#writerproblems: #creating #trauma in #character #histories

Nobody cries crocodile tears quite like Bash.

“This is a SAD BIRTHDAY!” he wails, complete with a “WAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa” that could drown out a fire truck. My mother holds him, soothes him, to no avail.

Why the tears? Because “There are NO TOYS ARE PRESENTS! I WANT A TOY!”

Meanwhile, Biff sits content with his new collection of Disney Cars stories, and Blondie–who already shed her tears over the fact that today isn’t her birthday–eyes the cupcakes, knowing she at least gets sugar and a race car ring out of the deal.

Despite having received toys at the party hosted by in-laws less than 48 hours ago, Bash continues sobbing until bedtime. “This was a SAD BIRTHDAY,” he declares again, thoroughly traumatized.

20180903_125247

Annoyed as I am, I can’t bring myself to scold him for his meltdown. Our basement flooded two weeks before his and Biff’s 6th birthday, sending the house into chaos. Everything is everywhere. Stuff’s crammed into the garage, piled in the living room. There’s a mattress and box spring tipped on their sides in the hallway. Decorations are somewhere in the labyrinth of tubs frantically filled as water seeped up through the seams of the house’s foundation. We’re all stepping on each other’s toys, books, and nerves.

It’s lousy.

But is it traumatic?

Sure, if you spin it right. Horror fiction’s got a knack for taking anything–like a ruined birthday party–and turning it into motivation for a killing spree.

But if you’re not out to birth a slasher, then what qualifies as “traumatic”?

TRAUMA : a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time. medical : a serious injury to a person’s body.      Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary
So often trauma is used as the seed to germinate our characters’ motivations. We want our pro/antagonists compelled to act in such a manner as to drive the narrative forward. Sometimes that drive comes from the goal that lies ahead: the love interest, the home, the chance for redemption, etc.

 

But sometimes that drive comes from what lies behind in the histories of the characters, and what lies behind them is often traumatic.

The most popular “trauma” I find in storytelling is personal loss. Take comic books, for instance. How many become superheroes because they lost a loved one? Batman–parents. Spider-Man–uncle. Green Arrow–parents. Punisher–family. Nightwing–parents. Flash–mother. Captain Marvel–parents. Daredevil–father. The list goes on for a looooooong time.

Now I’m not saying that personal loss isn’t traumatizing. I should know: I’ve watched grandparents waste away. I drove to the hospital thinking my father ill only to be told at the door he’d died of heart failure. Everyone else already knew, but didn’t want to say anything until after I’d arrived.

Loss fucking sucks, and you’re damn right it changes you.

But there is something cliche about a backstory of personal loss driving one to heroics. Must a character always become a warrior for justice when his parents are shot in a dark alley?

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_No. Take Jude in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince. A Fae general comes into her house, kills their parents before her eyes, then takes her and her sisters back to the land of the Fae to raise them as his own. Is Jude driven to heroics?

She kills at least two people and readies herself to kill more out of loyalty to her new Fae court. She’s got the drive and calculating mind of her “new” Fae father.

Not sure what Bruce Wayne would make of that.

Trauma doesn’t require death, either. Consider Starlight from the comic book series The Boys. Of all the young superheroes, it is she who’s given the chance to leave her ultra-conservative group Young Americans and join the Seven, the most powerful group of heroes on the planet. She gets there, thrilled to take the last test and make a difference…

…only to discover the test is having oral sex with Homelander and two other members.

Do they force her? Use their own superpowers to render her helpless?

No.

Starlight consents.

And for the rest of the series she has to struggle with that decision and all its consequences.

Trauma’s not just about losing a piece from our lives, but a piece of ourselves. I know this first-hand. When your body becomes someone else’s thing, you don’t want it. You don’t want to take care of it. You want it to remain separate the real you buried in the bile churning at the bottom of your gut. You separate your soul from your body because if you don’t, then your soul’s as worthless as your body, as much a nothing to be spat upon and left in the alley. That separation means survival.

But survival and living with oneself are two very, very different things. Trauma, from my experience, does not inspire love.

More like the opposite.

