You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.
From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.
Conflict versus Trauma
We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.
So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:
- when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones
- a change that damages you
- is harmful
Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.
Where Some People Draw The Line
This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.
- Explicit sexual abuse
- Kids shoved out of windows
- Children soldiers
- Explicit assault/violence
- Killing the cat/dog
How To Raise the Stakes
Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?
- Protecting/defending them
- Handling with their expectations
- Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
- Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
- Meaningful relationships
- Trying not to disappoint people
- Satisfying the needs of different people
- Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
- Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom
If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?
On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!
On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.
Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.
However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.
Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.
Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.
Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.
When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.
Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.
Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.
Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.
This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.
Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.
There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.
But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.
Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.
Moving Beyond Trauma
Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?
It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.
But without limits, there’s no conflict.
Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.
Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.
Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.
Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.
I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.
Let me know what you think!
Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel?
Do you have a better method in mind?
Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?
NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.