Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 1: Generalities

Well, hello.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Missouri Writers Guild annual conference. I met a bunch of really enthusiastic, talented, and insightful writers and had an absolute blast. I also got to hang out with my incredible agent, which is a rare treat. Have I mentioned that I love her? I do. She deserves much credit for keeping me on the rails writing-wise ... which is not an easy task.

Anyway, one of the things I did while I was at the MWG conference was teach a master class called "The Ins and Outs of Traumatizing Your Characters." It was a ton of fun, because the people who attended were so full of input and feedback and questions and ideas--man, I love when I get to do things like that.

I've decided to share some of the information here on the blog. Over the next several posts, I'm going to give you:
  • some general info on trauma
  • discuss different types of trauma and how that impacts people's (and characters') reactions
  • identify some factors that exacerbate and buffer trauma reactions
  • discuss each type of symptom in the PTSD diagnosis
  • talk a little about treatment
  • offer some general writing tips
How does that sound? Shall we get started?

The reason I chose to offer a master class on trauma is that it's prime fiction material. So many novels deal with traumatizing events or how characters cope with the aftermath of trauma. It's riveting. Authors manage it in MANY different ways.

Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook is a heartbreaking story of two traumatized characters trying to find their way together. This book will be featured in my post about developmental trauma--including a brief interview with the author herself!

It could be argued that The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith is one giant trauma reaction experienced by an already vulnerable character, but there's no "telling" here--it's all "show", which leaves you to figure it out for yourself.  

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins depicts the trauma reactions and ongoing traumatization of several of its main characters--in a dystopian setting. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a beautifully done and realistic narrative of recovery from the trauma of rape. 
Trauma in fiction is relevant and resonant when done well. Here's why:

  • 25-40% of youth will experience at least one potentially traumatizing event by age 16
  • Up to 60% of the US population is exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes
  • PTSD affects more than TEN MILLION American children and adults--lifetime PTSD prevalence is 8% in the US.
  • Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD. That may be due in part to men not being as willing to disclose for reasons having to do with our cultural and social roles and expectations, but the increased risk for women is also likely due to the fact that women are more likely to experience intimate/interpersonal trauma--we'll discuss why this is relevant in the next post!
  • Lifetime prevalence might be 8%, but in military populations, it’s 14-15% ... for obvious reasons, I think.
One thing you might notice from the above statistics--most people exposed to a traumatic event won’t develop PTSD or need treatment. We'll talk about why that is a few posts hence. 

SO! Those are a few generalities. Are you writing characters going through trauma or dealing with its aftermath? What questions do you have? I've planned several posts for this series, but I may extend it to specific questions if folks are interested. 


  1. I look forward to your posts, Sarah. I love reading and writing about traumatized characters.

  2. Those are some stats! I saw you post a question about this, either on Twitter or FB; can't remember. You were asking how many posts about this would be too many. I say just share what you will, regardless of how many posts it takes up. It's a great topic! Looking forward to reading.

  3. Very cool! Thanks for sharing this, I think we all want our characters to be as real as possible and trauma plays into that. Love it!

  4. All this trauma can lead to fatigued adrenals which can affect our daily lives and get misdiagnosed. I love your posts.

  5. So timely and important, for writers and for caregivers both. I wish I could have attended the conference. I've been researching this topic for both my current WIP and my first novel. Both have characters that have suffered traumatic events and taken completely different approaches in resolving. One is compounded by repeat instances and I am struggling to keep her from becoming completely bitter and unapproachable - any information on the roller coaster ride to health would be appreciated and informative!

  6. Looking forward to the series of posts. My character goes through five years of war in the first novel of my trilogy, and some of the ugly things she has to do to survive/win affect her in a big PTSD way in the second novel. Most of my male characters deal with it through alcohol abuse, but my female character reacts by seeing and talking to her dead companions. :)

  7. Had no idea it was 8%. Makes one want to be much more kind in traffic and in dealing with difficult people, since we so rarely know their stories.

  8. I, too, will be looking forward to these posts ...

  9. As a member of that Master Class at the Missouri Writers Guild conference in St. Louis, I was as enthusiastic as our teacher. In fact, I have written aobut it on my blog, referenced above. This promises to be a fascinating series, of great value to anyone, especially writers.
    More power to you, Sarah! Peter Green

  10. I was so happy to see your blog pop up with a new post. :) I'm looking forward to learning!

  11. This sounds so interesting Sarah! Looking forward to these posts.

  12. I think many of us have been traumatized at one time or another, so it's easy to identify with PTSD characters. Having a traumatized character ups the fear factor in the writing, which is what a horror novel is really about.
    Great post! :-)

  13. I'm so glad that you are writing these posts right now! I'm writing a book that has loads of traumatic events, heck it's pretty much all traumatic events and it will be nice to see what you have to say. I think you handled this so well in Sanctum, so I can't wait to read more!

  14. I love this idea, and I look forward to learning more :D

  15. Looking forward to reading all ten posts. Thx for sharing! :D