Nimrod Cortés

Written by

Nimrod Cortés

11 September 2023


The Ghost Behind: Writing Psychological Trauma

wilted roses - Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Trauma in storytelling is a powerful force that can shape a character’s life and experiences. Depending on the type of story you’re telling, writing psychological trauma can be a key component to a compelling novel, adding depth and complexity to the background of any character when executed correctly.

However, writing about trauma can be challenging, and is not something to be taken lightly. You shouldn’t shy away from depicting it, but you need to be mindful and respectful of the right kind of representation, rather than simply including trauma for shock value. A character’s trauma should be a fundamental part of who they are, and be essential to how they develop as a character. Not something you just include to shock your readers.

In this post, let’s explore the definition of trauma, how it affects characters, and how you can effectively create and represent trauma in your own writing. We will also discuss techniques for accurately and respectfully describing manifestations of trauma.

We’ll examine the types of trauma and discuss techniques for achieving adequate representation, as well as talk through the advantages that these considerations can bring to your story.

What is psychological trauma?

Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. From a clinical perspective, trauma can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health, including symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

From a narrative perspective, trauma can serve as a powerful tool for storytelling, allowing writers to explore complex themes like loss, survival, and resilience. In addition to building sympathy between characters and readers, it can also give characters specific quirks and behaviors in response to their trauma that can round them out as believable people. 

An example of this might be a character like Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, who is represented with PTSD after her experiences in the Games. She is easily startled, struggles to sleep, experiences flashbacks, and is often overcome by strong feelings of guilt and depression. They are not the only elements of her character, but the strong representation of her trauma makes her a much more believable and well-rounded.

psychological trauma - rain on trees - Photo by Iva Rajović on Unsplash

What are some manifestations of trauma?

When describing a character, it is easy to say: 

“Jack had vehophobia; a fear of driving after an accident on the highway”. 

However, this is the antithesis of “show, don’t tell.” It doesn’t properly represent the character, nor respect their trauma. In order to properly write psychological trauma, your character needs to show readers how they deal with their experiences.

Some common manifestations of trauma include:

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Nightmares or sleep paralysis
  • Avoiding situations or objects related to trauma
  • Social isolation
  • Anxiety symptoms: excessive worry, trouble concentrating, tremors or excessive sweating, palpitations, rapid or difficulty breathing, etc
  • Depression
  • Irritability and irrationality, and even reacting with violence
  • Insomnia

Showing, not telling, builds a more three-dimensional character, will be more interesting to readers, and better represent an experience that is fundamental to your character’s arc.

A better way to build this sentence could be: 

“Jack’s heart raced as he approached the wheel of his car. His hands shook, as an unbidden memory crashed into his mind, clouding his vision.”

When we narrate in this way, we are stimulating the reader’s imagination so they ask key questions for the story: Why is he afraid? What is his memory? How will this affect his development as a character?

And that is our goal; to make the reader care and want to discover what is behind those symptoms, not only to create a more interesting story, but to flesh out your characters, make their experiences real, and do them justice.

To achieve this, you must relate the experiences and manifestations of a character’s trauma to sensations and emotions that a reader can easily recognize, feel, or imagine. Otherwise, it can be very difficult for the reader to understand the process that the character is going through.

Why is it important to research before writing about trauma?

Writing psychological trauma can be challenging for any writer. Finding an appropriate way to describe the manifestations of trauma and the emotional implications is crucial to achieving the desired impact on readers, and being respectful of those who may have experienced trauma themselves.

Care must be taken not to fall into clichés and stereotypes that can dehumanize characters and minimize their trauma. The worst thing a writer can do is use trauma to create a caricature, instead of representing trauma as something complex and meaningful. 

Remember, your goal as a creative writer is not only to accurately depict trauma but also to convey the emotional impact and resilience of trauma survivors. Approach this topic with empathy, respect, and a commitment to raising awareness about the importance of mental health and support.

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Here are some tips on how to properly research psychological trauma:

Start with the basics

Understand the fundamental concepts related to psychological trauma. Learn about the different types of trauma, such as acute trauma, complex trauma, and developmental trauma. Familiarize yourself with the diagnostic criteria and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related disorders.

Read academic and clinical literature

Dive into academic and clinical literature to gain a deeper understanding of the type of trauma you would like to represent. Look for peer-reviewed articles, research studies, and books written by experts in the field. This will provide you with a solid foundation of knowledge.

