The anniversary of a past trauma can be a fantastic opportunity for authors to crank up the tension and internal conflict for characters, but it’s important to get it right! There is nothing more annoying than watching or reading a story where past trauma is handled flippantly, or with trite platitudes, with consequences that stray into the annoying rather than devastating realm.
Trauma is anything that overwhelms your ability to cope, give context to, or understand. For the vast majority of people, we have no context for rape. We have nothing from our past that tells us how to respond or explain or cope with what happened. I recently saw a statistic that 49% of women who survive rape develop PTSD — rape is so overwhelming in almost half of those it happens to that trauma literally re-wires the brain.
You can point to terrorist attacks, war/combat, natural disasters — and yes, all those events can and do cause trauma. However, let’s not overlook the more common events that can cause trauma: divorce, sudden illness/medical procedures, death/loss of a loved one, forced relocation, abandonment — the list goes on.
I’ve written about how to capture a trauma background in fiction briefly here, but have you given thought to the anniversary of the trauma and how you could use that in your fiction? Anniversaries can hit you unexpectedly — something you didn’t expect to affect you does. Anniversaries can force you to relive the trauma in ways that make it nearly as bad as the initial trauma itself. Not everyone struggles with anniversaries, and some trauma (particularly events that happened repeatedly like abuse) may not have any particular anniversary, but have you thought about how a trauma anniversary could ratchet up the tension and create compelling internal conflict for your character?
Emotional Reactions To Anniversaries
Trauma anniversaries can cause an array of reactions and take some time to research that. Doing that research here is really beyond the scope of what I blog about, but emotions like anger, guilt, shame, avoidance, isolation, fear, anxiety, grief, sadness would all be within the normal or expected range.
Rather, what I’m more interested in is how to go deeper with it. Yes, we can list off those emotions, but how do you SHOW them? How do you add emotional complexity? How do you dig deeper into those reactions so they’re compelling and grip readers by the throat? That’s what this blog is all about.
Get Curious About How The Character Reflects On The Trauma
When your character looks back on that trauma event, how do they reflect on it? Do they know exactly what they wish they or others had done instead? Can they imagine how things might have worked out differently? Have they let those imagined scenarios play out in their minds? This rumination, reflection, and analysis requires one to sit with their thoughts and feelings, and instead of exiling the uncomfortable emotions instead they listen to the concerns brought up. The trauma may still cause them significant internal conflict, but this ability to reflect, imagine, and sit with emotions shows significant healing.
However, the character who avoids thinking about the trauma at all, or can’t imagine it turning out any other way — who continues to feel helpless and vulnerable when thinking about it, is someone who hasn’t done a lot of healing or reflection most likely. They might feel “stuck” and so their reaction to the trauma anniversary will look quite a lot different than the person who’s done some processing and healing.
What Does A Processed, Partially Healed Reaction Look Like?
Someone who’s taken the time to process what happened between the original trauma and the anniversary (and it might not be the first anniversary) can look back at all that’s happened and reflect on it. They can appreciate how far they’ve come, even if they’re not fully healed yet. They can appreciate the courage, stamina, determination, hard work it took to get where they are. This doesn’t mean they won’t still struggle with the guilt or shame or depression or anxiety or any of the rest of it, but they see how these emotions have a purpose. (We know that emotions typically serve three different functions: to bring our attention to a concern, to protect us, to inform us of something) The character will have a perspective now they didn’t have before. There’s hope now. There’s resiliency. They have compassion and are kind to themselves, but that doesn’t mean an anniversay won’t cause significant internal conflict. Rather, how the character FEELS about that internal conflict will look much different than the character trying to fight the memories, squash or ignore the hard emotions, etc.
Unprocessed, Still Raw, Trauma Anniversary Reactions
Those who have not been able to heal or process what happened (and again, this could be the first anniversary or the twenty-first), may relive the trauma in many ways. This could be in the form of flashbacks for those struggling with PTSD — and they may struggle with those flashbacks all the time but it’s more intense during the anniversary. For others, the memories may simply become super fresh and raw again. Nightmares will likely be common — either replaying what happened or deal with themes from the trauma (feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, not having a voice, etc)
We react to trauma in a variety of different ways, but generally those reactions aim to protect us, keep us safe, and make sure that whatever happened, doesn’t happen again. Different people have learned different strategies. Some will avoid or deny what happened. Some will sink into depression or anxiety, struggling with this sense of helplessness and unable to picture a different outcome than more of the same. Some will numb the emotions through substances, work, shame-shifting, exercise, etc. I wrote more about coping mechanisms here.
