Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 3

Brunhilde (Marvel Comics)

Thus far we have looked at how children and men are broken and remade in abusive situations. It is not a pleasant picture and the road back is rough even for the strongest members of each demographic. Manipulation cannot be overcome in an hour, perhaps not even a year; it takes time, it takes effort, and it takes care from others as well. Remember “Physician, heal thyself”? That does not happen in the case of abuse, not without a great deal of help from others.

Having discussed men and children today we come to a trickier topic: broken female characters. This topic is tricky due less to the facts than to the manner female characters in general are depicted today. Most are “action girls” like Kate Bishop (Marvel Comics’ new Hawkeye), Ziva David from NCIS*, and Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok, whose character arc is actually a male arc with a woman playing the role. The latter is funny but it is not in accord with reality, which makes it difficult to connect with Valkyrie during the movie.

But, some will say, these are women who take names and kick butt! If they are broken, they fight their way back! Or they resort to male coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma. Whichever is true, they “do not need a man to complete [them]” (per NCIS). They are fighters!

I am going to take a very deep breath and say to all the writers reading this: Stop right there. There are several problems with this modern approach, and I will do my best to break them down during the course of this post. Suffice it to say, there is more than one way to break a woman, just as there is more than one way to break a man or a child and leave them traumatized.

We will start with Kate Bishop, whose initial backstory when she was introduced to comics said that she began taking self-defense classes after she was sexually assaulted in Central Park at fifteen. To the best of my knowledge this has not come up in the new Hawkeye series so if you have been following that you may not have known this about Kate. Her introduction in the comics is the standard modern recipe to create an “action girl”: woman is raped, learns how to fight in a male manner, then goes out and beats up men. She can do this either to save other women from enduring her fate or out of revenge for “men’s” abuse of her. Occasionally, both motivations are mentioned.

There are some problems with this approach, the first being that it is trite and predictable. Everyone has done a variation on this theme, including Marvel, and they have done it to “action girls” who became fighters for different reasons. Look no further than Marvel heroine Mockingbird, whose marriage was destroyed when she went after and killed her rapist, then hid the deed from her husband. Trying to make a traumatized action heroine or a heroine who enters the action on the sole premise that she was raped and seeks to prevent others from being raped/avenge herself on the male sex is rather boring.


Kate Bishop (original appearance)

Another reason why this type of backstory is less compelling than others is that women don’t typically have this reaction to being sexually assaulted. (Content warning: the linked article is not appropriate for children.) This is because, by nature, women are rarely fighters. Women are designed, biologically and psychologically, to manage house, spouse, children, and home with a power that would turn every dictator in the world green with envy. There is a reason why “hide the women and children” or “women and children first” comes down to us today: women are constitutionally unable to match a man in combat or sports, and no matter what anyone tells them to the contrary, they know this.

So when women are abused, they do not typically fight back, and some will vehemently claim the abuse is a sign of affection from a male abuser. DC’s Harley Quinn is the poster child for this mentality, as she insists the Joker loves her when he clearly does not, misusing her occasionally simply for his own pleasure. Harley is so desperate for love, for a normal life with the man of her dreams, that she accepts his mistreatment and defends him when Batman or others point out what is really happening.

Those women who do resist abuse do not do so in the way that a man will, as we shall see below. For now, it is important to remember that even in cases where the heroine is a fighter of some kind, she does not always react to the event of rape in the manner Kate Bishop does. Kara, from Dragonheart*, is already versed in combat before being violated by Einon. The event hurts her and she openly laments the loss of her virginity to Bowen when he proposes to her in the novelization*, showing that she is affected by it. However, it does not drive her actions. Kara wished to see Einon defeated before he raped her and she maintained that outlook afterward, never letting his mistreatment of her control her or compromise her ability to fight.

But this reaction to sexual abuse isn’t guaranteed any more than the heroine becoming an action girl is. In Andre Norton’s first Witch World* novel, one of the heroines encounters a servant in her father’s castle who is behaving strangely. This woman is a former Witch of Estcarp, and she usually does not talk. In Estcarp, the Witches rule unchallenged – unless their magic is taken from them via rape. This is why Witches do not marry; they believe their virginity is all that lets them channel magic – take it away and they are nothing. The servant in Witch World is the apparent proof, since she is a shell of her former self, abused, imprisoned, and with barely any will of her own left.

