If asked to identify a prominent, or even overused, trope in recent years, one might initially think of the, “falling for the allegedly unnoticeable,” such as Lara Jean’s role in the To All the Boys series, or a major mystery plot as seen in the entirety of Stranger Things. While these tropes have certainly experienced a surge of their own, one that has received immense representation is the trauma plot. This plot is one in which a character’s typically tragic and misfortune-strewn backstory is the payoff itself rather than the setup.
From Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Aang, with his obligation to save the world from the same genocidal fate of his people to Margot Robbie’s depiction of a depersonalized Tonya Harding, who hardened from a continual cycle of domestic abuse, it’s clear that the trauma plot is not exclusive to any given genre or media. When assessing the prevalence of trauma plots, we might ask ourselves why it’s so popular and is it problematic?
Perhaps one reason audiences tend to gravitate towards this character arc is because of its ability to capture our sympathy. In The New Yorker article, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Perul Seghal notes, “[u]nlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future…but back into the past.” This emphasis on the past provides writers with a convenient means of a backstory that justifies a character's motivations and actions. For example, Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff starred in the miniseries WandaVision which depicts her descent into madness after insufficiently processing loss. Soon after she appears in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but as a villain obsessed with restoring what she previously lost. Although not necessarily justified, the miniseries did allow us to rationalize her deeds in the film, and understand that she was driven by grief, a feeling many can personally relate to.
This sense of relatability can be felt on both a personal and collective level. Classic novels such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye offer us insight into the historical and ongoing struggles of minority groups that the respective authors belong to. The Joy Luck Club depicts a group of four Asian American women and the cultural divide between them and their American-born children while The Bluest Eye explores the insecurities of a young girl attempting to find her identity amidst systemic racism. Both works increase visibility for their respective communities, allowing other members of these groups to feel heard and validated for previously disregarded experiences.
Given the potentially therapeutic nature of the trauma plot, and its ability to invoke sympathy within us, it may initially be difficult to see how the trope could be problematic. Seghal argues that “[t]rauma trumps all other identities, evacuates personality, remakes it in its own image…[and] reduces characters to symptom.” Seghal’s argument suggests that while trauma enhances characters by supplying them with clear motivations and rationalizations for their behavior, it can easily consume a character's personality. This can make writers over-reliant on trauma as a convenient plot device and thus neglect the other elements and flaws that comprise a character. When we, “reduce characters to symptoms,” we strip them of any agency they possess and transform them into nothing more than victims of circumstance. Consequentially, this produces a character with little incentive to alter anything about their conditions, as they feel powerless to counter the forces that gave them those conditions.
James Whitlock, a researcher at Cornell University, feels that the attraction toward trauma plots is reflective of a cultural affinity for trauma itself. Through his studies on mental health in adolescents, he observed that the term “trauma” was gradually being used to simply describe any upsetting or dissatisfying universal experiences, which minimizes the term's true meaning and magnitude. Whitlock commented that the trauma narrative, “...is a very easy one to adopt…[because] it has currency, so people broker in it.” This currency is likely a reflection of the value that younger generations place on trauma and its role in measuring the significance or validity of one’s mental health challenges. This reveals a wider cultural phenomenon in which we seem to be romanticizing our traumas and is perhaps why we are drawn to such story elements when we consume media and fiction.
Although this idealization is becoming increasingly normalized, it pushes a harmful narrative that discourages us from seeking to understand and process our traumas. In hoping to avoid this, writers can find alternative methods of developing characters without being dependent on the trauma plot. As Seghal noted, the trauma plot tends to place a focus on a character’s past, so instead, writers could direct the story toward a changing present or an unsure future. A story without trauma isn’t necessarily one free of conflict or strife. Instead, a character could experience a major loss in the present alongside the audience and must learn what their role in the loss was. Or a protagonist could encounter a culture or individual who challenges their current perception of the world and drives them to develop their own mindset. There are various other means of writing this type of story, so long as it doesn’t fixate on a character’s traumatic past and instead pushes for adaptation and growth.
Overall, the intentions of creating a trauma plot are typically commendable. Through these arcs, writers have constructed compelling characters for us to enjoy in an entertainment context and brought forward formerly unseen representations of several silenced voices in a personal context. However, the appeal of the trauma narrative is also its weakness. It can create stale characters defined solely by their traumatic background and push a wider narrative that romanticizes unhealthy attitudes toward trauma.