Haunted by the Past: The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Fictional Trauma

Halloween is a time for hauntings.

This month, we dig out our favorite scary movies to watch, transfixed, as angry mummies, homicidal circus clowns, demonic babies, psychotic dolls, and their ilk chase our intrepid herores all over God’s green earth. It’s no fun, being stalked by a supernatural Super-Freak. But you know what’s even worse? Being stalked by your own memories.

I am a trauma survivor, and I learned this the hard way.

I am also a writer. That combination gives me definite, if debatable, opinions on the best—and worst!—ways to incorporate trauma into character and plot arcs. So, in honor of the season of haunting, and the season of fear, here’s my unofficial list: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Trauma in Fiction Writing.”

Don’t compartmentalize your character’s trauma. Do allow it to bleed into every aspect of their personality. This is especially crucial for childhood trauma. When someone experiences something so intensely awful at such a young age, it’s hardwired into their brain, into the fundamental ‘coding’ that dictates how they act on every level. Make sure your writing reflects that. Even in situations that appear (to outsiders) to have nothing to do with your character’s specific trauma.

Don’t rely on stock reactions. Do make your character’s trauma responses unexpected / unique, in a way that shows you truly understand the event you’ve asked them to live through. “I was raped, so now I’m afraid to date,” is fine on a basic level: but consider, “I was raped, so now I’m compelled to earn perfect grades, because it gives me a sense of control over myself and my environment.” The latter packs a much bigger punch. It’s guaranteed to get audiences thinking about how many trauma survivors they pass by unawares, every single day.

But don’t over-use sexual trauma, particularly for female characters. Do think carefully before incorporating it. Do your research, be respectful, and above all: never use it solely as a curable ‘obstacle’ to your hero and heroine’s romance.

Don’t confuse PTSD-type memories with nightmares. Do recognize that, while a nightmare is a (more or less) coherent story, a traumatic memory doesn’t have to be a story at all. In my own experience, such memories are often more accurately described as a single, disconnected sensory impression—a sound, a physical sensation, an image I can’t shake. Or a disjointed, brief ‘video clip’ of the traumatic event; but, again, not one that would clearly convey the story to outsiders. If you want to give readers a digestible, blow-by-blow account of what happened to this character—use something more cohesive than their own recurring memories.

Finally, don’t make trauma an excuse for abuse, violence, or any kind of harm your character chooses to inflict on others. Do acknowledge (and if possible, have the character acknowledge) that their pain does not make them special. Sure, they’ve suffered. Maybe they’ve suffered an awful lot. You know what? So have I. So have many, many other people in this world. Pain can make us cruel, or it can make us kind. That’s a free choice.

Own your characters’ choices. Write responsibly.

Happy haunting, authors!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.

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