Writing Trauma Informed Characters: A Case Study of DC's New Flash Movie
Author's Note: I wrote this piece a few months ago, and then never got around to editing it. I still the information is valuable, even if it may not be as relevant anymore, so I still hope you enjoy reading it.
I recently went to see the new Flash movie in theaters and I loved it. I used to think you had to pick a side between Marvel and DC, but I love watching superhero movies, especially superhero movies with layers of depth, which this new Flash movie did so well. If you haven’t seen the Flash movie yet, this blog post will have spoilers, so please read at your own risk. I want to say this is an introduction to time travel in DC, but I know Superman time travels in his movie as well so don’t come for me. In the Flash however, we really get to experience what time travel looks like for an individual and the consequences of those choice. This leads to a very interesting study in how trauma shapes our characters that I think is really important for writers to consider in their own writing. As I was driving home from the theater, I knew this was something I wanted to write about, and I am very happy to share my possibly rambling thoughts on this movie and how I think it should apply to writing well-traumatized characters in fiction.
Trauma can be an important part of character design, it’s the wound that forms the character into the person they are when we meet them in a novel. But trauma in writing shouldn’t be gratuitous. It has to have consequences and long-lasting effects otherwise it isn’t important and as the writer you are making light of something that could drastically affect your reader. When you include trauma in a character’s background, the characters change based on what they have gone through, and as a result they respond differently to the same stimuli based on beliefs caused by their traumatic experience. Not all trauma is created equally, sometime traumatic incidents incite characters to do harm to others. The opposite can also be true at times, pushing characters to reach their “aha” moments and stop either themselves or others from inflicting further damage to others. Trauma can be a very powerful tool in fiction writing, and The Flash movie is a great study in the changes it makes to a character’s behaviors. By studying the two different timelines, there’s a lot of valuable information on how to write trauma informed characters.
The most classic well-known thing about Batman’s origin story is that he is an orphan. In his childhood he sees his parents killed, and that eventually motivates him to want to fight crime in Gotham and become the Batman. This is a genesis for his story, and when they start to describe the mechanics of time travel in the DCEU they talk about convergence points. Points in time where the same event has to happen no matter what happens around it. In order for there to be a batman, Bruce Wayne must witness his parents die an awful death.
Batman’s story is forged through this trauma, and it’s not something that any version of Batman takes lightly. In the first world, we see a Batman who has struggled through his darkness, formed the justice league and saved not only countless lives in Gotham, but also saved the world. He is at a point in his story line that he understands that there is no changing the horrible things that have happened to him, he can’t afford to live in the past. He’s more or less healed from what happened to him, and prepared to use his influence to better society.
After Barry changes the timeline we are introduced to a new Batman, with Michael Keaton reprising his role. This Batman seems to be a mess. In his version of the timeline not only has he lost his parents, but he’s also reached a point where he’s outlived Alfred. They don’t really go into what happened to this timeline’s version of Alfred, but it is clear the loss sent this version of Batman into a tailspin that only the original version of the Flash is able to pull him out of. They are facing the possibility of Zod, the villain of Superman’s Man of Steel, and the terraforming that originally failed because of Superman’s intervention. The Flash thinks this means it’s time for a new version of the Justice League, except this Batman is in no state to run it. He’s only convinced to join the fight when the OG Barry electrocutes himself to get his flash abilities restored.
While Batman may have been able to surpass the trauma of losing his parents, when he lost the remainder of his support system, that wound was reopened. His character showed us that sometimes you can heal, and be fine, and then realize the wound was never completely healed. Older traumas can be brought back to the center stage when the same feelings occur at other points in time. He’s a good reminder on how repeat incidents might affect a character when facing trauma over longer periods of time.
Kara vs Clark
Of course, if the Superman villain is trying to ruin the world once again, it only stands to reason that the team would want Superman on their side to fight against him. Except in this world Superman didn’t land on some little farm and get taken in by the Kent family. He didn’t have the love of Martha and Jonathan to help him adjust to this world and learn to care for people. In this world, we learn that the kryptonian ship delivered Superman to earth, and then Superman was locked away from the sun by Russian soldiers. My first thought when the audience learned about this was that this new Superman was going to be so angry. Without his adopted human parents to show him compassion, compounded by what we know would be terrible treatment from his captors, there is no way this version of Superman was going to want to save the world.
