Exploring Trauma Fiction

RHAPSODIES

S.C. Farrow

4/1/20248 min read

a person holding a book with a handwritten word on it
a person holding a book with a handwritten word on it

It turns out I’ve become something of an expert at writing about trauma. I fell into writing “trauma” quite by accident when I worked with a co-writer on the screenplay for Killervision I’ve always been fascinated by the human condition, especially the dark and tragic conditions that afflict us as human beings, but who knew that when I began working on Killervision, I was, in fact, embarking on a journey into the narrative world of trauma fiction?

SO, WHAT IS TRAUMA FICTION?

Trauma fiction is a genre that explores the psychological and emotional impact of traumatic experiences on individuals and communities through narrative storytelling.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, trauma fiction has incurred a bit of a bad rap as many readers have preconceived beliefs that it is overly dark, depressing, or lacking in redeeming qualities.

Most readers read for escapism. They want stories that provide entertainment or a distraction from the challenges of everyday life. And so, misconceptions about the genre can deter readers from exploring the wide range of subjects that it offers.

Many readers find trauma fiction’s emotional content, including violence, abuse, loss, or mental illness, too intense or uncomfortable to engage with, especially when they’re looking for escapism. They might also be fearful that their own personal trauma or unpleasant memories will be triggered.

Trauma fiction requires a certain level of emotional vulnerability and empathy, as readers are invited to journey along with characters who are suffering. For many readers, this is simply too much to ask of them.

Ultimately, reading preferences are highly subjective, and what one person finds engaging or meaningful, another may not. Some individuals simply may not be drawn to trauma fiction due to their personal reading tastes or interests.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHEAP HORROR MOVIE

The original premise for Killervision was simple: write about a man who sits on the couch watching television. This premise was so simple that it was almost dumb. However, we ran with it.

Now, a man sitting on a couch watching TV is hardly great cinema. So, we brainstormed and came up with the idea that the TV had to influence him to act badly in some way. We tossed around a few ideas about the manner of his bad behavior, and before long we had a workable concept.

However, I had no idea that the basis of this concept was trauma fiction.

The protagonist in Killervision is a gifted teenage student who acquires a brain injury when his best friend loses control of the car in which he is a passenger. This traumatic incident causes two things to happen: 1) gaps in his memory regarding specific details of the accident, and 2) his brain manufactures memories to fill those gaps and details.

These happenings and these consequences are actual symptoms of trauma, and we were, in fact, writing a feature-length trauma fiction film.

Killervision had a total budget of around $40,000. Any movie made for less than a million dollars is considered a “microbudget” project. Considering the number of cast members, crew, and locations, Killervision's budget stretched a very long way. Ultimately, it was marketed and distributed as a horror film in video and big-box stores across Canada and the USA. Ironically, we were unable to secure a distributor in Australia. But such is the way of things.

More importantly, at the time, I had no idea that Killiervision would influence my next major artistic work, a novel titled This is Not a Lie.

This is Not a Lie is an autoethnographic novel of trauma fiction, drawing inspiration from true events in my life. In my late teens and early twenties, I loved two things: music and the beach, and I indulged in my love for both as frequently as possible. My days were spent lazing on the sand at Sandringham Beach, and my nights were spent in the city’s live music venues and clubs.

I was fanatical about music. So much so that in my late teens and early twenties, I performed as a vocalist in local (and mostly forgettable) pub bands. It was one of the greatest times of my life, and for a few incredible years, I partied like a rock star. I partied so hard, in fact, that I woke up one morning and realised that if I didn’t stop partying like a rock star, I’d end up dead like a rock star.

When I was fourteen years old, I dropped out of high school and went to work in a local factory making lampshades. It was there that I met the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He was seventeen, had big brown eyes, a wicked smile, and a mass of curly black hair. It was love at first sight. We dated on and off until the late 1980s. In the 1980s, Melbourne was awash with illegal drugs. Heroin, speed, Mandrax, marijuana—whatever your poison, it was cheap, abundant, and easy to obtain. Struggling with cultural identity and the expectations of his immigrant parents, it wasn’t long before this beautiful man put his fear and anxiety in the hands of a new mistress—heroin.

It was during one of our ‘off’ times that I met and fell in love with another beautiful man. He was blond, had green eyes, and beautiful pouty lips. He was also a closet gay. We had a deep emotional connection as well as an intimate relationship. For years, he was forced to hide his sexual identity from family and friends. When he finally did reveal his true self, he was spurned by his family and raped, bashed, and hospitalised by unrepentant bigots.

Neither man is alive today. However, their stories, along with my own, influenced This is Not a Lie.

THIS IS NOT A LIE

This is Not a Lie is a heartfelt narrative that explores several complex issues, including identity, drug addiction, and homosexuality (before it became widely socially acceptable), all set in the 1980s live music paradise of St. Kilda.

