I've just written a chapter in which one of my protagonists witnesses her entire family massacred during an invasion of her home city. This is obviously an extremely traumatic and horrifying event and, in writing the chapter, I realized that I'm out of my depth trying to describe a realistic human reaction to such an extreme event. I've never experienced anything remotely approaching this kind of horror, nor will most of my readers, so I need some way to present the protagonist's reactions in a way that's effective to the average reader.

In this first draft I attempted to portray the protagonist in a state of shock, observing what was going on around her without much by way of reaction. From what I understand this is pretty realistic, but on the page it came off as very flat and two-dimensional.

What would you recommend for making this chapter more? Are there any good non-fictional resources describing what happens to people under extreme trauma like this? Stories of people who've lived through such things? Really good fictional examples of this kind of trauma?

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    Additionally, I would be grateful to anyone that could suggest some better tags than these. – JSBձոգչ May 24 '11 at 14:28

Details. Out of context, fragmented details.

  • Blood on carpet. How shall I clean it?
  • My little brother cries like a cat
  • Broken window. Daddy will be angry.
  • Damaged school building. Today, we can stay up late.
  • Clothes are torn apart. I need to thread a needle.

Et cetera.

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    +1 Oh, excellent: how to clean the rug? to fix the window before Daddy gets home? Lovely, really. I'm right there when I hear your thoughts, looking through your eyes. Write some more in your blog, please! – Pete Wilson May 28 '11 at 22:12
  • I am getting used to seeing through my eyes for decades. You do not want that sort of expericence. It would drive you mad. – Nerevar May 29 '11 at 21:00
  • This is one of the best examples of "show, don't tell" that I've seen. Very good! – Pete Wilson May 30 '11 at 16:42
  • The out-of-context is the key: focusing on silly, small, irrelevant details - hiding in the corner of your mind, away from the whole image, occupying yourself with most unimportant things just not to allow focusing on the carnage. – SF. Jun 15 '16 at 8:54

Everyone deals with trauma in a completely different way, depending on their character.

One Monkey is quite correct in his excellent answer that the traumatic event is not the actual trauma. It's the source of the trauma, and this (along with the personality of the character) will affect the recollection of the event, and how that event has a lingering hold on their life from that moment.

The reason that your description likely sounds flat is because it's probably an accurate description of the event, yet that's not likely what the person remembers of the event.

Often, certain things can be blanked out completely, and only resurface many years later. Perhaps the protagonist looked away, and berates herself for not helping, and only remembers sounds. Perhaps she closed her eyes, and stuck her fingers in her ears to block out noise, and hummed a song her mother used to sing. Perhaps she clammed up, and didn't move, just watched, detatched, thinking about other things like the colour of the dress someone wore, the way the eyes looked, the ticking clock in the corner, a vase that broke during the event, someone's favourite piece of clothing was ripped or dirtied ...

Like Indoril Nerevar's list demonstrates, as strange as it may sound, it's often little details that people focus on, primarily because this is the way the human mind deals with traumatic events, by withdrawing from the actual event.

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Not that I've actually ever had to do what you describe but were I in your shoes I would tend to gloss over the moment of the traumatic event happening quite quickly. Making the happening quite matter of fact will get you (and your protagonist) through chronologically. Then, the detail, the horror, the physical impact, can be examined at length as the protagonist's brain allows the full detail to leak back into the brain in dreams, moments of reflection, unwanted recollection of detail etc.

The traumatic experience is not the trauma. It's an experience, in circumstance, that leads to trauma. Often in the middle of such events adrenaline and instinct kick in to get the physical body out of immediate danger. Peppering a matter-of-fact detail of "what is happening" with soupy visceral descriptions of heart-beating, mouth-drying adrenaline high: semi-automatic scrambling away from the next source of danger; the constant head-whipping scan for the next dangerous noise; trying to take in everything whilst painfully conscious of the poor vision provided by everything not in the direct field of vision, should get you through the chronicle of the times.

The bite is going to settle in when all is calm, after the fact. That's when the horror starts.

The key word here is "extreme" when applied to the trauma. I think a lot of genre writers, particularly in the horror arena try to deal with common or garden trauma and Indoril's reply gives you the dramatic convention for dealing with trauma. I would warn you that there's been a lot of horror written in the last thirty years and this method of conveying trauma has become something of a trope. This could be what's troubling you so I'll move on.

