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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Effects of Trauma

This week’s assessment comes from Jordan. In her WIP, her heroine, Marni*, a former law enforcement officer, is abducted the night before her wedding. After much tribulation, the fiancé gets her back two hours before the wedding.

Jordan wants to know if it would be psychologically feasible for a character who had just been through an abduction to want to continue with the wedding, the idea being that she’s not going to let anything “ruin the day or keep her from getting married.”

She also wants to know what ill psychological side effects Marni might suffer.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

I emailed Jordan to find out if there was any other traumatic history with abduction in Marni’s backstory. Jordan said she’d never been abducted or worked an abduction as a beat cop or FBI counter intelligence. I also wanted to know Marni’s history with the abductors and how long she was abducted (to rule out Stockholm Syndrome). Jordan emailed that Marni knew both of them, as they were all members of the same parish for about 3 years, and that she was only abducted for under 18 hours, and slept during some of that time.

I want to answer the second question first, as perhaps that might be the most helpful for other readers, and then get down to the more specific question regarding the feasibility of Marni’s reaction second.

Being abducted or kidnapped is definitely a traumatic event. Many things factor into the traumatic nature: it was unexpected, the person wasn’t prepared for it, the person felt powerless/helpless, someone else was intentionally cruel…all these things add to trauma. (Even more so if it happens in childhood or if it happens repeatedly, FYI.)

Some people are just more susceptible to psychological and emotional trauma. Who fits this bill?

1) A person already under a heavy stress load (planning a wedding could qualify…)
2) A person who has already suffered a loss or series of losses
3) A person who has already been traumatized before (especially in childhood and especially if it’s a trauma in the same manner, type or event)

So already Marni’s case is looking pretty good. Because Jordan indicated Marni had no prior trauma, then Marni has a better chance of rebounding from the abduction scenario than someone who had some previous red flags.

Now, that said, there are absolutely normal reactions to these abnormal, traumatic events that anyone could have. If I were you, Jordan, I’d pick one or two of the following symptoms to maybe focus on. If your intent is to have her go through with the wedding (which I’ll go ahead and say I see as psychologically feasible…if done right), you don’t want to give her too much baggage up front to process in 2 hours.

Physical symptoms to trauma include: insomnia/nightmares; high startle response, increased heartbeat, fatigue, agitations/edginess, muscle tension/aches/pains, difficulty concentrating, sweating…and several others. I’d pick ONE.

Emotional symptoms run the gamut, but here’s some likely possibilities: denial, guilt, shame, self-blame, shock, disbelief, anger, mood swings, irritability; feeling hopeless, confused, afraid, anxious, disconnected, numb, sad; withdrawing from others. I’d pick ONE or possibly TWO.

Usually these symptoms fade with time, lasting anywhere from a day or two to several months. Of course, with post-traumatic stress disorder, anything that reminds the victim of the trauma can make symptoms reappear.

Now for a little lesson about what trauma actually does to a person. Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets stuck in overdrive. Successful trauma treatment must address this imbalance and reestablish your physical sense of safety.

One way to address the imbalance is to discharge the pent-up energy in a physical way. If you can find a way to bring about one of the following: trembling, shaking, sweating, crying, laughing, or goose bumps, then it’s more likely Marni’s reaction can be contained. It might be cool (no pun intended) to have her in a meat locker, trembling all over. The physical reaction of her body can process that pent-up energy so when she comes out of the trembling, her nervous system returns to its state of equilibrium. You could have Marni state how “normal” she feels…and even be shocked at this.

Of course, you’ll want Marni to process through her trauma-related thoughts or feelings. This could be done en route to the church or something. And if you’re going to have her get counseling at some point before the end of the story, it could also be done there. But myself, I’d have her process with the groom-to-be at least a little before the wedding.

The key is if Jordan's personality is strong from the beginning of the book. She doesn't have to be an "alpha female" exactly, but if she's a fighter, independent, determined and tenacious, then I think you can definitely pull off this chick wanting to go through with the wedding of her dreams. She can just brush herself off, reapply her lipstick, and walk the aisle if her character personality affirms this. So make sure there's nothing in her backstory that might preclude this type reaction...and go for it. :)

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Victoria Dixon said...

I love this concept! It's so cool you can use your skills both as a writer and as an assist to others. Thanks for doing it. I'll follow you from now on.

Unknown said...

Oooh, I like the story concept in this one. Great advice, too. Thanks!

Natalie said...

That was so cool! I need to give a character some psychological trauma just so I can ask you about it. It's so fun to read your descriptions.

Susan R. Mills said...

Great post! This is very timely for me. I am trying to figure out how my mc should deal with trauma in a believable way. Thanks for the tips!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Love the meat locker idea. Only if it were me it better not have hanging slabs of meat, or I'd be toast and definitely no wedding would follow. I think it's totally feasible as long as the experience while she's abducted isn't too cruel. That was my first thought, too.

Jessica Nelson said...

Interesting stuff! I've never had a trauma in my stories but this is giving me ideas.

Tamika: said...

I love reading your character assessments! All the insight you provide is priceless and I can even relate some of your analysis to better understanding some of my characters.


La Belette Rouge said...

Fantastic analysis!!!

Just my two cents: according to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences the specific nature of the traumatic event is least likely to determine the person's capability to deal with it. What is more important in determining the impact of the trauma is the persons:
1. Belief about their ability to cope.
2. Their support system.
3. The person’s cultural values regarding the event.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

la belette - you just gave me a big flashback to my LMFT exam. almost verbatim! very true about their ability to cope. i believe that was the major consideration (compared to 2 and 3), so that's why i made sure marni's background and personality could withstand this trauma to go ahead with the wedding.

definitely thanks for jumping in! :)

Jordan said...

Sorry I didn't come by to see this yesterday! Thanks, Jeannie. This is so helpful!

Obviously the rescue is the climax, so there isn't going to be a whole lot of

Oddly enough, I've gone with something kind of like the meat locker, but opposite--an un-air-conditioned warehouse on the hottest day of the year.

(Just to clarify one thing: she actually was a beat cop and FBI counterintel, but she only had about a year of street experience at this point, and hasn't had to work a case like this.)

And thanks for the comments! Especially Belette's. That's such a great help, too!

Thanks again!

Jordan said...

Oop, forgot to finish my thought. The rescue is the climax, so there's not a whole lot of action after that. There's not a whole lot of time to delve into her recovery (the story covers less than 24 hours total), but of course I will have to have her make a statement, and work through some things with her fiance (another FBI agent).

I was thinking about having her not want to be left alone after her rescue, so thanks for the suggestions on the possible physical and emotional responses! And it's such a great idea to focus on one response—especially considering how little time and space I'll have to go over that.

Stephanie Faris said...

GREAT analysis! I personally think someone might do something like this as a way to shove the event aside. Of course that would only be temporary...and it would eventually come back to haunt her...

Robyn Campbell said...

Jeannie, how cool are you to do this for all of us, not just the romancers. I can't wait to read mine. Thanks! :)

Jordan said...

Oh, man. I was so excited to read your analysis that I skipped over a few words. Reading back over it, I see you addressed some of the things I mentioned in my comments.

Thanks again, Jeannie! I'm writing this section of the story now, and this is invaluable.

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