They say (whoever they are) that the best writing is personal. So, I’d like to share a personal story with you, in hopes that it will help you in real life as well as in your writing.
We spend a lot of time talking about triggers these days. Social media’s cancel culture is practically built on it, which is why I avoid a lot of social media. Oddly enough, literature depends on it.
Someone triggered me several months ago. When this happened, I went into a downward spiral like few others. It took me a few days to rationalize things and start thinking clearly again. Of course, isn’t that what we love to do with our characters? We hit them out of the blue with something incredibly painful, then depending on the arc we have our character either work through it to a healthier life, or they sink into the pit of despair and end up spending their life miserably teaching potions at the local wizarding school.
How do we react to triggers? “You triggered me! I’m offended! I’m depressed! It’s your fault! You need to change!” That is the prevailing thought in our real-life culture today.
That is also wrong. And from a writing perspective, it takes you even fewer places than it does in real life.
On the most basic level, triggers are sharp sticks relentlessly driven into the deep wounds of unresolved pain. It is not my friend’s fault; she certainly didn’t intend to send me on that spiral. It’s not my fault either, but fault and responsibility are two different things. The fault in this case, belongs to the person who hurt me, and is someone I haven’t even thought about in years, much less seen. The pain was no less real.
The responsibility to heal from this wound is mine. It is not my friend who needs to change, nor is it the bully of my youth. It is me. Think of it this way:
When they built my neighborhood, they planted the trees too shallow, and now the roots are pushing up the sidewalks. This makes for dangerous walking. If I trip and fall, I could blame it on the sidewalk (not so productive), the homeowner, or I could blame it on the sub-contractors who planted the trees. Or I could blame the contractor who put the neighborhood together. I could blame all of them. But blame, no matter where it belongs, does not fix the sidewalks. Blame’s function is to assign fault, blame should bring feelings of wrongdoing. While it is often the first step to healing, it is not healing. That’s a distinction we should heed.
Triggering your character will point out an incredibly old wounds that they have ignored for years. The friend who triggered me can avoid ever bringing that particular subject up again, or they can change their language and their habits. But that won’t heal me, it won’t end my pain.
For our characters (and ourselves) to avoid future triggers, they must take responsibility for their own healing. They have to do the work, whether that work be forgiveness, or ending a relationship, or simply watching where they’re walking. It is the job of the wounded character to watch out for their health and take responsibility to make sure that this trigger cannot inflict the kind of wound it has in the past.
That is hard work. I think it’s also elusive work, because for the most part, we’re not so great at doing this in real life. So how do we become knowledgeable writers of our characters? Do they talk to someone? Do they commit it to prayer? Do they write a letter and burn it? Meditate? Run away to a mountain top and find a guru? And of course, each trigger may require something different to heal.
The only universal thing I’ve figured out so far is that it will take intentionality on the part of my character. Perhaps, it will force me to do some self-reflection myself. It will certainly take an uncomfortable amount of honesty.
If you don’t want your character to bury themselves in a Potions classroom like Severus Snape, they will need to accept the responsibility for healing their old wounds. If they’re really ambitions, they (not to mention you and I) may even decide to pull off a few other bandages and see what other wounds need healing.
I hope you are navigating these most difficult of times with faith, love, and good literature.