How To Write a Character With PTSD [Ultimate Guide]

Writing a character with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is not just about adding depth to your story but also about understanding and respecting the complexities of mental health.

Here is how to write a character with PTSD:

Write a character with PTSD by understanding their trauma, accurately depicting symptoms like flashbacks and avoidance, and showing their coping strategies. Develop a backstory, include realistic reactions, and portray growth and healing, avoiding stereotypes for a respectful, authentic character.

In this guide, we’ll explore what you need to know to write a realistic and believable character with PTSD.

What Is a Character with PTSD?

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A character with PTSD is one who has experienced a traumatic event and is struggling with its aftermath.

This character’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions are significantly influenced by their trauma.

They may have flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety.

Their reactions can seem out of proportion to the current situation, but are deeply rooted in past trauma.

In my personal experience, the portrayal of such a character requires sensitivity and accuracy to reflect the true nature of PTSD.

Types of Characters with PTSD

There are various manifestations of PTSD, and understanding these can help create a well-rounded character.

  • Combat Veterans: Often associated with PTSD, these characters have witnessed or participated in combat. Their PTSD may manifest in hypervigilance, flashbacks to combat scenarios, and difficulty adjusting to civilian life.
  • Survivors of Abuse: Characters who have endured physical, emotional, or sexual abuse often struggle with trust issues, flashbacks, and self-blame.
  • Accident Survivors: Characters who have survived accidents (like car crashes) might experience survivor’s guilt, flashbacks to the accident, and fear of certain situations that remind them of the trauma.
  • Natural Disaster Survivors: These characters have lived through natural disasters and may experience intense anxiety during similar environmental conditions or on anniversaries of the event.
  • Witnesses to Violence: Characters who have witnessed acts of violence, such as a robbery or murder, can develop PTSD. They might struggle with feelings of helplessness and fear.

Creating a Believable PTSD Experience

It’s important to write accurately and believably about PTSD.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years:

Understand the Symptoms

Firstly, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of PTSD.

These can include flashbacks, avoidance of certain situations, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and hyperarousal. Your character’s symptoms should align realistically with their traumatic experience.

Trauma Backstory

Develop a detailed backstory for your character’s trauma.

This backstory will not only inform their current behavior but also add depth to their personality.

The trauma should be significant and life-altering, contributing to the character’s development.

Realistic Reactions

Ensure that your character’s reactions are realistic.

People with PTSD might react strongly to triggers that remind them of their trauma.

These reactions should be consistent and evolve throughout your story as your character deals with their PTSD.

Emotional Depth

Give your character a range of emotions.

PTSD affects people differently, and your character might experience a wide array of feelings like anger, sadness, guilt, and even brief moments of happiness.

Show these emotions through their interactions with other characters and their environment.

Therapy and Healing

Consider incorporating elements of therapy or healing into your story.

This can provide a realistic portrayal of dealing with PTSD and can also offer a hopeful outlook for your character’s journey.

Avoid Stereotyping

Avoid stereotypical or overly dramatized portrayals of PTSD.

Not all PTSD experiences are the same, and it’s important to respect the individuality of your character’s experience.

Show Growth and Change

Allow your character to grow and change.

PTSD is a part of their story, but it doesn’t define them.

Show their struggles but also their strengths and moments of overcoming challenges.

Use Concrete Examples

Incorporate concrete examples of how PTSD affects your character’s daily life.

This could be a flashback during a seemingly mundane activity, an unexpected panic attack, or difficulties in relationships due to trust issues.

Research and Consult

Do thorough research on PTSD.

Consult mental health professionals or read firsthand accounts of people with PTSD.

This will help you write a more accurate and respectful portrayal.

Reflect on Personal Experience

If you have personal experience with PTSD, reflect on it to add authenticity to your writing.

However, remember that your experience is not universal, and other perspectives are equally valid.

How to Write a Character with Severe PTSD

Writing a character with severe PTSD presents unique challenges.

It involves depicting intense psychological distress and its profound impact on a person’s life. Severe PTSD can manifest in debilitating symptoms that greatly affect the character’s daily functioning.

Creating a Realistic Depiction

To portray a character with severe PTSD, it’s crucial to understand the extremities of the condition.

These individuals might struggle with severe flashbacks, nightmares, and dissociation.

They might be unable to perform daily tasks or maintain relationships due to their intense symptoms.

It’s essential to show not just the struggle but also the small victories and steps towards managing their symptoms.

In-depth Character Development

Develop the character’s backstory in detail, explaining how the trauma was so impactful that it led to severe PTSD.

This will help the reader empathize with the character and understand their reactions and coping mechanisms.

Accurate Representation of Symptoms

Severe PTSD can include symptoms like extreme paranoia, debilitating flashbacks, and intense avoidance behaviors.

Represent these symptoms accurately and consistently throughout your narrative, showing how they impact the character’s life and interactions.

The Role of Support Systems

Incorporate the character’s support system, or lack thereof, in the story.

This can include friends, family, therapists, or support groups.

Their interactions with these support systems can add depth to the character and highlight different aspects of living with severe PTSD.

Portraying the Healing Process

While there may not be a complete “cure” for severe PTSD, showing the character’s journey towards managing their symptoms can be powerful.

This could include therapy sessions, coping strategies, and moments of realization and acceptance.

