Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors, Part I

I read a lot of erotica and erotic romance, especially the kinky stuff. While it is rather rare to find stories that include a wide range of mental health issues, trauma is actually quite common in these genres, especially in erotic romance. Lots of dominants with trauma in their past, often military or childhood trauma. Lots of submissives who are survivors of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence. Much of the representation is unrealistic, showing an inaccurate understanding of how trauma works. It also often represents trauma as the cause of a character’s kinkiness or non-monogamy. It also often represents sex, love, or kink as the cure for trauma.

I am a kinky trauma survivor, and an erotica writer who is trained to teach writing. I also put in close to 20 years in the trauma field, a decade of which included delivering trauma training. Because of this, I am uniquely suited to support writers who want to write realistically about trauma, even in stories that are otherwise not based precisely in realism. (After all, trauma is actually a very common element in paranormal erotic romance.)

So, I am planning a series of posts on this subject, written particularly for writers of erotica and erotic romance, starting with some basic information about trauma. As is likely obvious from the title, I’m going to be speaking explicitly about trauma, though I won’t include detailed trauma stories. I encourage you to read at your own pace and take care of yourself while reading.

So you’ve decided to give your character a traumatic experience

We often want to include trauma in a story because trauma is part of life and a lot of people experience it. We also like to give characters complex histories and current day problems to grapple with because it makes our stories more interesting, and can create conflict.

Sometimes we create characters with trauma because we have personal experience with trauma and we want to see it represented in fiction, or want to write about it as part of our healing. That makes a lot of sense. I do that myself. I would offer these suggestions if this applies to you:

  1. In my experience, it can be difficult to write about trauma as a trauma survivor. I urge you to take care of yourself as you write. I myself have put stories away unfinished because I needed to take care of myself before returning to them.
  2. Your trauma experience is your own, and your character may react differently, depending on their life circumstances, resources, and personality. So be careful about making the character’s trauma mirror your own too closely.
  3. You may be interested in writing a character with more support or resources than you had with your traumatic experiences. That can make for a really good story. I would urge you to take your time with the story to make sure it feels real, and doesn’t go for easy answers, which can be a common pitfall.
  4. In my experience, it can help to really take time with revisions and get beta readers. Sometimes we can be too close to a story to perceive it clearly, especially where trauma is involved. Also, sometimes we decide later that it cuts too close to the bone for our comfort and want to change it before we submit it for publication.

Sometimes we create characters with trauma to explain why they have specific kinds of sexual desires, like menage or BDSM. This is incredibly common in the genre, especially in erotic romance. I can tell you from my years in the trauma field and my years researching and teaching about kink and polyamory: there is no proven link between trauma and sexual practices or desires. This is one of the most common misunderstandings of both kink and polyamory. It is not helpful to anyone (including your story) to continue to spread this misunderstanding. Instead, here is my suggestion to you:

Don’t worry about why a character is into bondage, menage, pain, has a particular fetish, or whatever shape your character’s desires take. Assume that those desires are not wrong, that they need no explanation. Assume that those desires are included in the huge range of possible desires that people have, and that the character is definitely not alone in those desires. Start your story from there.

Sometimes we create characters that have blocks or inner conflict or relationship problems or self-esteem challenges and we realize in the middle of writing that this is a result of trauma. This can be shaky ground, and is a really good reason to stop and get very specific in your character development. Why? Because these can easily become throwaway background details that we don’t think through, ones that lead to murkiness in our stories or inaccurate representations of trauma.

So now let’s get specific about trauma, to assist you in thinking through your particular characters and their story and how trauma is a part of that.

What is trauma?

A character experiences a trauma when they experience a threat to life, body, or sanity. There are many different kinds of trauma characters can experience, from ongoing interpersonal trauma like intimate partner violence, racist bullying, or childhood abuse, to one-time events like surviving a fire, a car accident, or being sexually assaulted.

Everyone experiences trauma differently, and not everyone who experiences trauma will have PTSD as a result. In short, the first thing to know about trauma is that it is an individual experience. What does that mean for you as a writer? There are no cookie cutter answers here, and really that’s a good thing. Just as you decided to give this person a traumatic experience, you decide how the trauma impacts the character. You have an opportunity to think about what kind of impact it has. Here are some questions to consider.

  • Was the character particularly vulnerable to this trauma because of how it happened, or the context of their life in the moment it happened?
  • Is it small potatoes because of what the character has already survived?
  • Is it particularly intense for them because it is similar to past experience?
  • Was it a formative experience for them that shaped how they saw the world afterwards?
  • Was it something that confirmed what they already thought about people, or did it change them in a fundamental way?
  • Is it haunting them continually? Did they try to tuck it away and it’s bubbling under the surface waiting to burst out?
  • Did their isolation or economic vulnerability or caring friendships or judgmental community or creative outlets impact how they experienced and dealt with the trauma?

I highly recommend that you put some energy into thinking about the impact of trauma on your characters. It can only deepen your understanding of them, which will make your writing better, even if most of the detail you figure out is background and not included in your story.

