Trauma: any event that overwhelms our ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes our ability to feel a full range of emotions. Anything can be traumatic depending on the individual and what they can cope with.
Giving a character a trauma background, having them experience some kind of trauma, or having to live with and manage PTSD is something more and more writers are choosing for their stories.
Trauma is full of conflict and emotional tension, but readers don’t want objective news coverage. They want the lived experience of the event whether it’s happening right now or fifty years ago.
How Our Brains Record Trauma
Memories aren’t recorded in continuous action like a film. It’s recorded in bits with skips and blanks. Human brains crave beginnings, middles, and ends to things. Context. Continuity. Closure. So, the brain will always look to other sources to fill in those gaps (other survivor accounts, news reports, documentaries, etc) to label, understand, find closure. I cover this more in-depth here.
What a victim takes in during any trauma may differ from what they remember immediately after and may differ again a week or a month later. This reality is particularly apparent in rape cases. The Netflix show Unbelieveable captures this aspect of memory with compelling realism.
This aspect of memory is where you, as the author, can strategically choose which details your characters focus on, are haunted by, prioritize, deny, self-medicate to avoid, etc.
A PTSD Memory Is Frozen In Time
Generally speaking, memory is flexible and fluid. With time, some elements fade and others come to the fore. With PTSD however, the event is captured with photographic detail that doesn’t change much or at all.
If you think of the brain as a giant old-school file cabinet, most memories—even traumatic ones—are filed away for later reference. This relates to how we handle this, react to that, etc. Context.
But, the PTSD memories are left in the to-be-filed box because the brain doesn’t know where to put them—in modern times there’s usually no context for rape or a natural disaster, right? And those trauma memories are the first ones the brain turns to in order to figure out how to react to things, interpret things, measure risk—everything. The lack of closure means the trauma memory remains a constant and present threat.
There were studies done after WW1 where soldiers just returning from the battlefield were asked to recount a specific battle or incident while it was fresh in their memories. Forty years later, those same soldiers were interviewed again. Those with PTSD recalled the same sights, sounds, smells, and sensory details almost word for word. It’s like an old record or CD with a scratch that gets stuck in one place.
Those who didn’t have PTSD (which represented the majority), their accounts were very different from their original statements, because they’d had time for other sources to fill in the gaps, to find context and closure. As time went on, some or many details changed or were lost.
So how can you use this information when writing trauma or PTSD memories for your character?
1. Know Which Kind of Memories Your Character Is Dealing With
Emotions are the key to capturing the effects of these memories for readers. Emotions have three jobs: to warn us, to tell us something, or to protect us. This is super helpful when thinking about how to SHOW the effect trauma memories have, or why they’re triggered. I go into more detail about emotional context here.
With any trauma memory, there’s one or more emotion concerned with protecting the character from this ever happening again. So any character with a trauma background could have those memories brought forward by feeling too small, insignificant, or weak (as an example). Any situation that recreates that feeling can trigger the trauma memory: someone standing next to them while they’re seated, having to speak with someone in authority (ie., a police officer), etc.
For those with PTSD, this triggered emotion will activate survival instincts the character will immediately NEED to obey and are often be disproportionate to the situation. Usually, whatever helped them survive initially will be the default reaction. This is not a reaction they can think their way out of. In real life there wouldn’t be much internal dialogue to rationalize or contextualize or self-soothe (though there may be some repeated phrase or warning: good girls do what they’re told, for instance). They may, however, be aware that their reaction isn’t “rational” to the present situation, though it made perfect sense in the trauma situation.
Get curious about the consequences of your character being triggered, because whether he or she chooses to resist or go along with their instinct, those consequences should play into the story. What might happen in a situation where their gut response is anger, but they resist that urge? Or what if they did react instinctively, and they ended up causing physical, emotional, or relational harm to themselves or others? How do they handle the aftermath of a reaction that “makes no sense?” Do you see the kinds of complications this leads to for those with PTSD?
