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Writing Trauma Sans the Drama

Traumatic pasts are de rigeur across mediums, perhaps especially books. Many, if not all, of our favorite protagonists have traumatic pasts. They’ve been orphaned, bullied, imprisoned, raped, or had any number of other tragedies visited upon them (sometimes a combination of many). Trauma is often a good tool in the hands of the writer, as it incites sympathy for characters and explains some motivations.

However, trauma in fiction is often handled poorly. When this happens, you tend to get one of two reactions. The first is what TV Tropes calls "Angst? What Angst," wherein a character seems to function entirely separately of trauma, never mentioning it or letting it influence his or her life. Sometimes, the character suppresses the trauma so much, he or she finally has a melodramatic breakdown, or two or three.

But on the other side of that coin, you have characters defined by trauma. This can be extremely obvious, as in the character who acts like a victim and wallows in self-pity, or it can be a bit more subtle. See, for instance, the abused person who grows up to be an unrepentant abuser, or the military veteran who gives up on life and people after losing a limb or sense.

The question becomes then, how can writers write trauma, and do it justice? What is the best way to write a victim who incites sympathy, yet also incites true likability? How much trauma is too much or too little, and in what situations can/should it play a part? Discuss.

  • I think part of the success of writers who write trauma well are those who have directly experienced it themselves, or have those in their lives who have, it is always a little obvious when something is being used to provide a "unique flavour" to a story rather than a legitimate portrayal of a genuine experience. – SaraiMW 2 years ago
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  • When I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, I was struck by the impact of trauma on the protagonist and how difficult it was to read such a difficult subject. Perhaps there was too much as it was so traumatic to the reader - and yet, the novel opened up the discussion on childhood sexual abuse and the impact on the adult. I think it is a fine line to walk and one that needs careful consideration. – Sara 2 years ago
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  • Atomic Design of Nashville, TN is an Internet marketing service provider that provides exceptional web design, SEO, and graphic design. Our digital agency has been providing search engine optimization and website development since 1996. – atomicdesignash 2 years ago
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