember that whatever sort of trauma is given to a character, to layer the emotions the event caused. Make sure to realistically portray how the character thinks or remembers the traumatic event. However, don’t be afraid to make that character uncomfortable, to throw them head first into whatever their worst fear is and let them become stronger because of it. Those are the characters readers cheer for!

What kind of historic trauma have you given your characters? What challenges have you encountered? Finally, if you've discovered any great resources for writing about trauma, please share them in the comments!

Announcement: Lisa is doing a free 5 Day Deep Point Of View Challenge on Facebook starting October 22. It'll be in a closed Facebook group. You can sign up for the waiting list here so you don't miss out

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-WilsonLisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.

Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

21 responses to “5 Tips on Writing a Trauma Backstory”

  1. Excellent post, Lisa. This one goes in my writers tool kit file. Thanks!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Thanks for this. My current protagonist was shot, came close to death, when the book opened, and because more Bad Stuff will happen to him later in the book, these are excellent points to keep in mind. Bookmarking.

  3. Nan Lundeen says:

    Lisa, the two main characters in the novel I'm rewriting both are reeling from trauma, one from two years ago and one from two months ago. I never thought about secondary emotions. That's a helpful concept. Thanks!

    • Glad you found some things to think about. Historic trauma is different than recent trauma, right. We think about it differently -- because we've had time to maybe label some emotions from the past that we're not able to immediately after. Great juxtaposition to put them together.

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    Lisa, I have some childhood trauma PTSD going on in one of my books that drives everything and I've always worried I wasn't doing it right.

    My heroine is afraid of men and doesn't really understand why until halfway through the book. I'm super subtle about it in the beginning and worried I wasn't doing her justice.

    This post let's me know I'm doing great in some parts of her arc and that I could be playing up a few more. Thank you!

  5. johntshea says:

    Good point about 'Criminal Minds'. A 'Stargate SG1' boxset I watched had a documentary where the writers listed the many traumas undergone by Colonel Jack O'Neill, for example, including tortures and repeated deaths and resurrections. They acknowledged the improbability of any real person surviving such horrors with such little obvious effect. It's a major point of improbability but probably inherent in such shows. 'Criminal Minds' is actually more realistic, but there is a limit to how closely art can imitate life.

    • Yes... and no. I think genre and tone really determine how realistic the effects of trauma are shown. I thought Netflix's Jessica Jones does a really good job of showing the consequences of trauma (and of hiding from the emotional fallout of it) -- but that's a very dark and gritty show based on a comic book. Not all genres tolerate that.

  6. Rick George says:

    This is a tremendously useful post, Lisa. Thank you big-time for all this specific information about individual responses to historical trauma. In my current WIP, the protagonist is an Afghan War veteran whose historical trauma was a "blue on blue" ambush by an Afghan ally. He has issues about trust, which comes into play when he finds himself attracted to a Syrian refugee. I'm going to save your post as a resource to help me tackle this scenario.

    • Oooh - trust (lack of more precisely) is a really good one to use because it reaches out into virtually every aspect of our lives, right. In some tolerable ways and in some not so tolerable ways.

  7. My MC has childhood trauma and his PTSD has given him fear of abandonment, lack of trust, and feelings that he wasn't loved and cannot be loved. This affliction manifests in his manipulation and control of women. I am using a lot of inner dialog and body language. But looking forward to the second pass when I can fine tune all this Deep POV I am learning from you!

    • Awesome! Glad you're finding all these posts helpful. With PTSD and anxiety, those can be really complex with a variety of primary emotions fuelling them. The control and manipulation though, I've found that's more often a response to shame. You can absolutely use both, be sure that readers understand or can intuit which is fuelling a particular scene. Will add a lot of emotional depth. When we blend these complicated emotions, it can lose impact for readers (IMHO).

      • Lisa, Thank you! And YES! I totally grasp what you just wrote. My MC was sent away from home in Buenos Aires by his grandmother when he was 8 years old because his mother was involved with drug gang. As an adult he remembers being raped and thinks he was the cause of a friend's murder. I am working through the different emotions and feelings of affliction. I will be in touch! Thank you so much for your pointer!

  8. Laura Drake says:

    Oh, this is a keeper! Great reminders, Lisa.

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    death of a loved one, anxiety, and a few other things.

    I research and I ask a psychologist I know.

    denise

  10. […] journey, Stavros Halvatzis examines strong character relationships in stories, Lisa Hall-Wilson has 5 tips on writing a trauma backstory, and Sue Coletta delves into psychology while explaining how to use false eyewitness testimony in […]

  11. […] 5 Tips on Writing a Trauma Backstory […]

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