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  • Megan Mulligan

The Desire to be Sad: The Prevalence of the “Trauma Plot”

Image source: oliSUNvia on youtube

It seems like every book, TV show, and movie these days is driven by a tragic backstory. What happened to the days of happy-go-lucky sitcom characters whose biggest problem was choosing between two boys? Why does every YA novel include some therapy-inducing plot point? Why is the upcoming generation obsessed with pain? 

There is a new phenomenon in media: the trauma plot. It likely stems from the over-therapization of society, the sterile diagnosis of inherently messy life problems, the categorization and segmentation of emotions and desires, the romanticization of mental illness, the desire to be ‘tragically sad’, or the idea that suffering makes someone inherently more interesting. A piece of literature is categorized as following the trope of a trauma plot if the characters do not, and can not, exist outside of their suffering. Fiction following a trauma plot is easily recognized. Ordinary events are interspersed  with ominous but vague flashbacks, or the plot will lead to a climax centered solely around the revisitation or discussion of a traumatic event. What makes these plots so formulaic and difficult to read is the fact that a tragic backstory is often the only thing giving a character, typically the protagonist, depth.

Take Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. A novel widely-hailed as “torture porn,” it centers around a quiet and brilliant character named Jude, who is almost comically unlucky as he endures traumatic event after traumatic event, being entirely unable to escape the nightmare that is his life. He literally does not exist outside of his trauma. Apart from the obviously problematic, graphic, highly triggering, and never-ending descriptions of violence, abuse, and brutality, the popularity of this 800-page therapy session from hell marks a far more disturbing literary trend. 

Trauma plots flatten and distort well-rounded characters into formulaic, diagnosable, two-dimensional sets of symptoms that an audience is supposed to use to explain away their faults and actions. It often uses scenes of a therapy session as a cheap plot device, or a conversation with a parent sparking a much-needed character arc. But the writers of trauma plots often forget: life is not so easily ordered. People frequently act without explanation or justification, and a diagnostic, reductive label does not provide the logical order to personality the way one may think. 

Philosophers and shrinks alike warn of the danger of romanticizing trauma. A generation obsessed with pain becomes adults that de-escalate the severity of generational trauma or violence in order to make pain more marketable. 

So why does it keep recurring? 

Social media and globalization has led to a culture of forced authenticity: the idea of self-care via expression celebrates vulnerability, and encourages more of it. Those who are not actually suffering want to (hence, and the forced ‘grunge’ aesthetic). People with privilege look to commodify the one thing they do not have access to: suffering. If suffering makes someone more interesting, everyone will want to suffer. 

So everyone is. 

The rise of the “sad girl aesthetic” has propelled people to contrive pain where it does not exist– to create scenarios in which they are the victim in order to fit in with peers that seem to be suffering all the time. Social media is flooded with the benefits of being a ‘loner’ and ‘misunderstood’, even encouraging unhealthy depressive behavior to simulate a sense of uniformity. Not only is this trend annoying and insulting to people actually experiencing trauma, it represents a dangerous obsession with pain– a glorification of suffering in order to make someone more interesting. 

This trope is reflected in literature as well. Colleen Hoover books, where the main character formulaically reveals halfway through the novel that she has suffered some miserable event in an attempt to make her interesting, fly off the printing press. Writing about trauma sells well. But just because someone has the idea to write about something traumatic doesn’t mean they should write a book about it (I’m looking at you, Crying in H-Mart)

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Acknowledging trauma is, of course, important, and there is value in representation. Relatability and reflection in fiction is a powerful tool for an audience to reconcile with their own suffering, and characters built by their trauma are not inherently bad. In fact, there are many pieces of literature where a character is built around their trauma, and it can be effective in driving character development. Pain does have a part in forming identity, and this shouldn’t be dismissed and cast aside after a simple categorization as a trauma plot. 

But what makes trauma plots so frustrating to read is the use of anguish as an accessory, a manual for building a character and fitting them into a niche plot role. If a character has no depth other than their trauma, they are nothing more than a set of symptoms for the audience to diagnose, and contribute to a literary obsession with suffering and simple solutions. 

Missing is Jane Eyre being subtly motivated by her past isolation into marriage. Missing is the days of a slow build-up to Holden Caulfield’s mental breakdown. Missing is Sula Peace appearing without an explanation after ten years away from her home. Missing is subtlety and internal dialogue and messy life problems. Without that writing ability, the skill to navigate complex psychological and sociological problems within a single character, modern literature will be without depth, and without authenticity. 


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