By Lisa Hall-Wilson
Giving a character a trauma or mental health backstory seems like an easy way to add internal conflict to our characters – and it is. But where do you start that research? What should you be looking for?
No one likes to read a story and find the writer just plain got something wrong. It ruins the story. It’s important to get the details right, most writers agree on that, but I think we need to raise the bar of what we expect of ourselves. People read fiction to be entertained primarily, but through our characters we can impart factual information instead of maintaining harmful perceptions and stereotypes.
Know How Much Trauma Your Character Will Live With
First, be sure you know what level of trauma or mental health you want your character to struggle with. Is this a minor annoyance or a major stumbling block? Is this something they need to overcome by the end of the story or something they simply have to learn to manage and live with? Do they need to be able to maintain a healthy romantic relationship? Do they need to hold down a high-stress job?
Understanding this up front will help you decide what kind of trauma or mental health issue to start researching. I’ve seen way too many movies and TV shows that give characters PTSD, but the only symptom they have are combat flashbacks. Their life is not impacted in any other way.
That’s not how PTSD works. If you give your character PTSD, they should struggle (a lot) with many, many aspects of life including holding down a job or maintaining a healthy romantic relationship.
Labels Help Authors More than Readers
When doing research, being able to label what your character is struggling with will help you target your research better. Be sure you’re using the correct label in your research. The way we use these words in conversation is not necessarily how they’re used in a clinical setting, but you need the facts from credible sources, so labels will be important.
Do you want your character to have an anxiety disorder or just be anxious? Those can be different things. Does your character have PTSD or c-PTSD? Do they have any co-existing issues? People with anxiety can also struggle with OCD, depression, panic disorder, suicide ideation, etc. Flashbacks are specific and debilitating, not a convenient vehicle to deliver backstory. Sometimes, symptoms can appear to be contradictory, but once you’re in that person’s head you realize it’s not contradictory at all. People who struggle with PTSD are often preoccupied with feeling safe, yet risky behaviour is a common symptom. You get to decide how complex to make their inner struggles.
Low-Hanging Fruit: Friends And Family
The low-hanging fruit for your research will start with your family and friends. Ask around. Hey – you’ve mentioned you struggle with x. I’m writing a character who struggles with that. Would you be willing to help me out by answering a few questions?
Ask them if they know anyone who might be willing to talk to you. If you have an author page, Insta or Twitter following, ask on social media. Most people are happy to help an author with research. And they don’t need to have had the exact same problem or past. Talk to more than one person, if possible.
When you do talk to them, avoid phrasing questions in a way that makes it seem like you already know the answer. You’ll get your presuppositions echoed back often.
Instead of: What’s the scariest part about having anxiety?
Try: Can you describe what your anxiety feels like when it just starts up?
Most of the time, what you need is that first-hand experience. What it FEELS like. Let them talk. It’s always more helpful to get their experience in their own words—not so you can copy them, but you begin to get a sense of their attitude towards things, you sense where the emotion surfaces, where they carry shame or anger, etc.
Utilize Experts And Websites
Try your best to stick to accredited websites for your initial research. Charities, hospitals, and support groups will tend to address the issue with sensitivity and facts. You can parse where careful language is used – what words they don’t use. People with PTSD often feel “broken” and they will use that word to describe themselves, but you won’t find that language on accredited websites. Instead you’ll find descriptions of why PTSD is the brain’s natural coping response to overwhelming trauma.
Read widely, and pay attention to the publishing dates. Of course, there are tons of books out there on these topics. Research who the leading experts are in that field. Do they have any books out? Have they endorsed any books? Try those first.
Find the most current content you can. I tend not to consider something for my fiction unless I’ve seen it verified on at least three credible websites/books within the last two years. Psychology and mental health information is changing rapidly, so avoid relying on anything more than five years old at the very least.
Reach out to experts in that field. University faculty lists are a great place to start. Many of these people are willing to answer questions or read pages to help you make sure you’ve got it right. I like to offer these people scenarios rather than ask them simplistic questions I could find the answers to on Google. They’ll lose interest if your questions demonstrate you’ve not put any effort into research on your own.
What If You Don’t Know Anyone To Interview?
In this case, start surfing Reddit threads, Quora, and other sites where people post questions and get responses. Read newspaper articles and watch news videos from events that were similar. Look for witness accounts. Memory can be faulty, so look for quotes immediately following an event. If this is a historic trauma for your character, you can watch or read testimony of survivor accounts. Where are they filling in the gaps in their memory? What do they do with their hands, their expressions, as they recount the parts they do remember with clarity?
I’ve found lots of gold watching Holocaust survivors tell their stories, particularly when people were children during the war. They retell aspects of their experience they clearly got from another source much later, and their own memories stand out. They remember images – what things looked like, a smell, a sound – things that were out of place. The snow turned bright red and my mother didn’t move again. Every step crunched under my feet. I couldn’t figure out why, but later I realized it was because I was walking on shattered glass.