However, later on in the series we find that Witches actually can marry men and retain their power after sexual intercourse with their partners. The Witch Jaelithe not only marries the Earthman Simon Tregarth, she conceives and gives birth to the Witch World’s first set of triplets with him. Through it all she not only retains the power she had as a virgin Witch, she gains more thanks to her bond with her husband.

So sexual intercourse itself isn’t precisely what renders a Witch magicless. Even the faded Witch we meet in Witch World has a scrap of remaining talent that enables her to sense one of her sisters crying out for help. It is the violence of the act, which the telepathic Witches probably feel doubly compared to most women, that renders them incapable of using magic or fighting back. Since Witches receive training to go into combat, there is no question of their mental strength. The simple fact is that this act of abuse, backed by a malicious will that takes pleasure in subduing the Witch who anticipates the loss of her own power in this violation, is enough to break even the hardiest among them.

Giving Kate Bishop this type of trauma at the age of fifteen and not dealing with it “onscreen” or showing how it affects her relationships with others as she becomes a superheroine is a bit disingenuous. Kara of Dragonheart demonstrates that women can get through a rape without becoming a weeping wreck, but given the archetype she was to portray, Kate still should have exhibited some lingering trauma from the event and dealt with it in her career – particularly in her father/daughter relationship with Clint Barton. To the best of my knowledge, she did not do so, and that is a missed opportunity.

I said above that women do not typically fight back against abuse and, if they do, they do not do so in the way that a man will. The film Prairie Fever* is a good demonstration of this fact. The movie follows former sheriff Preston Biggs (Kevin Sorbo) as he transports three women suffering from “prairie fever” to Carson City so they can be shipped back home to their families. “Prairie fever” was a term used for people who couldn’t cope with the wide-open spaces of the prairie. It was not kenophobia precisely, or at least, that specific phobia was not the sole root of “prairie fever.” As a general rule “prairie fever” was an inability to deal with the inherent emptiness and difficulties of prairie life.

The three women Biggs is hired to transport were among seventeen mail order brides brought to the prairie to help settle it. Fourteen have adapted to prairie life nicely but these three have not. Of these women Lettie is in the worst condition; she tried to murder her husband, and she tries to kill Preston when she meets him first. For the early part of the film Lettie is aggressive, does not speak, and growls or whimpers like an animal. Her hands occasionally make strange movements that are only made clear later.


Sensitive young Abigail has become afraid of the sky (she may have a touch of kenophobia). When led outside or somehow escaping indoor confines, she thrashes and writhes to the ground, screaming nonsense about the sky falling and killing them all. Meanwhile the third woman, Blue, has turned into an enthusiastic Bible-reciter who scares even the local preacher. She consistently reads from the Good Book and her husband states that, “She’s gotten so close to God that I can’t get betwixt ‘em.”

Early on in the journey to Carson City, Biggs and his passengers encounter Olivia Thibodeaux, a gambler’s partner who has left him and absconded with their ill-gotten gains. Good with a revolver and wearing men’s clothes, she comes upon the group when Abigail has an episode and manages to calm the frightened girl down. Reluctant to take another woman into his party, Preston has no choice when Olivia proves to have a similar effect on the other two women, causing them to behave somewhat reasonably and make his job easier.

The longer they ride together the more about the women’s behavior is revealed: the three are not actually crazy, they are coping with the effects of abuse. Lettie was deceived by her mail order husband, who said he liked music. In reality he had no education, paid someone to write her pretty letters, and said within her hearing that he planned to break the organ she loves for firewood. As Lettie herself says, “He didn’t want a wife, just another farm animal.”

It is no wonder she tried to kill Preston when she met him and acted like a feral creature for her early part in the film. Having been treated as such, she began playing the part to cope with the abuse – for, as I said previously, if you kill a person’s mind that person dies. In an effort to preserve herself, Lettie retreated into the mindset of the animal she was considered and remained there until she was regarded as a human being once more. That is not something an “action girl” would typically do in today’s fictional climate, but it is something a real woman would do if she was pushed far enough.

Blue eventually reveals that she “got religion” to ask forgiveness for her brother-in-law’s rape. Her husband, Frank, loved Blue and she loved him. Frank’s brother Charlie, however, took advantage of Blue when his brother was absent. Unable to tell Frank point blank what happened, the young woman retreated to the Bible and began reciting from it in an attempt to ask forgiveness as well as tell him of his brother’s betrayal. But her reading of all the punishments and “hellfire and brimstone” passages in the Bible, which she felt she deserved for Charlie’s actions (something in accord with the first point in Mr. Lane’s article), confused her listeners. So no one understands what she really means until it is too late to do anything about it.

