Hm. A mixed bag, this one. I’ll just wander around and talk about whatever I see fit.
Yes, how was that different from the usual, again?
1) Take it slow, but not repetitive.
I personally find it very unconvincing when characters bounce back from the effects of trauma in a short time. What’s “short?” Well, it depends on the trauma involved. I can see someone feeling shock, depression, and then healthy anger about the loss of a lover in a week or a month or a few months or a year, depending on her personality. I can’t see someone who’s spent ten years brooding over the same person suddenly dumping that emotion down the garbage can in a week’s time because someone else just happens to tell her, “I love you,” and she decides that “I love you” makes up for everything. (The obsession some books have with just hearing those words, as if nothing else matters beside them, is absolutely disgusting). I can’t see someone who’s spent months being tortured walking around fine the day after she’s rescued because the author brought in a “healer for her mind.” (See point 2).
Besides, if you’re going to make the character’s recovery the whole point of your book, shouldn’t it be slow?
Now, of course, along come two issues to make everyone who wants to write a fantasy like this all upset. First is the idea that, “Well, if I can’t rush anything along, then nothing is happening!”
Ha-ha. Not so. Go deep instead of broad. Rather than rushing through your characters through sketchily developed locations and through forced encounters whose only purpose is to help move the plot along, stay in one place and develop the characters and plot and issues until you’re immersed in them, until the story is an ocean rather than a journey from one puddle to another. Characterization will have to be subtler and have different priorities. That does not mean it’s impossible. If you tend to think of writing as related to movies, then what you are writing has more in common with a drama than an action movie. That does not mean it’s a poor story. Revel in the depth.
The second problem is more severe. This is when authors wind up writing “recovery” plots that repeat the same actions over and over. The character never shows any progress until one sudden leap at the very end of the story (often prompted by a stupid “I love you” again). The only conversations anyone has are circular. There’s only one reaction exhibited (tears are the most common) instead of the full-color array common to people who’ve suffered, or a changing set like the five stages of grief, or a set based on both the trauma involved and the character’s personality.
These are all problems common to other aspects of fantasy that depend on things other than slam-bang action—most romances are this way—and simply have to be dealt with. For some ideas about dealing with them, see point 4.
2) Healers are not a cure-all.
Do not use them this way. Why in the name of fuck does anyone use them this way?
Oh, wait. Because we cannot possibly take the time that it would need to get a character fully healed. The hero has to undergo torture to make us empathize with him, but he had better be recovered from that torture by sixty pages later—not all of which are concerned with him, but some with the villain and some with the Designated Love Interest—so that he can storm the Dark Lord’s fortress!
I think having “mind healers” who simply reach in and repair everything that’s gone wrong is lazy. This doesn’t mean that magic has no place in fantasies about recovery and healing. One thing I’ve been interested in seeing for a long time is a fantasy with a healer as a main character who a) is primarily a healer, not a Love Interest or an adjunct to the hero or some kind of incredibly powerful mage and b) uses a different metaphor to conceive of what she’s doing than war. “Battles with death” is the common phrase, and healers are often portrayed as going to war against death or seeing death as the enemy.
Um. That metaphor could be deeply damaging when you’re not rushing from person to person trying to insure they’ll live past the moment, but concentrating on just one person, helping them from one slow stepping stone to the next, one slow recovery to the next. If a healer sees someone else’s mind as a battlefield, and sets out to destroy the “enemy,” how does she know that she won’t crush an essential part of her patient’s personality in her haste? There are other plausible ways to conceive of healing someone, and many of them would fit far, far better with the general tone of a fantasy about rising from the ashes. I think this is war trying to sneak in the back door again, even when authors have decided not to write about it.
3) Be prepared for frustration.
If you’re writing the story from inside the head of someone traumatized, then yes, it can seem as though it’s taking longer than it needs to for that person to grasp the ‘basics’: that he’s safe now, that other people are there to help him instead of hurt or ignore him, that certain gestures that carry horrible meanings to him because of his experiences are in fact innocent or neutral or even kindly meant, that he doesn’t need to obey whatever psychological conditioning may have been instilled in him. And sometimes the author actually has gone overlong, especially if she just repeats the exact same conversation time and time again.
