Healing from Trauma Through Characters
(CW: mentions of suicide, torture, and trauma.)
Characters are my thing. I love characters.
It was only recently that I was introduced to the magical world of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade. Before then, my relationship with characters – either my own or those of others – was a distant, detached one. It was one-sided. Loving a character from a novel or a movie with your whole heart won’t save them from the death the writer has scripted for them. Even if you’re the writer, you (almost always) write from a position that assumes that they don’t know you. They can’t. You play god.
Compare this to playing your D&D character with a group of friends. You sure have a say in what happens to them. Heck, whatever you do might kill them or another party member. Because of this, these games offer ample opportunity for your characters to form real, deep bonds with other characters. You save each other’s necks, bail them out of jail, maybe even make a deal with Death to bring them back. Whether or not you plan out the backstory of your character in detail ahead of time, these constantly growing relationships will always deepen the complexity of your character.
One of the easiest things to do when creating a character for yourself to play is to give them a tragic backstory. All the best heroes (and villains) have ones, don’t they? Even if someone dear to them hasn’t died, or they haven’t sold their soul, doesn’t mean that they haven’t experienced something life-altering or painful. Tragedies are often small.
I think we’re prone to give tragic backstories to our characters for a few reasons. First, it’s fun. It might seem sadistic on the surface, but it gives clear space for growth. Second, it’s realistic. Show me one person who has never had anything bad happen to them. (Quite honestly, that would be an incredibly boring life to live.) Third, it’s how we empathize with them. Oh, and last, no one with a perfectly happy life goes off adventuring. They just don’t.
My first D&D character was more or less myself in a fantasy setting. I wasn’t comfortable yet in my role-play abilities, and so I kept in my comfort zone while I worked to understand the rules. This character (Faen) didn’t have that much tragedy in his life. Sure, he was orphaned as a baby, but his main goal was to help establish temples to Apollo. (He was a Cleric of Knowledge.) I played that campaign for almost a year.
My second character was inspired by this beautiful piece by Little Ulvar. It was the look in his eyes – he knew something that was eating him on the inside. So I set out to make the most tragic backstory I could think of. No exaggeration.
I ended up naming him Milo. He’s still my favourite character I’ve ever played. (He’s also the reason I met my partner, but that’s another story.) I often wish the campaign had been able to go on for even a little longer than it did – I wanted to see him heal.
You see, I’d unknowingly written my own traumas onto Milo.
The first similarity between us was the significance of physical and metaphorical scars.
Recently in an pre-screening for an interview, one of the questions asked me to name two events in my career or life within the past five years that were most significant to me. The first was a no-brainer: my top surgery.
I underwent top surgery on March 21st of 2018. As of writing this post, it’s been more than two years since then, and I think about it every single day. One long line curves across my chest in remembrance. Last week I commented to my partner that it was fading quite a bit. “Oh good!” they replied. I was left in a moment of confusion at the feelings that arose within me – I had grown rather fond of my scar. It was nice that it was looking more natural and less pink, but I don’t know that I’d rather see my chest without it.
Milo is riddled with scars. He was tortured in an attempt to give his captors where two children were being kept. Milo was responsible for their safekeeping while their mother was away, but he caved. He died, and a death deity brought him back, resulting in him being a warlock. His familiar – not a white raven or crow like in the picture above, but a barn owl named Lily – represented life to him. She was warm, had a beating heart, and knew his deepest feelings before he did. Milo’s convinced that when he died, his soul turned into Lily. When he falls into panic attacks, she’s always there to calm him down. Usually, I keep my desktop picture as a piece of art of whatever character I’m currently playing in any given campaign. However, my anxiety has been so bad lately in light of the pandemic that I had to think of something else that would calm me down. Take a guess as to what my desktop picture is.
Milo and his relationship to his scars is quite different from what mine are to me. To him, his scars represent his trying and failing to keep people he cared about safe. And damn if I don’t know that feeling.
I have two major traumas in my life that I refer to a lot with my therapist. The first one involved my best friend. My first best friend, really. I was 15 when her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts finally came to the forefront. The main problem was that she had sworn me to secrecy, scared of how her parents would react, and terrified of what medication would do to her. (She had a misinformed understanding that I tried to address then too, mistakenly thinking anti-depressants would make her artificially happy.)
I wasn’t to tell anyone else, and made it clear that if I did, we were done. She would tell me about her attempts, and though I was (rightfully) looking for a way to get out of that situation safely, there weren’t any good options. I tried to help her, but time after time, she only lashed out in response. I was burdened with her livelihood. I felt like if I left, she might die. This, without a doubt in my mind, was the trigger for my generalized anxiety disorder I’ve lived with ever since.
The short of it: I told my mom, my mom told her mom, and my friend got mad. But she’s still alive. We stopped talking a long time ago, and I changed high schools in grade 12 to try to find some peace. Then, I moved across the country. I’m pretty sure she still doesn’t know I changed my name.
Both Milo and I struggled deeply with trying to save people we loved. In some ways, we failed. And we both ran away afterwards, for better or worse.
I only discovered this parallel months after Milo’s campaign was cut short, but I still think about it sometimes. In fact, I think it would be a fantastic research paper to interview people who have used TTRPGs in the same way I have, by addressing trauma through the characters they play.
There’s whole essays-worth on how people are able to safely explore tragedy and trauma through the lens of characters, but I don’t feel I know quite enough to make any general statements on it. (In fact, I’m sure any of my previous English professors would reprimand me for it.) But I can speak to my own experiences, and this is one of them.
Thank you very much for reading.