Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories

Many stories and narratives require a character who's gone through some bad times, and it's important to handle them and their narratives in a way that's sensitive to real survivors while providing an interesting and engaging experience to your audience. So here's some things to consider and think about as you're developing and writing this kind of thing.

Last revised. December 30, 2020.

Table of Contents

Examine your reasons for giving your character a tragic/traumatic backstory.

So, there's good reasons and bad reasons for giving a character a tragic or traumatic backstory. Good reasons include establishing and explaining what kind of person your character is now. (Perhaps they don't trust authority figures because they were abused by them growing up.) They can be used to set up why your character has the insight and opinions they do. (First-hand experience of the empire's cruelty can definitely incentivize someone to support the resistance.) They might tie into the themes of your story and reflect the ills of your setting's society. (If your story is about the evils of wealth disparity, then it only makes sense to have characters who have been adversely impacted by it.) It can also play into the overall narrative and move the plot forward. (Maybe your story is about someone trying to live with and recover as much as possible from past trauma.)

As for the bad reasons? Here are the main ones to watch out for:

Bad Reason No. 1: Making the character more "interesting." So it's one thing to give your character tragedy or trauma that the audience will find relatable or sympathetic. After all, making them feel something about your characters is key to getting them engaged. But there's a certain mentality I've seen where people consider those who've experienced tragedy and suffered trauma more "interesting" in the sense that they're perceived as puzzles to solve or beautiful tragedies to feel sorry for. As someone who's suffered their own share of tragedy and trauma, I can tell you personally that this kind of attitude is both dehumanizing and alienating. Also, it implies that people who haven't gone through terrible things are boring, and would become more interesting if something bad happened to them. Yikes!

Bad Reason No. 2: Cementing a romantic bond. It's one thing if your romantic leads can relate to each other because of a shared experience of trauma and develop a stronger bond over it. It's quite another thing if you use your character's trauma as a reason for their love interest to lavish care and attention on them. Of course there's nothing wrong with needing and receiving emotional support from time to time, but PTSD and C-PTSD require actual therapy, not snuggles and hugs. Additionally, giving somebody that level of emotional work over a long period of time will emotionally drain somebody; and possibly even cause long-term psychological damage, as their own emotional and psychological needs are going unmet even as they're working overtime to meet someone else's.

Bad Reason No. 3: An excuse for your character to have no social connections. So, not having friends or family is inherently traumatic, and there's nothing wrong with writing that kind of situation and acknowledging that fact. There's also nothing wrong with writing a character who came from a family that was just so toxic that they had no real option but to sever all ties with them. The problem is when the writer decides that having any friends and/or family whatsoever would get in the way of their character going out on adventures and meeting new people, and proceeds to remove any pesky pre-existing social connections by killing them all off. Thing is, that's just not how anything works! Generally speaking, an adult can do whatever the heck they want just because they want to, and there's plenty of ways for a kid to have adventures and meet new people without giving them severe trauma in the process. Again, there's nothing wrong with writing a character who doesn't have any friends or family if that's important for the story you're trying to tell, but you don't have to totally alienate your character to explain or excuse their taste for adventure.

Bad Reason No. 4: Trying to make your character look like some kind of badass ideal. The ability to survive through a difficult situation can indeed be very impressive, and a lot of people love to see a character who survive against all odds and finally deliver an epic smackdown on the bad guys. But there's a difference between writing a character who gives that kind of experience to your audience, and trying to make your audience worship and adore your character simply because they've gone through difficulties. Again, this is one of those things that can be very dehumanizing and alienating, and speaking from personal experience, the lasting effects of psychological damage just don't feel badass at all. (In fact, sometimes it's all too easy to fall into self-hatred because they can make you feel incredibly weak.)

Bad Reason No. 5: Pure shock value. This isn't to say that your character's backstory can't be shocking. It absolutely can. But there is a difference between something that's shocking, and something played for pure shock value. A backstory that simply happens to be shocking will ultimately humanize and generate an appropriate amount of sympathy for the character. A backstory played simply for shock value turns the character's pain and suffering into a spectacle to ogle, or uses it to reinforce the audience's own sense of moral superiority, or uses it to make them feel glad they aren't that character. It's a very cold, cynical, and self-centered way to look at other people's pain.

