So excited to have Lisa Hall-Wilson here today to share some insight on how to write PTSD realistically…
Hey hey! *mittened fist-bump* 😊 Thanks so much for having me!
Writers are always looking for ways to add authenticity to their stories and characters, so I thought I’d share some down and dirty deets about living with PTSD.
Why Write About PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been called shell shock and historically was lumped in with ‘hysteria’ for women. You can research this mental illness, the causes, and the symptoms, (here’s a great link), but I’m more interested in helping you write it with accuracy.
Giving characters a traumatic past and an ongoing condition that hinders their ability to move on is essential to a great character arc. The character struggling with PTSD is facing overwhelming odds, and any character who stands up to a bully of any kind (even when it’s disguised as a mental illness) is someone readers will cheer for.
To that end, I’d like to share five tips for writing a character with PTSD.
#5 – Avoid Recalling Traumatic Events
Don’t let your characters spend time navel-gazing about the events that traumatized them. (I’m talking more about backstory than nightmares or flashbacks.) Yes, I’ve seen this. Who wants to dwell on that or talk about it at all? Instead, show the coping mechanisms used to control the symptoms or turn their mind off. Show symptoms of anxiety and then send them for another lap around the block even though they’ve already done 5 more than usual.
The emotions and physical symptoms left by the trauma are so uncomfortable your character will proactively seek a way to get control, but they will avoid thinking about the why.
#4 – Show The War Going On Inside Your Character
When PTSD is triggered, everything amps up like an adrenaline rush is forced on you and won’t stop—in other words, you don’t need a flashback to show it. At the same time, the mind is ramping up your body and simultaneously trying to regain control of the physical response. Basically, when PTSD is triggered, your character will be at war with themselves.
The physical symptoms are easy to show; just write what’s happening to their bodies. Let internal dialogue focus on their awareness of being irrational, that there’s no threat, yet they’re unable to feel safe. They’ll struggle to control, to conceal, to minimize what others can see. Get it? I’m a BIG fan of Deep POV so I focus on showing the primary emotions through physiology and internal dialogue and showing secondary emotions through outward actions and spoken dialogue. (For more info on this, you can get my Writing Emotions In Layers 5 day ecourse here for FREE.) I think the Netflix series Jessica Jones shows this very well, so consider that as a possible resource.
#3 – PTSD Is About Minimizing Triggers
Those managing PTSD will have a proactive (but not necessarily healthy) strategy to manage symptoms. Some methods might be subtle while others are extreme. When triggered, survival instincts kick in and your choices are simple: fight, flight, or freeze. Do you know what your character’s primal goal is when they’re triggered? Is it safety? Is it survival? Is it escaping? Have them seek that out at all costs.
They could have a mantra they recite to control their thoughts. They might have a safe person, someone they trust to watch their backs in new or upsetting situations. Grounding techniques involve consciously cataloguing why the what-ifs won’t happen (There are two exits, It’s a public space, etc.). The slow removal of their dependence on these management techniques is a great way to show growth.
#2 – Give Them A Tell
Self-awareness is critical for management. Your mind starts the whole ball rolling and sets your body off: I’m not safe. I’m not safe. It’s very hard to catch this mental initiation; more often your body tips you off that your mind is racing. The self-awareness has one purpose: to enable you to manage what you see coming.
I have a couple of tells that always tip me off: blushing and sweating—profuse sweating disproportionate to the environment. Does your character have a physical symptom they’ve trained themselves to watch for? Have your character become more self-aware throughout the novel. Let them become more aware of the problematic thoughts jumpstarting the crazy train. They’ll want to hide what’s going on because it makes others uncomfortable (people stare, they avoid the character, or treat them differently). Show the character’s awareness of the stigma, and let them fail from time to time.
#1 – Blindside Your Character
You can be blindsided by a trigger at any point. A situation that’s been fine a thousand other times can trigger you that one day. This is a great device to save for a pivotal conflict.
It’s like a two-by-four to the head. Show their emotional wounds bleeding all over the floor and have them keep going anyway. Show them growing stronger, trusting people again, forgiving themselves, etc. Let the whole process be messy, two steps forward and one step back. The stories that end in a pretty bow and leave everyone “cured” simply aren’t authentic.
TIP from WHW: For brainstorming help when it comes to possible conflict scenarios that can challenge your character (or trigger them), try the Conflict Thesaurus.
Have a question you’d like to ask about writing PTSD in fiction with realism? What’s the most compelling portrayal of PTSD in fiction you’ve seen so far?
Lisa Hall-Wilson is an award-winning journalist and author. She’s passionate about helping writers take their craft to the next level. Lisa’s next class is Method Acting For Writing: Learning To Write In Deep POV on January 22. At the heart of Deep POV is an immersive experience for the reader through an emotional connection to the character. There are a number of stylistic choices an author makes to facilitate this. This interactive 3-week intensive gathers ten years of in-the-trenches study and writing all in one place to help you write better faster.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.