Dos and Donts of Writing a Character with PTSD

Do research thoroughly. Understanding the complexities of PTSD is essential for a realistic portrayal.Don’t romanticize PTSD. It’s a serious condition and should not be used as a mere plot device or romanticized in any way.
Do show a range of emotions. People with PTSD experience a spectrum of feelings. Your character should reflect this diversity.Don’t rely on stereotypes. PTSD manifests differently in individuals; avoid clichés and stereotypes.
Do develop a detailed trauma backstory. A well-thought-out backstory helps in creating a believable character.Don’t ignore the impact of trauma. Trauma affects every aspect of life; don’t downplay its effects on your character.
Do include moments of growth and healing. This provides a balanced view and shows that PTSD doesn’t define a person.Don’t make PTSD the only trait. Your character is more than their PTSD; ensure they have a well-rounded personality.
Do consult experts or firsthand accounts. This adds authenticity and respects the experiences of those with PTSD.Don’t forget the individuality of your character. Each person’s experience with PTSD is unique. Avoid making generalizations.
Dos and Donts Chart: How to Write a Character With PTSD

Understanding PTSD Triggers

Understanding triggers in PTSD is crucial for creating a realistic portrayal.

Triggers can vary greatly and can provoke intense responses in individuals suffering from PTSD.

Triggers can include:

  • Sounds: Loud noises, or specific sounds like sirens or shouting, can trigger a PTSD response, especially in combat veterans.
  • Smells: Certain scents, often those associated with the traumatic event, can bring back memories and cause distress.
  • Places: Locations where the trauma occurred, or that resemble it, can trigger flashbacks.
  • People: Seeing people who resemble an abuser or were present during the trauma can be triggering.
  • Anniversaries: Dates marking the event can lead to increased symptoms.
  • Visual Cues: Specific sights, like the type of car involved in an accident, can trigger a response.

Incorporating Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are strategies individuals with PTSD use to manage their symptoms, and they vary in effectiveness and healthiness.

Here are some coping mechanisms:

  • Avoidance: Steering clear of situations, people, or places that remind them of the trauma.
  • Substance Use: Using alcohol or drugs to numb feelings or memories.
  • Hyperarousal: Remaining constantly ‘on edge’ or vigilant to avoid potential threats.
  • Mindfulness: Practicing being present in the moment to reduce the impact of flashbacks or anxiety.
  • Seeking Therapy: Engaging with professional help like therapists or support groups.
  • Physical Activity: Using exercise as a way to manage stress and improve mood.

Impact on Relationships

PTSD can significantly affect a character’s relationships, influencing how they interact with others and perceive social situations.

In relationships, individuals with PTSD may exhibit trust issues, communication breakdowns, and difficulties in maintaining close connections.

They might isolate themselves or have conflicts due to misunderstandings about their behavior.

It’s important to show both the struggle in maintaining relationships and the potential for positive, supportive interactions.

The Role of Memory and Flashbacks

Characters may experience involuntary reliving of the traumatic event through vivid flashbacks.

These can be disorienting and emotionally intense.

Writers can use techniques like disrupted chronology, first-person narration during flashbacks, or sensory details to convey the disorienting nature of these experiences.

Physical Manifestations of PTSD

Physical symptoms of PTSD can include insomnia, fatigue, headaches, or a heightened startle response.

These symptoms can be used to show the ongoing impact of trauma, even in non-stressful situations.

They can even serve as subtle indicators of the character’s internal struggle.

It’s important to show that PTSD is not only a mental health issue but also has physical manifestations that affect the character’s daily life.

Cultural and Social Aspects of PTSD

The experience of PTSD can be influenced by cultural and social factors, affecting how it is perceived and treated.

Some cultures may have stigmas around mental health, affecting a character’s willingness to seek help.

Social factors like support networks, community understanding, and access to healthcare also play crucial roles in the character’s journey with PTSD.

Check out this video about how to write a character with PTSD:

YouTube Video by Writer Brandon McNulty – How to Write a Character with PTSD

3 Examples of Characters with PTSD

The portrayal of characters with PTSD can vary greatly, depending on their background and the nature of their trauma.

Below are three fictional examples, each illustrating a different aspect of PTSD:

John, the War Veteran

John sat quietly in the park, the serene environment a stark contrast to his internal turmoil.

Suddenly, a car backfired nearby, sounding eerily like gunfire. His heart raced, palms sweated, and he was transported back to the battlefield. He could almost hear the shouts of his comrades, the chaos of war enveloping him.

It took him a moment to realize he was still in the park, safe.

He took a deep breath, reminding himself he was no longer in danger, but the lingering feeling of fear was hard to shake off.

Emily, the Accident Survivor

Emily was driving to the grocery store, a route she had taken countless times.

As she approached the intersection, a motorcycle sped by, its engine’s roar triggering a cascade of unwelcome memories.

Her hands trembled on the steering wheel, recalling the horrific car accident she survived years ago.

The world around her blurred as she was engulfed in the memory of screeching tires and shattering glass. Pulling over, Emily fought to regain her composure, her breaths shallow and quick. The road ahead was clear, yet she felt trapped in the remnants of her past.

David, the Witness to Violence

David was at a friend’s party, the lively atmosphere a much-needed distraction.

However, as he watched a group playfully arguing, a sudden shift in tone brought him back to a darker time. The raised voices echoed a violent confrontation he had witnessed years ago. His heart pounded, and the room felt suffocating. Excusing himself, David stepped outside, seeking solace in the quiet night.

The laughter and music from inside seemed distant as he grappled with the vivid flashbacks, a stark reminder of how deeply the past still haunted him.

Final Thoughts: How to Write a Character With PTSD

Creating a character with PTSD is a responsibility that requires empathy, research, and a deep understanding of human emotions.

Your portrayal can have a powerful impact on how readers perceive mental health issues.

Approach it with care and sensitivity to make your story resonate with authenticity and compassion.

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