You specifically refer to extreme trauma, and the scene you describe reminds me of the rather operatic murder of Frank Castle's entire extended family in the movie "The Punisher" from a few years ago. To a certain extent that movie is about the operatic notion of The Punisher as a character. The idea that his mission is born out of circumstances so ridiculously heightened that it is almost impossible for the human brain to contemplate a reaction to them.

I think that there's a scale of trauma which really depends upon the cause of that trauma. The state of mind where one finds oneself obsessing over little details is part of the process of discovering the body of one's loved one hacked up in your kitchen upon returning from work (for example). Your system floods with adrenaline but it has no where to go, you're on high alert but all is quiet. This is the experience of PTSD where people's minds have conditioned them to go into high alert at the slightest stimulus.

If danger is present many descriptions of perception centre on people becoming robotic, although they still get the PTSD effect later at the time survivors tend to describe a mental space of "just acting".

That's in the case of a single dangerous traumatic situation being dealt with by a human being with a strong survival instinct.

In "extreme" circumstances, I would imagine that the personal danger and threat would escalate to a level where rational thought would cease to be possible if one is to survive. In such event I would imagine that perception would shut down into a sort of systemic tunnel vision where, if someone is to survive, their hindbrain just kicks in and wipes out both ego and superego. The really intense part about such a situation would be that a person would be capable of doing anything that furthered their survival while in that state. To a certain extent their own identity would be compromised.

A person in this state of mind would be able to just kill any person that threatened them, ignore the dire straits of loved ones, and lose all awareness of pain.

Whether such a mental state exists is debateable, even if anyone has a capacity for it they wouldn't be the norm. Not only that but the likely effect on the psyche when the sense of identity returns would probably leave someone who experiences it mentally ill for the rest of their life, possibly unable to effectively communicate what happened to them.

However, we are writers and we lie to entertain others. The business of dramatic license gives us the power to examine such cases as if they could be sensibly articulated; we could even invent a person who eventually bounced back from, or even leveraged, such a mental state, such as we are told Viking warriors experienced the baresark during battle. The question of what happens when humanity tries to cultivate such an animalistic state has been explored in some werewolf fiction, these are places to consider the extremity of your protagonist's mental state upon a scale from "heightened awareness" to "running on instinct".

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  • Great points - horror and trauma arise after the incident since we rarely have the presence of mind, time, or even the need to judge events in this as they occur. – Erik Westermann May 24 '11 at 18:43

This is one of those things where I find minimalism to be a good thing. Rather then delving into detail, let the reader's imagination do most of the work. They usually can fill in far more detail then you can. Unless you are trying to write some horror porn, of course.

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I have not been in any kind of trauma, but here we go. You said the protag. is in shock. There is a change they would experience "survivor's guilt"(If I'm reading this right). It happens when everyone else in the party dies and the patient doesn't. The patient then tends to think it's unfair, and that they should have gone as well. I probably didn't help at all, but at least you got a psychology lesson!

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This is an old question, but for future interest, the first novel of the Kingkiller trilogy has an excellent example of this. As a child, the protagonist experiences a huge family trauma, and then almost immediately heads into the woods and lives there for half a year playing his father’s lute until the strings break and he is forced to return to the real world. It’s bizarre – but it works.

Another example off the top of my head is from a comic called Killing Stalking. The antagonist manipulates the unstable protagonist into murdering someone. Afterwards, the protagonist sits there and says, “What if she calls the police? Oh, but she can’t, can she, because she’s dead … But what if she does?”

Denial is a common coping mechanism. At an extreme level, this can be entirely unconscious, as the brain is simply incapable of processing the information of the scene it just witnessed. So it distracts itself. As said above, the character might focus on strange details of the event, or maybe they dissociate entirely and afterwards can’t remember a thing. Maybe they act in an unnervingly normal way because they can’t comprehend what the situation means. Or, as said by One Monkey above, the fight or flight reaction kicks in. I would avoid focussing on the character in question and keep it short and analytical. They describe what they see, but they can’t get a hold on their own state of mind or the emotions that go along with it.

If this is the route you take you then have to consider when the emotional reaction will hit. Maybe it’s weeks, or months, or even years later. Maybe after all that time it’s all slightly easier to come to terms with. Maybe it's harder. Or maybe they never quite deal with it, or it has become so repressed that they can’t even remember it. You can show how that eats away at the character, maybe bringing about their downfall as they become self-destructive. I wrote a story recently where the entire plot was a character discovering he had a repressed memory, and what it took to uncover it. The source of the trauma was short and descriptive, and afterwards he was simply somewhat relieved that he had somewhere to start as he began his recovery.

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