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Writing Characters with Trauma

Image by FelixMittermeier [1] from Pixabay [2]

The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too” – Vincent van Gogh

There’s no escaping the fear and fury these days. It echoes in every news report and flashes in the eyes of neighbors, our faces masked as we scurry about our strange new lives. From our DC condo, we sometimes hear downtown protest chants and helicopters zipping across the night sky. Two weeks back, we felt the stun grenades as forces cleared Lafayette Park several blocks to our south. Given all this and more, I suppose it’s no surprise that I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about trauma. With my work in progress nearly stalled, I’ve taken to crafting brief scenes, short stories, and snippets of dialog for story ideas that may never take shape. But no matter the format, inevitably the emotions captured are tumultuous, erupting from tightly wound characters longing to be heard, needing to be loved. Indeed, they are like the cries of damaged souls, individuals gripped by trauma.

One benefit of the exercises is they have given me a means to consider how injuries and injustices shape individuals, both in fiction and in real life. Along the way, I’ve also reflected upon my first novel, pondering what drew me to the story of a shell-shocked youth returning home from WWI. From the start, I considered it a coming of age tale, and at its heart it is precisely that. To my credit, I hit those marks well – the urgency to find one’s path, the hesitancy of first love, the bristling to break free. And yet, I wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, if perhaps my protagonist’s wartime trauma, while present in parts, could have been more integrated on the whole. Perhaps I treaded too gingerly, rather than leaning into his painful battle experiences.

All of which has led me to some realizations, as well as ideas for developing characters coping with trauma. The following are ways I plan to approach my future works, regardless of whether the traumas within my characters drive the entire narrative or serve instead as threads within the underlying fabric.

Readings and Research

As you all know, writing fiction involves continual research. To craft a convincing historical fiction, I perused old train timetables, studied troop movements, and read countless wartime accounts from both stateside and abroad. And though the research topics vary, the same is true of other genres as well. Science fiction invariably relies upon a knowledge of existing technologies as a basis to imagine future ones. Even the wildest fantasy tales often have a basis in or make reference to existing mythologies.

While stitching together character backstories for my future writings, I intend to consider more fully the kinds of traumas, both large and small, that may have shaped them. Online resources are readily available. One I found in preparing for this post is a collection of materials provided by the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health [3]. The point is not to create a color-by-number recipe for character behavior; I doubt that is even possible (and sounds horribly unimaginative). Rather, the idea is to identify and better understand the influences that may have shaped them. Think of it as giving your creative subconscious more information from which to draw. As an example, I was fortunate to have both of my parents in my life throughout my childhood. But if my character in a new story has lost a parent, then I should take some time to learn how such a loss might change a family dynamic or might impact how the character approaches relationships as an adult. It is simply another window into the mind of your character, another crayon with which to color them.

Personal Interviews

Of course, research doesn’t have to be a solitary mission. Perhaps you know someone who has experienced the same type of trauma as your character. I once interviewed a woman who organized political campaigns to better understand what all was involved and how it felt to travel into a battleground state to set up a get-out-the-vote operation. Depending on how personal the issue, and the level of trust, one could do the same to discuss traumas. In the case of a child losing a parent, I could talk to childhood friends. Even just a kernel from a conversation might change insights into my own character, fleshing them out a bit better.

For subjects that might prove too difficult to broach, professional resources may also be available. Just as crime writers often develop sources, you might want to seek out a resource to discuss the challenges, for example, of adults victimized as children.

Look within Yourself (Trust your Instincts)

Neither of the above suggestions is intended to replace instinct. As writers, we tend to possess keen observational skills and abundant empathy for the human condition. Moreover, we have a lifetime of our own experiences. We all carry bruises. They may not be the same, and some cuts are deeper than others. But characters come from our imaginations, and that irreplaceable instinct is a great compiler of experience and observation. Likewise, trauma doesn’t exhibit itself the same for every individual. I have great faith that, in due time, characters show you what you need to see of them.

But a bit more knowledge and reflection about trauma, outside the busy work of crafting the plot, settings and scenes, may help you to develop deeper layers and greater subtleties in your characters.

What do you think? Have any of your characters experienced a trauma that required extra research on your part? Are you consciously aware of the traumas of your characters, or are they simply understood? Do any particular stories stand out for you as an example where an author displayed keen insights on a character coping with trauma?  If so, please share your thoughts in the comments — I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [4]

John J Kelley [5] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [6], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.

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