Trauma in Fiction: Writing Realistic Traumatic Events from Your Character’s POV

If you were to ask me to describe the Oklahoma City bombing to you, I’d be able to give you a very accurate picture of what happened that day.  The building had a gaping hole.  Cars and trees were on fire.  Ash-covered people wondered aimlessly like zombies.  Police, fire and ambulances came rushing to the scene.  You wouldn’t have to watch the news accounts of it because I would have painted a very factually based account of the ordeal.

But what I really gave you was a news report.  Because how I describe most of the Oklahoma City bombing to those who ask comes from the news accounts I watched about it years later.  However, if I rewind the tape and analyze what I really remember and how I remember it, you would have quite a different story on your hands.

One of the most vivid things I recall is the crunch, crunch, crunch sound of glass as I ran to the south side of the building to get around the fires. I didn’t take a step that didn’t put glass under my feet, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what it was that I was running on.

I ran into a police officer and he grabbed my shirt, and I have no recollection of what we said to each other, but I remember his eyes—wide, terrified, unheroic in the moment, it seemed—and he let me go.

I remember all that paper floating down from the sky and the urge to gather it up because that’s what you do when people lose their important papers—you gather it up for them.

Hours after the bomb went off, sirens still took up all the silence, not a single moment to listen to quiet skies—just wailing, high-pitched sirens. I remember being irritated by it, feeling like the whole world must be on fire.

Did I see death?  Blood and gore?  The most desperate moments of my fellow human beings?  I did. I had to have. There was no way for me to miss it.  Yet I have one or two small, vivid images of that sort of thing. Mostly what I remember from that day would never draw a complete picture of the events that unfolded.  It wouldn’t even be an incomplete picture.  It simply, if all strung together, wouldn’t make any sense at all.

When writers try to capture a traumatic event in a character’s story, it’s easy to try to use that moment to describe the entire event itself.  Whether it’s a car crash or a life-and-death attack, we want our reader to see it as we see it in our head—unfolding moment by moment.

But to help our reader connect to our character, we must resist the temptation to have it play out as a scene in a movie. Rather, we should allow our reader to experience it as the character experiences it—through broken, unhinged moments that don’t make up the whole story.

Chances are, you’ve also experienced your own traumatic moment.  Stop and think for a little bit.  What do you remember about that incident?  What do you really remember?  Sure, your mind has filled in the blanks, but what are your very first memories…the ones that don’t make sense on their own?

Take some time to sit and write them out.  I bet you’d be amazed at some of the things you remember that seem so outside of the true event.

I was 19 years old, whizzing down Interstate 44 when a bread truck in front of me started to swerve violently from one side of the highway to the other until, going at least sixty miles an hour, it slammed head-on into the concrete beam that held up the overpass.

I pulled to the side of the road and looked around. There wasn’t another car in sight.  And I remember thinking I was the only person who could help him.  This was before cellphones, so I got out of my car, with full intentions of rushing to the truck to offer help.  As I got out of the car, I could see the entire front of the truck. The cab, where the driver would’ve been, was virtually a pancake.

Like it was yesterday, I can still feel this sensation: my feet had become lead.  I tried to move, but my feet felt like they weighed five hundred pounds each.  A man ran past me—I hadn’t even seen him stop his car—and I remember thinking, “How is he running?” It was like gravity had glued me to the road.

These obscure details that we remember from trauma are similar to what your character will remember too.  Trauma is just that—it jolts the brain.  The mind tries to make sense of  madness. Is it any wonder that we can’t process it right?

I vividly recall standing in front of the gaping hole of the Murrah building after the bombing and looking at a computer that was swinging from a desk four or five stories up, held only by a cord, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  What is that box hanging there?  What is that black cord?  My mind could not immediately register that it was a computer hanging from a desk, in an office that had half its side blown out.

By narrowing your descriptions, and letting your character process trauma as we do in real life, your scenes will not only read more accurately, but also more intimately. Sure, the fireball of the explosion makes for good drama, but this is a book, not a movie, and it’s the microcosm of the event, the tiny details we remember in extraordinary moments, that make us human.

Here are some practical tips to capture your character’s most harrowing and traumatic moments:

  • Go small, not big. When something traumatic happens, it’s very hard for the human brain to comprehend the entire event….and for the reader to feel like they’re immersed in the moment.  It’s like offering a tasty hamburger but instead of offering a bite, you make them shove the whole thing in at once.  Sure, all the flavors are there, but they’re working on trying to get the thing down without choking.  The finer details will give the reader a bite-sized amount to handle, and will therefore make her feel as though she’s in the event as well.
  • Connect a moment in the traumatic event to a memory in the character’s mind from long ago. Let’s say the character is trapped in a burning car.  Flames are licking at his shins.  Sure, you can use strong words like “searing pain” but what if it reminded him of the time, when he was five, that he reached out and touched the tea kettle while it was still over its flame?  The mind has a crazy way of interpreting moments in life, and you can add to the chaos of the event by showing the brain doing something unexpected, like connecting pain back to a childhood memory.
  • Use all the senses, but not all at once. I do not remember a single smell from the day of the bombing.  Surely the air was thick with suffocating smoke, but I don’t remember it.  Using all five senses is always a good idea, but in a traumatic moment, when the person is trying to interpret what is happening, one sense typically takes over.  Maybe all the sound is swallowed by the raging fear the person experiences.  Play with how you can use senses intentionally to add to the chaos of the moment.
  • Less is more. If you need to describe a fiery crash on the freeway, from the POV of your character, give short bursts of what someone might see.  The very top of a fireball.  Light bouncing off the side of a semi.  The ground shaking underneath the floorboard of the car.  Find some small moments and let the reader fill in the blanks as they want to.

Gravity eventually let go and I ran to help the man driving the bread truck.  I hopped in the truck and helped throw bread out the back so they could get him out that way.  I remember watching him on the gurney, being loaded into the back of the ambulance, awake and talking. I couldn’t believe he had survived.  When the officer asked me for my statement about what I saw, I mentioned that I thought he was probably drunk.  The officer said, “He went into a diabetic coma.”  That was what I took away from that day—never judge a situation.  You never know what is really happening.

And I also learned that I’m probably not going to be the hero in the moment.  Maybe my feet have more courage these days but I hope I don’t have to find out any time soon!

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  1. Great Article. I’ve had long scenes where it was just one traumatic situation playing out. I normally tried to describe every detail. Now I know that’s not the best way to go about it.

  2. Wonderful article. Having had similar experiences (2), you are absolutely right about your closing comment — never judge a situation. The same lesson applies to life also — look for solutions, not someone to blame.