We survive. And we hate that we survive.

Athanasius-TitleImageAthanasius, one of the little boys in my first short story “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket,” was so desperate to flee his “survival” of an abusive home that he happily left with the first stranger he met. Fallen Princeborn: Stolen opens with Charlotte running away from an abusive home. We learn in the opening pages that she’s a fighter, so much so she’d rather punch out your teeth than listen to you talk.

That drive to violence–to hurt others before they can hurt us–that’s what trauma teaches us. This can easily drive a character to do terrible things to those around her. But it is also this drive that can be nurtured to make one want to defend others before they get hurt. It all depends on the character’s environment when the seed of trauma is planted.

Again, there doesn’t need to be some dark, extraordinary experience for a “traumatic event” with long-lasting impact. In my serialized novel Middler’s Pride, Meredydd recalls a moment in childhood when an evil sorcerer attempted to curse her family’s land, but was thwarted when child Meredydd interrupted the spell. Sounds pretty traumatic, running into an evil sorcerer. Yet Mer’s driven, obstinate attitude was the same before and after this event. Apart from shaking hands, her body’s the same before and after this event. So what drives her onward into the story’s narrative?

Markee'sA childhood without affection. No one abused her, killed a loved one in front of her. Heck, the girl never even broke a bone, or went a day without a full belly. But year after year of watching her step-siblings receive love and attention while she must catch scraps of love from others outside her family…that can hurt far more than any magic curse.

So consider carefully, writers, whether or not your character truly needs trauma in her past for present-day motivation. Death can make its mark, but sometimes the mark need only be a scar, a touch, a moment of undulated terror. Or perhaps it need only be the gathering of little things, subtle as water beneath the ground to eventually flood over your character, altering her nature for the better.

Or worse.

PrettyRooms-TitleImageAnd what natures are to be found in one pretty little room beyond the Wall? Find out in “No More Pretty Rooms,” the fourth installment in my short story collection Tales of the River Vine, coming September 15th!

Once upon a time, in the hinterland behind a wall of ancient magic, a cruel prince was imprisoned with his fellow shapeshifters. He was born of a wicked king and a very wicked queen, and is ruled by a beautiful but evil mistress who’d slithered up from the Pits below…. Is redemption possible for those who feed on the hearts and dreams of men?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

#lessons Learned from @HollyBlack: Start the #storytelling with #writing the departure from the #characters’ normal.

the-cruel-prince-holly-black-feature-702x336

Snagging readers is always one of the greatest challenges writers face. First fifty pages nuthin’. We gotta grab readers in the first five pages. Heck, if we can’t grab an agent or publisher with the first five sentences, we are out of luck.

Holly Black establishes just enough intrigue within her first lines of The Cruel Prince to hook readers and keep’em on the line until the last page. Let’s dissect a few of these opening sentences, as well as the entire first chapter.

(Yes, I said entire first chapter. Don’t groan yet.)

Prologue:

On a drowsy Sunday afternoon, a man in a long dark coat hesitated in front of a house on a tree-lined street. He hadn’t parked a car, nor had he come by taxi. No neighbor had seen him strolling along the sidewalk. He simply appeared, as if stepping between one shadow and the next.

Inside the house, Jude sat on the living room rug and ate fish sticks, soggy from the microwave and dragged through a sludge of ketchup. Her twin sister, Taryn, napped on the couch, curled around a blanket, thumb in her fruit-punch-stained mouth. And on the other end of the sofa, their older sister, Vivienne, stared at the television screen, her eerie, split-pupiled gaze fixed on the cartoon mouse as it ran from the cartoon cat. She laughed when it seemed as if the mouse was about to get eaten.

The first four sentences take care to show something abnormal is in the works. While the first sentence of “a man in a long dark coat” sounds ominous, it’s a common sort of ominous–oh no, a dude in a coat. Aaaaah.

The next sentence plays upon our reality’s norms and begins to trim them off: no car, no taxi. There go the typical, nondescript forms of transportation. Black’s not going to insult our intelligence and list other vehicles not used, like RVs, semis, and so on. If my son Biff’s taught me anything, it’s that kids will notice any vehicle bigger than a car, and they will make a big deal about it. “Mommy, a truck! Mommy, a bus! Mommy, an RV!”