So you’ve decided to give your character PTSD

Some of us want to write characters that have PTSD because we have it, or we are (or have been) in a relationship with someone who has PTSD. I have done that, and it can make for a lovely story, because we know intimately what some PTSD symptoms are like to experience or witness. (I had some suggestions a couple sections up for folks writing from their own experience. They also apply here.)

We sometimes want to give a character PTSD so we can cure it with love, sex, or kink. It makes sense, as romance wants to tell stories about the magic and power of love and good sex, and a lot of folks turn to love, sex, and kink to solve relationship and life problems. I get why we want those stories, how they are seductive fantasies. As trauma survivors, we often wish that our PTSD would be cured like that. If you are interested in telling a realistic story that includes a character with PTSD, I urge you to reconsider this course. Why?

Folks in the trauma field disagree about how “curable” PTSD is. There are folks who speak of curing PTSD with a particular therapeutic model or medication or combination. And, there are folks that believe PTSD symptoms can be controlled and managed, but it cannot be cured. There is no single method that all (or even most) agree will work to cure PTSD across the board. Most folks would say that a lot of the success people have in managing or curing PTSD is individual, and dependent on a lot of factors.

Speaking as someone who has done a lot of BDSM and sex as a trauma survivor and with other trauma survivors, who has been in love with a number of trauma survivors, and who knows quite a lot about trauma, I can tell you that this sort of storyline is unrealistic, however tempting. And I will add that attempting to cure PTSD through sex or kink is highly risky and can lead to increased and new PTSD symptoms. It can make things worse, not better.

Some of us like to write stories based in reality, and since PTSD is very common, we want to include it. As I’ve said before, not all trauma leads to PTSD. But a good portion can, especially ongoing trauma like combat, torture, stalking, childhood neglect or abuse, and intimate partner violence. So it is realistic that if you have characters that experience trauma, some of them are going to have PTSD as a result.

Sometimes it’s a really good fit for the story we want to tell. We may want to write stories about folks whose professions often expose them to trauma, like firefighters, assassins, police officers, Mafioso, first responders to disasters, spies, and folks in the military. We may want to explore characters that are complex and have internal conflict, characters that struggle in relationships, characters who have family difficulties or estrangements, characters who have challenges in claiming their sexuality for themselves, characters that struggle with addiction. Those things are common for folks who have PTSD. So, let’s talk about what it could look like if your character has PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD has four core symptoms:

  • Trauma Intrusion: nightmares about the trauma; remembering—acting or feeling as if the trauma is happening right now, reliving it as if it were happening now, including hearing or seeing parts of the trauma and physically re-experiencing sensations of the trauma (flashbacks); being unable to stop thinking about the trauma or thoughts just popping up about trauma (intrusive thoughts)
  • Hyperarousal: jumpiness, constantly looking  out for danger (hypervigilance), low tolerance for frustration, angry outbursts, physical reactions (stomach ache, dizziness, headache, digestive problems), panic attacks
  • Numbing/Avoidance: not feeling emotions/not in touch with your own body (dissociation), memory loss, feeling out of it/confused, avoiding reminders of trauma, avoiding feelings/talking about it, pretending everything is ok, substance use
  • Decreased Functioning: difficulty at work, struggles in relationships, difficulty thinking clearly and making decisions, not caring about things that you used to care about, difficulty sleeping, sexual dysfunction, having strong emotional responses that you struggle to manage, difficulty getting out of bed and doing daily activities, feeling overwhelmed (especially by things that didn’t used to be overwhelming)

One mistake I see a lot is for writers to just give the character one of the core symptoms, and not the others. No trauma survivor is likely to have all of the specific examples listed, but if they have PTSD, they have all four core symptoms. (In a later post, I will describe what’s often known as Complex PTSD, a kind of PTSD most common in survivors of ongoing trauma.) How those symptoms manifest is individual, so it is your role as the writer to decide which ones make the most sense for your character.

Perhaps your character is a perfectionist who already had a low tolerance for frustration which might be even lower now because of hyperarousal, or your character is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and dissociation is part of how they survived from early on. Maybe your character is having nightmares, and that leads to having trouble sleeping, and those things might also be accompanied by being overwhelmed and struggling to make decisions. You choose what makes sense for the character and your story. There is no formula.

So, that is my core message in this post: trauma is complex and impacts each individual differently. This means that when you write characters that are trauma survivors, you have a lot of autonomy in the way you imagine trauma working for them, and in your story.

This is the first in a series of posts that is still evolving. I welcome your questions, so please feel free to comment or send emails to praxisproductions at gmail dot com. Let me know what you’d like to see me write about, what kind of information would be the most helpful to you.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors, Part I

  1. Pingback: Ways Trauma Survivors Manage Triggers: Info for Writers | Kink Praxis

  2. Pingback: A Roundup of Things I’ve Written About Trauma and Abuse | Kink Praxis

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