I don’t think it’s any secret that to write truly authentic characters, we have to know them first. I’ve written before about the importance of research, and that doesn’t just apply to the things our characters do. It should also apply to who our characters are. If we aren’t familiar with the way certain elements affect the lives of real human beings, we will never be able to create characters that feel as if they are real, too.
Yesterday, I wrote a really long, probably boring post about resilience in youth. Essentially, when youth experience trauma or conflict of some sort in their lives, their recovery—or sometimes, the lack thereof—usually puts them into one of three categories: those who exceed expectations and grow from the experience, those who simply return to a state of equilibrium, and those who never truly recover and continue in a mode of reduced functioning and low morale.
But what is it that causes individuals to fit into one category over another? And how can we, as writers, use those elements to create realistic characters who would behave as real people would? Characters who face every single challenge they encounter with courage, wisdom and maturity are simply unrealistic. If we want our readers to relate to them, we have to show them reacting in realistic ways.
Many of us are fans of Harry Potter, and I've always felt that J. K. Rowling did a pretty good job of making the characters realistic. Let's see how well Harry and his friends stack up against real-life youth resilience statistics.
The age of the child/youth at the time of the traumatic event has a significant impact on their internalization of symptoms and/or external behavior. Harry is 11 years old when we first meet him and he learns the truth about his parents, but the battles between Harry and Voldemort continue until he is 17.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), adolescents (ages 12-17) internalize things like younger children (feeling guilt or anxious, becoming depressed, withdrawing, developing sleep problems and having nightmares), but may also experience flashbacks and confusion, much like adults. They avoid stimuli by isolating themselves, and may start to entertain thoughts of revenge or become outwardly aggressive. (ETA: For a really great list of the differences between how different age groups react to trauma, see pp. 8-9 of Responding to Childhood Trauma by Gordon R. Hodas, MD.)
Harry carries a lot of guilt throughout the series, and he is certainly no stranger to flashbacks and nightmares. He often tries to isolate himself from others, but thankfully, Ron and Hermione refuse to be pushed away. He does entertain thoughts of revenge, and when things are especially difficult, he can be aggressive and combative.
In general, males tend to exhibit externalized and often aggressive reactions to traumatic events. Females, on the other hand, more often internalize and take a more passive approach (Schwartz and Perry, 1994). This is pretty typical of the characters in Harry Potter, too, as Harry and Ron are both more aggressive than Hermione.
I don't think it's a coincidence that many YA novels include "side kicks". Oftentimes, the challenges the MCs face would be nigh unto impossible to surmount if faced alone, but with the assistance of friends or other positive relationships, they are manageable.
Research shows that youth who enjoy positive pre- and post-traumatic associations with adults and peers are more likely to show resilience after a traumatic event (Hodas, 2006).
Look at the difference in Harry's behavior between when he is at Number 4, Privet Drive and when he is at Hogwarts. While with the Dursleys, Harry lacks any real support system, and he withdraws and isolates himself from the rest of the world. On the other hand, when he is in the presence of his friends and mentors in the magical world, he is much more confident and happy. Just like real youth, the support Harry finds in his positive relationships are integral to his eventual success.
Another important association to consider is the child or character's relationship with the perpetrator of the trauma. Hodas points out that "maltreatment by a stranger is less devastating to a child than similar maltreatment by a family member or other trusted adult." Imagine how different Harry Potter's story might have turned out had Voldemort been his father.
Think about your own favorite characters--both those you've read and those you've written. How do they compare to these statistics? How does it/can it affect the story?
Part III: Self-Efficacy will be posted on
Please forgive my citations if they are wrong--I haven't done this in years...
 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)(2001): Helping children and adolescents cope with violence and disasters. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institute of Health. As cited by Hodas (2006).
 Schwartz, E., and Perry, B. (1994): The post-traumatic response in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12 (2), 311-326. As cited by Hodas (2006).
 Hodas, G. (2006): Responding to childhood trauma: The promise and practice of trauma-informed care. Pennsylvania: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.