Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 1

Star Trek Voyager - Seven of Nine, a story - YouTube

If we seem to be focusing on broken characters exclusively, future authors, the reason for that is a fair number of creative writing courses and a lot of advice ties back to the sound bite I criticized here at the start of this series: the need to give characters flaws. Too often the “flaws” modern writers select are either not flaws to begin with (i.e. doubt and angst) or they are the result of some trauma that the character is trying to avoid facing in unhealthy ways.

Yes, I said “avoid facing in unhealthy ways.” We discussed this in some detail in the sixth part of this series, but it bears more elucidation because not everyone is “broken” by their own choices or outside events. Some are broken purposely by other people for specific ends, and that means they have a long road back to mental more often than physical health. The posts here and here will be of some help with this topic, but the main point to remember now is that there is a certain breed of human being that enjoys breaking other human beings. You have heard the saying that some people just want to watch the world burn, yes? Well, sadly, some people just want to hear others scream.

It is an unfortunate fact of our fallen existence but one to be recalled by authors. Writers also ought to remember that those who live to cause others pain target any vulnerable party that cannot get away. Abusers of any and every kind choose targets weaker than themselves – or those whom they can isolate and weaken. They then prevent them from escaping and do their best to mold them into something that serves their purposes. It does not matter whether this purpose is to die by inches or to fulfill some type of role; as we shall see, the end result is the same. The abuser gets to gloat, inflict his or her will on the victim, and watch them writhe.

Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt go into this in The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot*. They point out that all the villains, from the Orcs on up to Sauron, gloat and take pleasure in the pain of their victims. One reason, they hypothesize, why the villains do this is because they have no other way to confirm that their victims are submitting to their will. The only way that Sauron knows Pippin is telling the truth when he looks into the Palantír in Return of the King* is to psychologically and telepathically abuse him, an experience that shakes Pippin to his core. The miracle isn’t the foolish Took’s rescue, either; it is that he managed to avoid revealing the heroes’ plan to Sauron despite such a personal attack.

This implies that many people cannot resist such an assault because they aren’t that hardy. Pippin has grown over the course of story, but he also has a natural hardiness from being a Hobbit. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” and Pippin represents that. He demonstrates what the meek, who are not the pushovers or doormats modern interpretations of that word suggest them to be, can expect from those proud souls who hate them on sight.

pippin GIFs Search | Find, Make & Share Gfycat GIFs

If this abuse sounds terrible to you, future authors, that is a good thing. You are mentally healthy for shying away from that image, hating it, and wanting to make it stop. But that impulse must also be tempered by understanding and knowledge, the most important part of which is this: If/when the victim is rescued from the abusive party, then he or she will be physically and psychologically wounded when they are carried out of their place of torture.

Physical wounds, it is said, heal faster than psychological ones. The reason for this is that the body is designed to bounce back as best it can from anything that doesn’t kill it. That might mean learning to get along without an arm or a leg, and it will never be comfortable. However, it will be less difficult than remembering the trauma of being beaten repeatedly until one breaks, revealing secrets to the enemy or serving them willingly just to make the pain stop. Or at least become bearable.

Seven of Nine is a good example. While we discussed how she healed in previous articles, now is a good time to review how she was broken in the first place. The how of breaking tends to impact the how of healing. If you do not know where or how a leg is broken, you cannot set it to let it begin mending on its own. The same is true of the human mind.

With regard to Seven of Nine, she was assimilated as six (going on seven) year old Annika Hansen. Her parents were researchers studying the Borg, an insane idea that only looks worse when you realize they took their young daughter with them on their quest. From the beginning, Annika was put in jeopardy by her own parents. Naturally vulnerable at that age, flashbacks in later episodes showed her watching her worried parents trying desperately to outrun the Borg when the Collective noticed their ship, the Raven, and began hunting it down.

Assimilation to the Hive is not a comfortable process, shown in how Star Trek* characters injected with Borg nanoprobes react to the injection. They jolt, gasp, and try to fight the change, to no avail. Unlucky people who become drones have entire limbs replaced with technical prosthetics to “enhance” their ability to perform various functions aboard Borg vessels, something that is doubtless painful even if the subject is sedated or somehow unconscious during the process.

Imagine going through that as a six-year-old. Imagine feeling your own body – which is nowhere near mature – rearranged from the inside out, your mind rewritten to handle the information the Borg process in their pursuit of “perfection,” and the suppressed voices of billions upon billions of individuals running through your subconscious. Seven of Nine has a prosthetic left eye: the Borg replaced her original eye in the maturation chamber where she was assimilated, a procedure that took five years.

Five years of feeling her body warp and shift at an accelerated rate, while her organs were “enhanced” or replaced, her eye was removed, and the Collective’s voices roared through her mind. These were the “official” voices which communicated about necessary functions aboard ship and the “unofficial” ones that hid from the Borg, trying to maintain some semblance of personal identity and sanity.

The surprise isn’t that Seven wanted to go back to the Collective after having her link to it severed. Being forcibly adopted by them at six, she knows nothing else, and leaving an abusive situation is usually more frightening than remaining in it. The surprise is that she came out of the Hive surly but sane.