Researching mental health and traumatic experiences may seem daunting, but it can be done. I hope these tips give you the information needed to get you started and moving in the right direction.
Do you have any other tips on researching for mental health or trauma responses for your characters?
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If Lisa had a super-power it would be breaking down complicated concepts into digestible practical steps. Lisa loves helping writers “go deeper” and create emotional connections with readers using deep point of view! Hang out with Lisa on Facebook at Confident Writers where she talks deep point of view.
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Francheska Graham says
Thanks a lot for the tips, they really helped when I was working on a teen drama novel. Mental health and trauma has always been a sensitive issue to write about. It takes a great deal of subtlety and skill to pull off.
Keith Crawford says
Thank you for writing this. As a disabled veteran with PTSD I’m sick to death of reading thrillers that use my handicaps as convenient plot devices, whilst making deep routed trauma seem like something you can overcome if you’re just strong enough. Disability is not plot convenient. It’s not life convenient. A lot of the time it’s just bloody embarrassing. The more authors write better about disability, the more likely it is that all of us struggling with these conditions will be treated better.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
That last suggestion (using Quora, and finding chat boards, forums geared toward a specific condition) was a big help to us when we wrote the Emotional Wound Thesaurus book. We found a lot of personal accounts of what life is like from the one living with mental illness and trauma, plus you could also see how it ripples out to family and friends as they seek advice, and also professionals would weigh in to share what they knew that could also help. We had our research vetted by a psychologist and we have very few things that needed to be corrected (mainly terminology) so these boards really do have a wealth of information and can be used along with other credible sources.
Lisa Wilson says
People often seek community to manage or heal from trauma, so lurking on those boards and threads can be very helpful. I like hearing it in their own words, because the words they choose convey so much emotion often. Right – they might say they’re struggling, but often they’ll say they’re broken. Way more emotion in the second descriptor.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks so much for writing this one, Lisa. We’ve talked a lot at the blog about how trauma impacts characters in their story, but we haven’t discussed mental health very much. We’ve gotten quite a few requests from people asking for a thesaurus in this area, but the responsibility of getting all that right…it’s too important and more risk than we’re willing to take. So we appreciate you offering advice on how to research this and write it well.
Lisa Wilson says
There seem to be particular symptoms of various mental health issues that have gotten more public awareness than others — like flashbacks with PTSD. We have a duty to do the research and get it right. I wonder how many writers would actually give their characters PTSD or anxiety/panic disorders if they fully understood what it’s like to live with it?
I never dare to write a mental disorder unless I’ve experienced it myself. Depression? Yep, I can write that. Bipolar? Had a mild case of it for a while due to insomnia and other issues, then I had a friend who had it very bad, and I got to watch the way it progressed. Anxiety? Yes, thank you, hormones. There’s nothing quite like being trapped inside your own mind and body and just sort of watching yourself fall apart, and there’s nothing you can do. But I’d never try to write something like that unless I’d gone through it. Trying to write it from the outside, I don’t think I’d have the depth of understanding necessary.
Lisa Wilson says
I don’t think we need to live something in order to write it, but when we’re writing outside our own personal experience research is pretty critical. Personally, I think writers have a duty to get it right. And with trauma and mental health, so much is experienced individually — there’s not a universal experience of these things so there’s room for nuance and such. IMHO.
Carrie Butler says
Years back, I wrote a character with BPD. The Writer’s Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman was super helpful!
Lisa Wilson says
Haven’t heard of that one. I’ll look it up and see if there’s a revised version. Thanks!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
She passed away years back so it’s likely only the original. I miss her and her expertise; Carolyn went through our Positive and Negative Trait thesaurus books and wrote the foreword.
Jennifer Lane says
Great post! A university chemistry professor really helped me with one of my books (I know ZILCH about chemistry.) Another helpful resource for understanding PTSD is the podcast, Ten Sessions, which demonstrates an excellent PTSD treatment called cognitive processing therapy (CPT). My CPT trainer taught me that complex PTSD isn’t really a thing, by the way. Many individuals suffering from PTSD have endured multiple traumas, and their symptoms are complex, so c-PTSD appears to be more of a cultural phenomenon than a true clinical one.
Lisa Wilson says
Hmmm – well, c-PTSD is included in the ICD-11 (published June 2019) and lists distinctions for the condition. The trouble is that this field is always changing, right. In the DSM-V (I believe) c-PTSD isn’t considered unique because often PTSD with multiple traumas is comorbid with borderline personality disorder (CBP). The ICD-11 says it’s unique. The DSM-V doesn’t have a listing for it – but it might in the future.
Personally, I would be cautious diving too deep into this – unless your character is a therapist and you’re writing scenes involving therapy advice (think I’d avoid that personally — too easy to get it wrong – there may be liability issues as well). Do we need to be familiar with CPT vs CBT vs EMDR?? You can go down a deep rabbit hole with this stuff and get caught up in research paralysis. That’s why the Quora threads are super helpful because it helps you learn what you need to research and not lose hours and weeks and days learning about stuff you’ll never need in your story.