Bad Reason No. 6: Getting your character off the hook. The fact that your character was traumatized doesn't absolve them of responsibility when they choose to hurt others. While it deserves to be taken into consideration when determining what to do with said character after the fact (if they are traumatized, they do deserve therapy for it), it's still on them to make reparations and work on themselves so they can grow as a person. It is not okay to hurt others just because you feel upset, then expect them to sympathize with you and not hold you accountable. If you show yourself to be completely unwilling to take responsibility and work on yourself, then people are entitled to do whatever it takes to stop you from hurting them.

Bad Reason No. 7: One-upping another character's tragic/traumatic backstory. Suffering is not a contest. Never make it into a contest.

Finally, one last really sketchy reason for giving a character a tragic/traumatic backstory is to empower them. Because it's a pretty complicated subject to go into, I'll give it its own section below.

No, trauma is not empowering.

It's a fairly common thing to give a character's powers or skills a traumatic origin. One way this often goes is when the character is forced to undergo unethical experimentation or some sort of procedure and gains superpowers from it. Another way this might go is that the character chooses to undertake a brutal training or preparation process that leaves them mentally or physically altered in a way that causes them distress, whether immediately or eventually.

First and foremost, a lot of this comes down to an idea that traumatic experiences make you stronger or more skilled by way of pushing you to a level you couldn't have reached otherwise, or by forcing you to let go of the inhibitions holding you back.

For example, throwing someone into a "do or die, kill or be killed" situation will supposedly force them to push themselves harder than ever in order to survive, and therefore force them to become stronger and improve their skills. While it's generally true that people will improve their skills when presented with greater challenge, it is not true that it's a good idea to put them in situations that will likely as not give them PTSD. If anything, there's a good chance they'll just end up having traumatic flashbacks anytime something happens to remind them of their hellish training scenarios.

The same thing goes for trying to force people to give up or overcome their inhibitions or whatever. Inhibitions are usually strongly tied to one's moral compass, and forcing people to act in contradition to that tends to cause moral injury. In cases where someone's reluctance to act is caused by self-doubt, there's a very good chance they'll just panic and freeze up if they're thrown into a "do-or-die" scenario. (And it doesn't matter if this person's mentor would never actually let them die; simply believing they were going to die is potentially enough to cause lasting trauma.)

Additionally, stress in general worsens people's ability to retain information, making them overall less likely to remember what they're supposed to be learning. So even if the training methods don't outright traumatize them, it's still quite they hindered their progress quite a bit.

Part of the whole trope of presenting trauma as empowering stems from toxic positivity; particularly, the part where people are pressured to look for the silver lining in any situation, no matter how physically or emotionally painful that situation is. It ties into the old chestnut of "that which does not kill me makes me stronger." Supposedly, any experience that doesn't kill you outright will make you even tougher and grittier. Now, while it's true that people can and do build emotional resilience when faced with challenge and hardship, it does not follow that trauma creates this resilience. In fact, trauma does basically the opposite - it just makes you more anxious and less able to concentrate in the face of stress, if you're not just having an all-out panic attack or flashback.

Any skill worth having can be learned and refined without forcing someone into a potentially-traumatic situation. They just need to regularly practice and build up their skill. Emotional resilience is built up by allowing people to gradually acclimate to increasingly intense situations and by allowing them to take breaks for emotional and psychological self-care, not by throwing them into overwhelming situations until they just "get used to it" or whatever. Any claim to the contrary is abuse apologia, plain and simple.

This is not to say your character can't have gained skills or powers in an abusive or traumatic context, nor that your character can't have learned skills to survive a traumatic ordeal. Both are things that happen in the real world all thetime. It just needs to be kept in mind that no matter what's going down, people ultimately gain skills despite abuse and trauma, not because of it. I've met a number of people who claimed the the physical and/or emotional abuse their parents, teachers, and/or mentors put them through made them stronger and more disciplined, but in every case it was obvious that these people weren't nearly as well-adjusted as they wanted to think. And that childhood abuse leads to emotional underregulation in adulthood is backed up by science, too.

