Trauma as Backstory

Or, how do you put a character through the wringer without forcing them to wallow in tragedy for an entire novel?

Turn it into a short story.

No, don’t laugh at that; it was really terrible. There’s a reason my husband is responsible for all the humor in this relationship.

But it’s a legitimate question, and I can’t be the only writer who’s struggling with the problem of writing a complex character who’s dealing with the fallout of a crappy situation but trying not to let it take over their life. Mostly because I don’t want to commit the mortal sin of boring the reader.

Yes, the time travel WIP is rearing its ugly head again. Stupid thing. Someday, I promise, I’ll get fed up enough to stop writing it, and you won’t have to read my griping.

In the meantime, I’m sorting through the knotty problem of, how much angst is too much? The main character dies violently in the first chapter. She’s not going to ‘get over it’ immediately, and in fact, one of the threads running through the series is that the circumstances around her death, time travel, and resurrection influence her decisions for a long time afterward.

Dying isn’t wholly bad; it gives her the ability to ‘see’ some of the future, because she’s already experienced it. But for the most part, it sucks for her. She vacillates between extreme risk-taking behavior and extreme caution; she can’t relate to most other people’s fears and concerns (once you’ve died, all other consequences look small) which leads to some pretty severe social dysfunction; she’s constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially after she meets one of her killers.

Those seem like realistic reactions, and eliminating them would a) bore the reader, and b) eliminate a lot of the plot, which is partly driven by her decisions. On the other hand, constant harping on the emotional fallout of any traumatic event is boring, too. There are enough navel-gazing books out there.

It’s a balancing act. Traumatic events usually influence the people involved, else they wouldn’t be trauma. And sometimes they’re just plain horrible; that cloud has no silver lining. Those situations don’t usually make for compelling stories; we see too much of it in real life to want any more depressing awfulness in our fiction. And no one wants to read about a character who instantly overcomes all adversity with no hiccups. The most compelling stories usually have both the cloud and the silver lining, which the reader has to search a bit for.

How much searching? How much angst? For better or worse, I don’t think there’s a right answer. It varies based on genre and readership. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, so I’m going to write one, if I ever get to that point. But I’m also a sucker for realism, so I’ll keep doing this weird little dance between the two.

Maybe I’ll learn something for the next story.

17 comments

  1. My angstiest male leads are non-POV characters. My POV character with the most cause for angst has partial amnesia (well, up through partway through the second space opera) and a tendency to compartmentalize.

    As a younger writer, I was told that I had a tendency to ladle on excessive trauma and expect the character to just get on with it. Not for me to say if I still tend to do that.

    1. I think a lot of young writers do that; I did.
      It’s like there’s a little voice in your head saying, “I know how this ends, and how the character should get on with life, so obviously the recovery isn’t *that* daunting. Oh, no, that means there’s not enough conflict; I’d better add some more!”

      1. I’ve only worked with one character so far, but I found that leaving some unresolved issues made for very useful stuff later.

        Yes, she may have more or less gotten over the thing that happened, but things still remind her of it periodically.

        Also helps that the character has a sort of bulldozer personality.

  2. There’s some truth to your joke, though. I’ve been reading and analyzing short stories in hopes of teaching myself to write them, and one thing I have noticed is that a way to generate instant sympathy for a character is to dump a metric ton of crap on them as the story is beginning. And then the story is short enough that they don’t really have time to wallow, they just have to get on with solving things.

    I know that’s not particularly helpful for the specific situation, but it is a point.

  3. Most of my characters come with trauma in the backstory, whether they talk about it or not. But it’s something they’ve dealt with and moved on from. Or are dealing with, and moving on despite everything. Stopping to angst or wallow would break the character.

    Then I pile more on while they’re in the story, and if they stopped to wallow in it and angst, it’d kill the momentum. It’d also kill the story. Not that they don’t react to it, but that they don’t sink into self-pity or depression, they keep moving with black humour, coping mechanisms, and help from the people around them, and overcome the external problems even as they work on the internal issues.

    That help from others is critical. Melodrama is very self-centered: “oh poor pity me.” The one scene where I had a character who was left alone in the aftermath of extreme trauma, and having a core meltdown (deservedly so)… I didn’t delete it, I fixed it by adding a secondary character walking in the door, with his own traumatic past, and his own complex motives.

    And the interaction between the two not only gave her the ability to keep going, but humanized him, and subtly but critically changed the trajectory of the plot. Also, I made some of my readers cry. (I wasn’t expecting that last. Fortunately, they forgave me.)

    1. Some people who have been through Very Bad Things will come out gentle. The guy who ran the scouts for the Middle Kingdom at Pennsic War was just ridiculously softspoken. (And I assume he still is.)

