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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.

Archive for the tag “Believability”

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!

Believability: Common Injuries

In stories, everybody loves drama. Whether they’re just starting out in writing, and it’s only for the sake of drama, or they’ve been writing for years and the dramatic event serves a purpose, stories simply cannot be told without some sort of dramatic incident.

In our case–us in this instance being Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Young Adult writers– drama often manifests itself in how a character manages to injure themselves this time.

I have read stories by beginning authors that are so full of injuries (at the end of each chapter, for instance, many people will knock out their character) that none of the cast would be able to walk away after it, or even walk ever again. That, however is a topic for another time. Instead of talking about how frequently you should injure your character, today I shall type (it is easier than talking when one is running a blog, as I’m sure most of you know) about what happens when you do injure your character.

[Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, but I have done rather a lot of research on each injury here. I shan’t be using technical or medical terms for the sake of my readers who won’t understand, just as I didn’t. If you look up what I say, though, you’ll be able to verify it with medical terms and official information.]

Something very common in fiction, be it television shows, movies, or books, is that the character will be shot in the shoulder. (In case you were wondering, if you go to a minion training school, you’ll see person-shaped targets in the shooting areas, with the bulls-eye on their shoulder.) They’ll grimace, say “Oh no! I’ve been shot in the shoulder!” and proceed with whatever they were doing before. There was one point in a story where I saw someone bleed extensively from being shot in the shoulder, but afterwards he was perfectly fine, and even did things with that arm.

What people seem to not understand sometimes is that being shot in the shoulder is very serious.

In spite of the fact that there are no vital organs in the shoulder (unless you’re writing a novel with creatures other than humans, in which case you might find a heart in one’s shoulder–but that’s not very likely), there is a very large artery, a terribly complicated joint, and a bunch of nerves.

If your bullet hits the artery, your hero is going to bleed more than you want them to. An average adult human male has somewhere between eight to ten pints of blood in him. After losing 40 percent of one’s blood, a hero would need an immediate blood transfusion to survive.

If your bullet hits the nerves, your hero could very likely have a permanently paralyzed arm. If your hero has a bullet hit their nerve group, they’ll most likely need follow-up surgery to get their arm working at all again. They’ll likely lose all feeling in their arm, and maybe never get it back.

If your bullet hits the joint, it could shatter, and no surgeon on this earth has the ability to piece the joint back together after that. This seems to be actually the event hardest to deal with. In some stories, you’ll want your hero to have to, say, lose their arm or their ability to use their arm, because it’s part of the character development. In others, you might want your character’s arm to stay intact, as it’s kind of difficult to shoot a gun, or do other exciting action-adventure things. This has a lot of potential in stories, but most people just don’t know that it will happen.


Another common thing (indeed, probably more frequent), is a blow to the head strong enough to knock someone out.

Knocking people out is oftentimes an essential part to many stories. It’s considered a convenient way to get the hero out of the way without killing him or her, and without lasting effects. It provides a moment when your villain can get in while the hero is conveniently unable to do anything, but when they wake up, they’ll gasp, say, “Oh, no! I was knocked out! I need to go catch that dastardly villain who managed to get past me and do whatever his evil plan was!”

What writers need to know, though, is that a blow to the head that’s strong enough to cause unconsciousness is very serious. Aside from the normal symptom arising in fiction, memory loss, a blow to the head can cause severe long-term problems–if it doesn’t kill immediately. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of trouble arising from head injuries–so much I wouldn’t have time to finish and post this today if I went into all of them. However, there are some common ones that writer’s should know about before thrusting their character into this particular situation.

Your character could die immediately. Pretty straightforward, that, yes?

The blow might cause a dent in your hero’s skull. When a person is knocked out, it takes a hard blow. Humans have hard skulls, so it takes a lot to get past them–but once you get there, you’re going to do a lot of damage. With unconsciousness, the blow might cause the skull to cave in, which could lead to immediate death, or lasting brain damage.

A common reaction to a concussion is seizures. Your brain controls basically all of your body. It’s the place of origin, where all of the nerves go to, where all of the commands come from, and when it’s damaged, there might be problems in connecting to certain parts of your character’s body, or commands might be skewed. Your character may end up suffering from long-term seizures after a strong blow to the head.

Your hero will vomit. I know, not very glamorous is it? Vomiting is one of the most common reactions to a head injury, though. And while we can create our own worlds, our own rules, sometimes it’s just best to stick with the way it is in our world.

Your character might suffer from lasting mood swings. With the brain being the origin site for chemicals, which influence what our emotions tell us, your character might very well go into a phase where they’ll be very happy one instant, and most displeased the next. The most common psychological reaction is depression, though.


Of course, there are other common injuries, and perhaps some other day, I’ll go over them. For now, though, just know that injuries are often made out to be much more simple than they are in fiction. They’ll have serious consequences in the short-term, but none in the long-term. That’s not how we work, though.

Research your injuries before you inflict them on your character (research carefully!). Perhaps your search history will make you look like you often get yourself into the hospital, but you’ll be able to write much more realistic injuries if you do.

And we, as readers, appreciate that. Not only does it enrich the story, it shows us that you care.

Do you struggle with unrealistic injuries in your writing? Do share! (As a reward, I’ll share some embarrassingly bad injury in my writing.) 

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