As writers, we are naturally inclined to be cruel to our characters. Not all the time, of course, but we do put them through perilous situations. We snatch away their loved ones, we show them horrifying situations, we kill them off. However, there is a difference between writing drama and writing trauma.
Drama is what you use to spice up your novel. It’s what makes the plot interesting and what keeps the characters engaged. Trauma is bestowed upon characters and it should never be used without a solid reason. Writing traumatized characters and traumatic situations is a very delicate situation.
My friend Lenox asked me to write this article. I am certainly no expert on this subject, but I do carefully consider it and put in a lot of time when handling this in my writing. Here are my five tips on how to write trauma...without being traumatic.
Do your research
I will say this in practically every article I write, because it is so important. If you are writing about a certain topic or situation, do a little bit of digging. Find out
What victims are like after the event.
What the event may do to the mind.
Read victim accounts, watch interviews, even try to find out some medical information.
Learn about how victims recover from these situations.
Find out the statistics behind how common such trauma may be.
Realize that every single person deals with trauma differently.
This is a really delicate matter. If you just go in assuming things, readers will notice and it will be a grave mistake. Doing research will also help you enrich your writing, but also because it will be more accurate. You will be able to write the characters with more ease, because you understand them better.
Don’t go into too much detail
This may seem contradictory to what I just said, because you’ve done all this research and now you want to include it. This is not exactly what I mean. It is good to include details about what the victim feels, what the aftermath is like, what the healing process is like, etc...it is not a good idea to vividly describe the trauma itself. Unless absolutely necessary, do not go into gory detail about what occurred.
Sometimes, it is a major plot point for the story and has to be laid out, but most times...including the scene(s) in graphic detail is a cheap move. Also, you don’t know what your readers have been through. As a writer, it is your duty to use language to your advantage, which is my next point.
Make language and phrasing your best friends
You don’t want to make the language so vague that the readers have no idea what happened, but you do want to paint a picture where they understand the situation. You don’t have to show what happened. Show what happens afterward. Include details in the scene. Give the readers context clues, through subtle phrasing. Use language like a tool, to get your point across without making it “look, look, this horrible thing happened to a character!” Gently guide the reader into the situation.
(This next little section of the article is not graphic or anything, but does discuss a sexual assault that a character has gone through. This is a trigger warning. You may skip to the next tip if need be.)
This is an example of a scene in Thick as Thieves, where a character is remembering his rape. I have changed the name of the character for this article.
The stranger pushed John down again, keeping a hand on his neck, and pinning him down. John was on his stomach, flailing as best he could, but he was too hurt and weak to do anything. He heard shuffling and shifting behind him.
The sound of pants unbuttoning and hitting the ground.
Then feel of his own trousers being yanked down.
This scene has been built up to and hinted at throughout the entire book, for it is something that deeply haunts the character. I refused to go into any detail about the matter and the scene cuts off after that last line. The reader knows exactly what happened, but no details are shown and the character still goes through the trauma. It is talked about later, but I never, ever will go into gory details. The trousers falling, and the context of the scene, are all the reader needs. No more than this description is needed for the story.
A subtle way of writing these scenes is the way to go.
Think about other characters
Not just the victim is affected by trauma. Their loved ones or companions (i.e. the fellow characters) are also going to be affected. Think about:
Do they try to help the victim?
Do they not understand what has happened?
Do they get angry and impatient?
How would the trauma change their relationship?
Does the victim accept or refuse them?
It is a network of people that are affected, usually trying to help the victim, but everyone deals with this sort of thing differently. Understand your characters and how they might react in such a situation. If one character is assaulted, and none of the others care, that is one story. If one character is assaulted, and everyone tries too hard to help heal them, that is a different story. It’s very important to realize the intricacies of these situations.
Don’t sweep it under the rug
Absolutely do not just use trauma in place of drama. If you want shock value, add a plot twist. Do not put your characters through something horrible because you need to spice things up. It must be important to the plot and to their arc. Also, do not sweep it under the rug. This is not a toss-away part of a character. Trauma is something that is part of them, that they will have to deal with, and it will affect them as a character. It does not define them, but it certainly will be a part of them.
As always, please take these tips with a grain of salt. Writing trauma is something that must be treated with understanding and respect. Only use it if it is absolutely necessary. Take care of your characters, your readers, and most importantly, yourself.