Trauma is defined as anything that’s overwhelming or unpleasant that causes long-term mental or emotional problems. It rewires the brain and causes disordered thinking. So, if you’re looking for a way to SHOW a character’s trauma background, the WHY behind poor choices, and irrational behaviour, use internal dialogue that reflects this disordered thinking. This is the key to creating emotional connections for readers.
Below are some common ways that trauma causes problematic thinking patterns. Showing this flawed thinking, the emotional reactions to it, and the behaviours it causes will reveal to readers what’s important to your character, what inner obstacles they face, and often a whole lot about their priorities, values, and self-worth.
1. Fear and Safety Are Constantly Considered
For a character who’s endured trauma and continues to struggle with the aftermath of that event, the brain becomes preoccupied with staying safe and is very sensitive to any sense of fear. Imagine placing a smoke alarm directly over your toaster. You’d get a lot of false alarms, but that wouldn’t mean the alarm or the toaster were malfunctioning.
A brain preoccupied with staying safe will see danger around every corner – literally, whether that’s the reality or not. And when danger lurks around every corner, the energy required to see it coming, be ready at a moment to react to it, is exhausting. Every decision is filtered through this risk assessment.
Does your character need to sit near a door? Do they need to know a LOT of details about a party, event, or meeting before they can agree to go? Will they avoid anything that might remind them of the past trauma? Maybe they take ten flights of stairs everyday because the elevator feels unsafe (since there’s no quick escape from it). The illusion of control is very comforting. And of course, this can stray into self-sabotage, right? Because when an office shuffle moves them out of a workspace with a door and into a cubicle, they end up quitting.
2. Truth Isn’t Based on Fact or Reality
Decisions are made based on a blending of past experience, this preoccupation with fear and safety, anxiety of what could happen, and/or on personal truth (see below for inner dialogue problems). Those with PTSD assess everything based on what DID happen and strive to make sure it never happens again. Those with generalized anxiety see the world through the lens of what COULD happen. Often though, these assessments always skew to the negative. They don’t often see the hope or potential in a new situation or positive change, only what could be harmful.
One of my favourite examples of this is Karl Urban’s portrayal of “Bones” in the latest Star Trek movies.
Kirk : I think these things are pretty safe.
‘Bones’ : Don’t pander to me, kid. One tiny crack in the hull and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait’ll you’re sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles, see if you’re still so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding. Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
Kirk : Well, I hate to break this to you, but Starfleet operates in space.
‘Bones’ : Yeah. Well, I got nowhere else to go. The ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.
These sentiments don’t have to be spoken aloud; sometimes, the negative can be shown through internal dialogue. This edge-of-your-seat-expectation that the sky is falling, or that sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop – imagine what that would feel like. How exhausting that would be. The juxtaposition between what the character wants to do to feel safe and the decision or action they actually take can be very compelling.
This goes past just being grumpy or irritable. The key is showing the inner tension and the real impending sense of constant doom that pervades the trauma character’s thinking and emotions. For example, many who struggle with PTSD believe they’ll die young, though they won’t have a concrete reason for that belief. So maybe they want to do everything right now. Maybe they take risks that are truly unsafe.
3. Most of Life Becomes Black or White
When a character with a trauma background is struggling, their disordered thinking often becomes very black and white. There’s little nuance or room for subtlety in the effort to stay safe and not feel afraid.
I can’t trust anyone.
I can’t trust any man.
Everyone hates me.
Everyone is talking about me behind my back.
Show the reader this isn’t actually true. For instance, you can have other characters counter this with behaviour or dialogue. By showing that the character’s thinking is unreliable, the reader gets a sense that something’s out of balance. The reader can see why the character makes the decisions they make while also seeing the flaws in that thinking or rationale. The character’s decisions only need to be rational TO THEM in that moment.
4. Inner Monologue Delivers Harmful Messages
For the character with a trauma backstory who’s unconsciously (or consciously) preoccupied with safety and predisposed to fear, often the messages they tell themselves influence their reactions. The character may in fact seek out situations where those messages are confirmed (confirmation bias or a self-fulfilling prophecy). How you craft these messages can show the reader a whole lot about how the character sees themselves and their place and value in their world.
The messages are not based on fact or reality but on a personal truth/belief that’s been reinforced over time. In real life, many people aren’t aware of those harmful messages, but in fiction, we need to show this clearly so the WHY of the character’s decisions make sense. Some common harmful messages those struggling with past trauma repeat to themselves include:
I’m not lovable.
It was my fault this happened.
I don’t matter.
There must be something wrong with me.
Sprinkling in thoughts like these shows the reader the character’s foundational understanding of their worth. If this is done well, it adds buckets of tension. These small bits of inner reflection answer the WHY for readers without needing to tell them the character struggles with depression or PTSD or intrusive nightmares, etc. They can also show that the character isn’t consciously looking to harm themselves with risky or dysfunctional behaviors, that they may be seeking out those situations because they actually believe they deserve the consequences.
5. The Status Quo Is a Survival Mechanism
When the character knows what’s coming–even if it’s harmful or painful—that’s better than facing what’s unknown. They know how to handle/survive the known. That illusion of control is pervasive. They can’t imagine a different future, and often don’t feel they deserve anything better.
Stepping out into something new, changing old patterns, trusting someone new – these become heroic efforts for those struggling with past trauma. The character’s internal reaction, emotions, and thinking should reflect the monumental effort and courage this kind of change requires.
Trauma and Disordered Thinking: Showing vs. Telling
To pull everything together, here’s what trauma looks like when it’s told vs. shown. You can decide which is more powerful, more compelling.
Telling: Stan woke up from the nightmare, sweat pouring off his face. He took a deep breath. It was just the PTSD again giving him bad dreams.
Showing: Stan bolted upright, chest heaving. He searched the dark corners of the bedroom, his heart pounding against his rib cage like a man buried alive. Sweat covered his chest and back, and he shivered under the brush of cool air from the ceiling fan. He’s at home. He kicks off the covers and sets his bare feet on the cold floor. Not in the desert. Not at the FOP. His toes curl under from the chill. There’s no sniper. His heart slows to a dull bone-jarring beat. He’s safe.
But Billy is still dead. Tears fill his eyes and the moan that erupts from his gut stays trapped in his throat, constricting his airway. He stares at his hands, willing them to stop trembling. What’s the matter with him? He makes fists and pounds the mattress. This is what he got for coming home in one piece. He glances at the clock. Three hours til dawn. He reaches for the bottle next to the bed.
Trauma and anxiety are like the schoolyard bully who seems too big to fight. But the underdog character who takes this on, who pulls the curtain on the wizard, so to speak, is very compelling. Everyone has faced a similar situation in the form of a childhood bully, an overbearing boss, whatever. Most people know what that feels like and what it would take to stand up for themselves and enact change.
If you need help brainstorming your character’s emotional trauma, and its impact on your character’s personality, behavior, sense of self-worth, fears, and motivations, take a moment to look at The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.
Do you struggle to show and not tell internal conflict or tension in your fiction? Have you included any trauma backstories for your characters?
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.