Seven of NIne - Star Trek Voyager Photo (30988942) - Fanpop

Seven’s main wound in Star Trek: Voyager* is that she was always told what to do, what to be, and how to act from the age of six after undergoing a traumatic surgery that took five years to complete. I have seen fans compare her to a feral child or sulky teenager, which is correct. Seven of Nine is accustomed to being a piece of technology, not a person. Having her free will restored means she has to learn to exercise it, and that is painful. For someone whose ability to choose was taken before she even hit puberty, it means those near her are going to get the full range of hormonal teenage angst, rebellion, and fire that Seven never had a chance to grow through naturally.

This isn’t pleasant for Seven or the rest of the crew. Janeway has to slap her down, punish her, and tell her off, only to get verbal abuse right back. Having been molded to behave in concert with another’s will, Seven needs the crew’s help to exercise her own within civil, ethical, and moral parameters she had no need of while she was a slave of the Borg. Like setting a broken leg and hobbling around on it with a pair of crutches, Seven needs this if she is to grow into the woman she was meant to be and whom the Borg did their best to murder.

Yes, I do mean murder. Kill the mind, you kill the person. This is what psychological abuse does: it murders another person by eroding their will and replacing it with the abuser’s. The Borg’s determination to pursue “perfection” at the expense of all else requires this level of abuse, shown best in the two-part “Unimatrix Zero” episode. In that installment, a group of drones’ suppressed personalities are hiding and “dreaming” of a normal life outside of the Borg’s conscious monitoring.

When the Borg Queen learns about this, she expends every effort to find “Unimatrix Zero” and stamp it out. The fact that any of her drones are out of her control for any period of time galls her because it means they are not doing what she, who speaks for the Hive, desires. They are “malfunctioning” in the sense that they are exhibiting their own personalities, which she has done her best to remake to serve her ends.

You can see this in a variety of real-life cases of child abuse, which is what Seven’s incarceration with the Borg is at its core. Seven was a child, with no mental defenses against the Borg’s cybernetic link, something that overwhelms the psyches of full-grown adults. By her very nature as a physical and mental child, Seven was vulnerable to the Borg’s manipulation. Part of the responsibility for her assimilation rests on her parents’ shoulders; if they hadn’t taken her with them when they went haring off after the Borg to satisfy their curiosity, then she wouldn’t have been assimilated.

Seven of Nine - Startrek-voyager.eu

But that does not absolve the Borg for what they did to Seven when she was in their clutches. It does not make the trauma they inflicted on her any less their fault. Of a certainty, it does not alter the fact that they imposed their will on a child and, essentially, laughed about it.

The same fact applies for Shinei “Shin” Nouzen of 86 – Eighty-Six*, Mumei from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress*, Marvel’s Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff* and – to a degree – Raven of Zoids: Chaotic Century*. They were all children when they were forced onto the battlefield by adults who wanted living extensions of their will to utilize in combat. Each one of these characters’ inherent vulnerability as children was exploited by others to make them capable of fighting adults’ wars so that the adults in question wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty.

As a child, Shin and his family were sent to the 86th district outside the Republic of San Magnolia simply because they weren’t Alba. There Shin endured the mistreatment of his fellow 86; hunger, thirst, and the deaths of his parents which he could feel through his natural psychic link with them. When his older brother Rei received notice of their mother’s death and his own enlistment form, he snapped and attacked his younger brother.

Rei nearly killed Shin at the same time he accidentally bolstered his telepathy, allowing him to hear the voices of the dead assimilated into the Republic’s enemy: the mechanical Legion. When he was conscripted at the age of eleven Shin, still traumatized by his brother’s berserk loss of temper, found himself the sole survivor of his first unit. He continued to survive the 86th sector for the next five years, watching his squadron mates die like flies while he himself walked the battlefield, carrying their memories with him “to [his] final destination.”

Of course, the Republic cared nothing about this. To them Shin is like the other 86: an unevolved pig in human form. As long as he kills Legion drones and is in turn killed by those metal monstrosities, whatever happens to him is all to their good. They only want a discardable weapon, and if they can give him a fancy name (Undertaker), that just confirms their ownership of him. They do not want Shinei Nouzen.

In Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Mumei’s station fell to the Kabane when she was around ten years old. As the station was overrun by the zombies a man guarding Mumei, her mother, and a handful of other refugees went mad. He started shooting the humans with him rather than the monsters outside their hiding place. Mumei’s mother took a bullet for her daughter and died in her arms.

Where to watch Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress episode 2: Mume

Mumei (real name: Hozumi)

Before Mumei could be killed Biba “The Liberator” Amatori arrived. Rather than rescue Mumei himself, he tossed her a sword and told her to prove her strength by killing her attacker. Otherwise, he would simply ride away and let her die. Given that choice and with her mother’s demise fresh in her mind, the child killed her attacker, whereupon Biba took her in and gave her the name Mumei. He had her turned into a Kabaneri – a half-human, half-Kabane (zombie) – then trained her to fight and destroy the monsters.