But that doesn’t mean a frustrating character is a bad one. Characters who are clear-headed all the time, or who are only thick until the author fires an Epiphany Cannonball at them, are the more usual kind, not the better kind. An author who dips, and dips hard, into someone’s head and doesn’t hurry the healing process can:
- Create a far more nuanced portrayal of one person than is possible when the plot is also occupied with backstory and infodump and magical explosions and battles and other viewpoints of people who have nothing to do with this particular character and intrigue and politics and more ‘and.’
- Create a unique healing process consonant with what she knows about the character, rather than sounding as if she’s ripped off her freshman psychology book. (HATE).
- Develop very, very deep personal relationships that are based on something different from love at first sight, spying on another character while bathing, or authorial fiat. Plenty of authors have characters who share dangerous situations and become close friends or lovers. I’m puzzled that more of them don’t show characters bonding during the recovery process. There’s just as much pain to attract them.
- Make readers salivate for the small victories that the character achieves as he goes along, rather than risking everything on a climax that may turn out to be a damp firecracker.
- Create a plot structure more suited to these fantasies because of those small victories (see point 5).
Don’t give up if you’ve got someone who’s not only traumatized but stubborn, and if it seems ‘one step forward, two steps back’ at first. Yes, it’s hard (is it ever; I’m writing one at the moment, and all he wants to do is go back to hiding in his shell and say it’s all right that people hurt him, because those people love him). That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
4) Life is a journey.
Keeping the story moving is the easiest way to avoid the repetition problem. It can move backwards as well as forwards, which I think is something a lot of authors don’t understand; once a character achieves something, she’s just supposed to achieve it every time, whether that’s a time when she doesn’t cry or a use of her magic. Bah. Much more damaging is having the characters and the plot swim in circles.
Know your characters. I think this is the most critical part of avoiding repetition. Know them both as people—what would they do? What would they be like as they recovered? What would be their major problems with recovery, issues that other people might not even have?—and as characters—Where are they weighing down the story instead of helping it? What must they do and be and become, for others as well as for themselves? Where do they spend time talking about things you know they’ve already said? It will be much easier to force a conversation in a new direction if you recognize that it’s a conversation the characters have already had three times. I’m convinced that many authors really don’t realize this at all, or are too in love with certain emotional effects to kick their characters in the ass.
That’s another thing. Be prepared to face the ugliness. The one thing that most recovery stories I’ve seen are absolutely unwilling to face is how the character is complicit in his or her own healing, because of mental or emotional issues or actual obstruction. Not only are they absolute victims of the trauma they endured; somehow it’s up to someone else to fix everything, while they lie there passively, like broken dolls. No. Don’t do that. Those characters, not the frustrating ones who lash out at the people trying to heal them or hide from what they’ve been told to face, are boring. At least the frustrating characters are trying to position their own limbs and seem to have real flaws, reasons they can’t just pop up the next day and walk out the door with a smile. The passive character who needs healing and crumples into tears at the slightest sign of opposition is, at her worst, a very special form of Canon Mary Sue. Poor wounded thing, of course she can’t be expected to face unpleasant truths. It’s just not in her. And so we get scene after scene after scene that’s exactly the same, with someone hurting the passive character and the healer(s) snarling in vengeance. Very nice once or twice, but the repetition problem if that’s all that ever happens.
That’s another thing, too. If your characters are not absolutely strong, they can still show some strength. A character can too participate in his own healing, or participate in obstructing it. The passive stage is not a requirement of stories focused on recovery. I’ve met people who believe that it is, and I’m bewildered. Um, have they never attended a therapy session or read a record of one?
5) Hey, let’s practice with a different plot structure!
