I got an idea for a short story recently following a traumatized boy who has developed antisocial tendencies and lack of empathy, and ends up in a psych ward.

I want this protagonist to have a meaningful story arc, involving some change. The obvious change would be to make him begin to care for people, though I think this is unrealistic and impossible.

So, anybody have any recommendations for making an inherently flawed character a bit more dynamic?

  • What you need is understanding how human beings change through their experiences – and despite what Robert McKee says, people do change if their experiences are as extreme as happens in most novels –, and then write from that understanding. This means that you must live and interact with other people. Then you can write what you know. No answer here on this site can replace a lack of experience of life.
    – user5645
    Jan 8, 2017 at 18:32

3 Answers 3


Yes, brilliant and realistic idea. Trauma, especially in childhood, has severe effects that last well into adult hood.

Some Recommendations:

  • Diagnose your character. "antisocial tendencies and lack of empathy" is very broad and a condition is rarely this simple. For example, repeated childhood abuse from which fight/flight is not possible, can manifest in a freeze response. Making the patient unable to respond with empathy, or in fact respond at all. Not because they don't want to, but because of lack of empathy but because they have emotionally shut down. Understanding the root of the problem makes it easier to imagine what changes would realistically occur.
  • Research. As hard as it is, research childhood trauma and PTSD.
  • Show the change. "starting to care about someone" is a bit much, often if victims have shutdown to that extent then results are painful and slow. what about something more subtle, for example, they hit someone. Whilst this might not seem like "caring", it is a response. Another alternative would be to apologize, again, not cliche or obvious, but a small sign of change. Another alternative would be interaction with an object or animal, do they feed a cat where before they would kick it? What about answering a phone that they would normally ignore?
  • Check spelling and grammar. Incorrect spelling and grammar can detract from what could be a very powerful story, so get help in this area.
  • Conclude the change. Where does their journey end? Obviously "completely normal" is a stretch, but do they end up being able to keep a dog?

Note: There is a lot of interesting insights here in the heart wrenching blog "How to Live on Earth When You Were Raised in Hell", (which incidentally would be an awesome title for a novel or short story...). Also interesting psychological insight into "polyvagal theory" where if there is no option to run/fight then your brain shuts down.

Trauma survivors blog

  • Thank you so very much! Wow, this is exactly what I was looking for. Excellent advice, particularly about the research and showing the change.
    – JStrange88
    Jan 9, 2017 at 13:44
  • Pleasure, I once did some writing for a social worker friend and had to research childhood trauma. I cried my way through the research but learned a lot, I remember one blog in particular, I'll try to dig it out. Jan 9, 2017 at 14:18
  • added link above. Jan 9, 2017 at 14:21

Robert McKee maintains that people don't change, and that a story arc is not about them changing, but about showing how far they will go. A story arc, per McKee, consists of a character with a desire meeting a series of increasingly difficult challenges to that desire until they are pushed to the edge of their capability and we (and perhaps they) discover who they really are. They don't change, but their true nature is revealed.

I'm not sure I agree with McKee on this, but I do think he points out something important about the nature of story. In some sense, at least, it is an exploration of the character by the application of increasing shocks to their system. Revelation may be sufficient payoff, rather than change.


If the character is drawn starkly enough, even very small changes can be very noticeable. The best example I know of is in Nabokov's Lolita. The narrator is an unrepentant molester, who is basically wholly focused on his own wants and needs. Late in the novel, he gains what amounts to a single moment of clarity where he senses, no matter how dimly, that what he has done is wrong. It's a significant moment because of how completely selfish he has been up to that moment.

You might also compare the main character in Remains of the Day. Although not at all sociopathic, he is very emotionally constrained. On the surface, not much happens in his life, but the writer gradually helps you understand that he has strong emotional attachments of which even he himself is unaware.

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