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[Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Marie Brennan on Characters with PTSD

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Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends her time practicing piano, studying karate, and playing a variety of role-playing games. You can find out more about her on her website. Her book Chains and Memory published on January 5, 2016.

Creating Characters with PTSD

by Marie Brennan

I gave a character PTSD by accident.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I’d done it, too. You see, when I started noodling around with the very first scene of what eventually became Lies and Prophecy, I was just tossing ideas out there. I knew I had psychics in the modern world, and I decided their powers manifested at puberty; then I decided there was a tiny minority of people with gifts so powerful, they were active from birth. Enter Julian, a “wilder” and the secondary protagonist of the series, after my main character, Kim.

Wilders were a nifty idea — but pretty soon I started thinking through the logistics of that situation. Infants have pretty much no self-control; what do you do with one who’s psychic? I decided they’re all wards of the state, taken from their families and brought up in government facilities that can provide the care and training they need. After all, no private individuals can possibly manage 24/7 oversight of a kid whose powers are stronger than theirs, and can kill his parents (or himself) in an instant if something goes wrong.

I don’t remember where in the process I got the idea of the deep shield, but that turned out to be the crucial element: a magical structure installed in their minds just after birth, so deeply-rooted that even a wilder’s powerful gifts can’t blast through it. The deep shield can be triggered with a key, and after that, it doesn’t have to be maintained. You can put it on a newborn wilder and leave it there until they’re old enough to start learning to use their gifts, and spend the intervening years preparing them with lessons in magical theory and self-control.

. . . some of you can already see where this is going.

Sounds traumatic, doesn’t it? Wilders refer to the use of the shield as being “gutted,” because that’s what it feels like to them. Like somebody came along and cored out their insides, leaving them empty, hollow. Which is bad enough for the first years of their lives, but gets worse when they’re older and their teachers start lowering the shield for brief periods, restoring it when their gifts spin out of control. So naturally I decide that Julian’s life crusade is to get rid of the shield. He understands the necessity of it in childhood . . . but he’s twenty-one and the thing is still in his mind, quiescent, waiting for anybody with the key to activate it. The shield allows people to control him. And that is the thing Julian hates most in all the world — to the point where other forms of restraint, be they magical or physical, are seriously triggering for him.

It took me years to realize I had given Julian a solid case of PTSD. I was basically just writing some tropes, without understanding the logic behind them. Eventually I noticed, and then — during several of the many rewrites that brought Lies and Prophecy from that first rough draft to its finished form — I started thinking about the psychological state of wilders in general. The deep shield isn’t their only source of problems: they’re raised in an institutional setting, making them prone to attachment disorders, and the entire culture of their upbringing and education emphasizes self-control above all things, which produces a host of associated neuroses.

I didn’t want this to be a dystopian setup, though. After all, the government isn’t doing this because they’re evil; they’re genuinely trying to make sure these kids survive to adulthood and don’t take out anybody else along the way. It isn’t in anybody’s best interests for the world’s most powerful psychics to be psychological train wrecks. As a result, they’ve tried to engineer the Centers where wilders are raised to be as functional as possible. And I could have said they succeeded: after all, telepathy and empathy are on the list of powers people have in this world. I could have said they can use those to fix all the problems before they happen.

But I didn’t. It felt like a cop-out, saying magic can fix everything. So the people who run the Centers do their best, putting together the most supportive institutional environment they can, and using a mix of psychic powers and good old fashioned therapy to raise wilders from infancy to stable adulthood. But “stable adulthood” still includes things like trouble forming attachments and a martyr impulse the size of Montana, and sometimes cases like Julian get through, where the kid never really comes to terms with the trauma of the deep shield.

That’s kind of a backward approach to the whole writing process, compared to how I normally work. If I were writing the first draft of Lies and Prophecy now, the chain of cause and effect would probably be much different, even if the end result was the same. But it was the first novel I ever finished, and I didn’t really take a hard look at my own foundations until I started thinking about the sequel. By then it was necessary — because Chains and Memory is the story of that shield, what it does to wilders and what they’re willing to do to get rid of it.

My characters might prefer it if I’d set my story in a world where the rearing of wilders has no systemic problems and Julian was just an anomaly. But in the real world, things aren’t that easy. And I’d rather write about how people deal with the problems than just wave them out of existence.

2 Comments on [Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Marie Brennan on Characters with PTSD

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // January 12, 2016 at 5:13 am //

    It took me years to realize I had given Julian a solid case of PTSD

    Mind. Blown. I didn’t see it when I read Lies…but now I do. Wow.

    • Well, I feel better now about the fact that I didn’t see it right away, either. 😛 It really did just start out as a tropey thing; only later did I look back and see what I’d done.

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