What’s Your Traumatic Backstory?

Issue 8, Volume 113

By Riya Sundaram 

Cover Image

What is a traumatic event? This is a delicate topic with heavy implications. But modern media has come up with an answer: it’s the most tragic experience a writer can come up with that leaves characters emotionally scarred and motivates their every move.

No, wait. That’s not quite right.

All right, it motivates a character until the writers decide the event is no longer plot-relevant and discard it. Perfect.

Entertainment often struggles to depict trauma in a realistic way. Despite this incompetence, traumatic backstories are everywhere in the media and are viewed as the gateway to interesting characters. This attempt to gain audiences’ sympathies fails easily if not handled right, dehumanizing the characters and alienating the audience through the portrayal of these traumas. The overly common and often insignificant use of the traumatic backstory shows that writers don’t take trauma seriously enough, mirroring societal misconceptions of trauma, which in turn influence the audience.

The overuse of traumatic backstories in entertainment perpetuates a lack of understanding of mental health, creating a cycle in which media both contributes to and is influenced by societal views of these topics. This misconception claims that trauma is common and easily cured with a warm hug or some powerful words. That portrayal is an easy storyline to tell because it is short, wraps up neatly, and evokes emotion from viewers. Trauma is deemed not only forgettable and easy to overcome, but also secretly romantic. The idea that emotional damage can be “cured” by a special person further perpetuates this warped, romantic vision of trauma. The use of a quick cure for trauma establishes a distance between the audience and the characters because they do not see the characters grow from their pain. If viewers can see the cast of a show or comic as more than characters, it allows them to form deeper connections with the characters and themes. This growth, however, can only happen if shows start portraying trauma from a different angle.

Shonen anime is action-based and has a long history of introducing many characters with tragic backstories. It is a common occurrence for shows to introduce more depressing characters the longer the series goes on to keep their fans interested. For example, Naruto, a very popular show in this genre, has numerous main characters with tragic backstories ranging from child abandonment to siblings forced to fight each other and failure to save loved ones. Many of the villains have traumatic backstories as well, and characters without them are seldom important to the plot. Tropes built on trauma are problematic because they encourage viewers to measure characters based on trauma. If the purpose of a backstory is based on how sad you can make a character and not how your character can grow, then instead of humanizing the characters, this backstory dehumanizes them. It reduces their origin to a cheap device used to toy with the viewers’ emotions, which leaves audience members desensitized to tragedy over time.

Shonen anime also pushes the misconception that years-long trauma can be healed in one act of kindness. Onee main character, Naruto, was orphaned as a baby and shunned by the villagers he grew up with. However, after befriending a parental figure in this village for a short period of time, Naruto seems to quickly get over his childhood of neglect and any resentment for the villagers. This trope is repeated in another more recent Shonen anime, Bungo Stray Dogs. In this anime, one of the main, more villainous characters struggles with how his former mentor physically and verbally abused him, and the character constantly vies for his mentor’s approval. However, the show doesn’t frame this situation as tragic or a symptom of his trauma, but as a comedic gag. In the end, the mentor is forgiven without even an apology. Only a handful of kind words, complete with a gesture one might call basic decency, are provided.

Webcomics also contribute to the misrepresentation of trauma. In Wicked No More, the main character comes across an orphaned young girl who lives with her greedy aunt and uncle. They spend her inheritance money while physically abusing and neglecting her. The solution to “heal” the heartbreak this child has endured is a hug, initiated without any question for consent and with the assumption that the girl will like it. And since this show is a comic, she does.

These stories all reinforce the belief that an emotional wound can be healed by a little bit of kindness. This idea does not hold true, as it takes years to deal with the effects trauma can have on a person. It is important for people to understand that both people who have experienced trauma and those around them want to help. It’s not your fault if you’re trying to help someone who’s struggling and they still struggle afterwards, and it’s not your fault if someone’s trying to help you but you can’t get over what you’re struggling with. Healing takes patience.

In webcomics, there is an entire genre that starts with the traumatic backstory. Yet the genre fails to take the trope seriously because it only sees the traumatic backstory as a trend to follow. Webcomics often follow this formulaic plot: the tragic heroine dies unexpectedly but is reincarnated in a different world with varying amounts of danger or romance awaiting her. Some examples of this backstory are a father who orders the assassination of his child (Just Leave Me Be), a sibling who frames the main character for a crime (Into The Light, Once Again), and a manipulative person who leads the character to death, not once, but twice (The Villainess is a Marionette). The main problem with this trend is that the heroine’s traumatic backstory is often irrelevant to who she is now. Trauma can affect people for years, even if they don’t realize it. Webcomics in this genre fail to understand that as traumatic backstories are quickly abandoned after the first arc, their watchers will question their authorial decisions. In this way, webcomics value profit gained by exploiting a trend based on trauma over creativity or character development.

While audiences aren’t purposefully supporting this exploitation of trauma, their continued viewership contributes to it. Trauma is a big deal. The desensitization of trauma has made this significance seem less true, which is part of why it is so important that the representation of trauma in media starts to change. However, for screenwriters and authors to humanely portray pain, they have to accept that trauma will be a long-term struggle for the character, not just a quick story arc that’s resolved in a couple episodes’ time. Authors must invest time and research into understanding how real people deal with trauma, which will help them treat trauma seriously.

What is a traumatic event? It’s an intense experience that causes a person extreme emotional damage that takes more than any single moment to overcome. Trauma impacts the victims in various ways and can take years to conquer. Trauma is not measurable or curable by one act of kindness. Trauma shouldn’t be a trend.