Read personal accounts

Personal accounts and memoirs of individuals who have experienced trauma can provide valuable insights into the emotional and psychological aspects. Reading these accounts can help you understand the lived experiences of trauma survivors. Do not seek out trauma survivors to interrogate them, however. There are plenty of people who have shared their stories already, and you don’t need to make someone relive their trauma for the sake of your story.

Access online resources

Visit reputable online sources, like the websites of mental health organizations, government agencies, and educational institutions. These sources often provide up-to-date information, statistics, and inclusive language guidelines.

Understand coping mechanisms

Explore how individuals cope with trauma through both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Understanding how trauma survivors adapt can add depth and authenticity to your characters, and ensure you’re showing accurate representation.

Avoid stereotypes and myths

Be mindful of common stereotypes and myths surrounding trauma. Challenge these misconceptions in your writing to create a more accurate and empathetic portrayal. Read reviews of other books with similar representations and see what they were praised and criticized for. This will show you how to represent trauma well, and what to avoid in order to write proper representation.

Consider cultural and gender differences

Recognize that the experience and expression of trauma can vary significantly across cultures and genders. Research how cultural and gender factors can influence trauma responses and recovery by not limiting your reading to only what is familiar.

Be sensitive and ethical

When conducting research and writing about trauma, always prioritize sensitivity and ethical considerations. Respect the privacy and dignity of trauma survivors, and avoid exploiting their stories for dramatic effect.

Beta readers and sensitivity readers

If you’ve done the research but want to do due diligence, consider working with beta readers or sensitivity readers who have personal or professional experience with trauma. They can provide valuable feedback and help ensure that your portrayal is accurate and respectful. There are communities of survivors willing to put in the emotional labor for writers seeking proper representation, so make sure you reach out to those already willing to take on the task.

writing psychological trauma - Photo by Thuanny Gantuss

The benefits of research before writing psychological trauma

The construction of your characters will depend on a deep investigation and understanding of the type of trauma you want to represent in them.

By studying trauma and its effects, you can create characters that are complex and realistic. In addition, understanding trauma allows you to create a coherent backstory for the character and accurately and respectfully describe their manifestations for the reader. There are several aspects to consider that can only be achieved through research:

  1. Accurately and authentically portraying the experiences of characters who have experienced trauma. This helps create a credible and convincing narrative.
  2. Developing greater sensitivity and empathy towards those who have experienced trauma in real life, showing a deeper understanding of the emotional complexities and consequences of trauma.
  3. Avoiding erroneous or simplistic generalizations, as each type of trauma can have unique effects and manifestations in individuals.
  4. Addressing deeper and more significant issues, such as resilience, personal overcoming, or the search for healing, or taking the opposite path without losing depth and realism, with issues such as despair, resignation, and chronic depression.

3 common trauma narratives and how they are used

You’ve probably read a lot of books with characters who have experienced psychological trauma. These three common narratives, therefore, will probably be familiar to you! 

1. Direct traumatic experiences

These are all experiences related to actions that the character performed or situations they experienced. 

Direct trauma is often part of a character’s background and may have occurred before the story begins. This is often revealed throughout the narrative to generate tension and emotional depth in a character. It is the backstory that informs how a character interacts with the world around them.

However, direct traumatic experiences can also serve as the turning point or catalyst of the story. It is the event on which the story’s narrative hinges and the plot from that point forward will be about the fallout from that single event.

2. Generational trauma

Generational trauma is a concept that refers to the transmission of the emotional and psychological effects of trauma from one generation to another.

It is all about how the traumatic experiences of our ancestors can influence later generations, even if they have not directly experienced the trauma themselves.

In a story, generational trauma can be used to explore themes such as emotional inheritance, a search for identity, the fight against the repetition of destructive patterns, and intergenerational healing.

By developing characters who have been impacted by generational trauma, you can show how their family’s past influences their present, how they face and overcome challenges, give in to self-destructive behaviors, and how they seek to break the cycle of pain and find healing. 

3. Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological impact that an individual experiences when witnessing or hearing about another person’s trauma

This type of trauma can influence characters like mental health professionals, rescuers, law enforcement, social workers, journalists, parents, or anyone who finds themselves in situations where they are exposed to intense trauma narratives. 

Exposure to the trauma of others creates a different form of psychological trauma. These kinds of narratives often deal with emotional wear-and-tear, the internal struggles characters face when dealing with their own emotional state and mental health, while also supporting those around them.