These are extreme cases, to be sure, but the fact is that abuse of any kind can push one to extremes. Abigail’s husband did not mistreat her; he died on the prairie, where she found his body almost a month later. This led to her fear of the sky (which she mitigates by wearing a bonnet that restricts her line of vision). Abigail’s family, however, married her off while young and inexperienced to get her out of the house. When they discover she has “prairie fever” they decide to send her to an asylum. She thinks she is on her way home but that is not what will happen. Her marriage was, in a way, an escape from her uncaring family – one that ended in tragedy when her husband died on the frontier.

Even among so called “action girls” there are disparate coping mechanisms that women use to address – or avoid addressing – traumatic events in their pasts because women don’t react to abuse in the same way men do. While their reaction may be affected by the circumstances and the character of the woman in question, they typically will not deal with it in the manner men will. As it is, no two men will deal with a painful event the same way, so why should women?

This is where I will go back to Ziva David and bring in Sarah Connor of the Terminator* franchise. Ziva is an agent of Mossad in the earlier seasons of NCIS. As such, she has had intensive training to resist physical as well as psychological abuse. When she is captured and tortured for four months in a Somalian terrorist camp through seasons six and seven of the series, she has some methods of coping with the abuse and generally handles it in a mature manner (i.e. she does not get stone drunk or act out, like the Valkyrie in Ragnarok does).

Nevertheless, the trauma of her capture still affects her and her relationships with other members of the cast. She is quieter and more reserved than she was previously, and she learns to rely on her male teammates in ways she would not have earlier, deepening her bonds with the team. This makes her statement in a later season when she claims the team as family ring truer than it might have otherwise, since they have supported her through a difficult recovery when her real family did not.

Sarah Connor, on the other hand, has a very difficult time handling the knowledge of the coming war between Skynet and humans in the future. Knowing what her son will go through and what the war will bring drives Sarah to extremes in Terminator 2: Judgement Day*. This includes terrorism, which we learn when it is revealed that she was arrested and held in a mental hospital after attempting to bomb a computer factory. Her desire to avert this disastrous future for the sake of her son sends her down the path to alcoholism at the same time it leaves her brittle, sharp, and hard.

Games and Trips - There are only two things poets like

This is the general type of “strong female character” many writers strive to emulate without understanding that Sarah’s strength in Terminator 2 is on the verge of collapsing. Her anticipation of the upcoming war and her inability to stop it to save her son is wearing her down; gun-toting mother bear or not, the knowledge is driving her into the ground and it will kill her unless she has help dealing with it. The second Terminator’s arrival to protect John Connor is the aid she needs though understandably she initially doesn’t want it.

While the original film’s ending leaves Sarah and John’s fate up in the air to provide room for more sequels, the deleted finale is far more hopeful. In this one Judgement Day is averted, meaning that Sarah and John live normal lives following the film’s adventure. This has allowed Sarah to regain her original femininity and celebrate the life she and Kyle Reese helped to create:

Of the two finales, I have to say this one is preferable, and not just because it prevents the occurrence of the atrocious Terminator: Dark Fate. Most modern writers think being broken is something to be celebrated, encouraged, or simply accepted. But while one can accept one’s brokenness, remaining in it is a sure path to stagnation, decay, and death. Alcoholism kills, after all, and we are told it is bad for us. Why, therefore, should characters who engage in it as a coping mechanism be celebrated for doing so? Wouldn’t it be better, as with Sarah Connor and so many others, to fight forward and find a way to heal?

As Aleczandxr says in a recent video about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood* here, one of humanity’s best qualities is to come back stronger from tragedy and abuse. Drive men and women into the ground, kill their loved ones, take away everything they hold dear – it doesn’t stop those who are left behind. Sooner or later, they come back. Yes, the scars will remain, but with time and effort they will also heal. That is the point; to be pick oneself up, preferably with the help of other concerned individuals who care about one, and come back stronger from where one was before.

This is what happens to “Crazy Cora” in Quigley Down Under* and Blanche in The Song at the Scaffold* by Gertrude von le Fort. Cora appears mad when Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) first meets her in the movie. This is not the case – it is, rather, a defense mechanism. When we first see Cora she is being forcibly taken to Elliot Marston’s ranch to serve as a prostitute. Although most of the other women selected are prostitutes, Cora is not, and she fights a desperate battle to avoid that fate. Men generally do not want to bed crazy women who will rip at their eyes and bite deep enough to draw a great deal of blood, as Cora does to at least two ranch hands moments before Quigley intervenes on her behalf.

