by Lisa Hall Wilson
Trauma can create great internal, external, and interpersonal conflict, but readers are not interested in clinical definitions or objective recitations of symptoms. Trauma needs to be more than emotion-theatre. It should make your character’s journey more difficult and be specific to the journey ahead of them.
If you can take out the backstory, the flashbacks, and the character remains unchanged, maybe you don’t need to use trauma in your story. Stephen King wrote that fiction is the truth inside a lie.
Be honest about living with trauma. Entertain with your fiction, but be honest about the lived experience of trauma.
We misuse the term “trauma” all the time in regular conversation. When many people say they struggle with “trauma” they mean they were betrayed, disappointed, embarrassed, ashamed, hurt, sad, grieving – whatever. These are legitimate emotional hurts that can FEEL traumatic, but this is not what is meant by mental health professionals when they talk of trauma.
Trauma is ubiquitous, but it’s also specific. Trauma is any event or situation where a person feels overwhelmed, helpless (loss of agency, voice, autonomy, mobility, hope), a sense of horror, sustains a serious injury, or perceives a threat of serious injury or death. Trauma is a visceral experience.
Everyone experiences things that are troubling or hurtful, and that haunt them. Everyone. But not everyone struggles with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder (BPD), PTSD, c-PTSD, bipolar disorder, dissociation, panic disorder, agoraphobia, suicide ideation, self-isolation, etc.
These are the real-world consequences of trauma. There’s an escalation of harm, of injury, a sense of being “stuck” or “broken” that is intrinsic to struggling with and managing trauma; an inability to “just get over it.” Be honest!
Most people will do almost anything to avoid being reminded of the worst moment of their life. These are not the sorts of things people navel-gaze over. They don’t reminisce about that time they almost died. They don’t share the nightmares or night terrors they relive every night with friends. Instead, they avoid going to sleep, they medicate in order to sleep, they have poor sleep because their brains won’t allow them to reach deep restorative sleep.
Follow that thread.
What other consequences would one face if chronically exhausted? There are medical conditions, attention, and focus problems. They’re probably prone to overreacting. They may be forgetful, accident-prone, and/or make a lot of errors. They may self-medicate to mitigate these issues, chugging cups and cups of coffee and then drinking themselves to sleep at night for instance.
Show the reaction to the emotions the memory brings up, rather than have your character THINK about the emotion they feel.
“Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.”
~Bessel Van Der Kolk
Instead of your character spending time thinking about their trauma; instead of writing out all that backstory or flashbacks, show what they avoid.
Where don’t they feel safe? What lengths do they go to in order to feel safe? Some people need to have their backs against a wall so no one can sneak up on them. What clothes do they wear to avoid feeling a certain way, to avoid attracting certain looks or certain kinds of attention? Maybe it’s the opposite, and they wear certain clothes in order to attract attention. Do they react to a hard day by hooking up with the first available prospect disregarding their own personal safety – compulsively?
The reader will pick up on how this behavior is about something else that’s happened in the past.
There have been studies done on young men who suffered abuse by priests as young boys. Those who struggle with anxiety (of any sort) often become gym rats because they don’t ever want to be overpowered again. This obsessive need to be strong is the reaction, but they may deny what happened, avoid anywhere that reminds them of what happened, and many won’t talk about what happened.
Our brains don’t record memories like a director films a movie. Our brains crave context, continuity, and closure. So, trauma memories appear unreliable because events are recorded with skips and gaps. Details that are too overwhelming may not be remembered in the moment, but come back after days or months. Things that are too overwhelming might be recorded initially, but then forgotten in time.
You can use the unreliable and faulty function of memory to show a character with past trauma. They may believe they’re crazy, or struggle to trust their own memory of what happened and question everything. They may obsessively seek to create a narrative about what happened or use other sources to fill in what they can’t remember or don’t want to be true.
For those who’ve had troubling experiences, those emotions and memories will often fade over time. But those struggling with trauma will involuntarily relive those trauma emotions over and over and over. Many trauma survivors describe it as a movie in their brain that they can't stop playing.
So anytime the character feels vulnerable for instance, instead of THINKING about how vulnerable they feel, or how this moment feels a lot like that trauma moment, show the reaction instead.
Jessica Jones is one character where this coping/denial spiral is very clear. The Netflix show Unbelieveable captures this aspect of memory with compelling realism.
[Trigger Alert: Detailed trauma in this section. (Labeled for ease of reading.)]
I have watched and read a lot of survivor accounts of various types of trauma: holocaust, domestic violence, natural disasters, car accidents, victims of crime and abuse, terrorist attacks, etc.
The brain captures those details that aren’t as they should be. What is out of place, what is wrong, and the implication of those out-of-place things will be highly upsetting (not forgetting the sense of hopelessness and the real or perceived threat of injury or death).
One holocaust survivor recalled being discovered by the Nazis. She hid, but her mother was dragged outside in winter without a coat. Through a crack in the doorway, she saw a soldier point at her mother’s head and heard a crack (a gunshot). In vivid detail, she recounted how the snow turned red. She stared at her mother for hours from her hiding place after the Nazis left, waiting for her mother to get up.
These were the details that haunted her. These are all details that were out of place, and all pointed to something being horribly wrong. She didn’t remember understanding that her mother was dead, but she certainly perceived a real threat to her life.
One survivor of molestation recalled how the hook and eye to lock the bedroom door (in the room where she was abused) was up high, near the top corner of the door. How the weight on top of her was too heavy and she struggled to breathe. These adult memories point to what most traumatized the child – the inability to escape, and the perceived threat of suffocation.
When writing memories like these for your character, instead of seeking to capture the complete horror of an event, try narrowly focusing on what would be most upsetting to them. Be visceral with the sensory details. Sound and smell are two senses very closely linked with memory. This will be specific to your character, unique to their experiences and threat levels.
How can you be strategic with the reaction to the trauma emotions your character suppresses or tries to avoid? Do you have questions about writing about trauma? Please share them in the comments if you feel comfortable doing so!
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
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