      A guy I met this week, too, who was in town for a reunion of a Vietnam War recon group. I was kinda freaking out at work, or on the edge of it; and he basically de-escalated things without doing or saying hardly anything overt. I mean, sure, I always try to mind my manners around older veterans, but…. Yeah, that was one of those moments when I wish I had a video, to see how he did it.

      I also got the distinct feeling that he noticed my yucky eye spot from where the retina guy jabbed me, and had decided I was not going to keel over. Which was like getting a second opinion, in a way.

      Freaky but comforting. People say they want to be seen, but I think it was more like being observed!

      1. My younger brother just said I got noticed because I was visibly noticing the guy’s hat and convention badge, and therefore we had a sort of observation loop going….

      2. As my love says, “Calm down, love! Relax! It’s a good day, no one’s shooting at you!”

        He means it most sincerely, too.

  4. I tend to put trauma in the back-story, or off stage (especially physical trauma and/or rape). References are made, and the process of coping with (sometimes well, sometimes by denial which eventually fails, sometimes poorly then better) is what I tend to focus on. The horrible events are often mentioned in passing, like “Oh, yeah, since the assault I’m a little jumpy about people behind me. It’s not personal that I elbowed you.” Or a character remembers, then deliberately sets the memory aside.

    Neither of those will help much in this instance, I fear.

  5. So, got an antagonist who enjoys chewing the stage, and protagonist who resonates with me, and an interesting fundamental conflict between them. Even starting to finally get a viewpoint character who has some personality and texture. And finally found a music chunk that fits.

    Problem is, as is, it sort of feels like the antagonist would end up piking the perspective character’s entire village. Too much trauma!

    Probably this theme is the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist, where they essentially bring each others respective worlds down around them. So need to find a different one for the viewpoint character.

      1. Oh it would not at all be beneath him if it served his objectives, but I’ve realized that the antagonist and the viewpoint character are not in that type of conflict, at least initially. He ends up in the antagonist’s field of regard because of ambition, I think, so their initial conflict of more over his soul.

        Sort of thinking I should actually start with some slice of life short stories for the characters to get them and their world nailed down, and go from there.

  6. My opinion only;

    Living through trauma(s) takes a long time, especially coming through them/overcoming them/etc.
    Writing through trauma(s) that the characters are living through takes a long time (unless you are a super writer/typer)
    Reading through trauma(s) only takes a few hours to a few days. (Sad, but true).

    So, the more you pack in and the character is whining about it, the less sympathy the reader is going to have about it (like listening to an 8 year old whine about all the injustices of the world that area inflicted on them yesterday and then today, too!).

    I feel like “backstory” trauma should inform decisions the character is making (like elbowing above), but like other backstory, it shouldn’t be a constant info dump slowing the story down.

    Also, as said by Dorthy, heroes are the ones who keep going (like most people), rather than sit and cry in the psychiatrist’s office (unless you are telling a story that takes place in the psychiatrist’s office). And those “heroes” do break down eventually in one way or another, and how they put themselves back together and with who’s help (or not) might be shown on screen, and might not.

    But, also as has been said, depends on the audience. Lot’s of people love Twilight and her wallowing, not just angsty teens. And Batman has a lot of wallowing, depending on the movie version.

    But who would enjoy Rambo just sitting and crying over his fate? (Lots of trauma there, much of it on-screen, and plenty of flash-backs), so we empathize with his problems, but he moves on, still many of his actions altered by those past traumas. So, it’s there, but it fits in as part of the action. Which is what I was trying to say at the beginning. It shouldn’t be a Tell (sitting in the character’s brain as they relive it over and over), but a Show, like any other parts of a story/backstory.

    Now, with my beleaguered brain, I hope that made sense, because I’m not sure I didn’t contradict myself like 15 times.!

  7. I do tend to put my protags through an emotional/physical wringer, enough that some of my readers are a bit squeamish about it. But my heroes are the ones who survive these things and find a way to digest-and-move-on, sometimes with the help of others, and sometimes on their own. Black humor matters (a lot), and the need to protect others (even more), which are manifestations of their fundamental personalities, the character that saves them.

    I doubt I can write a “morally damaged” character well as a protag, only beat-up-but-tough survivors. Ones who, as said above, “get on with it.”

  8. I guess I tend to write characters with backstory trauma, because part of what I’m trying to work out is how people get through that. What are the coping mechanisms? What kind of help? And of course, it’s different, even for the same traumatic events, for different people.

    I tend to do the occasional, very rare, breakdown, or the off-screen alone or with trusted person coping mechanism. Sitting down and just not moving, “sometimes, it just gets to me.” Almost never in public.

    I do worry whether that kind of treatment minimizes the actual trauma, which I’m actually not trying to do. They definitely are not *just* getting on with it. But they *are* getting on with it.

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