Getting PTSD Right


I’ve written before about how PTSD is a phe­nom­enon that’s poorly under­stood. More recently, I wrote about how the impact of killing of not only the killer, but every ancil­lary par­tic­i­pant in the process sev­eral layers out. Both pieces were crit­i­cism, pointing out what we get wrong, both in the med­ical and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion communities.

But, it’s got me thinking, and the truth is that there are some people get­ting it right, and I wanted to point that out here. I figure the main rea­sons people read this blog is because they’re fans of my work and want to know more about me, or because they’re writers and want to see how the sausage is made. In ser­vice of the later group, I want to high­light some char­ac­ters (and by exten­sion, some authors), who I think por­tray PTSD well in the manner I under­stand it.

Keep in mind: I don’t see PTSD as a pathology. This posi­tion alone puts me at 180 degree odds with the med­ical com­mu­nity. I firmly believe that PTSD, as we define it, is a shift in per­spec­tive, a per­ma­nent change in per­son­ality which for­ever impacts how the suf­ferer engages with the world. As my essay in BEYOND THE WALL states, I think it is both enfran­chising and debilitating.

I have also come out as firmly against the idea that people can own expe­ri­ences simply by having them. I believe it is com­pletely pos­sible for a person who has never expe­ri­enced PTSD inducing trauma to write com­pelling and accu­rate depic­tions of char­ac­ters suf­fering from it, just as it is pos­sible for people who have never fired a shot in anger to write com­pelling mil­i­tary fiction.

So, if you’re a spec­u­la­tive fic­tion writer looking for exam­ples of authors who get it right, please con­sider the fol­lowing ***MAJOR SPOILERS***:

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, Theon Greyjoy and Arya Stark: I’m not going to wax elo­quently on this topic, since it’s cov­ered in great detail in my essay Art Imi­tates War, in BEYOND THE WALL. If you want to read 16 pages of expla­na­tion of why I think Theon and Arya are good exam­ples of the polar oppo­sites of PTSD crip­pling and empow­ering people, off you go then.

Joe Aber­crombie, The First Law, Ferro Maljinn: “The hate and the fury were gone, for the time being, but they had left a hole, and she had nothing else to fill it with.”

Ferro Maljinn is a former slave that fea­tures promi­nently in Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy (THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED, THE LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS). She appears on the page already the victim of cir­cum­stances, with everyone and every­thing in her life ripped away from her.

Abercrombie’s win in the por­trayal of Maljinn is twofold: First, he paints a radi­a­tion metaphor in her expo­sure to the mag­ical Seed, which is ulti­mately what trips her over the line into insanity. The radi­a­tion metaphor is a good one, because it empha­sizes that a person impacted by trauma is impacted per­ma­nently, and that who they are is dif­ferent on the other side. You can cope with it, but you can never fix it.

Sec­ondly, Aber­crombie adeptly shows the cost of trauma on its victim, hand-in-hand with the real ben­e­fits. Again, this is deftly done through the vehicle of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion metaphor. Maljinn is super­pow­ered by her con­tact with the Seed – gaining supe­rior senses and the mag­ical ability to project cold and shrug off damage. I have said before that PTSD rips away a cur­tain that is in place for most, and that once ripped away, it can never be put back. This is the case for Maljinn, who now sees the demons that flit about the lives of mankind, and is driven to mad­ness by their nearness.

The ulti­mate example (and the most poignant moment of the series for me) is Logen Ninefin­gers final appeal to her heart (the two have a romance throughout the series that bal­ances on a knife’s edge), losing out to the trauma, which has at last made her unable to con­nect with other people in any real capacity. Logen finally closes the door, leaving Maljinn scrab­bling at the floor, her last chance at love walking out of her life forever.

James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, Detec­tive “Joe” Miller: “You don’t have a right thing, friend. You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.”

Detec­tive Jose­phus “Joe” Miller is a man with a hollow life. He has lost the love of his life, his career is on the rocks, and his finances are in the toilet. He becomes obsessed with his latest case, the search for the scion of a rich house­hold, Julie Mao.

Corey is a pseu­donym for an out­standing writing duo, Daniel Abraham (whose Dagger and Coin series I can’t rec­om­mend enough) and Ty Franck. In the crafting of Miller, they skill­fully illus­trate the con­cept of moving goal posts, and how the normal life goals that people set are put sud­denly out of reach. Miller is not a person who can simply reboot and start fol­lowing the life course that so many of us take for granted: work a job, build wealth and a rela­tion­ship, make a home and a family.

For Miller, years in law enforce­ment have ripped the cur­tain back per­ma­nently, and these things no longer have any meaning to him. PTSD suf­ferers faced with this sce­nario flail for new rea­sons to live. I flailed more of less suc­cess­fully (though it was, and still occa­sion­ally is, touch and go), finding art and crisis ser­vice to be enough. Miller’s obses­sive focus on the Mao case is an out­standing example of the kind of inex­plic­able laser-focus that trauma vic­tims can have as they face the mirror each morning and ask them­selves the ques­tion “Why should I bother?”

For many, we bother because we want to pay off our mort­gage, see our chil­dren grow into hon­or­able adult­hood around us, stand in front of an applauding audi­ence while we are pro­moted to com­pany VP. Abraham and Franck under­stand, with an almost intu­itive empathy, that after years in the suck, that isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Humans are intensely com­plex. There is no “cor­rect” way to write about an expe­ri­ence as man­i­fold and diverse as our reac­tion to trauma. But, if you’re a spec. fic writer who is looking for exam­ples that really res­onate with someone who spends a lot of time thinking about this stuff, I hope you’ll give messrs. Martin, Aber­crombie, and Corey (Abraham and Franck) a try. In my expe­ri­ence, very few people get this stuff right.

These writers do.


  • Mazarkis Williams

    I do not have trauma, but I have people with trauma who are close to me. I think as you have written here trauma can man­i­fest itself in so many ways — vig­i­lance; the hoarding of food, mate­rial pos­ses­sions, or drugs in order to feel safe; the need for a rigid schedule or in other cases, finding com­fort in chaos; mis­trust; sleep­less­ness; even flash­backs, that I would feel hes­i­tant to pick out just a few people who get it right. It seems to me there are gen­eral things that are true about PTSD but also some things that are very par­tic­ular which would make the cov­erage in lit­er­a­ture quite varied. Even so I want to add Robin Hobb for her pirate cap­tain in the Live­ship series. From my out­side per­spec­tive it was perfect.

  • Alexvdl

    I’ve men­tioned to Myke before the YA novel “Impos­sible Knife of Memory” by Laurie Halse Anderson as a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion from the point of view of a child whose parent has PTSD.

    • Mazarkis Williams

      I am going to check that out, thanks.

  • Wayne
  • Esther Mer­riken

    Wow, that is a really depressing list. Makes me wonder if PTSD and “hap­pily ever after” can real­is­ti­cally co-exist in the same story. Both modern and his­tor­ical fairy tales often have really, really awful stuff happen before the happy ending, but the pro­tag­o­nist never loses faith/hope/sunny-outlook-on-life. Unless, you know, the witch’s spell or some­thing caused a per­son­ality shift. Then the story is about breaking the spell.

  • Endra

    Oh god THANK YOU.

    If I read one more story in which a totally neu­rotyp­ical char­acter has a flash­back and that’s PTSD, I’m going to scream.

    Happy end­ings for people with PTSD are pos­sible. The thing is that the happy is not a cure. It is an acceptance.