By Lisa Hall-Wilson
Many authors give their characters past trauma that makes life more difficult and at the very least adds internal conflict. But are you strategic with the kind of trauma you choose—the severity, the onset, the symptoms and coping mechanisms? What’s the character’s emotional arc and how does the trauma shape that arc?
Types Of Trauma
Trauma is anything that leaves a person feeling overwhelmed.
That’s it. There’s no threshold of “bad” that needs to be reached. We tend to think of trauma as huge horrifying events, such as combat/war, displacement, a natural disaster, car/plane/train accidents, rape, kidnapping, a near-death encounter, etc. These kinds of events change you, sometimes in only the span of minutes.
However, what’s more common is the everyday kind of trauma that every one of us has suffered to varying degrees. Some common examples might be divorce, forced relocation, public ridicule, loss of a loved one (even to natural causes), job loss, relationship loss, betrayal, poor response to a personal disclosure, sibling rivalry, emotional neglect, a health crisis or a sudden medical procedure, etc. This kind of backstory influences characters’ decisions, motivations, priorities, likes and dislikes, prejudices, and blind spots just as much as the big trauma events.
I really love the character Tyrion in the Game of Thrones series (books and TV). Tyrion is shaped by the fact that he has dwarfism. Having dwarfism is not a peripheral detail to differentiate him from the other characters. The specific and unique kinds of trauma he suffered growing up because of his stature influences every future decision and is subtly woven into every emotion he expresses, numbs, and holds back. His past trauma equipped him to survive, even though that same trauma was also a handicap and an anchor. The trauma wasn’t just a detail added to create sympathy in readers for a hard-to-like character.
Strategic Use Of Trauma
Before randomly choosing a trauma from the past, think about who your character is and how this trauma could make their story journey more difficult for them. Get really curious about this.
As an example, let’s take a look at Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo is a perfectly respectable hobbit until a wizard shows up with 13 loud, strong, obstinate, opinionated dwarves. Knowing what sort of challenges are ahead of him, what kind of trauma background could an author give a character like Bilbo that would make solving his story problem even more challenging (and definitely feel impossible)?
Bilbo is a homebody and an introvert, and living with so many boisterous individuals with strong personalities is a challenge. But imagine a Bilbo with a past of abuse that comes out in his adult life as extreme people-pleasing and conflict avoidance? How would this anxiety have made life even more difficult and bring additional challenges during his encounter with Gollum, facing off with Smaug, or negotiating with a walled-up Thorin to honor his promises to the people of Lake Town?
The past trauma you choose to include should be more than emotion-theatre. It should make your character’s journey more difficult and be specific to the journey ahead of them. I know this is hard if you’re a pantser, but it may be something to consider for a rewrite or editing phase.
Trauma Memories Are Often Avoided
Part of being strategic with trauma backstory is knowing when and how much to share. My personal preference is to drip in backstory. What does the reader need to know to make sense of what’s going on right now? It’s often far less than what you think the reader needs. This slow peeling back of emotional layers can increase the tension for readers.
Because the reality is that 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.
“Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.”
~Bessel Van Der Kolk
Consistent use of coping mechanisms can show a past trauma early on without having to delve into the backstory before it’s necessary. A great example of this are the opening scenes from the movie Sleeping With The Enemy—Laura’s obsessive straightening of cans in cupboards, of adjusting towels on towel rods to precision, etc. It all pointed to this frantic need to appease someone else, someone she was afraid of. The specifics of the trauma weren’t necessary in those opening scenes to create tension.
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. They work out, they are health nuts, because they don’t ever want to be overpowered again. This obsessive need to be strong, stronger than most everyone else, is the reaction.
So ask yourself: How can you be strategic with the reaction to the emotions your character suppresses or tries to avoid?
Trauma Is Like A Spider’s Web
Trauma is not just something the character thinks about. Emotions are the key to making trauma reactions believable and visceral for readers, so be strategic with specific and unique ways those emotions affect the character’s body. Where do they hold or carry the tension? Do they clench their teeth? Does their neck ache? Do they have stomach problems? Do they have trouble sleeping? Do they startle easily? Do they get angry easily?
The way they carry the past in their body will also affect their behavior and choices. Some people become angry when one of those old emotions are triggered. Some people become compliant and seek to please everyone around them. My point? It’s all connected. One symptom or coping mechanism or trauma memory doesn’t exist in isolation from the character’s thinking, feeling, reacting, and decision-making. Avoid the temptation to use past trauma as emotion-theatre.
You can’t tear a hole in a spider’s web and not create reverberations felt throughout the entire structure. How could you use those reverberations to create more inner or external conflict? Maybe a woman who’s been raped obsessively uses exercise to regain a sense of control. But then she breaks her leg and is stuck on the sofa for two months. There’s a tear in the web. How would removing that coping mechanism affect her thinking, her emotions, her ability to cope with all of it?
PSSSST! Lisa’s got two courses on writing in deep POV that you might want to check out. Writing in Emotional Layers and Deep Point Of View Foundations can help you learn the effects the tools used in deep POV aim to create, so you can use those tools to best serve your story and your voice.
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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