Advancing the Story Without Traumatizing Your Characters

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:

Conflict is:

  • when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones

Trauma is:

  • 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
  • Dismemberment
  • 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?

  1. Family
    • Protecting/defending them
    • Handling with their expectations
    • Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
    • etc
  2. Survival
    • Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
    • Hunger
    • Illness
    • Injury
    • Weather
  3. Meaningful relationships
    • Trying not to disappoint people
    • Satisfying the needs of different people
    • Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
  4. Separation
    • 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’?

It’s contentious.

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.

Compounding Traumas

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.

The panelists sitting at the table.

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.

Author Spotlight: Charles E. Gannon

  • Award-winning full time author, occasional defense/intel/space consultant, former professor, and father of 4.

Readers! Let’s give a good hearty welcome to Chuck Gannon.

Image may contain: Chuck Gannon, smiling, closeup


Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s award-winning Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard sf novels have all been national best-sellers, and include 3 finalists for the Nebula, 2 for the Dragon Award, and a Compton Crook winner. The fifth, Marque of Caine, came out in July 2019. His epic fantasy series, The Broken World, is forthcoming from Baen Books, as is At the End of the World, a solo novel set in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe. Gannon collaborates with Eric Flint in the NYT and WSJ best-selling Ring of Fire  series, and has worked in the Starfire, Honorverse, Man-Kzin, and War World universes. His other credits include many short fiction publications,  game design/writing, and scriptwriter/producer in New York City.  

Formerly a Distinguished Professor of English at SBU and recipient of five Fulbright grants, his book Rumors of War & Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book. He is a frequent subject matter expert both for national media venues such as NPR and the Discovery Channel, as well as for various intelligence and defense agencies.

Chuck, thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that as always, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

Image result for coati

If I stay rooted to the real, probably a coati. They fascinate me in so many ways. Fantasy? Heck, I think it would be great to have a griffon. Famed for intelligence and loyalty—and boy, talk about a home protection bonus!

I had to look up a coati. They look so cute! And a griffon sounds like a fine choice to me!

What do you write and how did you get started?

I’m probably best known for the Caine Riordan hard SF series (nebula finalist 3x) and my work in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire universe. I’m about to start on an epic fantasy with some genre-bending and slipstream elements, entitled the Broken World trilogy. I’ve also written straight up space opera in other peoples’ universes (Niven’s Man-Kzin, Pournelle’s War World, Weber’s Honor Harrington, and the Starfire series), and lots of gaming products for GDW (back in the day).

I got started before I knew I was starting. Growing up, I became sequentially enamored of all sorts of cool scientific activities/specialties. Meaning I wanted to be a paleontologist/zoologist/astronomer/astronaut—and then write about it. At about age 12, I realized that a) all these professions are about 95 %+ repetitive, solo, dry work. So, clearly, what I wanted to do was dabble in all of them and write exciting/interesting stories about them. 

Which is exactly what I’m doing today.

It’s awesome that you’re living your dreams. Also, who didn’t want to be a paleontologist/zoologist/astronomer/astronaut growing up? All the cool kids did.

What do you like to read?

I have eclectic and broad tastes. If I had the time to read everything I wanted, I’d be all over the map, although I always gravitate toward fiction—novels in particular.  Right now, when I can, I am trying to catch up on authors and classics of SF and Fantasy that I never got around to reading. For instance, about 8 months ago I had a brief A.E. Van Vogt binge read (well, if you call 30 minutes before bed most every night for two months a “binge”). I see why it was foundational, transformative to the genre and quite popular when it was written. I also see why it has not aged well. On to the next—when I get the time.

The ephemeral ‘they’ always suggest reading broadly. I hear you on the gravitational pull of fiction, but I have to admit, as I get older, I’ve started reading more essays and memoirs.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

“Always” or “Never” X.

Any piece of advice that begins with or includes the qualifier(s), “never” or “always.”

Frankly, IMHO, there are no absolute rules in *the craft* of writing (the only absolute I *do* believe in!). I am not sure the same can be said about the *mechanics* of writing, or the *audience effects* of writing. But if a self-styled expert asserts, “You must never do X,” I’m likely (and probably constitutionally predisposed) to find the exception to that rule.

My reason: because the personal ecology and act of writing is pretty much like our fingerprints. All of us have them, but no two of us have the same ones. What works for one writer is a disaster for another. Furthermore, based on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, you may need to *break* a rule to make a point. In other words, since readers have expectations (because they are shaped by the narrative forms that they encounter repeatedly), BREAKING a given rule can be a profound source of meaning or impact that the author intends to convey. 

