Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PSYCHOLOGY: Using Trauma In Novels

Most novels involve the protagonist undergoing some form of trauma. Due to this, I’ve already done two research articles here and here on this topic. Generally in a fantasy setting, these traumatic experiences are generally considered just part of the normal, everyday lives for the protagonist. In these settings, the protagonist struggles less with such issues of trauma because the sudden, negative incidents are expected and fit perfectly into the victim’s frame of reference (how they see the world) because their culture treats murder, violence, and cruelty as simply a part of life.

Of course, car accidents are quite common in our society but we often find ourselves experiencing some trauma from them, especially if someone died or was badly injured, so arguably, even acceptance that these issues can happen isn’t insurance against being traumatized by them. So, while the cultural manifestations of trauma (symptom duration, types of symptoms) and the causes of trauma (severe humiliation) may differ between our world and the fantasy setting, there still should be some form of psychological consequence. At least, assuming that you’re going with a more realistic setting. Some fantasy novels are sheer escapism and they wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if the reader had to watch the protagonists’ developing trauma.

I’m writing a novel, the Butterfly Lady, which features a few forms of trauma in a young boy’s life. Most of these traumatic themes and experiences wouldn’t be out of place in your average fantasy novel or even fairy tale (death of a parent, betrayals, instability in childhood, somewhat self-imposed exiles, fear of self) but what I’m trying to do with the Butterfly Lady is explore these themes and experiences. Basically, take a young boy and see how he would deal with these various issues. Sure, there’s magical powers, demons, conspiracies, and murder mysteries to unravel, alongside some hopefully interesting places to explore, but deep down a story is about character and the character of Jason Arneil is hopefully complex enough to warrant all this attention.

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only one traumatized. He has family and friends. There’s the various people that he meets. An entire village suffers one particular trauma and everyone has to come together to deal with it. So trauma features fairly heavily in this novel as the characters’ response to conflict. A lot of the inner conflicts come from both material needs and psychological needs but also responses to trauma.

So I need to do a fair bit of research to make sure the psychology is about right. I need to ask myself, how do people cope with natural disasters or warfare and how does this differ depending on the scope of the trauma and their own cultural and psychological resources? What does betrayal do to a child’s psyche? What would growing up and thinking you’re a monster actually entail? And what is it like to be on a slippery slope of alcoholism and drug addiction?

Of course, for all you potential readers out there, don’t worry. ‘Hope and Horror’ has always been my favorite mood. Without one, you can’t really emphasize the other so there will be some really positive themes in my novel that I will need to research. I’ve already researched love in a few articles (here and here) and there are other areas of positive growth I’ll need to research as well. How does a person build resilience? What does mental health look like? Why is it that some people actually do become better people after experiencing trauma? And how does hope, forgiveness, optimism, and social sacrifice work, anyway?

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