1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    A starship commander with ptsd. how do i do this right?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Link the Writer, Aug 2, 2015.

    Long story short, my MC, Helen Chert once suffered severe trauma as a young cadet (she was around 17-18 years old then.) She and several other members of her captain's ship were captured in a failed mission and spent months as POWs to the opposing army. They were experimented on, tortured; she watched her best friend starve to death, and she herself was controlled via a serum to murder someone she cared about.

    The main story is set 20 years later when she's 38 and the captain of her own starship. The new mission has her being forced to work with one of the alien scientist who once tormented her, but had a change of heart and spent the next two decades trying to make up for his sins. The overall theme is about redemption and forgiveness, and if one truly deserves such a thing.

    This is a tricky subject, not just because, in my opinion, redemption/forgiveness depends on the individual; because with Helen still having residual trauma, I want to strike a careful balance between Helen the sharp, confident captain and Helen, the person trying to cope with her past coming to the forefront now that she's being forced to work with someone responsible for her suffering and that of others.

    I should probably also add that all this started when she found a stowaway child in the cargohold who is of the same species as those from her nightmares. She wants this kid gone, but due to circumstances, she can't just boot him out. This is especially tricky because I want to show that this species isn't all bad despite the fact Helen thinks otherwise for very understandable reasons.

    OK, let me just make a TL;DR version...
    • At age 18, Helen and several other members of another starship were captured and imprisoned by an alien race at war with them. She suffered severe trauma and, at one point, was controlled by a serum to murder someone she cared about.

    • 20 years later, she still has residual trauma left over. I had thought of addressing that she has a horrible scar on her left leg that twinges, but I'm not sure if that really has anything to do with...anything.

    • She's forced to interact with the alien species she so hates because of her suffering due to finding a child in the cargo hold and working with someone who says he's changed despite the fact that two decades ago, he was one of the men responsible for the whole thing. That element, I also want to explore.

    • I want to strike a careful balance between Helen, the captain and Helen, the person with PTSD. I also want to show that this alien race is not, in fact, the embodiment of all evil, yet I don't want to seem like I'm refuting Helen's suffering.

    Would it be realistic if she still had this trauma two decades later? I know she'd probably still have the flashbacks and recurring nightmares, but is there anything else she'd experience? Would it be realistic that she'd seem cold and distant toward the kid (this would be happening at the beginning of the story) because he's of the same race as the monsters who hurt her and her friends?

    Thoughts??

    NOTE: Just to be clear, this isn't one of those stories where she'll get over the trauma by punching it in the face, or having an excellent time. Not that at all. It's quite offensive, imo.
     
  2. SwampDog
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    SwampDog Contributing Member

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    Let's start at the beginning and deal with the kid. Put him in an airlock. Here's a ball, go and play outside.

    Providing an answer here tends towards an impossible philosophical absolute. Unless you mean by 'one' the scientist in question. Concentrate on the alien.

    Helen really needs to know whether the scientist was acting (with some approval) on his own volition, taking advantage of tacit permission, or under orders. Think back to the terrible concentration camp atrocities in WW2 and the excuses put forward - I was only acting under orders etc. You could draw many parallels without an overt link to the past.

    Somehow, Helen has to get inside this creature's head to try and understand him/her/it, or engineer situations to test the response of the alien scientist.

    What you haven't mentioned are the circumstances that's forced them together, or the role of the alien scientist. Particularly with the latter, I'm sure there'll be plenty of ideas forthcoming to help plot lines.

    Cheers
     
  3. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Basically, the role the alien scientist played was someone who had legit grievances against humanity for basically selling his homeworld of Kerrot out to a tyrannical despot decades before he was born. He also was involved because he cares more about his own family and knows if he resists orders, he and his family might suffer under the hands of those loyal to the despot, now at war with the humans.

    So he saw this as not only a way to exact revenge against the humans, but as a way to earn money to keep himself and his family thriving. That said, he did feel like the torture was unneeded, but as a lowly recruit, there wasn't much he could do to help the prisoners.

    20 years later, after serving his time in a prison, he hears that Helen is back on his homeworld tracking down a rogue commander. Seeing this as an opportunity to strike back at the despot and make amends to the captain, he hired a merc to take him to the planet to meet her.

    How is the kid involved? I don't know, I'm probably going to scrap him out of the story and focus just on Helen and the alien scientist. I mean, originally, I planned to have him smuggle himself into Helen's ship, but that would've required knowledge he'd have no way of knowing considering he's, at best, a homeless Kerrot child stranded on an alien planet, who wanted to get back home and free his family from servitude. OK, OK, I was inspired by The Phantom Menace. :p
     
  4. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    How much research on PTSD have you done? Google it, find mental health sites that discuss its short-term and long-term effects, find articles written by people with PTSD that discuss its effect on their lives, find a forum for people with PTSD, use google scholar to find research done on PTSD.

    PTSD is an umbrella term that can't be broken down easily into a short list of potential long-term effects. It can vary dramatically from person to person. By definition, PTSD is merely when post-traumatic stress response lasts longer than a month. Because of this definition, there is some debate as to the disorder's merit.

