As an author with story ideas swirling in your head and muses whispering in your ears, there are many things you may want to write about. You have this idea for this great character who was weak, then kicked ass to rise to conquer the world and restore order. It can be tempting to use trauma as a quick way to explain your character's behavior or give them an interesting back story, but this is actually something that can destroy your story and alienate your audience.
In the world of fanfiction -- where I spent a good number of my writing years and practiced many of my writing skills -- this was especially prevalent. I practiced how to write in the world of yaoi, where pairing male characters from anime series was common and the idea of one -- if not all -- of them being raped was a common plot device. I even fell victim to this in a few of my earlier fanfictions, having characters become victims without actually exploring their feelings about the situation and, instead, washing it away with a quick embrace and a few tacked on words of comfort. In a world full of shows that popularize the crime narrative and the superhero narrative of losing everything, it's easy to fall prey to this form.
Now I'm not saying to not use trauma in your story. In fact, some of the best novels I've read have trauma and many people experience it in their real lives. Instead, here are some tips for how to write trauma sensibly
1. Do your research.
This is probably the most common sense of the tips, but it's one that can be the easiest to forget. As an author, you're trying to create believable characters, so you want your characters’ experience to feel real and be relatable. This is especially true for trauma. I used rape as an example above, and while every reader certainly isn’t going to know what it’s like, you want them to feel like this is a horrifying experience. Therefore, some research is required, especially if you don’t have experience with the trauma you’re approaching.
Now when I say “do your research,” I don't mean watch a bunch of Law and Order: SVU. It's much more complicated than that. Instead, I would recommend looking at the documentary section of whatever streaming service you use to see if your topic has been tackled. Also, check out the internet for reputable sources. And, if you can, find some real people to talk to -- politely -- about your topic. A lot of people are open for discussion if the end result is going to be a real depiction of traumatic experiences they may have faced.
2. Trauma happens to real people.
On the same note of creating realistic characters, keep in mind that everyone is different. This means that everyone will react to trauma differently. Sure, there are common threads for how people react, but there's also a large margin for people to deal with trauma in their own way. This can result in odd coping behaviors, nervous ticks, reactions to seemingly mundane things, etc. Keep this in mind when you write the character because it's likely that whatever they experienced will spill out into their everyday lives in very real ways that they will have to cope with.
3. Depictions on TV and other media are convenient.
Let’s jump back for a second to what I said about Law and Order: SVU and research. When learning about how other people deal with trauma, it's really easy to lean on modern television for your research with depictions of trauma and how people deal with it. This is ok -- to an extent. It's a great starting point, but you need to realize one very important thing: tv and media are convenient. What you're looking at is a half hour to hour long show made to stir up an audience to feel a specific way. This means that details and real life experiences are changed and warped to accommodate what the author of the show is looking to create.
For example -- on SVU the mention of having a rape kit is almost a requirement every episode. What most episodes don't tell you is that this process can take hours and each experience is different for the victim. Also, there isn't always a helpful or caring police officer. Every victim experience is going to be different and this is the sort of thing you need to consider in your writing.
4. Trauma can bring people together*
We've all seen the action movies where two characters experience something horrible together and, in the end, become love interests and are implied to ride off into the sunset together. This is something that can happen in trauma. When you've experienced something horrible you might cling to someone who knows what it feels like.
However (and this is where the * comes in) don't use this as an easy way out. In fanfiction and the professional writing world there are far too many stories where the victim falls for the rapist or the person who inflicts the trauma in a romantic way. Far too many times where the trauma is used almost like a first kiss that makes a person fall into a horrible and even more traumatic relationship. Please don’t be one of these writers. There are ways to do this where it works, but they are few and far between and most of the time you will alienate your readers. So, please, if you choose to use trauma in your story in this way, please be aware of this issue and take care how you craft this result and the consequences.
5. Not everyone recovers.
As a writer, it can be tempting to go for the happy ending, where everything is resolved and the trauma is cured and the characters live happily ever after. In real life this isn’t always the case. Some people who have experienced trauma will continue to think about it and suffer from it until they die. This is not meant to depress you, but it's something to take into account when you come up with your ending and where you want your story to go.
There's nothing wrong with aiming for that happy ending, but curing trauma with a magic wand doesn't happen. There will be after effects -- like those nervous ticks and reactions I mentioned before -- and they will continue to happen. So maybe, instead of switching the trauma off like a light switch, work this into your happy ending to show that there’s nothing wrong with this negative situation still affecting your character. Give the character someone who understands and helps them work through it, give them a coping mechanism which gives them peace of mind when it comes up. Or you can give them a new and happier thing to think of in their life that brings in new light. What I'm saying is if you bring up trauma in your story, don't magic it away, there are actual real consequences and you can still use these and have a happy ending, too. After all, there are plenty of people who have experienced trauma who are still happy people living their lives.
6. Be aware of your readers
There is nothing wrong with using trauma in your story -- but be aware that it happens to real people in real life. If you include trauma in your story, it has the potential of bringing up things that may have happened to your reader. This means that your story -- no matter how well it's written -- can bring up bad memories and personal experiences. Because of this, there are people who you will not be able to market your book to. Also, there are people who may be disturbed by your imagery and how you portray an event, even if you do all the research in the world.
This isn't meant to discourage you, but rather prepare you. Be aware that this can happen and you will likely run into people who mention it when doing tours, sales, and promotion of your book. You may also run into people who fetishize certain types of trauma and might make you uncomfortable for what you've written. This is just something to keep in mind, because it will happen and you will have to figure out a way to answer and react to them.
As a conclusion, I'm going to wish you luck in your writing and hopefully this article will help you in how you portray trauma in your stories. Above all, I recognize, that you are the writer and you will always have the final say on your characters. You can choose to completely disregard what I've written, but I hope you will at least consider it and I hope it helps more than anything else.
