Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Eb Maclean and PTSD: The Challenge To Keep the Protagonist's Flaw From Taking Over the Story

I mentioned in a previous post that my protagonist in Judgment Tramp, Eb Maclean, has PTSD. His condition is common among servicemen and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in any other hazardous posting.

I made a conscious decision right from the beginning to saddle Eb with these problems--not only because I hoped it would help make him a more believable character, but also to hopefully shed some light on a condition that is more pervasive in our military than we think. About 20% of our returning service-people suffer from PTSD or depression upon returning home, and that number seems to be going up.

Weaving Eb's PTSD into the storyline seemed like a worthy goal, but there were problems, some of which I anticipated, and some that crept up on me once I began the writing process. I looked forward to the opportunity to make Eb flawed, and the PTSD was a handy device to help me introduce some less than stellar character attributes.A stronger, more stable hero would make different decisions and move the story in a different direction. It is Eb's struggle that colors his actions and choices. But I wanted to write thrillers, not literary fiction, and there has been a constant danger of allowing Eb's problems to carry the story away from my chosen genre. And there is always the additional danger of making a protagonist flawed to the point where the reader decides the effort of reading isn't worth the potential reward--because they decide the protagonist is not flawed at all, but is simply a jerk. I certainly didn't want that. PTSD as choice of flaw made him, in my mind, a more sympathetic character despite his unlikable qualities.

I'm slowly learning to resist the urge to describe every aspect of Eb's PTSD...and my editor/beta reader helps to keep me honest in this regard. I also don't want the PTSD to become a cliche'.
PTSD isn't just about having flashbacks (the standard TV drama treatment of the condition) or temper issues, and sometimes the truth of the condition's effect on someone is quite graphic. I want Eb Maclean to be real, but I'm learning that every little aspect of his condition doesn't need to be explained in detail. In fact, most of those details are probably more of a distraction to the storyline.

I want my readers to see Eb as a real hero, flawed, but worthy of redemption. I expect the reader to have sympathy for Eb's problems, but I don't want that sympathy for him to take over and derail the story. It's a fine line and one that I keep in mind continually. 

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