Monday, May 20, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 3: Factors That Determine "Severity" of the Trauma

Welcome back! If you're just coming upon this post, the first two parts of this series are:

Part 1: general information about trauma
Part 2: types of trauma and examples of each

Today I'd like to discuss factors that make trauma worse or ... better (er ... relatively speaking).

But first, I want to stop here and acknowledge that some of you have been through traumatic events in your lives. Some of you are dealing with the aftereffects every day and every moment. Although these posts are in no way meant to be taken as medical or psychological advice, I just want to put it out there that some things I post might be triggering, and if that happens to you, please talk to someone about it. We'll go over factors that make characters (and people) more vulnerable in the next post, but social supports are KEY in recovering from and coping with trauma, so please seek that support if you need it. If you don't already have someone in your life who gives you that, there are several national hotlines of various types. It doesn't mean you have to talk about things before you're ready. It just means you might need someone to understand that things are hard sometimes, and no one should be alone.


Lots of factors determine how likely it is that a person will experience lingering negative effects.* 

  • Proximity. There's a continuum. The closer you are, the harder it is. 

Personal victimàloved one/friendàWitnessàSaw on televisionàHeard about it

Here's an example: We ALL went through the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon (which is actually why I'm not going to post a picture to remind you of it). Most of us were nowhere near the actual event, but we saw it on TV and on Twitter and pretty much anywhere we looked--it was nearly inescapable. Horrific images, emotional narratives ... but the people who were THERE smelled it, and felt it against their skin, and heard it ringing in their ears. Some of them witnessed it. Some of them saw their friends or family members hurt. Some of them were hurt.

People, and especially children, can develop PTSD symptoms after repeated viewing of traumatic images. That was proven after 9/11, when some children in Europe developed symptoms after watching all the television coverage (KEEP THE CHILDREN AWAY FROM THE TV DURING THESE EVENTS PLEASE I BEG YOU THE MEDIA SHOWS ZERO RESTRAINT THESE DAYS). However, the "distance" from the event means less risk overall.

Other factors that determine severity:
  • Interpersonal trauma--like a physical or sexual assault--is more effecting (in general) than trauma caused by something like a natural disaster or a car accident. 
  • Trauma at the hands of an intimate partner or family member increases risk for PTSD.
  • As mentioned in the last post, chronic trauma is far more complicated to treat than single event trauma, and generally takes longer to recover from because of the pervasive nature of chronic trauma. Again, we'll devote an entire post to chronic trauma, particularly when it occurs in childhood. 
  • How invasive the trauma is also affects risk for PTSD. You can experience sexual trauma if someone flashes you, but it's (obviously, I think) harder to recover from a more invasive sexual trauma, such as one that involved penetration.
  • If the trauma resulted in lasting injuries, it might increase risk for developing symptoms of PTSD. Lasting injuries can act as reminders, and sometimes triggers, of what the individual has gone through.

If you're writing about a character who's experienced a traumatic event, think about these factors. Identify how close they were, who was responsible (if anyone), how intimately linked the perpetrator was to your character, how long the trauma lasted, how invasive it was, and whether it left lingering physical scars.

Then spend some time thinking about what the character experienced during the event. Here's where you put on your WRITERPANTS. What did your character see, feel, smell, and hear? Be specific. Be detailed. This is what will make your story more authentic and your character's reaction more interesting. It will also help you when we reach the post where we discuss TRIGGERS. 

*When I say something's "better" or "worse" or use qualitative words like that, I'm speaking very narrowly. What I mean is that something is more or less likely to result in long-term PTSD symptoms. I am not in any way dismissing any person's experience of a specific event or series of events.


  1. Smell, in my first novel, the scent of electricity triggered her.

  2. I agree, smell can be a powerful trigger, and sound. Certain songs can bring me right back to a particular time in my life.

  3. The senses are very powerful in jogging one's memory, pulling one back into an experienced trauma. In my YA novel, it's sounds of a playground and the lake water that give life to an old trauma. (BTW-when Boston happened, my husband and I were on vacation with our three youngest kids. Our oldest was in college, so he couldn't join us. He had, however, made plans to travel to BC for that weekend to spend time with friends and attend the race. At the time, we had no idea he'd decided no to go to Boston. It was a bit scary until we got a hold of him, but thankfully all was well.)

  4. Thanks for sharing this info Sarah. It will help me keep my women's fiction MC authentic.