If the character decides to put their energy into denying, ignoring, or numbing the trauma memories instead of trying to process and heal from it, remember that this will be exhausting. And at some point those coping mechanisms will either stop working, require more and more effort for them to work, or they escalate into something destructive. For instance, working long hours to avoid being alone seems innocuous — it’s just for a short time, but workaholism comes with sometimes significant consequences (speaking of health, emotions, and relationships) and is unsustainable long term.
How would they justify their actions? For those who are acting out of character to avoid the anniversary, how would they explain to friends what happened? How would they calm the cognitive dissonance their actions create? The normally chaste and shy girl can’t handle the reminders of the looming anniversary, so she gets drunk and wakes up the next morning in bed with a stranger. Get curious about what she had to justify to herself to allow this to happen — either she had to silence the cautioning voices in her head to get blackout drunk, or she rationalized what she was doing along the way.
Some trauma survivors prefer to continue life as though nothing happened. There are a few possible coping mechanisms involved here, but take a moment to get curious about WHY they need to live as though it never happened? What would happen if they spent some time and sat with that hurt person/kid and listened to their concerns? What if they acknowledged the raging emotions and got curious about what those emotions are trying to warn or protect against?
Add Emotional Complexity
Trauma is filled with conflicting and irrational emotions. I like to picture a table full of children — the character at various ages in the past. Each child with a seat at the table had to deal with something really difficult and they had a set of emotions that kept them safe (or gave the illusion of safety) and a set of behaviours they used to survive. Each child/teen/adult at the table will be screaming that THEIR solution is the only one that will work. A five year old’s solution to overwhelming emotions will look different (hopefully) than a twenty-five year old’s solution. But, these kids at the table will have conflicting viewpoints, conflicting concerns — and your character has to either listen to them all, acknowledge the concerns, and then choose a new path (a healthy and balanced approach) or one of the kids at the table will hijack the situation.
What happens when the terrified five year old decides what to do about a situation? Or the overwhelmed fifteen year old who mistakes attention for love? Anniversaries can be so difficult that a character could act in a way that contradicts their everyday life, or they could continue on with life as normal but the internal conflict can become very intense.
Showing Emotional Complexity
What other emotions are at play in a scene? I try to brainstorm five emotions in high-tension scenes and pick at least three to be prominent. What conflicting thoughts would those emotions generate? Try jotting those down — if your character is feeling this way, what thoughts would that emotion trigger? How would that emotion feel physically? How would conflicting emotions intensify those physical sensations or colour their thoughts?
When a child misbehaves and puts themselves in danger, the parent may have conflicting thoughts/ feelings about how to react. They may want to forget it happened because they hate conflict. They may want to punish too severely because the child’s actions scared them half to death. They may want to hug the child because they’re safe again. Which emotion will the parent listen to? Which emotion’s solutions will rule the day? What would a stronger person do? What would a better parent do? Why don’t they do that? What won’t they let themselves do – why? Just get really curious about all the other things going on.
Be particular and specific with what other emotions are at play, the solutions they offer, and the WHY behind those emotions. This is how to surprise readers and keep them reading.
Some Going Deeper Questions
What irrational belief does your character hang on to? Do they acknowledge this belief is irrational, but continue to be ruled by it? Why?
What would happen if they faced the trauma memories/feelings? What are they afraid will happen? WHY? (the why is SO IMPORTANT).
What would happen if their preferred coping mechanism was taken from them? What would they do next? WHY?
What would a stronger person have done in that trauma situation (according to your character)? Why didn’t they do that? (see if #1 is appropriate for your character)
Ignored emotions demand attention! In what ways do the squashed emotions from the trauma leak out and cause problems for your character? Why must those emotions stay squashed?
Anniversaries can often de-rail progress in many aspects of life. How does this anniversary make life more difficult for your character? Why?
What is holding your character back from imagining a different-from-now future? What are they afraid might happen? Why would that be so awful they’d do anything to avoid it? What does that tell you about your character — what emotions are really driving their thinking and choices?
Have you used a trauma anniversary in your story? How does it affect your character?