Dal Mclean: Writing Heroes with Childhood Trauma

Welcome Back! Today I have the fabulous Dal Maclean to talk about her process in writing her amazing (and I mean SERIOUSLY AMAZING) book “Bitter Legacy“. This book was one of my favorites of last year, and one of the biggest reasons for that was how Ben, one of the main characters, was written. Ben survived severe trauma in his early childhood, and even after long years of therapy and family support there were still ways in which that trauma impacted him. I appreciated Dal’s, portrayal of what a trauma can look like for an adult survivor. I use the word “can” because trauma like everything else, is different for everyone. With characters like Ben, what I look for when I read fiction, is for a rendition that is thoughtful, and allows the character dignity and the possibility of healing.

I really wanted to chat with Dal about how she wrote Ben, his inner workings and why she decided to let him show his emotional pain, even if it did cost her some points in with the readers! In romance we have certain expectations on how a character should behave, and Ben broke some of those rules. He is such a layered character, and his pain was so palpable, he actually reminded me of some of the clients I’ve worked with over the years. So, I reached out to Dal with some questions about her process and other things that I was very curious about after reading her book.

Before I get to the interview though, I’d like to talk briefly about childhood trauma.  So what makes trauma in childhood different than trauma suffered as an adult? Aren’t children resilient and get past these painful events faster than an adult would? According to Judith Herman in her book “Trauma and Recovery”,

“repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in  a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself, she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protections with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses.

The pathological environment of childhood abuse forces the development of extraordinary capacities, both creative and destructive. It fosters the development of abnormal states of consciousness in which the ordinary relations of body and mind, reality and imagination, knowledge and memory, no longer hold.”

We can use that passage as an answer to my first question, which makes it pretty easy to guess what the answer to the second one would be. In short, trauma in childhood can have severe and lasting effects. And even though healing is VERY MUCH possible, there are no simple solutions, falling in love (even if it would be nice if it was) is unfortunately not a panacea. If anything depending on the type of abuse, it could trigger memories and old defenses that can be very hard to manage.

I will leave the lesson there, and go to my chat with Dal, I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I did. For the those out there who are as geeky about books as I am, I think you will like just how deeply into Ben’s mind Dal got.

30777300The Tipsy Bibliophile: Writing characters with childhood trauma, specially trauma that comes from abuse, can be very hard. It can definitely create empathy for the reader, the issue is, people with trauma can be erratic and messy. Fiction (especially romance) tends to like their heroes a bit neater. So it can be hard to accurately portray the emotional pain and sometimes destructive ways in which that trauma can present.
It is not done often frankly, most times those self-destructive behaviors or poor coping skills just wash away once that romance begins to build. Which leads me to Ben, one of the heroes in your mystery Bitter Legacy, why was it important to you to continue to show the dark parts of Ben, even after he became involved with James?

Dal Maclean: I should say first of all as a disclaimer that I’m not a trained expert in mental health issues.
But as a writer, I think it WAS important, because those darker parts of Ben were vital to who he was as a character, and to the plot as it turned out. What Ben went through as a child was extreme and it didn’t seem to me realistic that it wouldn’t have a lasting effect on his emotions or outlook on other people and his relationships with them.

From a certain point,he had emotional support from his parents and extensive and expensive therapy (like his siblings) but because of certain traits in his character and the particular relation ship he had with his tormentor, he emerged the strongest and probably the healthiest emotionally of all the people affected by the ‘bitter legacy’ of the book. Ben has a very high IQ and EQ and an extremely strong will. Of them all he was most in control of how he dealt with his wounds but no, his behaviour wasn’t ‘neat’.

I wanted to show that there is hope of course for a happy ending for survivors of abuse, but equally I didn’t want to diminish it or make it facile. I didn’t think it was realistic to suggest Ben would easily lower a lifetime of learned defences and innate suspicion because he ‘fell in love’, or that he would necessarily think ‘falling in love’ was a good thing even if he could recognise it.
Ben is above all, a survivor. He wouldn’t have come through what he did in such good shape, if he weren’t, but having survived, throwing himself under the wheels of someone else’s emotions isn’t going to be done lightly. For Ben I would say, the greatest issues were always going to be control and trust.

How could Ben find anyone he could trust to tell the truth of who he was, and believe they’d still want/love him, when he’s himself repelled by it? How could he ever trust another person not to betray his secret or change their mind– and remember he’s seen graphic proof as a child of how much ‘love and commitment’ weren’t worth? How could he allow himself to relax and try to be with anyone who didn’t know his past, always fearing the truth would emerge somehow? Much easier to keep people close enough for fun and company but always at a safe emotional distance, through his …behaviour (trying not to give everything away here…)

You describe his behaviour as self destructive, Laura, but I think for Ben it’s the opposite – for him its self preservation, which is, after his childhood, his most basic instinct.

Then along comes James — not just someone to whom he’s overwhelmingly physically attracted, but also, that rarest of things — a white knight — truly honourable, brave, kind, almost innocent; a force for good.