So true! The best rule is do what works for you. Of course, it works best if you know the reasons FOR the rules and the breaking is intentional, rather than simply being unaware of the rule.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Maintain reader immersion.

That the sine qua non of effective fiction is maintaining reader immersion. I don’t care how it’s done. Immersion to me means that what you have written has transported the reader out of *this* world and into the one you are unfolding in your narrative. This is as true for historical or contemporary/real-world fiction as it is for the speculative genres.

I am aware that certain folks in the domain of belles lettres will turn their noses up at this. Plenty of writers have opined or argued for writing that is non-transparent, for story-telling that purposefully jars a reader out of the narrative so that they get what I will call a cognitive parallax view on the tale being told, with one eye viewing it from within the domain of suspended disbelieve, the other seeing it from without. The purpose: the latter eye sees the artifice, the mechanics whereby immersivity is accomplished. According to some of the writers I was referring to, this is the only way to see narrative responsibly: to be aware of how it inveigles us into feelings or beliefs that can be without actual-world basis, that are conjured by words and words alone.  Brecht, a Marxist playwright, made this the centerpiece of all his work, calling this anti-immersive objective the “alienation effect” (although “estrangement effect” is a less frequently encountered, but arguably more accurate, translation). The raison d’etre of this narrative objective is expressly to elminate “reader gullibility/immersion,” so that narrative will not become a vehicle for reproducing traditional (versus revolutionary) perspective and culture. Ultimately, nihilism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction all arise from this approach to storytelling (and attached belief formation). 

My response to it all is: a fascinating intellectual exercise and experientially bankrupt. Humans read not merely to be diverted, but to consider both commonplace and unique circumstances from a different perspective. You can no more stop them from hungering after those kind of transporting stories than you can get their bodies to renounce all need of water and sustenance. Story is central to human experience; it is how we pass on most of our culture and is a mirror in how we reexamine and rediscover our time, our perspective, our selves.

Who is right? Well, let me ask you a question. When was the last time you, or the NYT bestseller list, or the Pulitzer prize committee, lauded a work for its ability to detach us from the human condition? When was the last time you saw a play, or film/TV adaptation of one of Brecht’s plays?

Yeah: I thought not. So that’s my never-break rule: what makes a narrative work, what makes it memorable, is its ability to immerse us in the world it depicts. However you achieve that is a truly secondary matter (and is yet another explanation for why I do NOT hold with writing rules that start with/contain the qualifiers “never” or “always.”)

An over-long answer. Consider it a sign of my earnestness. 

Such an important facet of writing. I think some writers get too obsessed with things they CAN do with writing, the ART of writing, that they end up taking away from the actual EXPERIENCE.

Shameless Self-Promotion time!

The Caine Riordan universe has two new additions on the actual (and electronic) shelves in the past three months.

The fifth book in the series, Marque of Caine, debuted on July 2, and was a first-week national bestseller (making the series five for five, in that category of sales performance).

You can find it here, as well as testimonials by a lot of authors whose names EVERYONE will recognize:

Also, the first anthology set in Caine’s Terran Republic universe—Lost Signals–launched only 45 days earlier.

It was funded by a Kickstarter, which gave me the opportunity to create a fundamentally unique structural conceit with which to organize it.

At the outset, there are a handful of official reports, presented as wirecopy. The fiction reveals the untold truth behind those reports—hence, Lost Signals:



And for those who have yet to give the Caine Riordan series a try, the first book—Fire With Fire—is a permafree ebook here:  

Pitching Agents And Readers

I talk a lot about pitching agents via the query process, but that’s not the only way to pitch. There are verbal pitches to agents. And? There’s the pitching you need to do to the READERS!

6 New Tips For Pitching Agents

Here’s a couple things to keep in mind.

  1. In person, if you’re not very social, it’s fine to keep the pitch extra short!
  2. In the written query, the part addressing the story is typically
    1. First paragraph is the character, setting, and inciting incident
    2. Second paragraph is the escalation
  3. It’s okay to close with a question!
    1. I’d heard so many times that agents “hate rhetorical questions” that I’ve just banned any question from my query letters. BUT! I’ve been told, it’s okay to have a question, especially in the summary sentence. “Will Carol manage to finish dinner before the store closes, or will she find herself locked in, forever!
  4. A strong character voice in the query is very dangerous, but on rare occasions will work.
  5. Only describe your background/education if it’s on display in the book.
  6. A lot of publishing houses are looking more for duologies and stand alone books than series. It’s a smaller commitment, that can be expanded if the book(s) sell well!

Pitching Readers

The number one thing you have to remember when pitching to your readers is … if you’re planning on selling on Amazon, no matter how amazing your cover text is, Amazon only shows the first 2 lines of your blurb. Make Them Count.