And in a final note, I'm going to present one of my own characters as an example.
In our book series, “Seeking the Storyteller,” we have several characters with various experiences over their lives. One in particular is Cyn, who had a very traumatic experience in her childhood and is still dealing with it today. Her close friend, Dox, is actually the shadow creature who lived in her closet and helped her escape. Because of this, they share a very close relationship and he helps her deal with her experiences and daily life.
Cyn took the opportunity to step away from the group and head down to where Dox was. She visibly relaxed once she was on her own, running a hand through her hair as she walked down the stairs. She frowned, letting the situation fade away in her mind as she gave into a more pressing matter.
Her hair had been dark red for far too long, it was well past time for a new color.
“I’m here. You’re missing quite the show upstairs, they’re fighting about something.” Dox was sitting on the small bench in his cell, staring off into the shadows as if he could see an entire world deep within the darkness. After a moment he seemed to come out of the weird trance and looked over at her.
“I don’t like the idea of staying here.” Cyn laid back across the floor, her hands under her head of short hair. She could feel his shadows slithering over, the comforting cold brushing over her fishnet covered arms. “These Hunters are too unpredictable. It was fine when they were just looking for who killed their friend, but now that stupid cat girl has them thinking about a war.”
“Cyn, the Scough are not cats.”
“You know what I mean. This place is too busy now with other demons. It’s a shitty place to hide.”
Dox smirked a little and shook his head, his long ears flopping a little like a wet puppy. “No, this place is perfect. We can both blend in among them and the various demons they come across. If anyone shows up we will have advance warning.”
“Do I have to remind you that you’re sitting in a cell right now? How can you be o.k. with that?”
“Because I can leave when I want. I choose not to.”
“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled, kicking at a couple of the shadows to blow off steam. “What am I supposed to do up there by myself? Do you really think it’s that easy for me to sleep in the same living space as someone who hates us so much? I swear I’m going to wake up and Alix will be standing over me with a gun aimed at my head.”
“I thought you were having fun with the dragon, at least,” Dox said. Cyn just settled for scowling at him for that. Dox chuckled, “This is certainly better than the empty hotel rooms we used to stay in. You said you were getting tired of that. Something about it being too noisy at night, the beds squeaking next door and the moaning and-”
“I really wish you’d stop remembering everything I say to you,” Cyn said, glaring at the shadows now, “And you’re missing the point.” Cyn rolled on her side, resting her cheek on her arm as she brushed her fingers against the bars between them. “I don’t like being trapped here. I don’t like seeing you behind these. Even if you’re comfortable with it, I’m not. You should have told me about this plan before you disappeared and just did it. You scared me by not showing up when I called.”
“I did not mean to worry you,” Dox said, suddenly sounding very guilty, “but you would have said no had I brought it up to you. And I had to see if I could trust them, if it would be safe here.”
“Being purposely captured by Hunters just for a place to hide? Of course I would’ve disagreed!”
“Yes, but your father would never think to look for you here.” Cyn’s eyes widened at the mention of her father and she frowned at the shadows in front of her. “You don’t have to do stupid shit like this to protect me from him.”
“Isn’t that what friends do?”
“That’s not fair,” she whispered. “It’s not fair for you to say shit like that!”
“But it’s the truth, right? At least according to the teddy bears we played with.”
Cyn rolled her eyes, trying hard not to smile but the edges of her lips curved upwards anyway. “I told you not to bring that up ever again.”
“Dox should be friends with us too,” the shadow said, his voice a touch bit lighter. “Friends are always there for each other. Just like his majesty Ted E. Bear and his royal court of Ruff Ruff the
Patchy Dog, and Snowflake the Cat.”
Cyn giggled, “Royal court?” She made her voice slightly deeper, trying to imitate Dox. “Weren’t they superheroes yesterday?”
“That was yesterday, not today!” Dox laughed with her. The two friends smiled at one another before Cyn took a deep breath, trying to use the moment to calm her nerves about the situation. “I guess hiding out in the demon world is out of the question.”
Dox moved to sit on the floor, leaning back against the bars next to her. He reached his hand back, resting it near hers so that Cyn could slide her fingers over his, her pale skin standing out in sharp contrast against his. She closed her eyes and held his hand quietly.
“You’d hate it there,” Dox said.
Dox nodded. “There’s no buildings, no soft beds, no cars. All the stuff you like isn’t there. The skills it would take to survive are completely different and it would be harder for you to disappear there.”
“What about hair dye? Is there hair dye? Red is getting old.”
“There is definitely no hair dye.”
“Damn. So I’d have to shave it all off if we moved to the demon world? Or at least clean out a beauty supply store.”
“I dunno, Dox, it might be worth it. My father’s not in that world,” she whispered, her voice sounding much softer than it usually did.
Cyn wanted to say more but she ended up nodding quietly, letting the subject drop. She only had two options and neither seemed appealing. She could either stay here with Dox and trust him, or run off on her own and try to survive. At least staying with Dox meant she wasn’t alone. She felt safe with him, something that most humans wouldn’t understand – particularly the ones like Alix who automatically assumed that demon was another word for kill on sight. Children were supposed to fear the dark shadows that roamed in the corners, but the only monster she ever had to deal with was the very man who was supposed to protect her: her father. The shadows and darkness had always protected her. Dox had never led her astray, but most importantly, he had never hurt her.
She would just have to trust him again.
“Can I sleep with the shadows tonight?”
Dox nodded and the shadows around the cell flowed forward, sliding over her body like a blanket as she lay on the floor. Cyn relaxed under them, not letting go of Dox’s hand as she slipped off to sleep, shrouded in the comforting darkness.