    To answer the questions:

    (1) Yes it would be realistic for her to be suffering from it 20 years later. It can affect people for the rest of their lives.
    (2) There are many other things she might be suffering from, and she wouldn't necesarily have to be suffering from flashbacks or nightmares. Those are merely the most commonly used effects shown in mass media. Here is a long list of potential reactions to trauma:

    Physical Reactions
    • aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
    • sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
    • changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex
    • constipation or diarrhea
    • easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
    • more susceptible to colds and illnesses
    • increased use of alcohol or drugs and/or overeating
    Emotional Reactions

    • shock and disbelief
    • fear and/or anxiety
    • grief, disorientation, denial
    • hyper-alertness or hypervigilance
    • irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
    • emotional swings -- like crying and then laughing
    • worrying or ruminating -- intrusive thoughts of the trauma
    • nightmares
    • flashbacks -- feeling like the trauma is happening now
    • feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control
    • increased need to control everyday experiences
    • minimizing the experience
    • attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma
    • tendency to isolate oneself
    • feelings of detachment
    • concern over burdening others with problems
    • emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
    • difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
    • difficulty concentrating or remembering
    • feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt
    • shame
    • diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
    • unpleasant past memories resurfacing
    • suicidal thoughts
    • loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future
    • anger towards religion or belief system; loss of beliefs
    • desire for revenge
    (3) Yes, it would be possible she'd be cold toward the alien. It'd also be possible she wouldn't.
     
  5. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    This reminds me of the TNG episode "I, Borg" when Picard encounters a lone Borg, the species that once assimilated him. It might be worth watching. You don't really need to see the other two-part episode.
     
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  6. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I agree, PTSD isn't some huge encompassing thing where everyone has the same symptoms and reaction to it; it affects each sufferer differently. My research has told me that some with PTSD can manage it on their own while others need a little extra help. Helen can handle herself just fine, but I think to ensure I'm not enveloping all PTSD sufferers, I should show survivors of the trauma (I'll come up with a name for that event) that weren't so lucky. Again, it all depends from one person to the next.

    My other concern is that I don't want to come off like I just ran through a list of basic symptoms and said she's got some of them. If I told you that because of her trauma, she's hyper-vigilant, easily irritated when things don't go as planned, and has heart palpitations/cold sweats when, on a mission, she hadn't heard back from a crew member, what would you think?

    I guess what I'm trying to get at was how do I write her with PTSD without the disorder being all that she is? She has interests, hobbies, desires, etc. that have nothing to do with the trauma and the PTSD she got from it.
     
  7. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of course. IMO one way to avoid PTSD being her only major characteristic--regardless of how large or small of a role it plays in her life--is to focus equally on how her unique personality affects how she copes with it. That way every time you bring up PTSD, you also are forced to show her non-PTSD characterization.

    Good luck with the story.
     
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  8. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's probably not what you want to hear, but would a star fleet allow an officer with PTSD command a warship? Present day naval officers of sensitive vessels such as nuclear submarines are carefully vetted and monitored. In such an advanced society this would be even more significant.
     
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  9. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Wow, good point. Hadn't realized that. Even if Helen could control her PTSD (not all with PTSD are reduced to sobbing wrecks as my research told me), she would be kept on watch (maybe she takes their equivalent of anti-anxiety medication and keeps a daily log where she records any sudden episode she has?) or at the very least she would be assigned to a less stress-inducing job like an office/desk position.

    @Ben414 - Good idea. If I balance the two together, I'll be able to prevent the PTSD from completely taking over her character and making that all she is. A good way to remind myself of that is to think, 'She's someone who just happens to have PTSD; she's not PTSD personified'.
     
  10. 33percent
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    33percent Member

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    Join the military as Infantry, Marines, Rangers, SF, SEALS etc.. you'll have a better understanding. I am a grunt, and dealing with people with PSTD all the time it is not pleasant. How does she go from POW with PSTD straight to captain in charge of a starship running off nuclear engines? you realize people with PSTD can cause many problems being in the military.

    It can range from them killing themselves or others, ending of American Sniper is a great example. Obviously this is the future so they probably have applications in place to detect officers with PSTD. I think you shouldn't focus on the PSTD part but more portraying her personality of having resiliency, which is the key overcoming not only stress, but PSTD as well. Instead make her moments being a POW is what drives her to succeed, shapes her character to be well badass. Combat or torture can either go both ways either break a person or not. Show why her actions led her to becoming a Star Fleet Commander not this insecure character having PSTD issues.
     
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  11. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    @33percent - Well said. I'll make sure to not make her an insecure character with PTSD. I'll show how her experiences shaped her will to succeed, to survive. I might just scrap the PTSD idea entirely, now that I think about it...
     
  12. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    edit: i shouldn't post about things as if i know more than what i actually know. nevermind.
     
  13. croak3r
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    croak3r Member

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    Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy describes quite well someone who has to go through life after being tortured (the character Glotka), so it may be of benefit to read that if you havnt. I also agree with 33percent in that you should focus on how it shaped her to be the person she is, rather than focus entirely upon the ptsd.
     
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  14. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I think the resource you could use to understand how PTSD works is to look into those who sufferer it, and how they deal with it. A list of symptoms will never give you what you need to know, just how to spot it if you see the signs. The internet is your friend, so there is plenty of places you can find the reality of how PTSD affects real people. Just a thought. :p
     
  15. Capricorn42
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    Capricorn42 Member

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    Torture, physical and mental abuse, the denial of basic human rights and dignity. None of us could know what that's like, unless we've been there. I know of one example, an old guy who lived nearby and kept his front hedge trimmed into the shape of a steam locomotive. Why? Because he was captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the Burma railway for 3 years. To his dying day he was a peaceful man, but always privately wracked by nightmares and filled with loathing for all things Japanese. I can barely imagine what they did to him. If you're trying to create characters like this you should tread carefully and do your research.
     
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