Ask yourself how much tragedy and trauma your character actually needs to make your narrative work.

Unless you're writing something like a dark comedy where making things over-the-top is the point, you should stop and ask yourself how much bad stuff actually needs to happen in order to make your character and overall story concept work. There is definitely such a thing as too much, for numerous reasons.

First, the more pain and suffering your character has been through, the more likely it is they'd suffer serious traumatic issues that would cause them significant problems and require actual therapy. If your story doesn't acknowledge this, it can create a false impression that events like these aren't mentally damaging, or at least aren't as damaging as they really are. While it's true that not everyone will develop PTSD over a specific incident, or won't develop it to the same degree, if your character's life has been nonstop extreme trauma there's no way they wouldn't have issues.

Secondly, it can potentially perpetuate the myth that only extreme-seeming incidents can cause serious issues. For example, there's widespread belief that PTSD is only suffered by those who experience trauma as severe as you'd encounter while serving in the military. But the reality is that PTSD can be caused by many things, including sexual harassment, going through cancer, or even a car accident.

Third, it often ties in with and can reinforce the mentality that suffering is a contest, and the notion that the person who has suffered the most (or has apparently suffered the most) is always the most valid. That's just not how things work.

Fourth, there just comes a point where things get ridiculous. An example of this is when somebody went to so much trouble to hurt your character that there's no way they'd have had time for things like eating, sleeping, and working a job to afford food and rent. Like yeah, some people can be incredibly obsessive, but they still need to eat and sleep like everybody else. Another way things can go overboard is when the abuser contrives a bunch of unnecessarily elaborate and overwrought schemes to torment their victims, when more simple and direct torments would work just fine. Things can also get ridiculous when your character's backstory is basically just nonstop terrible events with no real connection to each other; say for example, the character loses their family one by one through a few separate fatal accidents, a terminal illness or two, and a random mugger. Unless you're going for some kind of dark comedy or other form of dark surreality, going over the top in these ways can just end up looking ridiculous and draw too much attention to the hand of the writer.

So ask yourself how much hardship is actually necessary to make your story and character concept work. Does your story actually need every other student to bully and torment your character, or would it work just fine with a few particularly vicious students? Is it really necessary that your character was beaten and screamed at literally each and every night of the world, or would it work if your character was screamed at every couple of days or so, and beaten every couple of weeks? Is it really necessary for your character's parents to have locked them in the basement, or would it work if they'd simply forbidden your character from calling and visiting their friends? Did their parents need to tell them that they wish they'd never been born and hope they rot in hell, or would comments like "Sometimes I wish you were more like your sister" and "What, do you want a medal or something?" work?

While some stories do justify extremes, way too many writers just use them for shock value or cheap emotional manipulation, or because they're under the impression that more pain = darker story = more mature story. So it's really important to be mindful and honest with yourself about what your intentions and needs actually are, and whether or not your story actually justifies the extremes you're considering.

Your story's focus on the character's tragedy/trauma needs to be kept in proportion with everything else.

It's perfectly fine to write a story that focuses primarily on your character's personal life, how their trauma affects it, and what they choose to do about their trauma, if that's what you want to do. But you can run into problems if you choose to focus on it in a way that sidelines or minimizes other interesting and important things going on in your story.

For example, if your story is ostensibly about a small band of adventurers who go out to right wrongs and protect the innocent, but their endeavors are constantly interrupted by your character spiraling and needing their support, then it can feel like your character's problems are just getting in the way of the actual story. If you actually intended to mainly focus on this character all along, why throw in all this extra stuff you never planned to deal with anyway? Adding in a bunch of stuff that genuinely looks fun and interesting and then never really doing anything with it will just frustrate a lot of your audience, who will see a story full of wasted potential and spurned opportunity.