Another source of Cora’s madness is revealed later, when we learn that she was sent on a ship to Australia by her husband. He did so after she accidentally smothered their son when a group of drunk Commanches came to their homestead. The Commanches didn’t harm her, but her fear and desire to avoid their attention caused her to ‘silence’ her crying baby to death. Her husband could not stand to have her after that. Left with no other recourse in a strange land far from home, she began acting crazy out of guilt and to keep men away from her.

Quigley’s willingness to defend and take care of her is what initially leads Cora to call him by her husband’s name (Roy). During their time together his compassion and a chance to save another child have the effect of returning Cora’s damaged psyche to health. She returns to her original personality after being treated well and appreciated by someone else, rather than being left to her guilt and brokenness.

In the historical novella Song at the Scaffold, Blanche is a young woman who is terrified of the world. Born premature after her mother is caught and manhandled in a mob following an accident with fireworks, Blanche is possessed of a crippling anxiety from a young age. As a result of her reasonless terror the household servants give her the affectionate yet dubious title of “little rabbit.” Only when she learns more about her religion does the young girl begin to leave that attitude, eventually choosing to become a Carmelite nun. She is accepted into the convent at Compiégne before the start of the French Revolution.

As the Revolution takes off and its Terror spreads, Blanche loses her apparent self-confidence and becomes more frightened with every passing day. The abbess prepares to send her away – until she realizes that Blanche is, in some manner, embodying the fear of the entire country that unites her to the fear Christ experienced in the garden of Gethsemane. She begins helping the girl handle this vocation but, while the abbess is away, one of the other nuns – a zealous woman determined to become a martyr – convinces the convent to take a vow of courage and so to pray for martyrdom. Blanche runs away from Compiégne without taking the vow in order to be loyal to her own calling to suffer fear on behalf of her countrymen and France itself.

Caught in the resultant Terror, Blanche is forced to drink a goblet full of human blood by one of the Revolutionaries after her own father is killed at the guillotine. (This moment in the story was based upon an actual event wherein a young noblewoman was forced to endure a similar fate during the Reign of Terror, some time before the nuns of Compiégne were in fact martyred.) Following this event, Blanche’s mind goes into full retreat; she is not quite catatonic but is easily dragged from place to place by the female Revolutionaries. These women make sure she is fed and watched over but it does nothing to awaken Blanche.

At the end of the novel Blanche comes out of her psychological retreat only when the rest of the nuns from Compiégne are brought to the guillotine. Each nun goes to her execution singing, and when the last one is silenced, Blanche’s voice takes up the song before she is beaten to death by the same women who “protected” her during the Terror. A strength which is not her own brings her out of the recesses of her mind and into the light of the next life as the novice who most feared martyrdom becomes a willing martyr. Meanwhile the zealous nun whose actions sent Blanche running into the very arms of fear is condemned to live when she would rather have died a glorious death.

Think about these examples the next time you are searching for a broken female character, future authors. They are not all equal nor broken in the same way, and the strengths they have to call upon are very different. Real life women, just like real life men and children, have various weaknesses and powers of their own. No two are exactly alike, and that should be reflected in fiction.

We have more than enough Kate Bishops, Ziva Davids, and Valkyries in present day fiction. A few of these modern archetypes are wonderful characters only because they are well drawn. The rest are the face of the modern zeitgeist and have little in the way of substance.

Let’s spice things up a bit, shall we? How about adding a few more Karas, Blanches, Coras, and the like to our stories? Why not even select some women suffering from “prairie fever”? The change of pace will be diverting, at least. Who knows? Maybe we will start a trend of our own. 😉

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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 3

  1. Very good piece! And sure to be useful. I appreciate the frankness and honesty here.

    One point I’d dispute is that I don’t think the ending of ‘T2’ is in any way intended to allow for more sequels: the story is pretty clearly over at that point. The ambiguity is merely meant to leave the audience with a sense of uncertainty tinged with hope (not like, say, the imposed ending to ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, which is intended to allow for sequels).

    By the way, on the subject of ‘women are not built for combat’, one of things I’ve noticed in martial arts is that it usually takes women – at least those without prior experience – a long time to get used to hitting people. I remember once a young lady landed a punch on my face and broke down crying, because it was so contrary to her normal instincts. That’s something to keep in mind if anyone wants to tackle the ‘woman becomes a fighter’ theme: actually hitting people is not as easy as it sounds, especially for people brought up in today’s environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ditto to the martial arts remark. I took a sef defense class several years ago with several guys and three other women. It took our instructor three months to get the women to the point where they would actually legitimately hit back.