And that is an unbelievable pull to Ben; he’s caught from the start by that potential to trust him. He’s in just as deeply as James is, all the way, though, through James’s eyes, it’s hard to see. (That ‘white hat’ thing is why Steggie is so attracted to James too, incidentally).

But for Ben, falling in love, and depending on someone else for his happiness – someone who could find out who he is and turn away from him – is ceding control of his own destiny. Not something to be welcomed, but to be resisted at all costs. Which he does manically, and sometimes cruelly. though that’s more desperation than conscious choice.

Finally it’s proved to Ben both that James deserves his trust, and that he genuinely doesn’t care who Ben is. So Ben finds the courage and desperation to make the most terrifying leap of faith, against everything he’s ever lived by, to try to hold on to this one person. And it works out. I thought that was actually kinda romantic in the end. ☺

TTB: Did readers react to him in unexpected ways because you chose to let his character stay “broken” even when he had James’ love?

DM: Oooh. Well. Yes! I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t think I’m a romance writer so much as someone trying to write romance and I think Ben’s character in Bitter Legacy sort of proves that. It definitely went against… expectations? And I think because maybe some readers had those expectations – which is perfectly reasonable given its ‘a mystery romance’ — people took Ben to the very end at face value, as a romantic love interest who hadn’t behaved romantically enough.

Ben says at the end ‘its what I did, not what I am’ and that is the essence of his behaviour. It had a purpose far beyond enjoyment – as I said above, it’s his shield, his protection, distancing him from involvement, leaving him in control. But some readers did see ‘what he did, as what he was’ and decided it wasn’t realistic that he could be anything else.

In my view though Ben’s behaviour was not compulsion. It wasn’t pathological; it was a behaviour usef/chosen made for specific purpose.

An important clue really that Ben probably isn’t ‘cured’ is, that James is unique to Ben. He’s unique from the start as is shown by Ben breaking his rules for him and lying by omission to try to hold on to him. And James becomes more and more singular right through until the end– the one person who, by what James is shown to be (the white knight; a friend Ben can confide weakness to), and by what James knows and accepts – can be trusted by Ben. I don’t think anyone else can fit that space for Ben. And Ben will not voluntarily risk losing him.

I think perhaps in our genre though, Ben’s behaviour, especially in persisting in causing the hero so much pain even after the love affair begins, is one of the worsts thing a character can do really. Some readers were very much more sympathetic to the murderer because his character arc and his way of dealing with his experiences had been hidden behind a more sympathetic (to the hero) pattern of behaviour. It surprised me I admit, as a rookie, that what Ben did, even with reasons behind it, was seen by some readers as less forgivable than murder. But… lol
TTB: While reading “Bitter Legacy” I was happily surprised just how flawed you let your characters be and without taking away their humanity. It can be easy to let a label, determine where a person can go, or what they get to have in a story. That includes love and compassion. However in your novel, even the “villain” had deeply redemptive qualities and was a character with which I had a lot of empathy. Was showing how complex people can be, and that there is a lot of gray when it comes to relationships something that you went about with intention?

DM: Thank you so much! I’m glad you appreciated the flaws. ☺ I think imperfect characters are my favourite thing. My biggest driver is trying to convey what makes different kinds of people tick. I love reading complex characters who have that layering which we all have as people. Relationships and people ARE complex things; that’s what makes them so fascinating.

So yes, definitely with intention –though maybe not always with success.

Villains are more interesting if they’re sympathetic, though sometimes outright scenery-chewing evil ones are fabulous too (Take a bow Dal Carrington Colby Dexter, nemesis of Nicole Kimberling’s Binky and Brutus!! :D)

But I absolutely love imperfect heroes best of all,,. with flaws and issues that cause genuine – not easily resolved — conflict.

I like heroes who’re sometimes messy and behave badly or stupidly or stubbornly or selfishly. Or hurtfully. People who’re afraid, or make mistakes, or occasionally think less than perfect things. But hopefully always for reasons that make sense, with who they are at that point. And they can still be heroes.

Romance is I suppose, ultimately, wish fulfillment, which is one of the reasons I love it and I’ll always want the happy ending. But when a writer gives me a believable HEA after getting me emotionally invested and making me feel the characters are real and have fought hard emotionally to get there, and for a while I even thought they may not make it… I love stories with an edge like that, that then take me home ☺

Thanks so much to Dal for this amazing chat. Please come back Friday for talk with Amy Lane, where she gives me incredibly honest answers about why she writes the characters that she does.  She made me cry…

If you would like to read more about childhood trauma here are a few books I have read over the years and have found to be incredibly valuable:

The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiastrist’s Notebook by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalvitz

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman

Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

You can buy “Bitter Legacy” by Dal Maclean HERE.

You can find out more about Dal’s work HERE.

Thanks for reading! If you have any book recommendation fiction or nonfiction on this subject, please share them in the comments!