Some basic fantasy plot types are the Quest and the War. They tend to involve a lot of movement, plenty of large epiphanies about who’s really who or who’s betraying who, grand set-pieces where people kill each other and mystical objects are seized, obligatory romantic side-moments, and a big climax where even more people kill each other while the protagonist faces and destroys her enemy. Then there’s the denouement, often involving the protagonist getting married and becoming queen and being happy, or sometimes riding off into the sunset and being happy. If recovery and healing get mentioned at all, they’re either packed into a paragraph—“In the two years since the battle with the Dark Lord, Danielle had healed from her losses”—or we’re assured they’ll happen in the future, but the book ends before they do.
While, obviously you’re not doing that if you focus on a story about recovery and healing. Can you still use the rest of the plot structure?
Not as obviously. The movement will be more mental than physical, particularly if this person was grievously wounded. The epiphanies will focus rather more closely on the protagonist’s progress towards recovery than on “OMG, you’re the king’s daughter!” People killing each other and the seizing of mystical objects will need to have a defined place in orbit around the story’s major themes; as I pointed out above, if your story’s major theme is finding peace, it’s a bit discordant to constantly have approving references to war, unless they’re coming from another character entirely. Romances will blossom in different—and, I think, more fertile—ground, and have to deal with the thorny issues of compassion and pity mingled with the love. And the climax/denouement structure? Well. I think that the climax is more likely to be a moment that’s a reflection/variation on those that have gone before, a culmination of all the protagonist’s steps, rather than a battle filled with new movements and violence that the protagonist has never performed. The denouement can be more deeply personal. Someone doesn’t have to become a queen, in this kind of story, to feel that she’s achieved a victory.
I’m firmly convinced that part of the “impossibility” of writing a fantasy solely about recovery/healing is its incompatibility with the war/quest plot structure. The author tries to write it like a war or a quest, and promptly gets mired. Become willing to use a different plot structure, and suddenly a great many more things are possible.
6) Use conversation, confrontation, realization, idealization, acceptance, laughter, honesty, as tools.
How do protagonists overcome their obstacles in most fantasy stories? Violence or magic. Occasionally, when the conflict is not a martial one, there’s the Epiphany Cannonball that blasts in and makes the protagonist “realize” she’s been in love all along with a man who hit her and kidnapped her and tried to rape her because she “understands” him. (I wish to strangle authors who use that plotline with my bare hands).
But what about when the protagonist is facing his own reluctance to recover, or his own stubbornness against telling anyone about what happened, or intense dislike of his situation because he doesn’t want pity? What happens when someone is facing a devastated world from which magic has disappeared completely and can’t be used to solve problems any more? What happens when someone is having to face her memories of torture and rape, or her own fear of magic after she used it to kill someone else? The obstacles are different, and the way the character climbs over them will also be different. (Once again, magic as a quick cure-all is just not on).
Conversations can be just as intense as any battle scene. In fact, I find I enjoy reading and writing them more now than most battle scenes (especially when authors have no clue about how to keep characters and weapons straight visually in a battle scene—yes, sorry, that’s a separate rant). Confrontations don’t have to turn violent, or always end in tears. They can be a confrontation of the protagonist with herself as easily as with someone else.
Realization? Different when it’s been built patiently, story on story, scene on scene, rather than crash-landing in the middle of a pond. All those little steps forward, all those little changes that are reflections on and variations of each other, add up to one profound realization when they come together.
Idealization is very fun, especially when your character realizes that she doesn’t have to revere someone who hurt her, or that she doesn’t have to recover into the “perfect” model of a lover and wife for someone to love her in return. Acceptance goes along with that, of course, as the common cure to the obstacles that idealization usually imposes.
And honesty. Oh, that is fun. I think one of the very great benefits of a story focused on process rather than product, on journey rather than destination, is that the characters often develop a sense of their lives as process, too, as continuous growth and change. They won’t wake up one day, discover they’re New People, and never have to heal again. No, they’ll go on changing, and probably looking harder at questions they would have answered unthinkingly in the past, and dealing with all sorts of new emotions, or old emotions reborn. That’s so much fun, getting to see what people not only become, but go on becoming.
Creating subgenres is next. *croons*