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.

Writing Motivation For Doomsday Cults

Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?

In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.

Who Starts Doomsday Cults?

No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.

  1. A charismatic leader
  2. A need for control
  3. A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
  4. The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right

Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?

For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.

  1. Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
    • Leaving home
    • Ending a relationship
    • Death of an immediate family member
    • Job loss
    • etc
  2. Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
  3. They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
  4. People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
  5. The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
  6. And some were simply born into cults.

The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult

  1. Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
  2. Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
  3. Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
  4. People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
  5. Doomsday arrives.

What Happens After Doomsday?

When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.

  1. The leaders can make something happen
    • Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
    • Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
  2. The followers may turn to violence
    • Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
  3. The leaders may double-down
    • Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
    • Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
  4. The followers can outlive the leader
    • Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
    • It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)

A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.

Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.


Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!

And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.

CSI: Fantasy Edition

When you’re writing a story, there’s usually SOMETHING the main character doesn’t know and has to figure out. Sometimes, it’s what someone else is thinking. It could be, where to find the mcguffin? But often? There’s a whole mystery to solve! With a body growing cold.

At Balticon53, Gail Martin, Kim TheComicBookGoddess, David Keener, and Keith DeCandido, lead by their moderator, and retired Baltimore detective, John L. French discussed the fun and peculiarities of dealing with investigation — fantasy-style!

The Principles of Forensics

No investigation should begin without the principle of that grandfather of forensics, Dr. Edmond Locard*. His exchange principle states that “every contact leaves a trace.”

Once an incident has been found, if there is any suspicion that it was not natural in cause, two jobs have been left for an investigator.

  1. Document the scene
  2. Find evidence that conclusively leads to the culprit

Determining cause of death – fantasy style

These days, everyone’s an amateur detective buff. Things we take for granted — from fingerprints to blood splatter patterns to autopsies were not accepted until the 1900s. In your fantasy world, you should make sure that your detectives don’t use techniques they have no reason to know.

For those violent crimes? Well.

With a body? Just like in real life, if a death cannot be determined to be a homicide, the investigation usually ends right there. Either marked down as “natural causes” or “undetermined.”

Without even a body? Well, before the modern era, it was common for people to go missing. Some were restarting their lives elsewhere — voluntarily or not. And others weren’t so lucky.

Of course, in a violent world, mercenaries, soldiers, and professional killers, (not to mention medical personnel) would have reason to know the appearance of common wounds or effects of their standard weapons (or magics or poisons).

Plus, with magic, depending on your world, you could find out a lot.

  • In worlds with necromancy, you could simply raise a murdered person and ask, or at least have the body lead you to the killer.
  • In worlds with sympathetic magic, the weapon or some left item could act as a compass to direct you to the killer or thief.
  • In worlds with trauma-based illusion spells, you could have an instant replay of the scene.

Ways The Panelists Use Magic In Their Detecting

Not all of our panelists have written detectives, but they all had good pointers or examples. And reminded us, even if you have magic, it’s a better story when it comes with complications of its own.

Keith – His world has a wizard (or 2) who have mastered a ‘peel-back spell’, that can show what happened. Given no audience, the wizard gets there before it’s been too long, and has the energy to cast the spell. And things done in the shadows… remain in the shadows.

Gail – Her world has necromancy, so she can find her leads! But, she can’t let the cops know how she knows what she knows.

Kim – Reminded us that homicide detectives have to be the smartest, because their victim is dead.

David – His world has magicians who can pull memories from both the living and the dead — only, the dead’s memories are often fragmented.

John – As a real life detective reminded us that when looking for motive, often, a homicide is merely an assault gone too far.


All-in-all, a dynamic and fun panel, that I wished could have covered more. Do you have any tips of the trade that our panelists didn’t get a chance to mention? Share them in the comments below.

Thank you for tuning in, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips from my over-24-hours-of-Balticon53-programming to share!


*My notes literally had Picard Licard, not Dr. Edmund Locard. I thought that he actually had a rhyming name, and wasn’t sure it wasn’t actually just Captain Picard theorizing on the holodeck. Thank you google for correcting me.

Yes, You Can Be a Writer –Even Without A Visual Imagination

Not everyone has a visual imagination.

Apparently, there are many of you out there who can ‘see’ the story in your heads like you’re watching a movie.

Not me.

I know I’ve addressed this before, but until I started writing and talking to other writers, I’d always thought that was figurative. Not literally what was happening in other people’s heads.

I think my imagination is more story-board, sketches, and background plotting. Just like much of my writing is in my main character’s head, much of my imagination is… well… in these almost famous words

“I read and I know things.”

-(not quite) Hermoine Granger

It’s hard for me to describe my imagination to you visual people. I like to say that my imagination is more “conceptual.” Even in my dreams.

When dreaming (or novel plotting) I don’t SEE the color green, I just know that the wall is green. If a person in my dreams is walking out the door — I can know where they’re going and why and how they’re feeling… But, the figure is more of an outline sketch. Not quite a shadow.

I read ridiculously fast — some of it is probably skimming, but I spent several summers playing with a ‘learn to speed read’ kit my grandmother had. I read for the plot, I dive through dialogue.

If I hit dense description? It slows me waaaaaay down.

Game of Thrones, anything with complicated battle scenes, very lyrical and densely described worlds. My brain just doesn’t process those at the same rate.

Luckily for me, this doesn’t mean I can’t picture images in my head, but it takes a lot of focus. And I’m still not 100 percent sure it’s not me reading the image’s “legend” to know what color goes where. (All of this is probably a minor form of the condition: aphantasia.)


Today, I ran across a friendly blogger who took it as a matter-of-course that writers can visualize plots like movies. And I had to correct him, despite agreeing with the rest of his post.