Without PTSD, someone with a trauma memory is able to retain the ability to think, to problem solve, and intellectualize when faced with those same emotions. It will be upsetting, it will influence their decisions, but the reactions diminish. For those with PTSD, most of the time, their solution is to avoid those emotions being triggered because the consequences are costly.
2. Choose Details That Are out of Place
Trauma memories will focus on the things that aren’t as they should be—those will be the upsetting details. Survivors will often focus on what’s out of place, on what’s wrong, what shouldn’t be. They will register this as wrong, but may be unable in the moment to articulate WHY it’s out of place or shouldn’t be.
One holocaust survivor recalled how she (as a child) was in hiding with her mother when they were discovered by the Nazis. She hid and her mother was dragged outside several meters away. The girl peeked through a crack in the doorway, 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 focused on waiting for hours for her mother to get up. She didn’t have any context for what had happened at the time, but in her retelling there were many details added from an adult perspective.
I also read an account of someone who survived the Oklahoma City bombings. She recalled paper fluttering from the sky, personal papers, and scrambling to try and pick them up. She remembered walking, and the ground crunching underfoot with every step. In the moment, she was deeply upset by this sensory detail but couldn’t say why. Later, she could explain that those were papers people wouldn’t ordinarily be so careless with, that the asphalt was covered in shattered glass from the blown-out windows. She didn’t remember seeing anyone injured or upset, though she acknowledged she must have. Her brain had selectively blocked what was overwhelming.
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. To show what was overwhelming or traumatizing, use things they remember or forget.
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.
If you’re giving your character PTSD, these memories may have skips and gaps they can’t explain. They may vividly recall every emotion they felt, or they may not recall feeling anything at all (though those same emotions will still be triggered).
3. Use Flashbacks—Carefully
There are two kinds of flashbacks used in novels. One is a glimpse into a character’s past, basically a cut scene to something that happened before, which may or may not include anything traumatic. This is usually written as a dream or as backstory.
The second kind of flashback is a trauma memory replayed in detail associated with or to show PTSD. Avoid the temptation to use just this aspect of PTSD and ignore all the intrusive and debilitating aspects of this disorder (well, it’s more correctly a brain injury). Flashbacks are trauma memories re-lived: emotionally, visually, and/or as an auditory memory.
Here’s the thing: in real life, a flashback is the body immersing itself in and re-living the worst event of the character’s life over and over without any warning or control to stop it or prevent it from happening. It’s more like a nightmare than a memory, because it can block out all sense of time and place. These memories can also show up in nightmares that might thematically have no resemblance to the trauma but instead focus on the triggered emotion, like helplessness. These memories are exhausting—mentally, emotionally and physically. I’ve written more about PTSD flashbacks here.
4. Remember that Memories and the Reactions to Them Are Very Individual
When writing trauma memories, keep in mind how much time has gone by. Those WW1 soldiers recounting events from forty years previous—their memories consisted of what they remembered but they were also made up of what the news reported, what they saw on TV, and what others said. Some consciously or unconsciously altered their memories to avoid a variety of internal consequences (guilt, shame, etc). Think about what other sources might be available to your character to fill in the gaps in the character’s memory, or what reasons they may have to hide or diminish their outward reactions to those memories. What would be the consequences of that emotional suppression?
No two trauma survivors are the same. Take the time to research trauma and mental health. Try to find someone you can interview. My experience of PTSD is unique to me. There are commonalities that are used as diagnostic tools, so those are good to be aware of, but the intensity, relational/physical/social consequences, coping mechanisms—all of this is very individual. Use the lengths the character goes to in order to avoid the memory or its resulting feelings to SHOW the depth and intensity of the pain and tension.
In summary, no one wants to be defined by what’s happened to them, but if you’ve given your character some kind of traumatic memory, be sure those memories significantly influence their decisions, actions, thoughts and feelings—otherwise, why bother?
Resource to help you:
If you would like help unearthing your character’s backstory wound and gain valuable ideas on how each experience might impact their behavior, self-worth, fears, and more, try this Emotional Wound Database.
It can guide you on what to expect for different types of trauma, so you can accurately show the strain of having such a wound be part of their past.
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.