Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trauma As A Cheap Plot Device And Why It Sucks

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Most media of the genres we at The Fandomentals work with – fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, or even just plain action thrillers – necessarily involve a lot of trauma for the protagonists. For the plot to be captivating, bad things have to happen to them, only to be escaped at the last minute. When it comes to films and books, that’s usually when the story ends. The glorious escape, and perhaps a few closing scenes of the sweet sunset. One-off pieces like that don’t have to deal with the long-term repercussions.

But then there are TV shows, and sagas, and cinematic universes. And suddenly, it becomes an issue. Your character went through something in the first installment, and it should probably have repercussions in the second, right?

Well, that’s not what usually happens. After all, who wants to deal with things like PTSD and other, related reactions to trauma? Especially if the media aims for light and funny. Films like Iron Man 3 don’t get enough credit, in my opinion. How often do we actually see heroes working through their issues from the ‘adventures’ they have had in popular media? We need to appreciate it properly.


It’s perhaps somewhat more frequent in literature, what with it being more introspective in general and so having more space for a character’s feelings. So Order of the Phoenix is basically several hundred pages of Harry desperately trying to deal with his trauma without any help. Frodo departs Middle-Earth because he can’t simply shrug away everything that happened to him. Most of Ciri’s personality in Witcher is formed by trauma, because she hardly knew anything else from a young age. Still, for every book that deals with this, I could come up with two that don’t. Films, as I said, do even worse.

But still, sometimes I think ignoring trauma completely is not the worst option. It’s a little like not including the messy arguments after ten years of relationship in the sequel of a romance novel. It’s definitely not realistic and creates false expectations, sure. But we can at least sort of see why the authors wanted to avoid it.

What I mind even more? Trauma used as a plot device.

It’s a thin line. I mean, we’re dealing with narratives. Of course the things that happen in a story are going to serve the plot. The question is, are they only there to serve the plot? Or is the actual character surviving the traumatic experience the center of some focus? Does the story even allow us to sympathize with the victims? Or is their pain simply used to give the story an edge? Because real-life trauma survivors should never be treated like that, and that means the fictional ones shouldn’t either. Certainly not when the narrative can be interpreted as endorsing it. Fiction has power.


The most known and discussed example of this would be Rape as Empowerment. It’s the lovely scenario where a woman (it’s usually a woman, probably because the people who use this kind of trope still don’t understand that men can be raped as well) is raped so that she can be hardened by the experience and proceed to kick some ass. The latest popular example of this, naturally, was Sansa in the last two seasons of Game of Thrones.

This trope is offensive on very many levels. However, there has also been a lot written about it already, so let me just briefly summarize. Not only it does not treat the trauma of rape with the gravity it deserves nor give the woman the space to deal with it in any way, it also and assumes that any kind of pain and suffering is a good way to make characters stronger. Additionally, it seems to operate on the assumption that as a default, women are not strong. They need to be made so by a specific kind of horrible experience. An experience that is sexual in nature and involves men, of course. That, after all, is the whole point of women: serving as sexual objects to men. Nothing else could possibly be important enough to them.

Sansa has had people murder her entire family, as far as she knows. But that would never be enough to spur her into any kind of action. She needed to be raped first. Then, after that happened, her reaction to the traumatic experience was chosen so that it would further the plot the way showrunners wanted. They could have gotten it without the rape, too, but they went this way. A way that doesn’t respect her personality and reactions until then. That, right there, is trauma as plot device.


Rape is the go-to trauma for women, in fact—until a certain age. Once they get too old, it suddenly stops happening in fiction. Perhaps because of the assumption that no one rapes older women (not true, obviously). Perhaps because people just don’t like thinking about women over fifty and sex at the same time, period. In any case, there is a default kind of trauma for older women too: their children getting killed.

The tragic image of a mother with her murdered children in her arms is a little out of vogue nowadays, I feel—this new age and its Strong Women™ work much better with characters empowered by their rape—but it’s a staple in literature since times immemorial.

Now someone could say I am being a little unfair, because children dying is very often used with men, too. It’s different, though. Men, when they find out that their children are dead, go on a revenge-murder spree. Women are broken and sobbing and need to be avenged by someone else. The broken-hearted mother becomes a plot device in what is not even her own story. This is one of the reasons why Catelyn Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire is such an important character, and why her mangling in Game of Thrones is such a problem. She is the broken-hearted mother, and what we see in the book is her story. We don’t follow some knight in shining armour who promised her to avenge her; we see her and her pain.

When it comes to male protagonists and the way their trauma is treated, it’s not very flattering either. For one, it’s hardly ever something that happens to them personally. I already said that rape of men is ignored as a possibility, but even other kinds of bodily harm—the kinds one would expect protagonists of action-filled fiction to be especially liable to—are rarely something that happens to the hero. Injuries, yes, but injuries that heal without any long-term effects and that leave no trauma behind. Anything more long-lasting? Nah. I mean, the hero needs to be able-bodied, right? No one is interested in a protagonist who is not the most physically skilled person around, or so most writers seem to assume.

When dangerous situations and bodily harm are treated as something life-changing, it’s usually only because it made the hero stronger. In this, it is perhaps a little similar to Rape as Empowerment, even though the gendered implications are naturally completely different. Oliver Queen gets some flashbacks to the traumatic experience he went through on the island in Arrow, sure. But chiefly, what happened to him made him into a superhero. Working with an established origin story, the show is not treating it too badly, but there is still something problematic about the idea in itself.


But usually, when we need Trauma for Good Men, we inevitably reach for fridging: their loved ones dying. Usually it’s women or children, of course, because that makes it more tragic!

