I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for a very long time. It’s a theme I’ve seen touched upon in many of the books I’ve read, and even some of the books I’ve written. The inspiration for this subject didn’t come from people asking me about my thoughts, but it did come from having many conversations I’ve had with other authors and many readers along the way.
I feel it’s an incredibly important conversation to have both as a consumer and as a content creator. I’ve written before about trigger warnings, hedging at this particular subject, but I’ve yet to delve fully into it. The reason is that it is a very broad subject. One that I know I won’t be able to cover in totality in just one blog post. But, I will try.
So, let’s get into it, shall we?
Does my character need to have trauma to be interesting?
That’s really all there is to it. No. Your character does not need to be traumatized to be interesting. They do not need to be a survivor or a victim. They do not need to be “damaged.”
The language used surrounding these sorts of characters matters. To create a character with a “tragic backstory,” as I’ve seen it so often boasted, is more or less saying, “people are only as interesting as the scars they bear.”
Think about it this way: when you think about what makes those closest to you interesting, is the first thing that comes to mind their traumas? No. So, why is it any different when it comes to fictional characters?
As a writer — as a trauma holder — there’s only one way to describe this storytelling: it’s lazy. It’s a cheap attempt at adding depth to a character who, otherwise, won’t stand on their own. Fully functional, remarkable people can go their entire lives with only playground scars and the light emotional bruising of meeting a few crappy people.
There’s this strange phenomenon of romanticizing pain. I understand that a lot of this comes from a place of not knowing. It’s often executed by someone who has led a rather plush life without significant hardships of their own. In a sense, there is a macabre sort of fascination with the strength that it takes to survive. Perhaps that is part of the magic they hope to claim by smothering their characters in a grocery list of traumatizing events.
Are they needed? Never. They’re simply chosen, selected like they’re on display at the grocers.
Should I avoid writing trauma?
I’m not saying that, either. I don’t feel like anyone should be told what they can and cannot write about. I feel like writing (like any artistic medium) can be incredibly healing. I know, firsthand, that writing about some of the things I’ve gone through has helped me heal, or come to terms. I also know that it had created a deeper sense of empathy for me — in lancing those wounds, and allowing them to breathe for a while.
What I do feel should be taken into consideration is whether it can be portrayed respectfully. This is a word you’ll see repeated a lot through this blog, so please, take it to heart.
If you’re unwilling to do research into trauma that is not your own, please, don’t write it. If you’re unwilling to talk to someone, and sincerely listen to their life experience, again, please, don’t write it. If you’re unwilling to portray it fairly, without propagating inherently damaging stereotypes, please, please, please, don’t write it.
And if there isn’t a reason for it? If it’s going to be treated as little more than a literary accessory, ask yourself: does it even need to be there?
The questions you should ask yourself while writing about trauma
The one criticism I lob at everyone who I’ve seen “misuse” trauma in their storytelling is that it’s done with a distinct lack of empathy. By this, I mean, there is no care or respect afforded to the people who have survived these traumas — the same people who live with it.
The first question you should ask yourself is: would someone who has actually gone through this be alright with how they’ve seen it portrayed?
I know I’ve experienced something akin to authorly existential dread when I’ve had someone read about their own profession in my work. My mind runs rampant with too many questions. Did I mess up certain details? Do they think I’m a complete idiot? Is the entire premise of this scene completely wrong? Have I offended them?
The second question you should ask yourself is how well you really understand the subject matter. Have you researched it? And if so, how much? Lightly? Extensively? Have you talked with one person? Two people? None? Are you aware that there is more than one kind of way to process their grief or deal with traumatic events?
The third question you should ask yourself is whether it’s important. Are you collecting traumas like they’re Cub Scout badges? Does it all have a bearing on the story? Or is the sole purpose to create the most “fragile, wilting, damaged” character you can? If that’s the intent — first, ew — second, maybe take a step back and re-evaluate why you feel the character needs to be presented that way.
Why does my portrayal of x, y, or z even matter?
Because of your readers.
Your readers are the ones who are going to consume this content. You don’t know anything about them. They could have survived the very situations you lay forth in your book(s). They could wrestle with the vestiges of those scars every day.
The language you use is incredibly important. People who survive trauma are incredibly aware of the perception of them. They’ve seen it blasted back to them through the media and barrel-rolled their way through ignorant conversations. They’ve been undermined, judged, and typecasted based on the worst things that have ever happened in their lives. If you refer to a character as “damaged” or “broken”, you’re simply repeating their worst fears back to them. It’s an insidious feedback loop, reaffirming that the pain they survive blemished them or somehow made them lesser.
Worse, in many of the books I’ve read that have inspired these heated conversations, the sole purpose seems to be to just traumatize the reader. Little more than writerly schadenfreude to boost the sales, am I right? It’s done gratuitously to get a rise out of the reader. To make them uncomfortable. But there’s no greater purpose — no artistic angle to shed light on the horrors of abuse of any kind. It’s, instead, a cheap engagement device. Mutilating, disfiguring, and frankly, cruel.
What is “trauma porn?”
Honestly, I can’t say it any better than Urban Dictionary did, so prepare yourself for a good ol’ fashioned copy-pasta.
When a writer glorifies trauma in their writing, exaggerating aspects for the sake of angst.
Usually a writer thinks they are being deep and edgy when in actuality they are just disrespecting and glorifying trauma.
How do I write trauma while still being respectful to people who have gone through it?
I’m glad you asked.
Do your research. There are plenty of resources out there both explaining and guiding people toward recovery. I would suggest doing a healthy amount of digging before delving into a subject that is not your lived-in experience.
Talk to people who are comfortable sharing their stories. And by talk, I mean listen. Just sincerely listen to what they have to say. I’m not saying “interview them for inspiration.” I’m saying listen to them. Understand the people who will be reading your content who will be affected by your words.
Further, realize that whether you like it or not, your work might be the only exposure some people have to these sorts of things. If you are going to write about someone’s trauma, you owe the actual survivors (not your fictional character) the respect of being an ally to them. You owe them your compassion and your understanding. Otherwise, it really just seems like appropriating their trauma for a buck.
“But Ivy, you’re just infantilizing the audience!“
“Aren’t you infantilizing the audience? Don’t you think they’re smart enough to know that there’s more than one kind of way to grieve? Don’t you think trauma holders are smart enough to know that these characters are fictional?”
Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Get off this bullshit. Let’s stop right there.
Let me explain. Books are pathways to other worlds, right? We’ve all learned a thing or two from reading — we’ve learned to see things outside of ourselves, exposed ourselves to other realities and temperaments. For some people, these sorts of themes will only be seen in books or consumed in media.
Think about it. Shitty takes come from somewhere, right? It’s through repetition. Repetition of the same crappy idea that makes it turn into fact, if only by virtue of exposure.
I grew up in a world where people still thought being gay was a choice — and being gay myself, I thought I chose that. Not true, of course, but that’s what society and the world kept telling me. I was brainwashed into believing something I knew to be categorically incorrect.
If it’s repeated long enough, loud enough, people start to believe it. It’s our job as writers to portray things fairly — to respect the themes that we write and the people whose lives will be touched by our work. The least you can do is read an article. Ideally ten.
As far as infantilizing the trauma holders? No. Absolutely not. Trauma holders have a world full of people telling them how they should be, how they should process, how they should survive. Of course, they can separate themselves from fiction. But that doesn’t mean that’s carte blanche to be careless in their representation.
Just be respectful. Do your research. Add appropriate trigger warnings. And understand that there are people who have gone through these things who are real, who do deserve your respect and compassion.
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