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In my story, one of the main characters finds out that a loved one (parent, lover, friend, doesn't matter) died. Worse still: they find out about it when they find the severed head of that person.

Obviously that would mess up that character pretty badly (to put it mildly), and it would take a looooooong time to cope with the harsh reality of a loved one suddenly being gone. However, this same character hears a little kid scream in the other room, one who is presumably about to suffer the same fate. I planned for him to go and save that child right after. He would look after the child for most of the story.

Should I give my character more time to deal with the trauma somehow? The problem is that he's in a hostile environment fighting for his survival and the story takes place over the course of only a month, so there's not much time for him, and he doesn't have anyone to really talk to - obviously he won't talk to the innocent little child about it and will do his best to hide it from the child.

  • Don't be lazy. It's your job as a writer to research what you don't know. You can ask how to research this topic, if you really don't know how to use Google to find information about how people react to and deal with trauma, but don't ask us to do your research for you. – user29032 Apr 20 '18 at 15:43
  • I think I can safely say we all have had trauma in our life. Use the trauma you have experienced as inspiration to add realism to your story. – White Eagle Apr 20 '18 at 16:05
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If your story takes place over the course of a month, your character is still going to be very much dealing with trauma by the end of it. Take the RL case of the Itamar Massacre: 12-years-old Tamar Fogel came home from a youth outing to find her parents murdered, her baby sister's severed head in the living room, and her 4-years-old brother bleeding out. Years later, she is still very much dealing with the trauma.

At the same time, "dealing" does not mean being catatonic. And having someone to care for, someone to protect, is very helpful in dealing. You can't wallow in the horror of what happened, if you need to be doing things. Here and here are two follow-up articles about the above-mentioned massacre. Basically, because your story takes place over the course of only one month, dealing with the trauma would be an aspect of everything that your MC does after the traumatic event. Whatever he does, it would be informed by what he's jest been through. How you choose to incorporate that element is up to you as a writer.

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Two thoughts.

  1. Literature is not about the character's emotions. It is about the reader's emotions. In real life, every single TV cop and mystery series detective would be invalided out with PTSD by the traumas they endure. Most fictional heros are far more emotionally resilient that real people (not to mention far more physically durable -- they go through knock-down drag out fights on a weekly basis without ever a cut or a bruise or a lock of hair out of place). If the reader feels the measured amount of thrill or terror or sanctimonious disdain that they came for, that is what matters.

  2. Emotional truth in fiction has little to do with the actual psychology. As noted above, fictional people are commonly more durable than real people. But art is also a lens, a device for focussing attention on one particular aspect of life. All the emotional lines in a good story point towards a single pole, like iron filings aligning around a magnet. This is in some sense a distortion, because real life if much messier. But it is in another sense a profound truth because our attraction to stories is precisely that they seem to make the world more orderly, and, especially in the face of tragedy, we turn to stories to try to make sense of things, aligning the random tragedies of life into a more coherent tragedy that we can make more sense of. It is, therefore, psychologically reasonable for your hero to do this. But more to the point, it is what you reader will want your story to do.

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I don't think you need to give your character more time to deal with the trauma. You should stay true to the situation and to the character and have it play out the way your initial instincts have told you to do.

Stephen King in On Writing (which, personally, I believe is one of the better 'how to' books on writing, if not one of the best) says that good writers understand that you don't need to do things all at once.

All you need in that scene is for the character to show (and emphasis on the word show) the shock and devastation of finding the head. Just a split-second beat in the scene, before moving onto the action of having to prevent it happening again. But as Cloudchaser says, don't be lazy. Make sure this single beat has all the emphasis it needs. SEVEN could help you get a feel for it.

The looooong time it would take to deal with the devastation doesn't need to come out all at once. It can come out over the following scenes and chapters. And as you have rightly pointed out, if the story takes place over a month, he isn't going to come to terms with it through the period of your story. But that's a good thing, because the trauma is always going to be fresh and it can burst out, intensely, now and then.

The fact that he has nobody to talk to (or only a child who wouldn't understand) gives you a really exciting opportunity (although difficult, I won't deny) to actually SHOW this devastation rather than tell it. And how he shows it will depend on the character you have written. Is he emotional or stoic?

In short, rather than thinking in terms of giving your character time, do the opposite. Take the time away from him and force the trauma to burst out in brief moments of lost control.

Good luck!

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