Believability: The Effects of Trauma
Whether it’s burning buildings, car wrecks, fighting dragons or evil-overlords, or the ever-popular armed henchman (hopefully with better aim than to get your characters shoulder!) out to get them, characters face terrifying moments in stories. In some, it’s easier, but where would stories be without conflict?
As I said in the previous Believability post, everybody likes drama. It’s the main portion of the story. Whatever happens to the character changes him or her; it powers their character arc, it makes them fall in love with someone, it brings them to a point they would not have reached before. Everything that happens to a person changes them, if only a little bit. While we can’t go through and make every action, every song they listen to, change a certain character (though it would be fascinating to do so, what author has time?), big events cause big reactions.
When a character goes through something terrible, it doesn’t stop when they get to safety.
[Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, but I have done research on the effects trauma can have on people. While I won’t be using technical terms for my readers who are enough like me to have no idea what they would mean, the information that I put here is verifiable on official sites and medical-type places.]
If I were a psychologist, I would lump all the events mentioned above, along with many more, into one term: traumatic event. Since the information that I’m putting down here does come from psychologists, well, I’ll lump it all into the aforementioned term.
Have you ever heard of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder? Well, now you’ve read about it, and that’s as good as hearing about it, anyway. Nearly all traumatic events cause an after-effect in all people. Someone more used to the type of event is much more likely to be able to handle it well, but in the end, it has nothing to do with how strong a character is. Occasionally someone will be able to withstand what they’re going through, but most often, they can’t.
Trauma influences not only the part of the brain that we can control–how we think, memories which we can control to some extent–it influences all of people. It influences their subconscious and physical parts of the brain, too. People can’t fight Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on their own.
In fiction, nightmares are certainly the most common symptom of emotional trauma. What author doesn’t love a good nightmare? While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (hereafter, PTSD) certainly contains nightmares, there are other, deeper consequences coming from it. Nightmares hardly brush the surface.
Called a close cousin to the nightmares is re-experiencing the event. Not in sleep, not feeling like a memory. Occasionally called intrusive memories, the character will feel it again. Physical pain, emotions, sound, and sight all come together again as though the person is really there again, and again, and again, lasting sometimes for seconds, sometimes for days. When a character isn’t suffering from intrusive memories or nightmares, they often will be unable to get the event out of their head. It becomes an obsession that they frequently can’t help, taking over their lives.
Emotions go crazy. When they once enjoyed an event, they’ll avoid it; when they once loved being around a person, they’ll avoid him or her, especially if the person has a connection to the event that triggered it. People with PTSD rarely want to ask for help, because they don’t understand what’s going on inside themselves and don’t see a reason to bother someone, especially if it means opening up to them or talking about the event. Another emotion that people suffer from is guilt: survivor’s guilt, the question of “Why did I survive when other people didn’t?” is common after events where there was injury or death.
Sufferers of PTSD often have paranoia-like symptoms. They’ll have trouble concentrating, and frequently be looking over their shoulder, or starting at sudden noises. They’ll have trouble sleeping, and wake up frequently even when they aren’t suffering from nightmares, because they’re simply scared to death that the thing will happen again. They feel like they need to defend themselves with the least provocation, leading to snappish behavior and angry outbursts. They’re scared, and they won’t every admit it, because to admit it would be to make themselves vulnerable.
When authors (especially those of Science Fiction and Fantasy) think of wars, they think of drama; the battle between good and evil; perhaps death, and certainly opportunity for a back-drop or a main plot. Most of us won’t immediately think of Shell Shock.
Shell Shock was a condition similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but more quick and dramatic. Coined during the first World War, Shell Shock was a condition that left doctors and soldiers either baffled, or certain that it had been faked or consisted solely of the cowardice of the soldier.
It consisted of much more than that, though, and brought on somewhat bizarre symptoms; a soldier would return from a trip out of the trenches unable to speak, talk, hear, or paralyzed. Men would be unable to eat or sleep, and oftentimes be gripped with nightmares of unending fighting. As with PTSD, even when a person was not sleeping, the soldier would suddenly feel as though he was in a battle again. A soldier might have stomach cramps after shooting or stabbing someone in the stomach, and many would frequently relive moments of fighting.
Shell Shock is now officially considered to be a part of PTSD, but stereotypically, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t diagnosed as such until the symptoms have been there for longer than Shell Shock, and most people who suffer from PTSD don’t lose their ability to walk, talk, or hear.
While some people are less susceptible to PTSD and it’s close cousins, no one walks away from a traumatic event the same. Sometimes people will still be experiencing the effects of it years afterwards, sometimes up to the end of their lives. Sometimes the symptoms lessen; sometimes they get worse. It’s unpredictable; sometimes people will be fine after a few days to recover, sometimes it’s very difficult to tell that they have PSTD, sometimes people need extensive help. Everyone handles it differently, and characters should have a different set of symptoms based on their character.
People simply cannot shrug off something so earth-shattering as, say, being in a war, or being shot at by unspecified henchmen, even if they do have bad aim.
Have you used Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in your novels, or are your characters more likely to be perfectly fine after witnessing or being a part of a traumatic event? Do tell!