Another example of this is treating your character's traumatic flashback as the most pressing and important thing going on when, say, someone else's child has gone missing or their house is burning down with everything they own inside of it. Your character's pain is definitely valid, but the other character's problems are also very real and deserve sympathy. And when you ask us to sympathize with your character while treating other characters' very real problems as trivial and not worth our sympathy, you have a case of Protagonist Centered Morality.

And while it's true that recovering from trauma isn't an easy process and can often take years of therapy, real survivors usually aren't always stewing in their pain and misery. They usually have hobbies, friends, and in general, things to focus on that bring them happiness and fulfillment. If your character can't seem to do anything without their trauma coming up, they're actually in really bad shape and need substantial help - like, actual therapy and maybe medication.

Also, constant exposure to a character's psychological and emotional turmoil, particularly with no end or resolution in sight, can be exhausting for the audience, particularly if the story's a long one. And it can be very hard to care about a character who shows no real interest in taking any personal responsibility for their own recovery, because they're essentially choosing to live as an emotional vampire rather than seeking true healing and healthy coping mechanisms.

Finally, keep in mind that whatever trauma and hardship your character experienced, they're probably not the only one. Being bullied, losing loved ones, and being stuck with abusive, exploitative people happens to many, many people out there. If you play up your own character's pain as unique, or as if it's somehow deeper or more profound than anyone else's (especially if they were affected by the same hardships your character was affected by), your work is going to have a very self-centered, entitled vibe to it, and you're going to look like an ass.

Likewise, it's just as unlikely that your character's pain is so unique and profound that literally only one other person in the entire universe could understand it. If your character goes around acting like this is the case, it makes them look at best naive and possibly delusional, and at worst like a total creep.

Your character's life probably shouldn't completely revolve around their trauma or tragedy.

While it's true that tragedy and trauma are often life-changing events, and that they can drive people to take up a cause or try to turn their lives around, it doesn't mean that a character's life should forever revolve around their own tragedy/trauma, or that it should become the single driving factor behind everything they do.

Generally speaking, people who've been through terrible things still engage in hobbies and interests, meet and talk to people just because they're feeling bored, lonely, or because life circumstances brought them together. Economic factors can force them to move, find new jobs, etc.

If someone is so fixated on the bad things they've experienced that literally everything they do connects to it, they are not in a healthy headspace. I've met some people who were basically under the impression that this kind of thing showed that their characters just really committed or determined, but in reality it would be more indicative of untreated PTSD. If your character's consciousness is so all-consumed by their trauma that literally everything they do comes back to it, they need qualified help. Keeping yourself in this kind of headspace is incredibly harmful, because you're constantly stressing yourself out without a break.

Now with that said, it's important not to overcorrect on this and make their trauma have no impact on their lives, because erasing the fact that mental trauma has life-changing consequences can perpetuate a lot of myths harmful to survivors - for example, the simple fact that needing antidepressants and therpy to deal with PTSD changes the logistics of one's life considerably, and acting like this doesn't cause a certain amount of stress and frustration on its own, and ignoring the considerable impact it can have on one's schedule, can create the impression that these people have more time, energy, and mental resources than they actually do. For another example, once you learn to recognize red flags in people's behavior there's just no going back from that - you'll see them whether you want to or not, you'll have to deal with people thinking you're paranoid or "too negative," and sometimes those red flags might even trigger an emotional flashback.

Basically, while it's important for those who've gone through hardship to try and deal with their problems in a healthy way, and to live a well-rounded life, it does not follow that they should aspire to live or act exactly like someone who hasn't gone through trauma. This is often extremely unhealthy, and sometimes outright impossible.

Be careful not to play into the "model survivor" trope.

The model survivor trope is basically when the psychological impact of someone's trauma never manifests in a way that would be uncomfortable or inconvenient for others to deal with. This might be explained away as the result of having a "good attitude," or by choosing to look at the traumatic event as somehow empowering or transformative. Sometimes it's explained through the character choosing to rely on their spirituality to get through things.