She became “the Claw of the Liberator,” his best warrior, and he allowed her to call him “brother.” When he asked her to open the gates to a station, she did so, allowing hordes of Kabane in to kill the inhabitants. By the time Mumei understood how she had been used, it was too late to save anyone.

This pattern repeats with Natasha Romanoff and Raven, both of whom were also taken as children to be molded into living weapons. In each case, they were taken at a vulnerable age after some kind of trauma (Natasha is said to have been “rescued” from a hospital fire as an infant by a Red Room operator, and Raven had seen his parents and rescuer killed) whereupon they were trained to become living extensions of the will of others (the Red Room and Gunter Prozen respectively). While Raven had more latitude and ability to choose when compared to Natasha, that does not erase the fact that Prozen had him fashioned into his own personal weapon.

Adam Lane Smith’s article on how women heal after being raped (content warning: this article is not for children) points out that most rapists see the women they attack as objects. The same applies in this situation: Seven, Shin, Mumei, Natasha, and Raven were all objects to the people who found them. The Borg, the Republic, Biba, the Red Room, and Prozen only saw them as a means to an end. They did not see them as people – as children – to be nurtured, protected, and defended until they became the adults they were meant to become.

It is that treatment which has to be counteracted by the caring influence of the heroes in these respective series. Yes, even in Zoids, Raven’s behavior must have a concerned response. Van does not fight him out of hatred but out of love; love for zoids, for their pilots, and for his friends – whom Raven gleefully threatens. Without that consistent, steady determination to thwart him Raven would never have done a heel-face-turn when it mattered most.

Like Seven of Nine all these characters have to be given or faced with the love they were denied when they were captured, broken, and remade into something they were never meant to become. It is not an easy path to travel, and like Seven, they experience setbacks. Shin is challenged repeatedly after being rescued from the 86th sector to leave behind the narrow mindset he forged there to survive, while a twelve-year-old Mumei is forced to confront the fact that the man who told her to call him brother cares less about her than the strangers she rescued two weeks prior.

Natasha is challenged outright in Captain America: The Winter Soldier* to be better than the Red Room made her by Steve Rogers. She only has the capacity at the beginning of the film to “love” herself – i.e. do whatever it takes to survive. It is, as she says, a good way not to die. In the Red Room it was the only way to keep breathing.

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff | Marvel Cinematic Universe ...

But it is a terrible way to live. Along with others, Steve Rogers wants her to live. Accustomed to the Red Room’s indifference, she has to come to terms with the care he and others show her in the course of the story. Just as Raven must come to admit that he doesn’t hate zoids when his closest companion – a zoid – is killed saving his life.

There is more to be said on this topic, readers, but we will get to that next week. For now, this should give you some good ideas of how these and other characters were broken and learned to cope or survive for a time. It should also show you just what is necessary to help them heal from wounds delivered when they were too young to fight back effectively. TLC isn’t just “tender loving care”: it is also “tough loving care.”

Captain Janeway, Lena Milizé, Ikoma, Steve Rogers, and particularly Van Flyheight had to dish out the tough love as well as the tender kind to bring these respective characters back to health. In the same way, your side or lead characters will have to do this for the traumatized protagonists in your stories. Keep that in mind, and your characters with traumatic injuries will be more authentic than most other modern interpretations.

Such authenticity will be rewarded by your readers. No one likes being patronized; get your broken characters right, and your audience will appreciate it. That is worth more to you than following “sound bite advice” to the letter can ever hope to be.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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6 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 1

  1. It’d going to be fun, because I’m running into my various character’s traumas.

    Adelaide has quite a few, not the least of which is that this shouldn’t be her body or her life, but it’s been a far better thing than the last few decades she’s been living. She’s missing information that everybody seems to think she should know. There’s quite a few things hunting her, and have no problem with burning down a city block to kill one spider. And, her job involves killing people on a regular basis. Monsters, that’s fine…but people, on the other hand…
    Sayuri firmly suspects that her father has killed her mother and that he will never be punished for that. That it is only a few years, at best, before she is a part of a corporate merger-with-children most people would call “marriage” from the outside. Any friends she might make could be used against her, or taken away. Oh, and she suspect that she’s firmly bisexual and preferring women-very bad in Japan, especially if the woman involved can’t hide it discretely.
    Deborah never really knew her father. Her mother, at most, will say “good job” for perfection, and critique with cold precision anything less. There is very little ability for Deborah to do anything that is not on her mother’s schedule. Oh, and she also has a supernatural harness hooked into her body that is acting like a Skinner Box-rewarding and punishing her by direct stimulation.

    And, Adelade’s other Companions are in bad shape as well.

    Where they go from here will be…interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece!

    Small point, regarding Pippin and the Palantir: I’m afraid that’s not Hobbit toughness, but sheer luck. Gandalf specifies in the book that Pippin certainly *would* have told Sauron everything he knew, had the Dark Lord bothered to ask. Sauron didn’t because he though Pippin was in Orthanc and wanted to fetch him to Mordor so that he could ‘deal with him slowly’. So, Pippin and the whole world were ironically saved by the very abusive mentality that you describe!

    Liked by 1 person

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