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Stories will not be written easily. A story without a heart is dead, and the only place it will get a heart is from the author.

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!

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12 thoughts on “Believability: The Effects of Trauma

  1. Such a good reminder and very well said! I know that as an older (and hopefully more life experienced) reader it drives me crazy when characters blithely continue their lives as if nothing has happened. That said, I didn’t think about it much during my younger years of reading AND it can be difficult for an author to incorporate in a realistic way. Not many readers would be patient with an Aragorn that is curled up on the fetal position for months after fighting the Ringwraiths. They are expecting him to go on his next adventure, battle ready and mentally tough. I’d be curious if there are fantasy/adventure books that incorporate PTSD successfully.

    • It’s particularly irritating for me when I’m reading something about the inexperienced hero, who just came from our world or a small, peaceful village, who rapidly adjusts to the life of a warrior—usually with a sword, which would be a major trigger for PTSD—with hardly even a blink. For experienced heroes, I can see it happening. Aragorn in particular I think would be able to handle the PTSD from his adventures fairly well, since he lived his whole life slowly headed toward the point where he would be able to, if not actually avoid Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, certainly handle it better than most other people would. He spent most of his adult life (which was a very long time by the start of Lord of the Rings) battling random orcs, watching Sauron, living on his own, and basically doing what that type of Hero-character does. I also do think that in some books, the characters whose head we never enter would actually be dealing with PTSD, but since most people won’t talk about what they’re feeling, we just never realize it.
      Several years ago, I read the novel Tunnel Vision, by Susan Shaw, which wasn’t really an adventure book, it was more of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder book. It’s been awhile since I read it, so I don’t remember if I would recommend it or not, but from what I remember, it used the fact that the main character was dealing with PTSD very well.

  2. I absolutely love this post. Because I suffer from paranoia-like symptoms, and am afraid that I have various illnesses/ diseases/ disorders (though I do think I have depression and paranoia) and am a sick, sick person, I enjoy looking up all sorts of diseases and illnesses and disorders in my free time. So, I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Yes, I do use PSTD in some stuff I write now (because of what I stated above), though I have to admit that when I was younger, the characters I wrote just instantly bounce back, haha. My earlier works (and the ones today still) are just awful.

    Now, stuff like that sort of annoys me. Some stuff, I let slide but like what really bugs me is when the main character of a book just jumps into rash decisions, and get injured and have their loved ones kidnapped or dead or something and just like cry for a bit then get over it like a page later. And then they’re running around for “revenge” or “justice” or “vengeance” or whatever in freezing temperature without a jacket or something and facing off with the main villain without any problems what-so-ever. Sorry about the rant but I have read something like this and it really, really irked me. Actually, what irked me even more was that after I read that, I realized something similar was in one of my older (really really bad) writing pieces, haha. I’m such a hypocrite.

    • When you use it in your books, do you tend toward focusing the main story around it, or do you more often use it as a tool with a different thing as the main part of the story? I think that every writer has some stories that are simply terrible. It’s like a badge. “Yes, I wrote terrible, unrealistic fiction, but I have improved!”

      I do think that some people would react to the fact that their loved one was dead by being very angry (this being classified as the second stage of grieving) and running off to find the person they hold responsible. I do also think that having anger used like that could be a great tool in a character arc, especially if the character went to find the villain and failed, ending up in the hospital, where they eventually have to figure out that, no, it’s not their place to get revenge or play vigilante. That’s the fun thing about these clichés; if they’re handled right, they can be used very well. But now I’m getting off topic. :p Characters definitely always deal with things different ways, and some people would just become a whirlwind of activity when they’re dealing with PTSD or grief, so that they don’t have to confront it, while some other people are just going to want to find somewhere they can be still and grieve quietly.

  3. With Rolf, he has one nightmare that I added. Other than that, there isn’t too much PTSD mentioned. In the sequel, which I need to rewrite, or maybe just forget about, he ended up diving for cover when a helicopter flew over. The thing was, he knew this helicopter was on his side but due to past experiences, he went for cover. He also gets shaky around helicopters.

    • I like that, with the helicopter. I’m not entirely sure why, but it presents a very clear picture in my head. And, yes, I can completely imagine that happening, because when people get scared, they can tell themselves there’s nothing to be afraid of over and over again, but they won’t often believe themselves.

  4. I. Love. This.
    Thank you so, so much for writing this up. It was very well done and will help me greatly for editing and keeping in mind as I’m writing. This was a very needed post for me; I’m glad you posted it when you did!

    • Ya~y! That’s basically the best compliment that you can give me, to say that it will help you while editing and you’ll keep it in mind while writing.

  5. This is only the second post I’ve read about PTSD. Where have these posts been all my writing life? I’m embarrassed at how little I show of it in my first novel (which is published and beyond editing). It does, however, strengthen my desire to write the sequel. A year after the first book’s events, I would love to show or at least mention how the characters were/are affected.

    And I agree that a character who lives a . . . traumatic lifestyle, for lack of a better term, will cope with the book’s events much better than a character who has known only peace and tranquility until the book blows up his life in his face.

    • As long as your writing life is still happening, I would think we can say they’ve been right here. 🙂 A sequel showing how they’re dealing with it would be absolutely awesome. I haven’t read your first book, but I can imagine the way people would be looking forward to seeing more of the characters, and staring off a second book by showing that, no, life didn’t magically get back to normal, would be great.

      Definitely. Which is good, because then we don’t have to say good-bye to our beloved hero-type characters…

  6. Song on said:

    Heh. I want you to know that I’ve subscribed via email and that’s actually why I never comment, because I read the post right away from my cozy inbox and am never HERE to say what I think. So I think this is a fitting time to say “Thanks” because I find all of your thoughts, tips, and all that most helpful. 🙂

    And a special thank you for this post, especially. In one day you really helped me to see what my novel needed. My main character has a lot of dramatic things happen to her in a very short time, and this…this is perfect. Thank you. I will definitely use this.

    • I’m so very glad they’ve been helpful. Comments like this really make my day. 🙂

      I’m most glad of that. I hope it’s helpful in your story! 😀

I love hearing your comments. Please add to the discussion! (It'd be awesome if you could keep the comments G Rated. Thanks. :p)

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