Monday, August 8, 2011

Abstracting Trauma

Almost every narrative's central theme is overcoming a significant trauma that has led to significant adversity and hardship. In many instances this trauma is either the crux of the narrative or the creators' primary means of drawing emotion from their audience.

A traumatic event involves an experience or recurring experience that completely overwhelms an individual's ability to cope.

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Frequently the theme of overcoming the trauma and 'moving on' or confronting the repercussions of that trauma are the core foundation of any narrative piece due to the highly controversial and emotional nature of the trauma. When the success of a piece is dependent on drawing an emotional connection between the individuals in the piece and the audience, beginning with a trauma that stirs emotions in the audience is fundamental.

Due to the controversial and highly emotional nature of trauma, the selection of those traumas for the piece are delicately selected to either develop characters or the primary plot. The selection is often made because the creator wishes to explore the depths of a particular trauma. What are the prolonged effects of child abuse on the child? What reactions does someone have after years of verbal abuse? How does an individual perceive the world after the loss of a loved one? How does a rape victim cope? These particular traumas are extremely powerful but it is also important to note that these can have an adverse response from the audience. Not everyone will want to explore these 'dark' emotions.

Attempting to explore trauma is highly contingent on understanding the psychological effects of the trauma on an individual. Often after a traumatic experience a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to escape as psychological triggers cause a re-experience of the event. The individual may suffer feelings of intense anger, resentment and guilt. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts or flashbacks may haunt the person. Nightmares and insomnia may occur as their repressed fears keep the person on edge. As these stressors continue it can lead to emotional exhaustion and ultimately emotional detachment.

In a narrative piece that utilizes trauma as both backstory for individuals in the piece and as a core element of the primary plot, it is paramount to understand what that trauma actually does to the individuals that experience it. Just as imperative is understanding how an audience will perceive that trauma and if they are willing to confront those 'dark' emotions.


cherie said...

Excellent post!

It can go both ways, I think. Readers will either connect or run away from such emotive, traumatic memories. Each person has their own way of dealing with 'dark' emotions, and the response will stem from psychological factors unique to the idividual.

LemonyTrystan said...

Cherie, I agree, as well as with you Phillip. Trauma in a novel can be a good way to reach readers. Someone who is in an abusive relationship can find it beneficial to read a novel regarding someone who escapes a similar situation. An author can create a novel that is the ultimate support for someone who is struggling with trauma in their own life. On the other hand, though, sometimes unaddressed and unacknowledged trauma can influence how a reader interacts with a novel, and repels them away from books dealing with those traumas.
Then, of course, there is vicarious trauma, where a reader can be traumatized by the character's experiences within the novel, stimulating the reader to have the same emotional reactions as the character is experiencing. (Can you tell that I have had extensive training regarding the effects of trauma on an individual?)

Michele Shaw said...

There are some topics that will scare certain readers or turn them off. But, since writers can never please everyone, they should always write about what makes them happy, excited, or hits the true passion they have for writing. Sometimes it's surprising what people really like to read. They often enjoy reading on topics that are opposite from their lives, things they've never experienced. I think anyone who tries to write "safe" isn't going to write well. It always has to come from the heart.

PW.Creighton said...

Cherie, very true which is why if someone is going to use these types of traumas it is necessary for the writer to fully understand what these traumas actually entail.

Lemonytrystan, excellent points, especially with vicarious trauma.

Michele, it can be beneficial and it is surprising what people want to read but I feel that it is the writer's duty to convey these traumas in a an accurate light. I've come across far too many stories where a writer will insert a trauma because it will 'add depth' but that trauma has no repercussions or unrealistic repercussions in the story. A writer can shape a story into any form but when dealing with these 'dark emotions' there is no escaping psychology and people instinctively can recognize inaccurate reactions. This can be an easy means of breaking the believability connection in a story.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Wow! What an excellent post. Again, here's where online/book research could only take you so far. To really get in the head of someone for a character such as this, the best way to go would be to talk to someone who'd been through it. But that would be a tricky interview to arrange unless you personally know someone.

You have a very classy and intelligent blog here.

Jami Gold said...

Interesting post! I think, from the writer's perspective, one of the risks when writing about trauma is being *too* superficial about it. If the writer is unwilling to delve into the deep emotions, or if they're afraid the readers won't want to, they can skim the surface of the trauma. But I think that risks upsetting readers more than deeper darkness.

If I've been through a traumatic experience, the last thing I'd want to read about is something that turns it into "no big deal." That would feel dismissive of my trauma.

Not sure if that makes sense to everyone, but that's how I approach it. :)

Laura Pauling said...

I want to write a story based on that picture alone!

PW.Creighton said...

Anita, so very true but this is also why Psychology case studies are an excellent resource or as you suggest the best would be first-hand accounts.

Jami, that is exactly right. That timid nature can be picked up upon by readers and make a work slip. It is quite surprising to know the numbers but roughly has first-hand knowledge of a trauma and no one wants to feel that someone is perceiving it as nothing.

Laura, I love Urban Decay photography. You can feel the emotions from the imagery and the stories that they tell. I use them in every post.

yikici said...

Very interesting -a topic many people shy away from; I'm glad you are touching on it. I agree with all the above comments, trauma in stories/novels can go both ways, be it enlightening, educational or extremely uncomfortable or scary. I personally think it needs to be tackled delicately and only incorporated into the story if it enhances the overall piece -if it's added to just add depth with no major significance it will dilute the plot and leave your readers possibly confused or disengaged.

As a writer, I know that sometimes it is difficult to write about personal traumas in stories –if I believe it is pertinent to the plot I try to add it in tactfully in small doses and then build it up slowly –this makes it manageable for me to write and hopefully for the reader to read. Overall, it’s good to have some purpose for the trauma.

I hope all that makes sense. :)

PW.Creighton said...

Yikici, thanks for the insight. I'm a firm believer that no work can be complete without some form of trauma but only if it is implemented well. I want to find more stories that can do that or write them. ;-)

yikici said...

Have you read Wild Swans by Jung Chang? I think you would find it intrguing as well as The Trick is to Start Breathing. Both deals with trauma in a different light.

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