While maintaining a good attitude is important, and while healthy spirituality can be very helpful, acting like these are surefire ways to avoid serious psychological consequences is cruel and insulting to real survivors. In real life, a "model survivor" is either someone who was either lucky enough not to sustain serious psychological injury, or is repressing or masking the symptoms of their psychological injury and is basically falling apart inside whether they admit it to themselves or not.

The idea that mental trauma can be wholly avoided or cured through the right attitude or through spirituality is widely recognized as harmful, and there are terms for when people try to put this idea into practice: toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing.

The nature of your character's trauma/tragedy should generally fit the tone and content of your setting.

It's important to make sure that the elements in your character's tragic/traumatic story actually make sense within the context of the setting you're working with. If, say, you're writing a fanfic based on a fairly lighthearted work where everyone is generally nice and most people's problems really aren't all that complicated or heavy, then you should probably stick to something fairly light and simple. Likewise, your character's backstory probably shouldn't hinge on having an established character behaving abusively when no such behavior has ever been shown or even hinted at in canon, nor involve exaggerating a minor character flaw to demonic proportions.

Now, if you're writing a dark AU where everything's supposed to be incredibly messed up, then make your character's backstory as horrifying as you want. But if you're not, and the setting you're working with isn't all that dark already, you should probably try to keep it in line with something you might actually see in the original work. Otherwise, you tend to come off like you're trying way too hard.

Also keep in mind that it's possible to go too easy on your character. If you're working with a setting where pretty much everybody has substantial trauma due to all the messed up stuff going on in the world, but your character somehow came out unscathed despite living in the exact same environment, it can come off as a cowardly refusal to engage with uncomfortable subject matter, or as a shallow and pretentious attempt to make your character look "better" than everyone else.

These principles can also apply to works that aren't fanfiction, such as settings based in the real world. For example, let's say you're trying to write historical fiction and plan to involve witch hunts. You'd want to make sure your story is actually set in a time and place when witch hunts actually happened, and that their nature actually lines up with what happened. For example, the Middle Ages isn't a great period to set any kind of intense witch hunting in, because as I've mentioned elsewhere, that just didn't happen at that time.

These principles also apply to any scenario where multiple characters know full well what kind of terrible stuff is going down, but choose to do nothing about it for basically no reason. Like, it's one thing if your character's abuser is careful to only let people as cruel and heartless as themselves into their inner circle, or if they're genuinely powerful enough to stifle any substantial attempt to oppose them. But it just doesn't work to have your character's abuser be so openly evil in everything they do that pretty much everyone hates them, and have basically nobody feel wronged or outraged enough to want to try and stop them.

Remember that most people don't generally tell strangers about their traumatic experiences.

Way too many writers have their characters spill the details of their horrible traumatic pasts to people they've just met. In reality, people don't usually do this for many reasons.

For a start, telling a stranger about your trauma rarely goes well. At best, they'll probably respond with worthless platitudes (EG, "Well, things have to get better soon!" or "Cheer up, it could be worse!") or useless advice (EG, "Have you tried being more positive?" or "You should try yoga!") and think they're really saying something. The minute they say this stuff, you can feel yourself dying inside. Tell them that they're not being helpful, and they'll probably get offended and angry with you, because how dare you be ungrateful when they're just trying to be helpful?

At worst, they'll decide you're lying, exaggerating, or that it was all your fault somehow. (Unfortunately, this one's all too common when the story of your trauma contradicts their belief in the goodness of society, or the integrity of the institutions and organizations they believe in and benefit from.) There's no emotional pain that can't be made worse by somebody trying to invalidate it and/or blame you for it.

One person I took a risk on and chose to talk to ended up siding with my abuser when I told her the things my abuser had called me and how they'd blow every little thing out of proportion for the sheer sake of gaslighting me into believing I was this horrible, selfish, ego-driven monster. She barely knew anything about me (much less my abuser), but decided to believe that I must have done something to deserve it, and that my abuser must have been justified. (In fact, my abuser was an emotional predator who got their kicks out of tearing people - not just me - down and making them feel like selfish, depraved monsters, and would use literally anything as pretext.)

