How Characters with Unresolved Trauma Can Cause Writers Huge Headaches
Being stuck in a certain place in your story is different than writer’s block. Writer’s block is a condition that paralyzes writers and prevents them from ever getting started in the first place, or derails them so completely they can never finish that first draft. But being stuck is more like running your car off the road into the mud. You know it’s possible to get out of it, but it still feels like a big messy unpleasant obstacle in your creative life.
Right now, I am stuck. I am just about in the middle of the last quarter of my novel, and I am most definitely in the mud. Things were going so well up until now. I was writing consistently every week and my plot and characters were moving along at a good clip. And then, I hit this wall. I got…stuck.
However, this time around I know a few things that I didn’t know before. This is not my first rodeo with literary mud, you see. I’ve gotten stuck many, many times before.
And this time, I realized it wasn’t my fault.
When we get stuck in a sticky patch in our story, most writers blame themselves. We nearly always feel like we’ve done something wrong. We didn’t do enough research, or we didn’t outline our chapters carefully enough. We didn’t sufficiently think things through and now we’re paying the price. Nearly all the time, when a writer gets stuck he or she immediately goes into self-judgment about it.
But, we’re forgetting one crucial element.
As the writer, we do not control the story.
Now, this is a hard pill for a lot of us to swallow. What do you mean I don’t control the story? It’s MY story! is usually the first argument I hear. Well, if you truly believe that you have 100% control over your story and all your characters are pretend people that you have 100% control over too, then I have news for you. If it really is that way for you and your story, then you’re working with puppets and you’re settling for pulling their strings, when you could be working with living, breathing, larger-than-life, rich and complex characters and stories that take the reader’s breath away.
But to get there, you have to give up control. And you’re going to have to face the fact that your characters DO have thoughts and feelings and attitudes independent of you, and your opinions on where you think they should be headed.
So, all that said, if you’re stuck in a sticky patch in your story and you feel like you can’t move any further, chances are that your character doesn’t want to move any further, and they have a very good reason for dragging their feet.
In my coaching work with writers, the number one reason I see characters suddenly halt and refuse to go any further is trauma. It could be that the next scenes you’ve planned to write involve the character being abused in some way, or revisiting a past emotional wound that is still festering. It could even be that you’re about to send them on a job interview that they don’t want to go on. It doesn’t take a huge thing for characters to start dragging their feet, or even outright kicking and screaming because they refuse to go on.
Let’s take my story, for instance. The first half of the novel was all about my main character finding his true love and starting a relationship with her. Let me tell you, this guy was on cloud nine. I wrote a bunch of scenes of him confessing his love, finding out she felt the same way, the two of them spending intimate time together, and him finding out more about her past. Those scenes just flew out of my pen. Not only was my character more than happy to share everything with me, he wouldn’t shut up about it either.
Now though, we’ve come to a different part of the story. Now it’s time for my character to return to his childhood home and face his father, who he’s been estranged from for over 20 years. Now my character is suddenly more than silent, it’s like he’s totally gone. A few years ago I would have been thrown into despair because I would have assumed I’d done something wrong and that was why my “inspiration” had suddenly dried up. Now I know, though, that it’s not my fault at all. My character is just hiding. He’s not talking because he’s terrified and he’s completely freaking out.
And from what I know of his dad, I’d be freaking out too.
This is what has made all the difference in my creative work these days. Because I now understand that my main character is just like a real person. He has thoughts and feelings and fears and the whole messy package of what it means to be human going on inside of him, just like I do. He’s not able to just be easy and breezy about helping me write these scenes in which he has to confront all the toxic baggage from his past. Bottom line, he’s going to need a minute. And I need to give him his space.
When my character is ready, he’ll talk. I know this because I’ve taken the time to build a trusting relationship with him. And when he does confide in me again, I’ll take it as slowly as he needs to go.
If you’re working with a character who has been through past trauma, or is currently going through a difficult time, just know that the best thing you can do is to treat them just as you would any other real person in your life who was dealing with the same. Bring in compassion, actively listen, and know that everyone works within their own sense of right timing.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.