Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 5(A): Trauma that doesn't always look like "TRAUMA"

If you're catching up with this series, let me help:

Part 1: general information about trauma
Part 2: specific types of trauma
Part 3: aspects of traumatic events that make them more likely to cause PTSD symptoms
Part 4: things that make people/characters more vulnerable to developing PTSD after a trauma

Today we talk about something that not many people know about--developmental trauma. It's actually been a rather huge controversy in the field over the last decade, especially as the new DSM was being developed. If you want a great article that discusses this, here it is. Basically, the criteria for PTSD are not adequate for kids who have been neglected, whose early years are characterized by upheaval, chaos, inadequate physical and emotional caregiving, and sometimes outright abuse. The symptoms of PTSD that I'll describe in future posts are based on adults, and further based on the idea of trauma as an event or set of events, as opposed to a pervasive and lasting set of circumstances.

While "classic" trauma symptoms include intrusive recollection of the trauma, avoidance/numbing symptoms, and hyperarousal symptoms, what you often see in individuals who have endured chronic/developmental trauma are additional things like severely impaired emotion regulation; faulty perceptions of the self and others; drastically reduced sense of self-control and effectiveness; and disorganized, limited, or strangely intense and indiscriminate relationships with other people. These individuals often receive diagnoses of ADHD, attachment disorder, mood disorders (including bipolar disorder), and personality disorders (most especially borderline personality disorder for females and antisocial personality disorder for males).

We currently have no adequate way in our diagnostic system to understand the effects of developmental trauma. Treating this kind of trauma is complex, too, especially when the individual carries with him/her a boatload of diagnostic labels, meds, and past treatments that didn't address the core issues.

I see that misunderstanding and struggle in fiction as well:

Characters who have this kind of background and are often surprisingly ... fine. It's almost like the author gave them a past to make them more interesting, but doesn't show the lingering aftereffects that this kind of experience has. We get to be all awwwwww the poor thing and then swooooon the character is perfectly broken with no scars except some sadness to show for it. As writers, we must be thoughtful about that. It's tricky. The pull to do this is incredibly strong, especially because ...

When an author shows what the aftereffects of trauma really look like, readers have trouble sympathizing with the characters. I've seen numerous reviews of numerous books that say something like "I know this person has a terrible background, but I can't understand why s/he is so temperamental/out of control/sexually promiscuous/mistrusting and hostile, etc!" And I totally understand that. We have trouble sympathizing with actual people who've been traumatized, too, because their behavior can be difficult to understand and sometimes, harmful and hurtful. We want to be sympathetic, but certain behaviors make it really, really hard. I know this, because I witness it every day in my other job. You've probably seen or experienced it in your lives, too, from one side or the other.

So if you're going to write this kind of character, be aware of that. It takes some courage and conscientiousness to do it, because if you do it well, not everyone is going to sympathize. Instead of giving you a host of writing tips (I'll have some general suggestions at the end of this series), I'm going to suggest something if you're writing a character with this type of background: read Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook.

I read this book in the run-up to my trip to Portland, in part because I knew I was going to meet Kristin. I had no idea it was going to be so powerful. Nobody But Us is the story of Will and Zoe, each traumatized in different ways, trying to start a life together in pretty much the worst way possible. It is, in my opinion, an exquisitely crafted portrayal of the inner workings and interpersonal dynamics of these two troubled teenagers who are trying their absolute best to save each other and to be saved. It's gut-wrenching and tender and frightening and hopeful and heartbreaking, all at the same time. Not a light read, but a worthwhile one.

As I was reading Kristin's book, I found myself highlighting all these passages that were pitch perfect examples of how someone who'd endured developmental trauma might think and act. Will, the male main character, spent his early years being passed from caregiver to caregiver, sometimes experiencing horrific abuse, sometimes being severely neglected, sometimes being torn from places where he could have had a shot at getting what he needed. He's just "graduated" from being in state custody at the beginning of the book.

The key thing I want to highlight about Will, who has the best of intentions but the most nervous-making of behaviors, is that he doesn't "act traumatized" in the way someone unfamiliar with developmental trauma might expect. He probably doesn't meet strict criteria for PTSD. But ohhhhh, it's all there. He has incredible difficulty regulating and controlling his emotions, and particularly his anger, even when he's desperate to do exactly that. He has major lapses in judgment, serious impulse-control issues, and a history of impoverished attachments to others--but then, his attachment to Zoe is incomprehensibly strong and all-encompassing. That doesn't mean it's not real, but Will is a powerful machine with some wires that got attached in the wrong places. He's complex and undeniably flawed, but so sympathetic. He might be a fictional character, but he IS one very good example of what can happen to a person who's endured that kind of childhood.

