Trauma And Superpowers: How Do They Connect?

by Ames
(Mobile, AL, United States)

Question: I'm currently writing a story where MC1 can control darkness, MC2 can control plants, and MC3 can control machines. I want them to experience REALISTIC traumas that relate to their pasts because I've already decided on their powers, and I don't want to retcon my story too much. So, how would I write a character whose powers are influenced by their traumas? Thanks!

Answer: Well, some people would suggest you've put the cart before the horse, and that perhaps you should have begun with creating the characters and their distinct traits and defining moments and then decided what powers they might gain as a consequence.

However, not everyone works that way. Sometimes you get an image of a superhero, complete with powers, and develop their backstory later.

If the latter is your situation, the first question I might ask is... Do they need to have trauma in their background? Is it essential that all their character arcs begin with trauma? Along the same lines... Do they ALL need to have a character arc that begins with trauma?

While it's true that many characters have arcs that begin with a traumatic backstory, and most people in real life have had incidents and periods in their life that were unpleasant, many character arcs are not trauma based. It's become quite common to give every character a traumatic history, but it's also become a bit of a cliche.

Not that there's anything wrong with that choice, but it is something to think about. Since you are working with three characters, you might also consider giving them distinctly different arcs.

However, let's assume you have a good reason to want all your characters to have a trauma in their past that led to the development of their unique powers. Perhaps you want to write a story in which three people overcome their traumas to emerge as heroes.

I might also suggest you consider having the mechanism by which they gain their powers differ.

One classic approach might be for a character to have a traumatic incident during which their desire to overcome whatever threat they perceived caused them to tap into a previously unknown source of potential within them and led to an unleashing of a specific power.

For example, one character wanted to hide, so they manifested an ability to control darkness. One character called out for help and the only living things around them were plants, so the plants responded. A third character needed a machine to work in order to save them,
so it did.

Perhaps that's the kind of universe you envision -- something like the X-men, but with the powers triggered by intense need rather than puberty.

Or you might decide to have one or more characters gain their powers by some other means and the trauma is incidental -- something that influences their personality rather than their powers. They could have both things going on in their life at the same time.

Or the powers could have been the source of the original trauma. For instance, a character is cursed to generate darkness spontaneously and their fear of the dark makes their powers traumatizing... until they learn to control them. Another character is given bio-implants to let them control machines and the experience of the surgery and its after-effects is traumatic.

You might also ask yourself if the various powers are loosely associated with the characters' traumas (e.g. one person's trauma happened at night, so they develop darkness powers).

Something else to consider... In real life, children who are exposed to a traumatizing threat can only imagine so many ways they might have coped better. They may imagine running away, hiding, destroying the threat, or becoming the monster. When they grow up and the trauma is triggered, they may react by acting out one of these strategies. Some people behave like the monster of their childhood.

You might also ask yourself if a character's power symbolizes some aspect of the trauma.

At any rate, whatever you decide will not be completely realistic, because in real life people don't develop powers. What matters is that...

1. The traumas seem realistic, authentic, and believable.
2. The powers follow certain rules consistently. Readers can accept a fantastical premise if it is consistent and follows its own rules. (And if there aren't too many such premises in the same story.)

As for the first of these (making traumas realistic), it's worth noting that, in a technical sense, there's no such thing as a traumatic event. There are only traumatic reactions to events. For instance, some children may find going through a haunted house at an amusement park fun. For others, it may be traumatizing. Some people will enjoy petting a snake. Others find it traumatizing just to be in the same room as one. Some people find horror movies traumatizing. Others find them sexually arousing. Different people cope with physical pain or loss differently. Your characters will have their own unique reactions. What matters is that the reader doesn't find their reactions inauthentic.

Best of luck.

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