Creating Emotionally Rich Characters Through Trauma
Creating characters that resonate with readers can be difficult. As writers, we have the tendency to strive to design the perfect character. Like an artist at the potter’s wheel, we take a nondescript hunk of clay, and we mold, shape, and smooth it until we cultivate the traits, behaviours, and actions of the perfect character. But people in real life are not perfect. We have bumps and rough edges, cracks and missing pieces, and most of us have been broken at least a few times.
Like the art of Kintsugi, when we give a character emotional trauma, we can illuminate the brokenness and fears that come from that, thus creating an emotionally rich character through a character arc that is realistic and fulfilling to the reader. The writer then resolves the flaws by taking the character shards and putting them back together again, but this time highlighting the cracks and defects.
Kintsugi, meaning golden joinery, is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery pieces with gold. The gold adds value to the broken object and embraces the flaws or imperfections in it. The marks and wear of the object make it more interesting and increase its worth. As a writer, you must take your perfectly sculpted character and smash it to pieces. Through the process of your story and the character’s growth arc, you repair the shards with ribbons of gold and create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.
Why Your Character Needs Emotional Trauma
The characters we create don’t come into being on the first page of the manuscript, they need backstories full of brokenness, just like us. The emotional events in a character’s past will determine the decisions she makes, how she acts, and the lies she tells herself. Putting those pieces back together again creates a stronger, more beautiful character. Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese poet, said, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Emotional trauma can range from natural disasters, witnessing a murder, sexual assault, suffering physical or mental impairment, being raised by overprotective parents, to everything in between. Some categories of emotional traumas to choose from may be crimes, failures, betrayals, disabilities, injustices, events, and others.
Mapping Your Character’s Growth Arc
The golden seams of trauma are the beginnings of a character’s growth arc. The trauma helps determine a character’s traits, fears, and strengths and how they will use them in the story’s progression. Use the following example to build your own character arc, starting with a trauma.
Trauma — Lie or Flaw –Fear –Actions
As a teen, Mark was the target of online ridicule and bullying from supposed friends. This emotionally traumatic experience led Mark to believe the lie that he is unworthy of genuine friendships or relationships, otherwise why would he be the one singled out for ridicule? His trust in others is minimal, and he sees other people as unreliable and deceitful. He fears that entering any relationship will end in rejection and humiliation. The actions he takes because of this are to isolate himself and rely solely on his own merits to get further in life.
All this happens before page one, and Mark’s emotionally charged backstory guides his actions and behaviours in the development of his journey. This emotional trauma, and the resulting fears and lies, should determine the major obstacle that he needs to overcome by the end of the narrative. Mark’s obstacle must be directly connected with his fatal flaw of mistrust and negative self-worth.
Outer Goal –Inner Unmet Need –Outer Obstacle –Inner Conflict –Resolution
As the story starts, Mark has worked hard to put himself through school and obtain a job he enjoys. He savours the notoriety of being a ‘lone wolf’ and the exceptional results that come from his efforts alone. He is meticulous in his work and his appearance and distances himself from anything that will open him up to ridicule.
Mark’s dream job becomes vacant, and he is being considered for the position. His outer goal is to obtain the promotion through excelling on a special project. Also, because of his choice to remain aloof from meaningful long-term relationships, he feels something missing; a desire for interpersonal connection and a substantial poignant relationship, although he doesn’t recognize it yet. This is his inner unmet need.
As Mark struggles to shine above the other candidates and deliver an exceptional project, he discovers an outer obstacle in the form of a talented co-worker, Sally. Mark’s boss insists they work together and implies that without her expertise, his project will be unrealized, and thus the promotion denied. To achieve his outer goal of a promotion, Mark must overcome the inner conflict of his mistrust and work effectively with Sally on his project. As he allows trust, while overcoming his fears of rejection and ridicule, he forms a deeper relationship with Sally and fills his unmet need of connection and acceptance for who he is.
Through overcoming his inner conflicts born from his earlier trauma (mistrust and fear of ridicule), Mark overcomes the outer obstacle (working with Sally), achieves his outer goal (promotion), and fills his inner unmet need (relationship and acceptance).
Mark becomes a more interesting and beautiful character because of his flaws. His wounds become assets and his character has more worth because of the resolution or repair of his broken pieces. When the writer illuminates and uses his brokenness, like kintsugi, his scars become gold threads wound through the design of his character, making him stronger, believable and emotionally rich.
Practical Writing Tips—The Traumatic Scene
When writing emotionally traumatic or difficult scenes, especially situations from your own traumatic experiences, here are a few things to consider:
Reveal Past Trauma Through Behaviour: Don’t info dump the backstory all at once. Reveal the trauma through the character’s behaviour, like irritation at a friend’s off-the-cuff remark, or a seemingly irrational fear of a benign object. Allow the trauma to be revealed naturally through conversation or circumstance. Tease and foreshadow until the big reveal.
Research: Do your research on the real emotional effects of trauma. Interview people who have gone through trauma. How did they respond to difficult experiences? Interview victims, first responders, witnesses, and family members of trauma victims. Strive for a complete picture of the experience and understand that emotional responses to the same incident can vary.
Draw from Your Own Emotions: Whether you, as the author, have experienced the same trauma as your character or not, draw from your own personal experiences. How did you feel when another child said they didn’t want to play with you? How did you feel learning an acquaintance or family member hurt someone you know? Do you know someone who passed away? Use real reactions from your own experience and through your research to write believable character responses.
Set a Time Limit: Delving into emotional trauma can be upsetting. Don’t write it all at once. Do little bits at a time. Setting a time limit can prevent that dive into difficult emotions from overwhelming you. Stick to the limit and don’t stay in potentially harmful triggers for too long. Take breaks when needed.
Trusted Support: Have a person you trust nearby to discuss memories and emotions that may arise from writing trauma. Don’t do it on your own.
Safe Space: Set aside a designated space to write the difficult emotional scene. You may wish to choose a secluded or private space in case you get an overflow of emotion. No one wants to be overcome with tears in the coffee shop.
Physical Reminder: Have a physical reminder nearby to ‘switch’ your brain in and out of the emotional safe space. Have a sweater or a hat you put on when you begin, and take off when your time limit is up. Or place an object near your writing space that is only there when you are writing the trauma. Remove it and place somewhere else when you are finished. In the book “The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma” the authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi suggest lighting a candle when you begin writing the scene and blowing it out when you are done.
Trauma provides opportunities for your character to respond in natural and realistic ways. When a character behaves and reacts believably, this creates context and emotional connection for the reader. The reader wants the character’s responses to make sense and they want to have sympathy for the way the character behaves. The more emotionally involved a reader is, the more likely they will be to turn the page. Then another. And another.
By Allison Gorner
Opal Writers’ Magazine, November 2020
Rate this article
About Allison Gorner:
Before becoming a short story author and screenwriter, Allison has been a librarian, production assistant, art director, and coalminer. She has diplomas in Cinema, Television, Stage & Radio, and Writing For Children, and is a member of Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) and Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF). She finds time to write when she can extricate herself from her four kids and their pounding on the bathroom door.