I am working on a novel where my young protagonist has certain character flaws/issues which are the result of having survived a horrific incident as a child. The incident occured during a time when many people, including a family member, die of starvation, and where there are cases of cannibalism. One night my protagonist and her best friend are attacked. She barely escapes but her friend does not. My plan is to give veiled references to this incident only in the first chapter or prologue. My protagonist has blocked out the incident which, nevertheless, defines her character and life choices.

I am wondering where I might find information to believably describe the specific effects such trauma might have on the human psyche without having to dive too deeply into psychological texts. Would also welcome any thoughts/ideas on how to do this most effectively. Thanks!

4 Answers 4


As a newbie to writing, I can't comment on how to dramatically portray the lifelong impact of childhood trauma. But as a person with PTSD, I can confirm that as Stu W explained "flashbacks, obsession, avoidance, and a high-adrenaline state" are real symptoms. Others include general depression and anxiety. But an important feature is triggers. A trigger can be a smell, an object, a sound etc. Anything that reminds the person of the event. As the name implies, a trigger is a stimulus that leads to a strong response of anxiety or flashback. It can cause a fight-flight-freeze response.

As an example, I know a soldier who can't sleep near a window for fear of snipers. And a woman who is afraid of turbans because she was assaulted by a man wearing one.

The person may also be plaited by destructive thoughts or beliefs about themselves. Things like I deserved what happened, my life is cursed, etc.

In the book I'm writing, I am planning a critical scene where the character freezes with a flash back at a very critical moment. More subtle features can be woven in as things like lack of trust, avoidance of people, addictions, risk taking, avoidance of triggering situations, etc.

Another common attribute is the effect and damage it has on relationships. Also the burden it puts on people around the character who can see the traits and the self destructiveness that the character can't see in himself.

I would avoid reading the DSM. It is too technical and dry. There are many biographies of people with PTSD. Many news articles. You should be able to do some surface reading to get an idea of the experience. This type of reading will give you a better feel of how it affects people than anything written from a psychological, sterile point of view.


I had a friend whose mother remembered being fed human flesh as a child. This was late in WW2 in Holland, at time when everyone was starving and many died.

She was a cheerful older lady. If she was traumatized by it, it didn't show.

In real life, people react in many different ways. Some find it easier to take things in their stride. Others might be deeply scarred by quite minor events.

In fiction, one possible approach would be a character who is very well balanced, very positive, but that's only what's on the surface...


What, in the end, are you asking? You have planned out parts of the story: your protagonist blocking an incident and that incident 'defines her character and life choices'. It seems like you have decided what is going to happen whatever.

Yet you want information that is believable without you having to take the trouble to 'dive too deeply into psychological texts'. This seems like wanting to eat your cake without wanting the calories.

  • 1
    This. There's no substitute for research. If you're going to write about extreme psychological trauma, you're going to have to find out what extreme psychological trauma does to people. Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 20:44

You describe post-traumatic stress disorder. I would start with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV or V for psychiatry. The PTSD section isn't that long.

However, I'll add "blocking it out" has been considered a medically incorrect concept for about 30 years or more and usually appears sophomoric in fiction. (It is, of course, possible to forget things.) If it's really what you need to do, I'd approach the recovering process cautiously. The norm for PTSD is re-experiencing phenomena, flashbacks, obsession, avoidance, and a high-adrenaline state.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.