Additionally, many survivors have learned to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves for other reasons. They may have been implicitly or explicitly told that talking about their problems or feelings bothers or burdens others. They may have been repeatedly told to stop complaining because others have it worse or because they should be grateful they have it as good as they do. People may have just given them the cold shoulder or discarded them completely when they started talking about their problems or feelings. They may have been in a situation where speaking up would have meant going up against the most popular or powerful person or people in the group and gotten them bullied or even ostracized.

Finally, talking about your trauma is often just exhausting, as it dredges up horrible memories and feelings, which can take a physical and mental toll for hours. You also never know when people are going to ask uncomfortable, even inappropriate questions.

When writers act like it's normal for characters to just open up and spill their guts to strangers and acquaintances, they erase just how complicated and difficult talking to people actually is, and how much risk is actually involved. Talking to someone means trusting or hoping they won't hurt you and add to your trauma, and it's often a huge gamble. While fiction often necessitates making things happen a little faster than they would in real life, constantly ignoring these difficulties can create the impression that they just don't exist, which can come back to bite traumatized people when others think we just owe them our life stories upfront and without reservation.

In closing.

Tragedy and trauma affect so many people in so many different ways, and that's why it's important to treat this kind of element with respect and care. It can be easy (especially for newer writers) to fall into the trap of thinking of it as a way to make their characters more interesting or to add some shock value to their stories, but as I've gone over earlier that's actually a really callous, dehumanizing approach.

Likewise, it's also not good to use your character's trauma as a reason to give them a disproportionate amount of focus in the story. Like, it's one thing if you want to write a story that focuses on a traumatized character, but if you have a bunch of other stuff going on that's actually pretty interesting or important, you don't want to end up sidelining that to focus on your character. Otherwise, it ends up feeling like your character in standing in the way of a perfectly good plot, and can create resentful feelings toward your character.

It's also important to recognize the impact that trauma has on people, and to recognize that people who've been traumatized need to manage their problems in a healthy way. It's very important to stay connected with friends and family, and important not to become an emotional vampire and disregard everyone else's psychological and emotional needs. It's important to stay engaged with hobbies and try to stay reasonably positive, but it's not healthy to engage in toxic positivity or use spiritual bypassing.

It's important to recognize that trauma doesn't make people stronger. People sometimes learn skills in traumatic situations or contexts, but that's not the same. Having survived trauma also shouldn't be used to signal that your character is some kind of badass who deserves respect just for existing.

And of course, you want whatever kind or amount of trauma your character has gone through to fit the context of your setting. You probably shouldn't inflict extremely brutal trauma onto a character that comes from a fairly lighthearted setting where things like that just don't happen. If you're working with a real world/historical setting, you want to make sure that the kind of thing you're thinking of actually happened.

And on the other hand, you don't want to make a character who just floats above it all for no good reason. There's value in telling a story about someone who's lived a sheltered life and doesn't comprehend just how bad things are for everyone else, but you shouldn't give your character a trauma-free life just for the sake of being contrary.

Always ask yourself what your character's trauma is going to do for the larger narrative, and how much is actually necessary and useful. Present it in a way that's humanizing, rather than just show it off for cheap spectacle or martyr your character with it. And keep in mind that while your character deserves sympathy for the pain they've gone through, that pain doesn't absolve them of moral responsibility when they hurt others.

Show respect for the fact that survivors don't owe people their stories, and that many have good reasons for staying quiet about them. Don't act like it's normal or should be expected for survivors to just tell anyone and everyone their history.

One last thing you should do - learn from survivors. Check out their blogs, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, etc. You'll find a lot more information and insight into what might and might not be accurate and respectful depictions of traumatized people.

Hopefully, you will find this article useful. If you like it, please share it with your writer friends, and consider supporting me on Patreon. I have substantial health issues and not a lot of funds, so any support is really appreciated. And if you think there's anything I missed or got wrong, let me know - I'm always willing to correct my work.

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