Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 4: How Vulnerable is Your Character?

We've talked generally about trauma, specific types of trauma, and factors that make events more likely to result in PTSD symptoms. Today we'll focus on individual factors that make a person more vulnerable to PTSD. If you're writing a character who's going to develop PTSD (or not), you'll want to think about some of these things!

Vulnerable people are vulnerable. As you might have guessed, individuals with pre-existing depression or anxiety or more likely to develop PTSD after a trauma.

Age matters. We now know that the most vulnerable period for trauma is birth to three years of age. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE OF MEMORIES. I'm not going to get into a debate about childhood amnesia here because it's a huge topic, but memories of trauma don't appear to be the relevant thing when it comes to early trauma. Instead, it's about our developing brains, and whether they're geared for survival or learning. And because of the nature of trauma in this population (usually the result of abuse or neglect), it can affect our synaptic connections and how our DNA is expressed (called epigenetic effects).

Here's an interesting and tricky thing about trauma in childhood/adolescence--often, the person sort of freezes in that place in terms of their emotional development, as the brain switches from a focus on learning/growth into survival mode. The person might be quite intellectually capable and typical, but in terms of understanding the self in relation to others, and with respect to processing emotional experience and regulating strong emotions, it's a completely different story. This is a crucial consideration in treatment, and it should be on the mind of anyone writing a character who experienced trauma in childhood.

Trauma is cumulative. If a person has experienced a trauma in the past (and particularly if they've experienced lingering symptoms as a result), they are more vulnerable to developing PTSD if they endure another traumatic event. For example, soldiers are more likely to develop PTSD after deployment if they've experienced a childhood trauma when compared to fellow soldiers with no trauma history.

Social support is CRUCIAL. There's actually a window of about 72 hours after trauma where providing social support to someone can reduce the likelihood that s/he will develop PTSD. A few interventions have been developed that do exactly that. But it's not just immediately post-trauma--imagine a girl disclosing to her parents that she's been raped. How her parents respond to that disclosure REALLY matters. There's some research that suggests that if social supports respond with anger--even toward the perpetrator--it might actually make things worse, because it confirms how damaging the event was, and the girl then has to process her parents' intense and dysregulated emotions on top of her own. So--how many people know about the trauma, and how they react, is really going to have an impact on how a character deals with what happened.

Disruption makes it worse. This is actually a good way to think about the effects of lots of trauma--how disruptive is it to the person's life? Think about it--does the character get to go home and recover, or is home even there anymore? Can the character turn to a loved one, or is that person injured or dead or ... the perpetrator of the trauma? Does the character get to walk away on two legs, or is one of them gone? Does she get to go back to her school and her friends, or has she been placed with a foster family in a different school district? The more disrupted a person's life, the harder it is to recover from trauma.

Thoughts can be sneaky little buggers. It's not unusual for a trauma survivor to have some thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. She might feel guilty for some small decision that put her or a loved one in the wrong place at the wrong time. He might blame himself for being in the situation in the first place. He might blame himself for not being stronger. She might feel ashamed and fear how people will think of her. Unfortunately, these enemies reside in our minds, where they fester like wounds if not challenged or treated.

If you'd like, tell us about your character, and why this person is going to be resilient in the face of trauma--or terribly vulnerable. Or, how about you analyze an example? Think of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Which of these factors was relevant to how she responded to what she goes through in that series?

I'll be back on Wednesday of next week, where the focus will be on developmental trauma. I'll do that by discussing Nobody But Us, a riveting and powerful book by Kristin Halbrook featuring a character who exemplifies someone who's experienced this type of trauma. Next Friday, Kristin herself will discuss how she researched the characters so she could write an accurate portrayal, and I hope you'll stop by and check it out, because I am telling you--she did it right. I'll be giving away a copy of Nobody But Us next week as well!

15 comments:

  1. Hmm? One of my characters was neglected as a child. She's in an abusive marriage and doesn't know how to get out. Her coping method is fantasies that make her happy. Critique partners have said she comes off as either too aloof, or too wimpy to be believable. Is fantasizing a PTSD symptom?

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    1. Dissociation often occurs when individuals are traumatized, and daydreaming/fantasy is a (pretty common and normal) form of dissociation. It's a way of escaping, essentially, when you can't actually escape. If someone were to actually have PTSD, she'd have a lot more symptoms than fantasizing (because it's so typical, and not really a symptom per se) but it could go along with other symptoms.

