As William Goldman wrote in The Princess Bride, life is pain. As writers and as people, we do stupid things and we suffer. Sometimes we do the right things and we still suffer because other people do stupid things or the natural world exerts its power over us. As Christians, we call that fallenness. Some of the pain caused by our fallenness is transient, and other pain is constant. None of us can escape it, and sometimes overcoming it seems impossible, but we can use it. That fallenness—and how we deal with it—becomes the foundation of who we are. Our societies, our lives, and our art (yes, that includes writing) is an outpouring of how we perceive and deal with suffering.
So how do we authentically address our real-life traumatic experiences in our writing? Even harder, how do we address the experiences of other people in a way that doesn’t cheapen or caricature their suffering? In the process of drafting my current work in progress, my fantasy novel Life to Give, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading, talking, and writing about this topic. I’ve developed a process of researching, plotting, and writing that may be helpful to others who are considering crafting similar stories.
Is this account of suffering really necessary for your story? Is it central to your plot or theme? Does it play a pivotal role in your character’s arc? If the answer to any of those questions is no, this is your first red flag. The worst way to write about a difficult experience is to slap it on a finished story as a way to “spice things up.” Traumatic experiences color the way people grow and view the world, and people handle the pain differently.
Don’t limit this reflection to events that happen in the pages of your book, though. Examine things you’ve slid into your characters’ backstories, especially if they are common genre tropes. “The orphan hero” is a common trope, but is the death of the character’s parents critical to the story or has the pain of their loss changed them in a profound way? If not, then it may be beneficial to consider a different angle or remove that detail entirely.
In Life to Give, my main character deals with trauma caused by an event in her past that colors her relationships and her decisions throughout the plot. If I were to remove this piece of her backstory, it would change who she is, the choices she makes, and what she believes.
Your philosophy of suffering will seep into your writing regardless of the specific struggle. Are you telling a redemptive story of struggle and victory? Are you telling a tragedy of agony and failure like A Song of Ice and Fire? Do you want to entertain, to help people escape, or to teach? Take your genre, writing goals, and audience into account when you choose the experiences and people you want to represent.
Reader expectations also affect people’s tolerance for and acceptance of difficult topics. If you are writing for a Christian audience, readers often expect cleaner, more hopeful fiction. If you’re writing for general audiences or those who want to learn or experience new things, readers are often more tolerant of darker content.
I write for general audiences and people who relate to (or perhaps want to understand more) of what it means to fight to become a better person despite your nature and nurture.
Compare Your Emotional Experiences to Your Character’s
After you’ve tested the traumatic experience or experiences for cohesion with the rest of your story, compare your real-life emotional experiences to what your character is going through. Emotional experiences are not the same as literal experiences. My husband has never been kidnapped by bandits (as far as I’m aware), but I can identify with my main character’s terror, anger, panic, and confusion. I’ve never killed a man accidentally, but I can relate to overwhelming horror, disbelief, and guilt.
Draw connections to your own emotional experiences and write down how those experiences felt. How did you react at the time? How did your behavior change over time? What coping mechanisms or habits lingered even after the traumatic experience was over? Consider what you did in similar situations, and try to determine why you responded the way you did. I like to use Myers–Briggs or Enneagram personality types to help me get into a character’s head after I create them. When I do this, I’m able to look at my character’s motives in a new light, flesh them out, and get past a few writing hurdles. This self-reflection can be helpful during the prewriting or the revision phases, so whether you’re a plotter coming up with an expansive character profile or a pantser working on tweaking your main character’s actions in a second draft, you can use this method!
By doing this, you are examining what you know and extrapolating the essence of your experiences to apply to your characters. It’s an exercise in empathy.
Compare Other Peoples’ Emotional Experiences to Your Character's
If you are unable to draw an emotional connection between your own experiences and the lives of your characters, or if you need additional information, reach outward. Read books written by others who have gone through your chosen experiences. Watch videos (TED Talks are my favorite way to do this research). Observe or talk to close friends or family members whose experiences are similar to those you want to represent. I talked to dozens of friends, family members, and colleagues about personal growth and overcoming hardship while I was writing Life to Give, and I gained so much insight that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
When talking to people you know, be cautious. If you are familiar with or even involved in the traumatic experience of a friend or family member, be particularly sensitive to the way that your own perspective colors your opinion of another person’s emotional experience. Know your bias and your philosophy of suffering. When you talk to them about it, don’t lead with assumptions. Instead, seek to understand by asking open-ended questions and listening actively. Be open about the research you are doing and commit to getting a well-rounded opinion and drawing honest conclusions. If you need more help researching to write about someone else’s traumatic experience, check out this Writing Excuses episode that I found extremely helpful.
Writing about pain is a monumental task. When you research from an empathetic perspective, you add authenticity to your story, show others that you care, and improve your writing in the process.
This is the sixth installment of my Faith and Fiction Writing blog series. If you’re interested in the introduction and the year’s topic overview, visit the first installment.