Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: One of these traits is not like the others

A bit of a change here with the CWWR series. While I’m going to retain my diamond-drill analysis and assaults of advice, I’ll try to make these more relatable to non-writers. Now then: it’s later in the evening than I’d like, but here’s a WWR I’ve skirted for years now. Readers, I don’t mean to imply you’re bad people. But even if you don’t have essay-length issues, you’ve still got some issues. You’re human. Humans have problems. Even the best of us pick up some emotional scars.

Have you ever noticed how rare it is for our characters to have them?

Now, I don’t mean characters like Mr. Impotence from Hemingway’s seminal bitchfest The Sun Also Rises, or the majority of his equally fucked-up friends. Those are characters explicitly written to be messed-up people, which may be why they irritate me so much. The Cullen classic: “I won’t talk about it”—> Instantly talks about it. So, to the actual topic before I can get caught in a Deadpoolian self-awareness loop: how often do we get characters whose messed-up-ness isn’t central to who they are? Well, honestly, not very often. I was actually impressed with Wonder Woman for addressing this.

Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed the movie for plenty of other reasons. A strong (both physically and in plot terms) female character who simultaneously dislikes dresses and croons over babies was the biggest one. But for this particular article, Steve Trevor’s more relevant. Obviously (SPOILERS! TAKE COVER!) Diana reached a breaking point when she was unable to save anyone from the gas attack. But unlike the lingering trauma Steve expresses to her after she kills Ludendorff, Diana doesn’t seem to break as he does. That is, she doesn’t get PTSD. This brings us to an important point. So many of the characters written in speculative fiction wade through mountains of corpses. I’m sure some of them have done it literally. It’s one thing for them not to turn into gibbering messes. Obviously most soldiers do recover from war’s psychological strain. The human mind is astoundingly resilient. But it’s not invincible. For Trevor to express that in a AAA superhero film, even in a few words, was a big deal to me.

The fact that it was a big deal is a bigger problem.

Even though they don’t often break, no veteran (of combat or otherwise) is the same after what they’ve gone through. They jump at loud unexpected noises, they can never seem to relax, they relive those life-and-death moments in dreams and nightmares. It’s the same with abuse victims, some survivors of near death experiences, those who’ve been caught in natural disasters or bullied or just grown up with mental disorders. In fact, so many of us have been screwed up by one thing or or another that the idea of an “ordinary” person should be borderline insulting.

Let’s talk about Harry Potter. His parents were murdered in front of him as a baby. There may have been memory erasure shenanigans involved, I don’t remember (it’s been a while, alright?) but I don’t recall Rowling mentioning a spell to cure repressed trauma. Harry spends all his life before Hogwarts with an abusive family, and his first seven years after that embroiled in an ever-worsening arcane war. Where’s Harry’s goddamn wizard PTSD, huh? Look, I know the first few books aren’t strictly supposed to deal with that kind of stuff anyway. But it’s only towards the end that he starts to show signs of breaking, and even then it never actually happened. The only kinds of people who could go through these sorts of things and come out intact are sociopaths and psychopaths. Harry isn’t. He’s just an otherwise well-enough-written character in a blockbuster franchise.

It’s one thing for Harry to gloss over all this. The Potter series doesn’t necessarily strike a tone that invites discussing psychological damage and mental disorders and so on. But there are plenty of others that do. I’ve read a reasonable amount of speculative fiction (not as much as I’d like, admittedly) and it’s still so rare to run into characters who’ve actually been damaged by their pasts. Plenty of them have dark pasts, but most of the time this just makes them broody corner-hogs or petulant gits. As much as literature in general likes to consider itself the “mature” medium, I don’t know that we’re really doing much with nuanced characters.

I’m not sure why. I haven’t seen much evidence that readers don’t want more complicated characters. More often, I see fandoms rejoicing over these added facets. People appreciate the depth. It might be a publisher-based problem, or it might be an author-based one. It’s most likely both. Either way, we often end up with the same answers to the same questions. Why does the hero start doing hero things? Oh, they were thrust into it, y’see. Heaven forbid the hero actually choose their path! Wouldn’t want to explore serious questions as to whether it even makes sense to choose one path, or whether a Paladin sworn to smite evil ’til his dying breath can ever be prepared for what that means.

Again, we get more options this way as both writers and readers. It’s pretty hard to write fascinating characters when we’re too concerned about making them likable or relatable. The best characters are the ones we end up liking in spite of their flaws to the point that we look at the flaws themselves differently. Would we look the same way at angry or standoffish characters if they used those traits to improve themselves? Would we like the mechanic trying too hard to be everyone’s friend if we knew she was a sociopath? Can a sociopath ever want to be friends for good reasons? This last is as much a question for psychologists as us here, but these are all things we can address. What’s more, having characters with problems that go more than skin deep helps inform the narrative. Their choices can (but don’t have to) change based on these things. The plot gets more room to work because those contradictions or seeming contradictions mean a character is pulled directions other than forward.

This is something I want to take more time to look at in the future. For now, just think about it. Do you really believe that none of the people you know have deeper issues? Probably not. Would you still want to know those people if you knew what their problems were?

That’s the most interesting question.

Say something, darn it!

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