No Matter Who You’re Pitching

There are two things your pitch has to accomplish.

  1. Show how your story is distinct from the others in its genre
  2. Show how your story fits in the market

What pitching tips work best for you?

What ones would you suggest we avoid?


Here were more notes from all the panels I hit at Balticon53 and I’m still not done. I attended all the panels, so you don’t have to.

Tune in again next week for more writing tips and writerly musings.

Dynamic Voice Acting

Whether you’re thinking about a podcast, joining #AuthorTube, or just wanting to wow the audience when you read an excerpt from your own writing aloud to an audience, being a dynamic voice actor has a lot of benefits — for writers and creators of other forms of media.

In the titular panel, August “Gus” Grappin, Starla Huchton, Tee Morris, and Veronica Giguere, with Erin Kazmark moderating, shared tips to help you rock the voice acting world.

How IS Voice Acting Different Than Just Acting?

Of course, voice acting is a form of acting. But, when most people think of “actors”, they think of people on stage, television, or film. Without others to interact with, voice acting is a whole other ballgame.

  1. Without an audience, there is no feedback
    • Those who feed off the audience find this a detriment
    • Those who the audience makes anxious, find themselves better able to relax and get into character
  2. Theater is a team sport, unlike most voice acting
    • In theater, a good actor can bring you up, a bad one can kill the scene
    • In voice acting, you’re typically recording in a room by yourself and you have to trust the others to bring their A-game
  3. It’s hard to match the energy, when you’re not all recording together
  4. For audiobooks – it can be challenging to get feedback or direction from the author.
  5. You have to use a microphone!

4 Tips To Keep The Narrative Itself Dynamic

Characters lend themselves to different voices, based on age, gender, and energy level. Narrators can be trickier. Third person narrators are almost an eye-in-the-sky, while differentiating a first-person narration from the character’s dialogue offers a few challenges.

  1. Find a ‘character’ for the narrator. With good writing, the setting itself is a character and lends itself to a certain tone.
  2. “Make a meal of your words,” says Phil Rossi. Linger on the words, with the exploration of the world coming through with your tone.
  3. Think of the ‘narrator’ as ‘the storyteller’. Not someone reciting the words but someone telling the story to a fascinated audience.
  4. In that vein — try to imagine that you’re talking to an actual person. A friend that you don’t want to bore (or roll their eyes).

7 Ways To Make Characters POP

When you are trying to differentiate in your voice between different characters, it can be easy to fall into cliches — be it a shrill woman, a thick-accented foreigner, or a slow, low male voice. And wild characters can be hard to understand.

Luckily, there are some tricks that can help.

  1. Moving or changing posture between characters.
  2. Giving a character a physical tic — twirling hair, glaring, talking out of the side of their mouth
  3. Being careful not to mumble or speed up during action scenes
  4. Pay attention to your use of breath and pauses. They can be dynamic but, don’t “Shatner” or you’ll “Shat all over your audience.” (thank you, Tee)
  5. Pay attention to the character’s attitude — don’t make the focus of your delivery be on their gender
  6. If your voice is naturally feminine, hardening your delivery, even without lowering your voice can help
  7. As the narrator, hold the tension. Let them relive the experience as you bring the listener along for the ride.
    • I have a horrible habit of rushing jokes because I can’t wait to share the punch line. You don’t want to drag it out, but you want the audience to get there at a natural pace, not rush them, nor drag it out.

Reading aloud, be it for a animated show, podcast, or live audience can be nerve-wracking. But, if you’re dynamic, your audience should enjoy themselves.


Were there any tips you know that the panelists didn’t get a chance to mention? Are there things you enjoy in your audio dramas that you’d love to see more of? Or things you keep seeing that you HATE?
Let me know!

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back again next week with even more panel notes from #Balticon53. Because I’ve got a book of notes here.

How To Be A Good Moderator

Having attended, at this point, easily over a hundred panels in the last 5 years, I definitely have opinions. And there is one role that can make or break a panel.

Whether you’re a writer guest-of-honor on a panel at a convention, or just hosting a dinner party, being a good moderator is highly underrated skill.

My favorite panels are where the big names are friendly and informative, and the smaller names are confident with their answers — without anyone talking over each other.

In the titular panel, Barbara Krasnoff, Grig Larson, DH Aire, Jennifer Povey, and Jazmine Cosplays, moderated by… Um. I think it was Barbara, but really? It was the most polite and self-moderated example of a panel I’ve ever watched.

How To Prepare To Moderate

When you sign up to be a panelist, or you’re asked to be one, pay attention when you get your schedule. If you’ve got that big ‘M’ in parenthesis, you’ve been selected as the panel moderator. Which means, you don’t have to know everything about the topic, you just have to make sure your panelists share everything they know.

