Friday, May 17, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 2: Types of Trauma

Now that we've established that most people will experience some sort of traumatic event(s) in their lives, and that a huge number of novels focus on trauma and its aftermath, let's discuss different types of trauma!

Trauma isn't ONE THING. It's sometimes hard to define, but here's SAMHSA's definition (lots of resources on that website, by the way--if you're going to traumatize a character, do your research!):

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
 You see here that you need an event that a person experiences in a certain way, but that also has lasting effects. That's the core of it, but this can take so many different shapes!

Single event:

  • car accident
  • physical injury or accident
  • natural disaster
  • terrorism
  • physical or sexual assault

We'll talk about treatment in a later post, but professionals agree that single event trauma is often "simpler" to treat than other kinds of trauma, because the individual can focus on grieving and integrating one event. That doesn't mean this type of trauma is no big deal--it can be crippling. But man, are there some extremely effective treatments that work particularly well for individuals who've experienced it.

Books that deal with single incident trauma include Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Willow by Julia Hoban. I would say that the majority of YA books dealing with trauma that I've read involve single event trauma.


  • domestic violence
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • combat

With this type of trauma, there are periods of respite in between, and sometimes the surrounding environment isn't utterly toxic, but when things explode, they have a "snowball" or cumulative effect. The traumatic events aren't isolated--they wear a person down.

Books that deal with episodic trauma include The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (Catching Fire is where the author really begins to show the aftereffects of trauma, but she also deepens the trauma with additional traumatic events). Lela, the main character in Sanctum, has also experienced episodic trauma, though it could be argued that her background involves significant developmental trauma as well (see below).


  • refugee/forced displacement/warzone
  • child neglect and deprivation

Chronic trauma, and particularly early and ongoing child neglect and deprivation, is much more complicated to treat because of the frequency of negative events and the pervasive badness of the environment. Developmental trauma, sometimes referred to as "complex trauma," is also harder to diagnose, because sometimes there is no single event that could be identified as traumatic. Rather, sometimes the entire environment is the issue! This type of trauma gets a post all to itself. As a child psychologist, I think about, talk about, and deal with this type of trauma (in varying degrees of severity) A LOT.

Books that deal with chronic trauma include Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook.

If you're writing about trauma, feel free to share the type of trauma your character has experienced, and how you're thinking about his/her reaction to it. Also, please feel to recommend excellent books that deal with different types of trauma in an authentic manner!

On Monday, we'll move on to a discussion of factors that make traumatic events more likely to cause PTSD symptoms in those who experience them.


  1. One book I didn't catch was about trauma on first reading is Catcher in the Rye.

    And speaking of trauma, Salinger himself fought in some of the worst campaigns of WWII and was hospitalized for "combat stress reaction," so he knew what he was writing about.

  2. Great insight, as always. Have a great weekend.

  3. I can't stop wondering about those women in Cleveland and their ten years of abuse. They've likened their experience to that of a POW. I'm hoping they get the best care available and can figure out how to live with those horrible memories in the future.

  4. So, My MC suffers Acquantance Rape, which would normally be Event Trauma, but it occurs after several years of forced moves, emotional abandonment by her family and zero socialization skills/success in her early teens. Later, as she finally seems to be recovering, she witnesses her best friend (who was instrumental in her recovery) being raped. Her primary coping mechanism is avoidance - she literally flees across the country, taking off everytime there is any possible risk of emotional attachment or a physical relationship.

    I'm not familiar with any books along these lines but i will definitely be reading the books you listed in this post.

    I was able to find some great source material and interviewed some incredibly helpful professionals and victims by contacting local outreach and support groups. I don't think I could have finished my novel without their help!

  5. I just wrote an episodic trauma for my MC today. This inspires me to do a little research about typical reactions and feelings people would experience after that kind of trauma.

  6. I'm currently working on a book about a girl on the run from both assassins and the inter-world police. She hasn't done anything wrong except run away, and she's kind of gone like a hunted animal--little sleep, paranoia, trust no one, and when backed into a corner, she'll kill. But I'm reaching the part of the story where she needs to recover from that a bit and re-humanize, and I'm a bit at a loss. Most of the pursuit has been neutralized, and although she's been captured by a bounty hunter, his job is to protect her with his life until he gets her to safety. Not sure she'll really ever truly recover...

  7. So basically for my character, her mother died during childbirth, leaving her alone with her father. And her father became overly obsessed over his daughter, to the point where she was always appointed at least one armed man to watch over her (the father is the lead of a more advanced form of tribe) or flat out locking her up in her room.
    She eventually does escape but ends up forgetting her mother's locket that she was given, a symbol of her heritage, and there's a part of conflict where she spends all her time trying to track down the tribe yet still looking for a way to get it without them finding her.