The character result of this fridging is typically a Dark and Brooding Hero, or antihero. These can also be formed by bitter betrayal (usually by a woman; examples galore, but Athos from The Musketeers is the first to jump to my mind out of recent shows), but death of a loved one is the most popular choice. The obvious go-to example is Batman, but there are plenty of others to choose from. Derek Hale from Teen Wolf manages to combine both: a woman betrayed him (well, raped and manipulated him, but there was a betrayal of trust in there) and all his loved ones died. Then he gets an additional death of a woman he loved in his arms. That covers all bases, and voila, the perfect Dark and Brooding Hero is there.


At this point, I should probably reiterate where I see the difference between trauma as a plot device and things simply happening to move the plot and characters along. It’s about the aftermath, about the treatment of the traumatic experience. If it is ignored beyond what it motivates the hero to do, and beyond the basic setting of Dark and Brooding it gives him to make him more interesting, well, it’s not sensitive treatment of trauma.

Women shouldn’t have rape added to their storyline to become Strong. Equally, men shouldn’t have terrible trauma added to become Interesting. If the character we see suffer the losses is one of the protagonists, his story should be at least partly constructive. It should have him trying to work through the issues with the help of others. I suppose I can understand a side character simply staying on the Dark and Brooding setting. Not everyone in a complex fictional universe can have their own fully fleshed out character arcs, after all. But if the writers don’t find the time for this in their hero, there is really no excuse.

This is also why I said I can deal with this sloppy approach to trauma—ignoring it or using it as a plot device—in one book or one film. I can buy that there isn’t enough time and space for everything there. Staying the brooding anti-hero for one installment is fine. But when a decade passes in-universe? It’s probably time to work on that. And mind you, I’m not saying the trauma survivors need to become chipper happy pieces of sunshine by season three, but some kind of character development or exploration would be nice.


Or not, and then than can become a point in itself. Severus Snape refused to move on in any way and let go of his grudges. That is why he’s not quite the good guy Rowling lately tries to paint him to be. Of course, he had no one to help him, and we can blame Dumbledore for that (that guy is the root of all evil, for real). But still, stagnation and refusal to work on yourself can become a topic in itself. When it does, however, it should be reflected. The characters should not just be left hanging, or even have more trauma piled on them specifically designed to keep them in their brooding phase (a wave to Derek Hale, once again) because who doesn’t love Dark Heroes?

While not exactly an anti-hero, Spock is in some ways quite close to the brooding type, and his role in the first two original Star Trek movies is a good example how the easier, less traumatized version of this type can evolve. For the entirety of original series, he underwent very little character development. He basically went through iterations of the same things. Some challenge to his emotional control, and then brooding about him failing to uphold it or about his inability to experience emotion properly.

But then suddenly in The Motion Picture, the writing went somewhere else with him, and it was much more interesting. In Wrath of Khan, we see the result of that, a fully mature, balanced personality comfortable in his own skin. It was the end of his character’s journey, which probably influenced some of the writing decisions (in case anyone still cares about spoilers thirty years old, I’m not specifying), but it remains, for me, the example of how this can be done.

spock wrath of khan

Like I said, the trauma of heroes is usually some kind of fridging. Now villains, on the other hand, are allowed to have trauma that concerns them personally. It shows that they’re selfish, see? Because clearly, no one but a bad person is allowed to care about something horrific happening to them or be angry about it.

Giving villains traumatic backstories is not the problem. You can feel sorry for a villain and still want him stopped. Tom Riddle had very crappy childhood, and I feel sorry for him, but I still wouldn’t try to convince Harry not to kill him years later, even as I blame his educators for not doing anything to try and help him (like I said, root of all evil).

But still, Voldemort is a good example of how not to write traumatized villains. As we see him, years later when he is in his seventies, he’s truly beyond help, if only because he’s not even fully human anymore. And that’s fine. Giving your villain a traumatic backstory and then setting him far enough in time from it that they’re too settled in their evil ways to be helped is a good way to make them believable without having to go the saving route, which I can fully understand people wanting to avoid.

In fact, not doing the time skip can lead to awkward cases like Peter Hale from Teen Wolf, who starts his streak of violence immediately after waking up from years of agony and reliving his crushing loss, and none of the supposedly good characters even considers getting him help instead of killing him, which makes their morality suddenly very dubious.

tom-riddle-childBut then, Rowling ruined her advantage of time skip when we get the scenes with young Tom and Dumbledore, and from there it all goes to hell. Tom is a child then, and Dumbledore is not trying to help this child at all, instead being suspicious of him right from the start. Instead of seeing him struggle to help and fail, we see him condemn the boy straight off. And that, right there, is the difference between treating trauma as a tragedy that happens to people and sometimes twists them so much they lose their way, and seeing it as a plot device. Voldemort gets a backstory, but at the same time, the story makes it very clear he was always doomed to be a villain. Look, even Dumbledore thinks so!

As an example of the same thing done well—or rather conceived well, in theory—I offer Star Wars. In the original trilogy, we don’t get much of a backstory. Darth Vader is just a villain, and then Luke’s father with the last remnants of redeemable in him. In the prequels, when we get the backstory, we get to see the struggle. Not that I think it’s well executed, mind you, but the intention, I feel, was good. The characters there try to help Anakin and save him, even though they are very bad at it. They only give up on him when he goes too far, beyond their reach.

It seems that ending the article with the Star Wars prequels offered as a good example of anything is rather too depressing, but then, perhaps it is telling. If the standard among the most popular media in this respect is set so low that the prequels can be seen as something to aspire to, writers in general should really think about their choices.

Images courtesy of HBO, the CW, MTV, Warner Brothers, and Viacom

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