By Angela Ackerman
When it comes to acknowledging what hurts us, the old saying, Deny, deny, deny! comes to mind. Why? Because in real life we don’t want to appear weak, so when we suffer emotional pain, we often stuff it down deep and paste on a smile as if nothing is wrong. It’s no different with our characters, and in both cases, refusing to deal with wounding events carries a steep price.
Unresolved psychological pain doesn’t go away and hiding it only leads to dysfunction and unhappiness.
Emotional trauma is, by nature, painful. When it happens, our feelings are laid bare. So it’s no wonder that last thing anyone wants to do is unpack that vulnerability again to work through it. Avoidance seems better, but it leads to dysfunctional coping methods like bad habits, flaws, biases, and emotional reactiveness.
This type of emotional shielding keeps people and further possible hurtful situations at bay, so on the surface, it seems to work. But in reality it will damage relationships, sabotage self-worth, and limit one’s ability to achieve meaningful goals.
When we write fiction, we want to bring the real world in so readers connect with our character’s struggles. So like us, our characters will layer on emotional shielding, and, just as it does for us, it will cause big problems over time.
In most character arcs, the protagonist will undergo an internal transformation, starting the story as someone damaged or unfulfilled to someone who believes in himself and feels satisfied and whole. For this transformation to work, they must face what’s holding them back in the first place: their dysfunctional behavior and beliefs (emotional shielding) and unresolved past pain (the wound). Once they do, they can work to reverse the damage. Bit by bit, they will grow and change, and move toward a goal that will give them the happiness they seek.
Dredging Up the Past
This leaves writers with a difficult task: kickstarting the process of change by reminding the character of his past wounds. After all, he’s pretty determined to pretend they don’t exist. One way we can overcome this challenge is to deliberately poke at their emotional wound using triggers.
A trigger is something that reminds your character so strongly of the wounding event that it brings on the emotions, fears, and negative responses related to it. A trigger can be something sensory, such as a smell, color, taste, or sound. It might be a person, object, situation, or setting that reminds her of what happened. It could even be a strong emotion she was prone to feeling during that time. When the character encounters one of these things, it brings her back to that hurtful moment, feeling the same negative emotions and fight-or-flight responses she’s been trying to forget about all these years.
Imagine Emily, who was a victim of human trafficking as a teen and was forced to work as a prostitute by her captors. As an adult, she is free, and for the most part her life is normal. But periodically she’ll encounter something that awakens those negative associations. Cheap motel rooms, the jingle of change in a trouser pocket, the taste of orange soda, or a certain kind of cologne might send her into panic mode. Her body tenses, and breaths rasp in and out of her throat. Her initial impulse is to run, and she must focus all her energy on quelling the terror and convincing herself that the danger isn’t real, that she’s safe.
This is an extreme response to a mundane thing like the scent of cologne. Readers may not know about Emily’s wounding event, but when they see her repeatedly responding to the same trigger, they’ll know it’s associated with something personally awful. And when they eventually learn what the trauma is, everything will fall into place.
It may seem a bit sadistic to purposely use triggers to awaken the character to his unresolved pain, but the ends justify the means: they will learn to deal with the past in a healthy way so they can move forward no longer chained by their own fear. And if we’re to write honestly, we need to remember that change is hard. We can’t make it easy for our characters.
For a list of specific triggers for 118 different types of emotional wounds, check out The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma or access the expanded online version at One Stop for Writers, along with our extensive tutorials, tools, and worksheets on emotional trauma.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.