I had just commenced work on my master’s degree. My major assignment was to be a novel, and so I needed a topic. I’d read somewhere that literary critics were turning against the use of archetypal characters in literature as they had become stale and cliched. I wanted to see if I could prove that hypothesis wrong. I wanted to create an archetypal character and use it in a novel. I chose the tortured artist/genius archetype and drew upon my early life experiences to help develop the protagonist in This is Not a Lie.

Now, writing a novel is not like writing a screenplay. A screenplay is, more or less, a blueprint with which a director works to create a fully-fledged narrative with actors and moving images. It includes very little detail. A novel, on the other hand, requires a lot of detail.

Before starting work on this project, I hadn’t written narrative prose for quite a while. In fact, it had been many years. Consequently, rising to the challenge of writing the detail necessary in a novel was demanding. However, this remarkable challenge also allowed me to explore elements and details of the human condition that, given the time and page constraints, would remain largely unexplored in a screenplay.

As a result, I dove deep into the recesses of my mind and mined it for memories of Melbourne’s music scene long forgotten. I revisited not only situations and events but also the feelings associated with them: fear, courage, bravado, humility, love, joy, excitement, anger, passion, devastation, desire, embarrassment, envy, jealousy, and more.

The protagonist’s trauma is not trauma that manifested as the result of a single event. Rather, it is the trauma that has developed over his lifetime. This trauma manifests in his beliefs, behaviours, relationships, and ultimately, addiction.

The love interest and object of his desire endure a much more complicated form of trauma, which stems from a lack of attachment with his parents, parental neglect, his parents’ emotional unavailability, and above all, mental and physical violence that he is forced to endure at the hands of others.

When I completed This is Not a Lie, my thoughts turned to my next narrative project, which is, surprise, surprise, another trauma fiction project!

In 2020, when I was working as a sessional lecturer at Victoria University, I decided it was time to complete my education by undertaking a PhD. This had been a long-held goal, and I decided it was now or never. I was caring for my elderly mother at the time. Her health was declining, and so I had to think carefully about my options and study somewhere relatively close to home.

Then, in 2021, COVID struck, and the whole world was brought to its knees. My teaching position at Victoria University was made redundant, and my mother was forced to move into an aged-care facility. The only good news I received that year was an offer from Federation University to pursue my PhD there. At the time, universities across the country were in disarray as they were forced to reassess their courses and student intake. Needless to say, I was grateful for Fed Uni’s offer and accepted it with grateful thanks.

And so I began work on my next trauma fiction project, Deafening Silence.

DEAFENING SILENCE

Deafening Silence was inspired by a bunch of statistics that I read on a billboard as I walked through my local shopping centre over ten years ago. The statistics indicated how many Australian military personnel had completed their suicides since returning home from the war in Afghanistan. I didn’t know anybody in the military, but in that moment, I was so moved by those statistics that I was determined to write about them in some way. Fast forward to 2024, and I have now completed the first draft of Deafening Silence, a novel about an Australian veteran experiencing PTSD, which forms the creative component of my PhD.

My greatest concern with this project was making the story believable. I wanted to honour our veterans without resorting to clichés or stereotyping. Consequently, it was important to create a real sense of authenticity in the writing.

I wanted readers to know and understand what it is like to have this experience—to go through the nightmare alongside the protagonist. I wanted readers to discover what it felt like to be my protagonist, to know and understand what it was like to live with PTSD twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

But what literary techniques and devices could I use to achieve this level of verisimilitude? To make readers believe they were reading about a man who was experiencing the terrible repetitions associated with PTSD?

One of the biggest challenges I faced was repetition. Repetition is a huge aspect of trauma, especially visualising or dreaming about the trauma event over and over again. I felt it was essential to include this aspect of trauma into the narrative, but the trick was to always make it interesting and engaging.

Achieving authenticity and verisimilitude has been the focus of my PhD. Hopefully, I have achieved the level of verisimilitude I was aiming for in this novel and have succeeded in producing a compelling narrative.

But who’s going to read it? As I said at the beginning of this post, most readers read for escapism. They want stories that provide entertainment or a distraction from the challenges of everyday life. So, the chances of people reading this book are as good as the chances of people reading This is Not a Lie. No doubt it will be another labour of love that is enjoyed by the few who are willing to brave the pages.

But that is the curse of an author writing in this space, isn’t it? It is a well-known fact that trauma fiction authors have a much smaller audience than authors who write in more socially acceptable genres. And I'm fine with that. If it means I can write what's important to me, I'm willing to sacrifice a broader audience.

SO, WHAT'S NEXT?

I’m not sure what I’m going to do for my next project. Trauma fiction might not dominate the bestseller lists, but it does continue to be an important and impactful genre that resonates with many readers who are drawn to its emotional depth, authenticity, complexity, and exploration of the human condition.

Having said that, I would like someone to actually read what I write, so maybe next time I might write a nice, uncomplicated feel-good story. Or a crime story. People seem to love the voyeurism of a good crime story. Maybe that’s the way to go!

Who knows…