The third line continues to nullify yet another assumption: he didn’t walk there. If Black can say no neighbor saw him “strolling along the sidewalk,” then that means neighbors are currently outside to witness such things.

But no one did. Which means that when “he simply appeared,” he literally did just that.

Now that is abnormal.

In the next paragraph we meet our protagonist Jude and her two sisters. Black has situated this family in a very typical setup: snacking and watching television.

It is this sort of normal the man of the long dark coat penetrates.

I don’t have to share the rest of the prologue with you to know there was something abnormal in Jude’s normal–her elder sister Vivienne has “eerie” split pupils. As the narrator explains, Jude and her sister accept this without question; after all, they’re identical twins, which is weird enough. For them, this is normal, and therefore requires no further explanation.

But they do get an explanation with the man’s arrival.

He is not human.

He is also their mother’s first husband, and Vivienne is his daughter. Jude’s father tries to fight him, and dies. Jude’s mother tries to run, and dies.

He takes all three girls back to his home in Elfhame.

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Now here Black makes an interesting writing choice: while the prologue is given in 3rd person past, Chapter 1 shifts us into first person present.

CHAPTER 1

In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television.

That’s the whole chapter.

(Told you not to groan.)

What good is a one-line chapter?

For starters, Black’s story isn’t about little kid Jude and her sisters. In Chapter 2 we learn ten years have passed since General Madoc killed their parents and brought them to his home. The Cruel Prince will share the tale of these girls finding their place in–or out–of Faerie. 

Ten years is a HUGE amount of time to cover in any book, let alone a sentence. So let’s see what Black did to help us make that leap.

First, she establishes the time with “are.” The events of the prologue are done. The narrator’s in a new time.

What place? “Faerie.” For all the variety of worlds made about fairies/faeries, we do tend to make similar assumptions about what these magic folk don’t have: cars, for instance, or computers. Black builds on this concept–ruling out what isn’t in the world before building on what is–by listing the three simple things that symbolized the normal of Jude’s life: fish sticks, ketchup, television.

“Television” clearly encompasses technology of all sorts, but for a kid, no tv is, like, huge. It’s a primary resource for entertainment, education, distraction. It’s challenging enough to limit a kid’s screen time. Can you think of completely removing the tvs, computers, tablets, phones, and all the rest out of your life, let alone a child’s? Let that sink in. Now you appreciate that dose of culture shock for Jude and her sisters.

“Ketchup”–so often associated as the go-to dipper for kids. They’ll draw pictures in it, squirt each other with it. Adults can show their age if they like by using more “sophisticated” fare like oils, glazes, marinades, or sauces constructed with food processors and farmer’s markets and sweat, but if a kid’s got the choice between some organic garlic beet radish kale compote and “ketchup,” what do you think he/she will take?

Same with “fish sticks.” Microwaved, no less. One of the staples in a family’s fridge, fish sticks are a primary example of the pseudo-nutrition parents like to use to keep kids’ stomachs placated. Heck, I used’em for Blondie last night. (Biff and Bash don’t like them. Hmm, maybe they’re from Elfhame. It would certainly explain their ever-warring natures…) The easy, go-to processed food kept frozen by technology and heated at the click of its buttons is only memory to Jude.

By grouping this little trio of food, pleasure, and entertainment in the normal of Jude’s young life, and emphasizing with three No’s that these do not exist in her new normal, Black successfully jars readers out of Jude’s childhood and shifts them into the plotline for The Cruel Prince, told by Jude with intimate immediacy.

If your story needs a setup, consider how much you can pack into a single line. Think about what will separate this setup from the rest of the story, and what voice is best suited to prepare readers as well as engage them for the story proper. Do not think you must provide a detailed summary of the time passed over between setup and story; rather, consider what can symbolize that which is now lost, or gained, or transformed. Let that symbolism speak the necessary volumes for you while you lure readers into the shadowy realm that is Chapter 1.