      (As the remaining 25% of the female representation, I had the opposite problem. Possibly because I grew up the oldest and biggest in my family, I was the most instinctively violent person in the class. Much of my energy wound up dedicated to not hurting my sparring partners by punching them in the face when we were supposed to be practicing blocks (which did in fact happen. Guy was kindly understanding despite the bloody nose). So there are exceptions. But women who switch into violence mode seem to jump to “kill” waaaay faster than men do.)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “women who switch into violence mode seem to jump to “kill” waaaay faster than men do”
        When I took a self-defense class in high school (at a girls’ school), one of the major tenets was that your means of self defense was to get away—and that could mean incapacitating your attacker so they couldn’t chase you. I think of it as the inability to calibrate a moderate response. You can’t be guaranteed to incapacitate an attacker at anything less than an extreme level.

        On that note, a way to get men to wince when describing that class is to repeat the advice “grab and twist.”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. There may be a reason for that. Men are quite used to relatively violent encounters (as opposed to the subterfuge I’ve seen women use against one another). Most of the time this means that when the fight is over, it’s over. It’s the old-school “Has honor been served?” scenario: you give and take your lumps and then shake hands and put it behind you. I have yet to personally meet a woman who understands that.

        However, there are situations where the scenario is different. It’s “kill or be killed” or you’re facing overwhelming odds. The rules here are different. You don’t strike to wear someone down; you strike to incapacitate or kill as quickly as possible.

        I suppose it’s the second scenario that women find themselves in more often. They won’t be defending themselves from other women, but from men (who they instinctively know could lay them out cold). Once a woman has gotten past the idea of striking someone, doing so as if every situation were a desperate one makes sense to me.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Several things come to mind from reading article and comments & I don’t have a sense of “This Is Their Purpose” & they are kind of “All over the map”.

    First is that due to my set of the effects of autism and several other things I don’t watch TV and movies. Have watched some TV and movies in past such as ST:TOS, STNG, Babylon 5, & the first 2 or 3 ST and SW movies, but no more, my body can no longer handle the sensory overload.

    Second is that when my brother and I were in high school and took Judo lessons in the 1980s the instructor turned out to be the short little Filipino wife of one of the guys on Dad’s Navy ship. To use a phrase, she pulled no punches; boys, girls, Marines the size of NFL players were thrown to the floor equally. (I still am convinced that one of the Marines allowed me to throw him a couple times)

    Around that time Dad was sent to be XO of & straighten out some problems on one of the first Navy ships which could be sent to combat zones which was having women in its crew. The Navy gave him some classes on the physical and psychological differences between men and women in both daily normal life and in combat settings. He talked at length about some of the lesson content but here 40 years later my conscious recall is minimal.

    Two aunts who live in rural areas, one on Dad’s side and one on Mom’s side, have in past decades presented and cocked guns in order to end burglary and home invasion. The one aunt was married to a deputy sheriff who was a Vietnam veteran and gun collector & though she was a nurse I have no doubt, zero doubt, that she would have ended lives to protect herself, their children, and their home, were that to be required. Her preference was not to, but if it was required she would have gone there.

    And I think my Ozarks farm girl become dietitian Mom would have done likewise. She was good enough with a gun to have taken her .410 and outshot a bunch of Navy guys with their 12 gauges at skeet, nailing the doubles while at it.

    (perhaps the takeaway with these 3 gals is to beware of brainy farm girls with medical degrees)

    Also, and more related to traumatized people, though I did not set out to go there a sci-fi/science fantasy I have on and off played at writing for several decades does feature a group of people suffering deep trauma and closely follows a specific few of them. The female lead is hit hard by that trauma (her husband the male lead is too) and several of my female friends, one being a semi-retired psychologist, who have read the story have commented positively on how I am writing her. I didn’t ask for details figuring it might backfire and the knowledge end up negatively affecting my writing of the characters.
    I did say that my biggest insecurity is whether my characters come across as real people and not shallow cutouts. Answers have included that yes they are rounded out; that the male and female lead while being distinctly different people are both me; and a friend who was in to the past lives thing said that both the couple were written like I had lived their lives in past lives.

    At this point my ME/CFS affected brain has run out of energy and my hands now hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

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