  1. Read up on both your topic and your fellow panelists.
  2. Prepare open-ended topical questions
  3. Read the panel description — sometimes it gives you all you need for discussion questions!
  4. If you get fellow panelist emails, reach out and coordinate
    1. Ask them what questions they’d like to be asked
    2. If there are identity sensitive questions, give them a heads up
    3. Pay attention if there are tangents they ask to avoid
  5. Decide if you want to give introductions for the panelists, or make them introduce themselves.

How To Guide The Conversation

There are panels that basically run themselves. The panelists are solid on the topic, friendly and gracious at taking their turns, and make a lot of fascinating points. Other times? The conversation could use some… guidance.

  1. Know who the audience is here to see — if there is a big name, or subject matter expert, you might let them talk a little longer.
  2. Make sure everyone gets a turn. If someone is going on a bit, redirect.
  3. If you think you might have a chatty panelist or two, feel free to inform the panelists of a time limit on answers during the introduction phase.
  4. Ask leading questions
    1. You want to make the panelists look good!
    2. You can use leading questions to get back on topic, after a tangent
      • NOTE! If the audience is looking interested in the tangent, you can let it go a little.
  5. Watch the panelists, if they seem to perk up at something another panelist is saying, take note of that and come back to them, especially if they haven’t been dominating the conversation.
  6. A difference of opinions is more interesting than everyone in agreement — as long as it’s a case of personal preference and not a personal attack.
  7. If the panel conversation seems to run dry, or the topic was too obscure, let the conversation veer. Especially when it’s engaging the audience.
  8. Save 10 minutes at the end for a Question and Answer period. And don’t hesitate to open the floor for questions early if the conversation has ground to a halt.
    1. If the audience is huge, try to leave extra time for the Q&A, and be apologetic if you can’t hit them all.
  9. The last 2 minutes should be for the panelists to give closing thoughts… and do their book/social media plugs.
  10. If you run out of time, you can always offer for people to send their questions to you on social media — assuming the panelists are open to answering more questions.

How To Shut Up Panelists

Some panelists love to hear themselves talk, others talk a lot when nervous, and others are so excited about the topic they’re just overflowing with things to say. But. A panel isn’t a monologue, and sometimes you’ve just got to move the conversation along. Or, a panelist might be working their way toward embarrassing themselves, or getting a little too worked up.

Some things to say to redirect the conversation

  1. “Thank you, SPEAKER. QUIET-PANELIST, what did you think of what SPEAKER just said?”
  2. “Thank you. Let’s give OTHER-PANELIST a chance to answer the question.”
  3. “I’m gonna have to stop you there. Our time is getting short.”
  4. “Now, it’s time to move on to NEXT-PANELIST.”
  5. “That’s a great topic. I’m going to suggest it for a panel next year.”
  6. “Oh hey, I think someone in the audience had a question.”

How To Moderate The Audience

Sometimes, the ones you need to watch out for aren’t even on the panel themselves, (although, some think they should be, and some may have been excellent additions).

  1. Be firm. The rest of the audience is here to see the panelists, not listen to the audience. When you open the floor for questions, be sure to let them know, “Questions only, no statements.”
  2. If they’re rambling, cut in. “Do you have a question in there?”
  3. You can use that, “That’s a great topic for a panel. You should suggest it for next year.”
  4. If there’s not quite a question, and you need to take the floor away from them: “Does anyone want to address that?”
  5. If an audience member crosses a line — either by repeatedly ignoring your requests, or saying something beyond the pale, you can kick them out. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” And just wait, or ask someone near the door to call for security, if they leave willingly.

What NOT To Do!

Now, the panel didn’t go into this, too much. But, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in panels. I think we can find the rest of the answers from looking at, let’s call it, the negative space in the tips above.

The top 9 ways to be a horrible moderator

  1. Let it tangent off-topic, with an irritated audience, while there’s plenty of topic left to cover
  2. Don’t let the audience ask questions
  3. Treat the panel as your platform, with the other panelists as supporting characters
  4. Single out one panelist based on their identity, and make them speak for all people of their race/gender/ability/etc
  5. Share any fellow panelist contact info you have, publicly
  6. Let people talk over each other
  7. Tell people their opinions are wrong
  8. Let the audience or panelists bash each other
  9. Spew hateful rhetoric

A good panel is informative, entertaining, and friendly. If you stay in this industry, it’s likely that you’re going to see these people on future panels. If you moderate panels that people enjoy participating in and/or attending, it’s likely they’ll look forward to being on panels with you in the future.