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  2. I have to tell you, Sarah, I barely got passed your opening paragraph. I had no idea about birth to three years of age being the most vulnerable to trauma. And then you mentioned childhood amnesia. My brain slipped off the charts at that. There is loads of potential here for future errors because of PTSD...apparently. You've really opened my eyes. I'm going to have to return and reread your posts to grasp all you've written. So much to think about.

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    1. Well, childhood amnesia is just a quality common to all humans--we can't remember things that happened to us when we're really young. But birth to three is a vulnerable time because of the rapid brain development that's occurring, and specifically, synaptic growth and pruning--the brain strengthens connections it needs and culls connections it doesn't. If a kid is enduring extreme deprivation or abuse, it could alter those connections in a pretty significant way.

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  3. I agree with SA. Had no idea about the sensitivity of those first three years. Of course we know their important, but my mother brain went into overdrive thinking how happy I was that my real life children (instead of book babies) made it through those first three years relatively unscathed.

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    1. There's a whole continuum--kids are vulnerable, yes, but they're also pretty resilient, and often appropriate care later can make huge differences for kids' outcomes :)

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  4. Thanks for the link on providing support.

    For an example of being more vulnerable, in Speak she not only had no support, but had the events of that night turned against her, with her call to the police breaking up the party. And so all the friendships she needed were gone when she needed them most.

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    1. That's a perfect example, Steve!

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  5. Wow, I've only just spotted this series of posts, but I love it. I'll have to read them all and bookmark them.

    My protagonist, Nathan, loses his girlfriend (to an affair, not that she's dead), his home and his father all in one night, and later loses his job. Between books he stays in his dad's old apartment and does spend some time with his best friend, but you've made me think about how that upheaval can explain a serious shift in his character.

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  6. Losing a girlfriend to an affair wouldn't necessarily be classified as trauma by itself--though it is undoubtedly hugely upsetting. However, losing one's home and parent in one night in addition could certainly be traumatic, particularly if those losses are sudden and unexpected (e.g., his home was destroyed in a fire vs. the bank finally foreclosed; his father died of a heart attack vs. his father died peacefully in hospice after a long illness).

    How these things happen can mean the difference between a trauma reaction and a grief reaction. To be incredibly sad for a long time about those losses is grief--to experience lingering intrusive recollection of the events, avoid reminders of them and display general numbing of responsiveness, and display symptoms of hyperarousal--that's a trauma reaction.

    Good luck with your story, and I'm glad these posts might be helpful!

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    1. Thanks for that extra advice. I think losing his father is the most traumatic event for the hero, since his father dies saving his life when the villains come after them.

      These are things I can consider while I work on the edits for the sequel.

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  7. It is really nice of you to put together some usable information regarding the formation of characters personalities with depth. I enjoy the character building part of a story immensely, and your blog information has added to my interpersonal relationship with the building of them. Thank you for taking the time!

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  8. Hmm. I remember stuff from when I was three but now I'm wondering if they are made up memories. It was a traumatic event in the community, told of again and again as I grew up. Maybe I just filled in the blanks. But there are certain episodes I remember so vividly, like seeing a tank. Oh well, interesting series in any case. Things to consider when writing.

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    1. It's quite possible that pieces of those memories are accurate, VN, though it's also possible that some aspects formed with the repeated retellings. Kids older than 2 can report certain memories accurately, though it's a bit hit-or-miss.

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  9. I have a character who from a young age witnessed the abuse of his mother by his father. This continued until her death, and the father continues to abuse him. He definitely grew up fearing parental authority, and never feeling that vital sense of safety that is so important to the development of children. Thanks to that, he grew up believing he is helpless and must do everything his father says or get severely hurt. The idea that he could stand up to his father is inconceivable, because he views the abuse as just "the way things are" and his father as invincible. None of this is explicitly described in the story, but hints are dropped as to why he acts the way he does. It's not the abuse of himself that eventually motivates him to act; he acts to defend his sister. Like with women who leave abusive partners once their children are threatened, it's part of that mindset that you, as the target of abuse, are worthless and don't deserve to be defended (whereas a loved one does). Depending on the nature of the trauma, one's self-respect and self-worth can take a huge hit, especially if there's self-blame or blame by others.

    Another character suffers symptoms of PTSD. He had no trauma beforehand, but he blames himself for what happened. He was very sheltered, and as such the traumatic event came as even more of a shock to his system and his entire worldview.

    I hope I am representing both of them accurately.

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