Reaction to Traumatic Crisis

Sean Mactire’s book, Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think, has an entire chapter devoted to the victims of violent crime. I’m using the information to create believable victims for my novels.

“When traumatic crises hit, victims are overwhelmed by a state of emotional instability, a sort of temporary insanity, characterized by intense fear and often painful physical symptoms,” Mactire says. He’s speaking of victims who survive, or family/friends of victims who didn’t survive. He goes on to say that coping mechanisms are inadequate, and without finding an effective way of dealing with this stress, more problems will crop up. More problems = more tension, more conflict, more fingernail-biting on the part of the reader. This is a good thing, for a writer. Not so good for the characters involved.

But sometimes you want your characters to move out of this emotional basket case they’re in. Mactire lists three phases that people go through. Try shoe-horning your grieving character through one or more of these phases, throw some new tensions at them, and you’ll have a very believable character. Here are those three phases, copied directly out of the book for your enjoyment:

1. The Impact Phase. This is the acute reaction to crisis. Symptoms are shock, disbelief, dismay, anxiety, unstable emotions, and a severe inability to function. This reaction is immediate and can last for months, sometimes years, depending on the victim’s ability to cope.

2. The Recoil Phase. This is the period of outward adjustment to the crisis. The acute symptoms diminish and the victims gradually return to near-normal levels of functioning. Routine business of living slowly resumes, even though, sometimes, victims will continue to deny the true consequences of the crisis. This is a natural defense mechanism for victims, as they are attempting to protect themselves and others from the “danger.” Also, victims’ interests may expand to concern for others. This phase begins as soon as the victim comes to term with the acute phase.

3. Long-term Reorganization Phase. This is the period of integration and resolution of fears and pain. This is also the time when victims grow into survivors. They attempt to adapt the crises experiences into their lives, as well as try to understand and resolve the meaning they have found attached to their survival of the crises. Even though these new “survivors” have found strength they never knew existed, it is not uncommon for them to occasionally experience feelings of loss and depression. This is a natural and necessary feeling.

These phases are based on people who were psychologically healthy before the crisis struck. If your character was psychologically unhealthy before the crisis struck, then you’re free to wreck havoc . Also keep in mind that human beings are rather quirky, and sometimes don’t follow these phases as they’re supposed to. Using the personality profiles I talked about last year, you could amplify some characteristic and take the Recoil Phase to a dangerous level. Take your INFJ character (the “counselor”), with her overwhelming desire to help others, and use that personality trait to show her working through her grief by feeding all the neighborhood kids healthy snacks every day, to the point of putting herself in financial jeopardy. Or have your ESFP (the “Performer”) book performances for every night of the week, driving himself to exhaustion. These dangerous attempts at dealing with grief will definitely cause problems and keep the character from moving into Phase Three.

These three phases remind me Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grieving: denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Whatever system you use, make sure it’s a long, hard road for your character or you’ll lose reader interest.


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