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?
Resident Writing Coach
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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