My reaction to the terrorist attacks during the last few months has been horror, yes, but also something else. There’s been a sense of unreality to it all, like the psychological trauma has begun to numb me from the reality in order to cope. The destruction of humans and self-destruction of humans have reached some sort of pinnacle. I’ve also thought, “Not again.”
Then oddly, my writer mind wonders if a thriller writer somewhere is taking notes in order to make a terrorist attack in a novel more realistic. A second later, I’m horrified at that thought. And yet….
There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
Vendela Vida wrote an essay about reality vs. fiction at nytimes.com entitled “Highly Unlikely.” Vida’s musings about using her real experiences in her fiction reminded me of my “Write What You Know?” post here last month. In that post, I wrote about not using personal experience or real people in fiction. Vida wrote about using a specific experience in fiction and being told that it was improbable. We want our fiction to be real but not surreal, to be probable, even though the reality it may be based on is totally bizarre. Using reality as inspiration is something else, like using the terrorist attacks in some way for fiction.
One of my preoccupations is the effects of trauma on the human mind. We are attentive to the effects of physical trauma, getting medical help for people who have been injured in an attack, accident or disaster. But what about the effects of living through such trauma on the mind? This is what has been on my mind as one terrorist attack after another has been occurring the last few months. Those of us who see these attacks from a distance, on the TV, or read about them on the internet or in newspapers and news magazines, could become numb to their horror and pain. The people who were in the middle of it, were injured or witnessed the violence up close, could become numb through dissociation, could develop PTSD.
Writers can explore the psychological effects of trauma through fiction. I know because I have and continue to do so in the Perceval novels. The character(s) with PTSD did not experience a terrorist attack, but another life-threatening trauma that created a profound sense of powerlessness and helplessness that was never recognized by the people surrounding them. What happens to someone when psychological trauma is not treated?
And this is where it’s possible to stray into that “truth is stranger than fiction” territory that readers tend to label as improbable. And yet, it’s necessary to ground a character’s PTSD behavior in reality, i.e. what has been observed and established as symptomatic of PTSD. Someone suffering from it won’t always be aware of it, and in fact, a first step in treating it is to become aware of the behaviors, the emotional symptoms, and the psychological symptoms like dissociation. Until the trauma and its emotional and psychological effects have been confronted and processed, the person will remain in a PTSD loop, getting triggered into flashbacks or dissociation.
How to write about all that plausibly? By putting the character in a plausible situation that would trigger the PTSD. Then by using specific details to capture the PTSD experience. I asked someone who had experienced PTSD and the healing process to read Perceval’s Secret in order to double check that what I’d written was plausible. It was a huge relief to hear that it was. But I could have just as easily gone off the rails and exaggerated symptoms in order to make the PTSD point. And that is a serious mistake — exaggeration.
As writers, we cannot escape reality, not if we want our readers to believe us. The trick is to make certain that we don’t make our fiction stranger than reality.