I was half right. The kryptonian they save from Russian soldiers is angry, but it’s not Clark. It’s his cousin Kara. If you’ve seen Supergirl or know anything about DC, Kara was meant to come to earth to protect Clark, but her pod just sidetracked on the way and Clark spends years on earth before she ever arrives. In this version, Clark doesn’t spend time on earth, Zod kills him searching for the data to restart kryptonian civilization, only adding fuel to Kara’s anger. And she has every right to be angry. She’s survived the collapse of a planet only to fail at protecting her cousin and be locked up and tortured for years. Her trauma has trauma, and she wants nothing to do with saving earth from Zod.
Until she sees how much OG Barry is willing to do to try and save her and his planet. In a timeline that isn’t even his. His will to fight and protect the planet, his attempt to fix what he couldn’t help with in his timeline, makes her see something positive in this world. In the end, she fights with him.
In both timelines Kara and Clark start out with the same traumatizing genesis—being sent from their home planet of Krypton and everyone they love dying-but the support they do or do not receive once they’ve arrived on earth drastically changes their trajectories. And possibly interferes with their success rates. Kara is not able to stop Zod from terraforming earth, in fact the audience sees her die multiple times after different attempts by the new timeline’s Barry to save her. Her anger makes her reckless, and her lack of connection on earth means she had nothing fueling her fight besides that anger. We see how trauma and especially lack of love after trauma can alter the way we fight. And it’s super powerful to see this through the kryptonian lense because we in the audience know how powerful they can be on earth.
It should be obvious by the title of the movie that the character who experiences the most is going to be Barry AKA the Flash. And his character really goes through it. Up until this point in the DCEU all we really knew about Barry was that he was seeking justice for his father who he believes had been wrongfully incarcerated for the death of his mother. In this movie we learn a lot more about how this trauma shaped his life and get to put that against a version of himself that had not experienced the same childhood genesis.
From childhood Barry has been trying to find a way to prove his father’s innocence and get him out of jail, and it’s a motivation that has shaped his entire life’s trajectory. Obviously, something traumatic as finding your dead mother and knowing your father was innocent of her murder would be something that shaped who you are. Barry’s focus becomes fighting for his dad, long after his dad has already given up. He goes to school for criminal forensics, and the accident that turns him into the flash happens during a late night at a forensics lab.
In the new flash movie Barry finds a way to go back and save his mother, undoing both her death and his father’s imprisonment in one move that changes his entire life. When original Barry gets knocked out of his time warp and stuck in this new world, the audience gets to see what a huge difference that small change makes. This new Barry is almost the opposite of our OG Barry. He’s young and carefree, he has no responsibility, he doesn’t even do his laundry on his own. And there was no accident to turn him into the Flash, because there were no late nights in the lab. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to live in a world where his mother died when he was a child and his father was arrested for it. He doesn’t value the time he spent with his parents, because he’s had so much of it.
So when bigger consequences find them, this new Barry is completely unprepared to help anyone. He has no powers, no work ethic, and no other skills to offer. He’s never faced the kind of death and destruction that now faces the two of them and their very small team. Even once they’ve managed to replicate the accident that gave OG Barry his powers, this version of him has no idea how to deal with them. Our Barry has had years to get used to and train with his ability, new Barry has had a few days. But the biggest thing that sets them apart is the choice OG Barry made to try and fix his timeline. He’s had to live with that, and he’s seeing the consequences. The whole story is about him realizing that he can’t change the past without drastic consequences.
New Barry lives in a world where bad things don’t last, so why can’t he just keep going back until he’s fixed everything? No matter how many times he tries to go back and save the day, he keeps hitting the same immovable wall. This is where the big twist of the movie is, the thing that knocked OG Barry into the new timeline was actually the New Barry. Because he needs that kick to get his powers. And so the cycle continues. Without the traumatic uprising that our Barry had, new Barry can’t comprehend failure, and he becomes desperate. So desperate that Barry has to go back in time again, and let his mother die. If he doesn’t make this sacrifice, the world itself would collapse. I don’t think there are bigger stakes than that. But asking someone to knowingly let someone they love die when they could stop it is a monumental ask of anyone.
Yet Barry does it. Even knowing how things will play out, Barry makes the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, because that sacrifice shaped him to care about more than himself.
What does this mean for your writing?
If you made it this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. All of this was to say that trauma can play a major part in shaping our characters and it isn’t something to be done lightly. As writers we have a responsibility to carefully execute traumatic backstories so we don’t glorify or exploit that pain. We don’t want to hurt characters for the readers sympathy only to ignore that pain later on. The trauma that impacts our character, whether on the page or off of it, has to inform the decision they make over the course of the story. Hopefully you can use this example to build in your own writing, I definitely will be considering this story carefully as I move forward with my own stories.