He replied, accepting that not all writers were that visual. But, he went on to say that he was, because he plays D&D and writes fantasy.

Worn stop sign, in front of trees, a solid white wall half hiding a brick building.
Photo by Mwabonje on Pexels.com

Uh. Hard stop there.

Oh, honey.

I create worlds and cultures and windswept plains. I build trade routes, and religions, and nations. And I play D&D every month.

Not having a visual imagination doesn’t keep my imagination grounded, by any means.


But, occasionally I need a crutch. When I need to describe a person or place, I’ll google image search until I find something that feels right for my world or my characters. I mean, isn’t that what Pinterest is for?


Do you have a visual imagination? Let me know!

If not, how does your imagination manifest itself for you?

When Writing: How Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity Combine To Expose Humanity

Humanity is a complex thing.

We can be cruel, harsh, and close-minded. We can live in fear for that which is different — people, places, and technology. There is much that is dark and depressing about humanity.

But.

That is not all we are.

And as writers? We do our best work when we explore the darkness that lies within and expose it to the light. When we seek out the good, the bright, and the very hope that we are all born to hold within ourselves.

Honoring the Mars rover, Opportunity

Fifteen years ago, in July of 2003, we sent two small rovers 127 million miles from home to explore Mars for us.

Their names? Spirit and Opportunity.

Intended for a 90-day mission that we hoped would go longer, Spirit lasted over 6 years before a sand trap took them from us.

Carrying on with sampling, photographing, and collecting data without its twin for a total of nearly 15 YEARS, was Opportunity. We lost contact with them in June 2018 during a massive dust storm that covered the entire planet for a month longer than any previous storm Opportunity had yet weathered.

Its final message?

“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

Opportunity (Mars rover)

We’ve been trying for months to reestablish contact, hoping the winds would clear the dust deposited by the storm from its solar arrays, afraid even the hibernation power was too much and the battery was drained too far to come back.

On February 13, 2019, NASA declared Opportunity‘s mission at an end.

On one hand, I feel incredible sadness. Leaving a robot — hungry, alone, in the dark, so far from home?

On the other? Opportunity is a testament to humanity. Like their twin, called Spirit, and younger sibling, Curiosity, they were named for the greater parts of us. Spirit, Curiosity, and the willingness to seize an Opportunity.

We might have hoped for 9 months, but Opportunity traveled further than a marathon runner on their own little wheels, crossing Mars’s surface for us.

The Little Rover That Could.


Faith In Humanity – Tumblr Edition

I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Tumblr on this blog, before, but Opportunity and their siblings are worth it.

These two quotes from Tumblr brought me the comfort I never imagined I would need, after the loss of Opportunity.

No guys you don't understand.

The soil testing equipment on Curiosity makes a buzzing noise, and the pitch of the noise changes depending on what part of an experiment Curiosity is performing, this is the way Curiosity sings to itself.

Some of the finest minds currently alive decided to take incredibly expensive scientific equipment and mess with it until they figured out how to move in just the right way to sing Happy Birthday, then someone made a cake on Curiosity’s Birthday and took it into Mission Control so that a room full of brilliant scientists and engineers could throw a birthday party for a non-autonomous robot 225 million kilometers away and listen to it sing the first song ever sung on Mars, which was Happy Birthday.

This isn't a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can't get to because it's name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That's not sad, that's awesome.

No guys you don’t understand.

“…This isn’t a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That’s not sad, that’s awesome.

And

swanjolras Deactivated gosh but like we spent hundreds of years looking up at the stars and wondering “is there anybody out there” and hoping and guessing and imagining because we as a species were so lonely and we wanted friends so bad, we wanted to meet other species and we wanted to talk to them and we wanted to learn from them and to stop being the only people in the universe and we started realizing that things were maybe not going so good for us— we got scared that we were going to blow each other up, we got scared that we were going to break our planet permanently, we got scared that in a hundred years we were all going to be dead and gone and even if there were other people out there, we’d never get to meet them and then we built robots? and we gave them names and we gave them brains made out of silicon and we pretended they were people and we told them hey you wanna go exploring, and of course they did, because we had made them in our own image and maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more, maybe yeah the planet will be a mess and we’ll all be dead, and if other people come from the stars we won’t be around to meet them and say hi! how are you! we’re people, too! you’re not alone any more!, maybe we’ll be gone but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like? the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important. and they told us to tell you hello. Source:swanjolras-archive #I'm not crying #your mom is crying #science goddammit #people being people

s

“… maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more … but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like?

the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important.

and they told us to tell you hello.”

Source: DEACTIVATED: swanjolras-archive#I’m not crying#your mom is crying#science goddammit#people being people

Imbuing Your Writing With The Best Of Humanity

Curiosity is the ability for a writer (or their characters) to wonder. To think, what-if? Curiosity makes them want to explore. Makes them wonder why things are the way they are and if there’s a way to change them. Curiosity makes them want to know how things work.

Spirit is the energy and motivation to find out. You can wonder all you want, but without spirit, the questions will remain unanswered in your head.

And opportunity? That’s when spirit, curiosity, and timing match up. You can have all the spirit and curiosity about the stars above, but without access to telescopes and science, it’s hard to learn more about them. You can wonder all you want about the fairy world, but unless you find a door, you’ll never get the opportunity to explore.

Opportunity and spirit can take your characters, (and the rest of us), far beyond their abilities and their plans, to a point where they can achieve so much more than they ever dreamed possible.


How do you incorporate humanity in your writing?

Do you focus on the negatives?

Or do you allow the best of us to peek through the darkness and shine a beacon of hope?

If you’re a reader, which part speaks strongest to you?