The moment Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself as tribute in place of her younger sister, the heroine of the Hunger Games begins a journey of war and loss. From the brutal murder of Rue, the young girl she befriended, to watching the boy she loves tortured and beaten on live television, to the violent bombing loss of her family and community, to shooting the bad guy then trying to kill herself…twice, Katniss experiences trauma over and over.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the diagnosis we receive if we’ve been through a life threatening event and it stays with us. In the final instalment of the Hunger Games we see Katniss haunted by the traumatic memories of her ‘corpse-littered’ hometown, blaming herself for the horrible crimes that took place and refusing to think or talk about the traumatic events. These are all diagnostic criteria for PTSD. When Suzanne Collins, the author of the Hunger Games, showed how everything Katniss had experienced and endured still impacted on her, she portrayed a character that is authentic, who resonated with readers.
That’s what every one of us wants to do as a writer. Create characters that move our readers. Touch our readers. Forge characters that are real as they are.
Which is where the science of psychology comes in. Psychology gives us insight into what PTSD will look like, how it relates to your characters backstory and story world, and how to move your character from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth. Here’s what you need to know about PTSD:
What Your Character will Experience
- Exposure to actual or threatened traumatic event – although this one seems obvious, for a diagnosis of PTSD, the traumatic event needs to involve actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence (meaning PTSD is saved for the big stuff that life can hurl at us). Traumatic events can include, but are not limited to, exposure to war as a combatant or civilian, physical attack – e.g. robbery, mugging, childhood physical abuse, sexual assault – including threats of sexual violence, being kidnapped, being taken hostage, a terrorist attack, torture, being a prisoner of war, natural or man-made disasters, and severe car accidents.
- Intrusive symptoms associated traumatic event – Commonly a person experiences recurrent and involuntary recollections of the events, such as recurrent distressing dreams. This can also include dissociative reactions e.g. flashbacks, where the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event is happening again, to the point where they can lose awareness of their present surroundings.
- Avoidance – individuals experiencing PTSD will avoid anything associated with distressing memories, thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event. This can be emotional avoidance, thinking things like ‘don’t go there’ or ‘don’t think about it’ (great for your internal monologue!) or behavioural avoidance such as avoiding certain males if you were sexually assaulted, the news if you are a war veteran or walking down quite, shadowy streets if you were mugged.
- Negative changes is mood and thoughts – this could be a variety of symptoms, including an inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event (dissociate amnesia), negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, e.g. ‘There’s something wrong with me’, ‘No one can be trusted’, blaming themselves for the incidents and all the guilt and shame associated with that, feelings of detachment from others, and difficulty in experiencing positive emotions like happiness or love.
- Marked changes in their arousal – people with PTSD will be irritable with little or no provocation and may even be aggressive e.g. yelling at people, getting in to fights, destroying objects, they may engage in reckless or self-destructive behaviour. They often experience hypervigilance – an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity aimed at detecting threats, and may have problems with concentration and sleep disturbance – either sleeping too much or too little.
Your Character’s Backstory & Your Story World
Not everyone with develop PTSD following a traumatic experience. Psychology has labelled the factors that influence whether an individual is likely to develop PTSD or not as risk factors or protective factors. In writers speak, this will be your characters back story, and the world you’ve created for them to live in. If your character has experienced prior trauma exposure, has a history of mental health issues e.g. depression or anxiety, childhood adversity such as family dysfunction or parental death, or is poor or marginalised then trauma is likely to impact on them far more significantly. Flipping the coin, if they have healthy coping strategies i.e. they don’t avoid, if they seek help, if they have good social support, or if they find positive meaning in the trauma e.g. helping others who have experienced the same thing, they are far less likely to be dealing with all they symptoms we’ve just discussed.
Moving from Post Traumatic Stress to Post Traumatic Growth
People can overcome traumatic experience, countless people have done it before, and will continue to do so. But it takes willingness and work (sound like a character arc to you?). Some people manage to do it on their own, but many of us seek the help and support of those around us.
Psychological treatment seeks to do several things, and if your character can achieve these skills, then you’ve just walked them through the journey of healing. Here are some common strategies, many of them backed by research supporting their effectiveness:
- Changing how a person thinks about their trauma and its aftermath: we all know that how we think about a situation or occurrence impacts on our mental health. Well, it’s the same with PTSD. Recognising how our thoughts have been shaped by the traumatic experience, whether they’re accurate and helpful, and how they can make our symptoms worse is very enlightening.
- Learning how to live with the anger and guilt and fear: This is about minimising the emotions intensity but also making room for the inevitable difficult emotions, and not letting them stop you from getting the girl, beating the bad guy or following your dreams.
- Accepting it wasn’t your fault: this involves challenging the beliefs that the traumatic event have spawned, meaning the beliefs like ‘it was my fault’, ‘I should have been able to stop it’, or ‘if only…’ are placed under the lens of objectivity and reality.
- Facing it rather than avoiding it: the protective nature of our brain tells us to avoid thinking or exposing ourselves to anything that may be distressing or unpleasant. Although logical if we’re talking about touching a hot plate or facing an angry dragon, it’s less helpful when it stops us from walking down the street or dealing with difficult memories. Exposing ourselves, usually in in small steps from less distressing to more distressing scenarios (called desensitisation), allows us to process what happened and learn we can handle what our mind throws at us. These exercises can include your character simply talking about what happened through to fighting the dragon itself whilst fire and brimstone scalds the sweat and tears from their face (that one’s known as immersion).
So if you’re like Suzanne Collins and you have a character that’s experienced trauma, whether they’re a war veteran coming home , a young girl living in a violent dystopian world, or a mother that just lived through a tsunami, use what psychologists have taken the time to learn and document. It’ll make your characters stronger, realistic and ultimately unforgettable. Comments and feedback are always appreciated.
What do you think? Is this helpful when conceiving your character, plotting your manuscript? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Have a wonderful week,