CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND SEXUAL TRAUMA
Great stories have relatable characters, and relatable characters are complex. They have a combination of strengths and weaknesses; their personalities contradict. The reader experiences their complexity through physical descriptions, actions, and inner thoughts. Strong characters change and grow. Readers witness the journey and transformation of the character as she overcomes obstacles and works toward solutions, becoming something new through the process.
In the aftermath of sexual trauma, we are often left feeling powerless. We are no longer in charge of our bodies, our stories, or ourselves. Through the lens of our trauma, we may begin to see ourselves in a harsh and distorted way, believing we are what has happened to us.
The personal narrative offers a unique opportunity for self-transformation, as you are at once the narrator and the protagonist in the story. As Julie Beck, senior associate editor at The Atlantic, in “Life’s Stories” explains, “A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.” Beck then uses Jonathon Adler, a psychologist, to expand on this idea: “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story . . . That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’” As the narrator to our own stories, we regain control of the story. Where we once felt powerless, we now have power. We explore our own complexity, contradictions, and seek to reveal the transformation that occurs through the journey.
Beck, J. (2015, August 10). Life Stories. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/life-stories-narrative-psychology-redemption-mental-health/400796/
EXAMPLE OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
These two excerpts are from my own writing, written at different times along my journey.
It is a perfectly ordinary evening. I’ve curled myself up on my tiny couch anticipating one of my favorite TV programs. During each episode, a celebrity explores their family tree. They get to see where they came from and who came before them. Some of the discoveries are exciting, and others are hard to understand. The journey is almost always beautiful. Tonight an older woman is being interviewed. She sits on a small couch similar to mine. Her hair is gray, and her skin is wrinkled. Her clothes are old lady clothes, also similar to mine. As she shares her story, I notice that I am incredibly annoyed, which is not the typical feeling for me during this TV program. I love this show, but I am totally irritated. She’s complaining and complaining and complaining. She has a life long list of grievances, grudges, and hurt that has been festering for decades, which she is airing on national television. I think Wow! This old lady is so bitter. She should really do something about that. And get off TV, because bitterness is annoying, and not at all beautiful. How can she live her life like that? As soon as I complete that thought, I am abruptly transported into a microscopic view of my very own life. Suddenly what I couldn’t see with my normal, ordinary, everyday vision is made completely clear. I am the bitter old lady before she actually became the bitter old lady. Outwardly, my life looks exactly how I imagined it, yet it lacks the feelings I always assumed would be there – contentment, joy, peace. All seems well, except that it’s not, because I have a list too. I have a detailed list of unresolved pain, disappointments, and resentments that I visit often. I go over my list, starting at the beginning of my life up to the present day, and remember all the hurt. I fully expect to add to that list on a weekly basis, if not daily. I see for the first time how this is destroying me, this enormous burden that I carry around, because I don’t know how to put it down. It is hollowing me out, to be one thing on the outside and something else on the inside.
I’ve become a shell. I am the leftover glossy exterior of an animal that once lived. Beautiful on the outside but nothing on the inside. Although, I think at one time I was. Alive. My harsh judgment for bitter old TV lady melts into compassion. She is a shell too. We are the same. Our shells are familiar and keep us safe. They’ve been painstakingly constructed layer by excruciating layer by the experiences that hardened us. The shell protects us. It’s how we feel safe. I can’t imagine life without the shell. I’ve had it for so long it’s like I am the shell and the shell is me. I am hard and impenetrable. I watch people tap the outside trying to find me, but I’m not here. I’m gone. I don’t know where I went. Instantly, a simple but hard choice unfolds before me. I find myself at a fork in the road of my soul. I can continue down this path, burdened by my pain and resentments, protected by my shell, until I’m only left with a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, or I can find a way to come alive. I don’t even know what being alive looks like, but I know I want it. I don’t want to discover at the closing of my life that I’ve grown only regret. I don’t know how to get started, but I know I need to start.
How does this story convey the complexity of the character?
The story of who we are is complex, although sexual trauma can leave us feeling like our story is simple. We are weak. We are unlovable. We are broken. The truth is we are a great many things and writing gives us to explore our wonderful complexity. In each of the exercises below, you will create two lists, which initially may seem in opposition. With elements from each list, you will write a story about yourself. Select the exercise that resonates most with you.
The exercises below are drawn from "Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma" by Jen Cross
ADJECTIVES AND EMOTIONS
Write two lists next to each other. First, a list of five adjectives, then cover this list. Second, a list of five emotions. When you've completed the lists, choose one of the pairs of words and use them to fill in the phrase, "I'm standing at the corner of ______ and ______." Then, keep writing.
FEARS AND COMFORTS
Write two lists. One list is "Five Things I Fear". The second list is "Five Things That Bring Me Comfort". Pick one item from each list and write a short story about this fear and comfort.
KNOW ME AND
DON'T KNOW ME
Write two lists. One list is "Three Things I Wish People Knew About Me". The second list is "Three Things I Wish People Didn't Know About Me". Pick one item from each list and write an unsent letter to a trusted friend about these two aspects of yourself.