Zoe, who has lived under the abusive hand of her father and suffered the traumatic loss of her mother, has experienced a somewhat different kind of trauma, and she shows it in a very different way from Will. The author will be here on Friday to talk about how she did that, as well as  how she did her research for the characters and the story. 

Because I think this book is so worthy, I'm giving away a copy! US RESIDENTS ONLY, please. And--come back on Friday for an interview with Kristin!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Thank you so much for this series - I've been following alone, and you've given some great insight and advice. I can't agree more with your point about traumatized characters not acting traumatized; and also readers becoming unsympathetic to the ones that do. My pet peeve is when people say "I hate how whiny that character is." Dude - they had some serious crap happen to them. It's not like they're upset about a broken fingernail - this is serious! Anyway, thanks again!

  2. This is great. This is all too common in literature (and even worse in movies and on TV) when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. A dark past or mental health issue is handled as though the person is merely colorful or eccentric.

    Those of us who have lived with someone who is dealing with trauma issues know that it's generally NOT cute.

    Glad to see there are writers like Kristin and you bringing a more accurate image to bear...

  3. Thanks so much for these posts, Sarah! This one is especially meaningful to me. My first book has been well received, but turned down because the readers (agents mostly) find they can't "fall in love with" the MC - yet I believe I've portrayed her in an honest light, relative to her experiences. Perhaps too honest!

    I finished NBU right after your first post on trauma and hope to use some of the beautiful portrayal and conflict to improve my MC.

  4. Loving this series! =

    I think one of the problems in writing trauma is that public understanding is so limited, and what exposure the public has had of trauma in films, TV, books, etc is often sensationalized. When people think of PTSD, they think natural disaster, rape, exposure to war; flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance--not repeated, chronic exposure, or its long-term effects.

    Writing a traumatized character requires a certain degree of subtlety. I've had to walk a very fine line with two of mine. Trauma, especially repeated trauma, is a tricky thing to work with in a fantasy story. I'm hoping that I've stayed true to the characters and true to my knowledge. Rechecking with this series has seriously helped me go back and reexamine things with a more clinical eye.

    Thanks again for writing this series!

  5. If you do it well, not everyone is going to sympathize.

    That's not only a key point with writing of trauma, but a great rule of thumb with any honest writing.

    And great insight on what works for characters with such challenging backgrounds.

  6. This series has been thought provoking, and I'm really glad you're taking the time to share your insight with us. :)

  7. Wonderful series. Thanks for your insight. (Also, I really loved Nobody But Us. I think sometimes the most genuine characters are also the most difficult to read.)

  8. I'm with the rest-- thank you so much for posting this series. It really has been eye-opening to find out more about these issues, and to find some books that address them well.

  9. You're keeping me honest. I thought I had this covered, but after reading this I realize I've got some more research to do if one of my characters is to be believable. I've got more work ahead of me now, so don't know whether to thank you or not. LOL Seriously, this is great info. My story will be the better for it.

  10. Appreciated by many... one of which is me.

  11. Such a difficult balance in characterization, and so necessary. I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

  12. You've been blogging? Damn. Looks like I've been missing out.

  13. I realize this is a writing blog, but I have a friend who could really benefit from your psychological help. Can I contact you?

    1. Kayla, I'm sorry, but I can't offer psychological help over the internet, even if I did work with adults (in my clinical practice, I work with children). It's awesome that you're working to get help for your friend, and the best way would be to work to find a mental health professional in your area who can take your friend's insurance. In-person assessment and treatment will be the most helpful.

  14. So, I realize this was posted years ago... but I have a question.

    I have a character who was treated well up until he was about 8 years old. He's royalty, and his father is the reigning power. After that 8 year mark, the gaslighting and irregular, unpredictable physical abuse began. The boy was too soft for a father who wanted a mechanical war machine who would remain forever loyal to him.
    The story takes place when this boy is 23, and still in the same toxic environment. He doubts his own sanity and perception of reality, and his father has become the only stable thing in his life, while at the same time, he has that nagging feeling that this isn't healthy, but he's too scared to cut himself off.
    How do I know if I'm portraying this particular character in these circumstances well? I've been gaslighted myself by a parent, but not to this extent, and the last thing I want to do is misinterpret this kind of subtle, poisonous traumatic experience.

    How can I even begin to research something like this? I appreciate any advice!