September 10, 2012

Guest Post: Where Real Meets Unreal

I'm happy to welcome Dr. Sarah Fine, author of the upcoming YA novel Sanctum, back to the blog for another Psychtember guest post! (You can read Sarah's guest post from last year here.)

Where Real Meets Unreal: Characters’ Reactions to Trauma in YA Speculative Fiction

When I was in the early stages of writing SANCTUM (which comes out only a few weeks from now! October 16th! Yipes!), I made a decision: The protagonist, Lela, had to be a tough, scrappy fighter, someone who could believably sneak her way into hell and battle whatever she came up against. Out of that decision blossomed Lela’s past, which is marked by abuse and loss. But … as a psychologist who’s worked with kids who’ve been through some pretty tough stuff, I couldn’t give Lela that kind of history without consequences for her as a character. It left her wounded. Vulnerable. In need of some healing even though she couldn’t yet ask for it.

Basically, I created a character who exhibits many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though in the contemporary urban fantasy world of SANCTUM, it is never called exactly that. But if we consider the formal diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV, Lela’s experience definitely meets Criterion A (a trauma which involved a threat to her “physical integrity” and her own helpless reaction to it), Criterion B (re-experiencing of the trauma; I’m trying not to spoil things so I won’t get specific), Criterion C (at least three symptoms of avoidance/numbing of responsiveness), and Criterion D (at least two symptoms of hyperarousal, things like exaggerated startle response and hypervigilance to threats) for PTSD. The trauma occurs two years prior to the start of the story, and the symptoms have dogged her ever since. How they impact her actions and relationships—and how she evolves as a result of what she goes through in the dark city beyond the Suicide Gates—is a significant part of her development as a character throughout the series.

In fantasy, there’s often not a lot of room for formal diagnostic talk or labels, which is something you see more often in contemporary YAs like Wintergirls, Hold Still, Willow, and Life Is But A Dream. A few contemps, such as Compulsion, are specifically about a mental illness but don’t necessarily label it. A notable exception is Jackie Morse Kessler’s fascinating fantasy series about the Riders of the Apocalypse, in which several of the characters have diagnosable disorders, including anorexia and self-harm (which is a nonspecific symptom of several different disorders, actually).

But usually, in speculative fiction, we don’t see this so much. Considering the occurrence of mental illness in adolescents (1 in 5!), you might think we would, but the sci-fi/fantasy genres tend to have a different focus. The big exception here, however, is reactions to trauma. Which makes sense, because the characters regularly go through terrifying, life-threatening things. In fact, I might argue that we don’t see truly impairing reactions to traumatic events in YA sci-fi/fantasy/dystopians as often as you might expect, given what authors (including myself …) put their characters through. I mean, there aren’t a ton of studies on how frequently PTSD occurs after a traumatic event, but in a study of folks in Manhattan after 9/11, it turned out well over 50% had at least one identifiable symptom of PTSD in the 5-8 weeks afterward. In other words, it’s pretty common to experience some lingering effects after something that scary.

The Marbury Lens is all about what could be considered an acute stress reaction (ASR) but is not at all a clinical examination of it (because it’s A LOT more complex and wild than that). And in Insurgent, Tris exhibits several clearly identifiable symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, the only thing she could really be diagnosed with so shortly after a trauma (PTSD can only be diagnosed a minimum of one month after the trauma). She has some re-experiencing of the event, avoidance of things that remind her of it, and symptoms of increased emotional arousal. HOWEVER … she doesn’t exhibit any dissociative symptoms (that I could detect), so she doesn’t actually meet formal criteria for the disorder. That doesn’t mean she isn’t deeply affected by what happens at the end of Divergent, though.

In Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Katniss experiences debilitating symptoms of PTSD (so do a few of the other characters). In reading those books, I really felt like Suzanne Collins captured how persistent and crippling those symptoms could be. I appreciated how, in books that portray incredible brutality and violence, she did not shrink from showing the severe and lasting effects of those things on the characters. It wasn’t like they got out unscathed—quite the contrary. They (most of them, at least) were not destroyed by their experiences, but they were changed by them, and not in a good, healthy way. Despite that, they persisted, and in my opinion, there’s true heroism and bravery in that alone.

What are some other fantasy or sci-fi books you’ve read that cover the characters’ reactions to traumatic events? Are there any that strike you as being particularly well done? Have you read books where you wonder how the character manages to endure intense trauma and come away seemingly unscathed? Where do you think this type of thing—true PTSD or any other mental disorder—fits within the scope, plots, etc. of non-realistic/contemporary YA fiction?

Sarah Fine got her doctorate in clinical psychology and specializes in working with children and their families. Her YA urban fantasy debut, SANCTUM, will be published on October 16th (Marshall Cavendish Children's Books/Amazon Children's Publishing). She is represented by Kathleen Ortiz at New Leaf Literary. Her blog, The Strangest Situation, is about the (messy, awesome, blurred, thrilling) intersection of those two endeavors.

Thanks so much, Sarah, for this insightful analysis of trauma portrayals in YA fantasy and sci-fi! Readers, what are your thoughts on this topic? How would you respond to the questions Sarah raises?

1 comment:

  1. This was a great post. I guess I never really looked that closely at books to figure out what sort of disorder/stress disorder the characters might have had. I guess I need to pay more attention when I read a book. However, I do think all of these "problems or issues" add to the characters. Having perfect characters who never have a single problem is boring and not true to real life. I personally love when characters are sort of screwed up because of their past. Our pasts certainly help shape who we are in the future.

    Thanks for the great post!


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