Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Leftover Trauma

“For all of us there will be those irreconcilable injuries and humiliations that persist and infiltrate into adult existence. They may become the seeds for those monotonous repetitions of hurting others and getting hurt ourselves,...Or the leftover traumas can be incentives for innovation and change,...the opportunity to rewrite the scripts, introduce a few new characters, get rid of one or two, perhaps even change the ending, and free the lover and jester inside us all.”

Louise J. Kaplan

This quote is actually on parenting, but it applies equally well to writing.

The one constant draw of compelling fiction is always going to be the character. We as a reader have to connect with the main character emotionally. A character that we can relate to, even if we won’t make the same choices, differentiates a pedestrian story from a satisfying story we will read over and over again, so that we can triumph right along with the character.

The challenge of writers is to make our characters as interesting as possible. We do that by creating a fictional trauma, sometimes a childhood trauma like the death of a parent or sibling, or an early adult trauma, like a difficult breakup, a parent’s divorce, a shocking crime, to torture them. To give them a reason for the way they behave in the present. By doing so we explain why people (and our characters) do what they do. We motivate them.

Because, in reality, no one acts in a vacuum. Each experience we have, the choices we make while dealing with the experience and the final result based on those choices influence how we will behave the next time. And we still may not make the same choices.

Then factor in the character backstory, the leftover trauma. Every person is going to react to the same experience differently. And then, hopefully, even the same character response to a situation will change throughout the book as they grow. Because each time we have an experience, we are different.

As Louise Kaplan points out, leftover trauma can be an incentive. Sometimes authors make the mistake of having the character continue with the same destructive behavior, which experiencing as a reader is very unsatisfying. But if the character deals with their trauma, overcomes that injury or humiliation, they can free themselves to enjoy a happier outcome, a happier life.

As readers we long for that fictional resolution, that tidy seed of change in the character’s life, because change within ourselves doesn’t always neatly occur within a set of parameters like four hundred pages. Although some days it would be nice if life imitated fiction, wouldn’t it?



Rachael Herron said...

I always feel a little cliched for having to give characters that kind of damaged backstory, but this makes me realize why I have to: we're all damaged, so that's what we understand. That makes sense.

Sophie Littlefield said...

if i didn't have a damaged backstory to work from, i wouldn't know what to write! it's the leftover traumas that give each character the seeds of her arc. and for me the more depth and damage, the more interesting the story.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Yes, amazing how leftover trauma ups the ante in any sort of fictional setting. I love a redemption story, or arcs of triumph over old wounds.

Unknown said...

Rachael--Same. I used to whine about why characters had some deep dark problem and why couldn't they just be regular people with regular lives but really...no one wants to read that book. Unless it's someone who APPEARS normal and is really twisted on the inside :)

Sophie--you excel at damaged backstory!! Me, I'm still working on it.

Juliet--They are really the most satisfying reads. I equate it to watching Biggest Loser. If they can lose 200 lbs, I should be able to lose 10. Same with overcoming our own issues. :)

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