Character Psych 101: Trauma, Drama, and Emotional Wear-and-Tear

Welcome to my new feature! A bit silly that it took me this long to think of it, but so it goes. After a bit of head scratching and about 10% of the sleep I need to function, I thought: Hey. I’m a writer. I’m also a clinical psychology grad student. I know things about people. Writers should know things about people. I could tell them these things. Now if only I had an outlet for telling them . . . like a thing that people could read at their leisure . . . like a blog . . . Don’t judge. It’s been a long week. Long story short, here’s where I use all that knowledge rattling around my head to help you write characters that are deep, complex, and psychologically realistic. Because let’s face it. There’s nothing worse than a character who’s completely unrealistic. If you can’t see them as a real person, you can’t relate to their story. That’s where we turn to science! Sorry if I sound a wee bit angry. Misuse of psychology kind of makes my eyeballs bleed. And for those of you nerds like me, I will include citations where applicable (mostly from free-access medical sites, because most scholarly articles are pay-to-read; so take what they say with a grain of salt, because these are broad overviews that may not reflect cutting edge research). Also, this is not comprehensive...just some things to think about. So without further ado:

Trauma. Authors love giving their characters dark, brooding pasts. Readers love reading about them. But wouldn’t we love reading about them a little more if they were more realistic? Aside from the overuse of trauma-as-characterization (a whole other issue), let’s talk about the problems with using traumatic events. We’ll talk later about common misuses of diagnoses, but let’s focus on the relevant ones for now.

Amnesia. Let’s put it this way. If you are raped, witness a murder, etc. etc. etc., you do not forget about it. Not usually. There are indeed instances where people have black spots in their memory. Full amnesia is rare (I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, just that total memory loss is not common; usually amnesia after such events is only partial or temporary. Or associated with a pretty severe head injury, which means you have a whole ton of other problems. If it’s necessary to your plot that the person forget, use with caution. Or tweak it. Maybe they remembers parts but there are some key features that are fuzzy. That’s pretty normal. Ask any psychologist how good eyewitness reports are and they will cringe and flee. (Spoiler alert: They are terrible.) So use the human brain’s imperfect memory to your advantage . . . and use amnesia cautiously. Here’s a great article on dissociative amnesia and related disorders (the kind where you lose memory of a traumatic event) from Mayo Clinic.

Multiple Personality Disorder aka Dissociative Identity Disorder. This should really be in the upcoming Character Psych 101 about misusing diagnoses, but we’ll discuss it here. Because people seem to think that undergoing something terrible means that your mind splits into pieces and all of the sudden you’re Sally, Frank, and Harry. Not so much. It’s a very, very rare disorder and is usually sparked by many years of consistent, severe abuse. It’s also not clear whether it’s a real disorder or something that happens to suggestible people in therapy. Also . . . it’s not schizophrenia. Don’t say it’s schizophrenia. You’ll sound dumb and people will laugh at you. And I will cry inside. Check out this article on DID from WebMD.

PTSD. Flashbacks are extremely rare. By flashbacks, I don’t mean memories. Those are the essence of PTSD. People with PTSD do have very intrusive memories about the event. I’m talking about your basic crime drama soldier-comes-back-and-thinks-he’s-still-in-Iraq-and-starts-killing-people. It just doesn’t happen. But wait! You say. I’m writing about one of the few people who does have flashbacks! That’s fine. Hollywood, but fine. Just know what rules you’re working with. Here’s an overview from the National Institute of Health and more info from the American National Center for PTSD.

Grief and loss. Loss is a big deal! It takes most people a long time to fully get over loss events, even if they deal with them in different ways! To look at abuses of this, let’s check out The Vampire Diaries. I love that show. Deeply. Probably to an unhealthy extent (yes, I admit it, I’m Damon-obsessed). But in the first couple seasons, MANY PEOPLE DIE. Many people that the main characters love! So why the heck do they seem to move on so quickly!? Why is Alaric over his dead wife and girlfriend in about 3.5 seconds? Why do people forget that Damon killed about 15 people not that long ago? So you see the problem. It just looks a little shady . . . because either these people are psychopaths, or they are inhumanly resistant to sadness. Except Jeremy. They actually do a pretty decent job with him. So yes. Give your characters time to mourn. Check out the NIH on grief.

I could go on and on, but by now your brain is probably spinning and you want to throw things at me and tell me that I’m being overly strict. So here ends our first lesson. Long story short: If you’re going to break the rules, know what they are. And sometimes following them can give you much deeper characters with more realistic actions and motivations. Trauma can't replace character.

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