Tortured or trite?

Last week, Janet likened the prevalence of PTSD heroes in historical romance to war profiteering. I have to agree. But her words scare me too, because I’m writing a war-scarred though not classic PTSD hero myself and always worry that I will not do him justice. I feel it’s important to respect history and the real people who suffered through similar events. I hope that respect comes through in my work.

But what makes the difference between Artificially Injected Angst and the real thing?

Looking at both our current projects and our backlist, many of us Riskies have written military heroes. We’re also writing or have written stories about emotional and/or physical abuse, addiction, loss of close loved ones, and other issues that we may or may not have experienced personally. I’ve always been suspicious of the adage “Write what you know”. I’ve since heard “Write what you love” or “Write what you care about” and that’s what we do.

I think that makes all the difference. If a writer cares about an issue enough to make it a central theme in a story, she ought to do the necessary immersion. If she’s content with Wikipedia level research or less, it shows. (I put down a romance when I realized, just a few pages in, that the author thought the British were fighting the Portuguese in the Peninsula, not the French.) This is why we Riskies and friends regularly break our research book budgets or become good friends with librarians.

I also think it is AIA when a tortured hero (or heroine, though they seem less common) is defined by his issues. As a reader, I want to know what makes the character different from others with similar problems. Is he naturally an introvert or an extrovert? Impulsive or cautious? What are his strengths and passions? Most importantly, how does he deal with the problem? People don’t all react the same way and that’s exactly why yet another story about a scarred military hero or any other flavor of tortured character can still be interesting.

What do you think makes the difference between the tortured and the merely trite?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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26 Responses to Tortured or trite?

  1. Ladyhawk says:

    Great post, Elena! I’ve also questioned the “write what you know” and prefer “write what you care about.”

    I agree that you can tell when someone has only done surface research, and it’s annoying, especially when I care about the subject. I’m a LITTLE more flexible with historical details, simply because I know I don’t know everything. If I really like the story, I call it suspending my belief, if only for the moment. If I’m not liking the story, it’s simply further proof why. But when it comes to PTSD and abuse and addiction, I’m less tolerant of obvious contradictions. Does the writer realize that people with those challenges read their book?

    Trite is when the character acts OUT of character, ie, they start out shallow, disrespectful, angry, all the worst traits, and *poof* with the magic of love, they are kind and gentle, etc. Yeah, right. On the other hand, a tortured character already possesses positive qualities that are merely revealed or strengthened by what they endure.

    ~Judy T

  2. Kalen Hughes says:

    Depth of characterization.

    If the POV/characterization is deep enough and the issues are clear enough and real enough then I’m going to *BE* there with the character and I’m going to share his/her emotions.

    If it’s all just a bit of dirt smudged on their otherwise well-fed faces, I’m going to be annoyed and I’m going to feel slighted.

    And are you telling me a PUBLISHED novel had the English fighting the Portuguese? I thought it was bad when much smaller details slipped past editors (like the fact that a filly a colt and a foal are not interchangeable terms for the same animal!) but the idea of being wrong about something as basic and important as WHO THE ENEMY WAS is simply appalling.

  3. Todd says:

    I don’t know how writers make the difference between believable and trite, exactly; but I do know it when I read it. It works for me when the plot flows from the characters–when the hero and heroine do what they do because that is what they would do in those circumstances. If it feels like they are doing it because the author needs them to in order to move the plot along, that doesn’t work.

    The idea of the British fighting the Portuguese in the Peninsula reminds me of an old Beyond the Fringe skit, in which a spokesman for the British government is explaining why Britain needs the bomb. Loosely paraphrased: “It is true that our missiles don’t have the range to reach Russia; but we can bomb, say, Paris. And, by God, we will!”

    Todd-who-thought-they-were-fighting-the-peninsulanders

  4. Todd and Kalen, OMG. What horrific examples.

  5. I can’t remember whether it was a published book or a contest entry, but I’ve seen at least one book where it was clear the author thought Wellington’s army had fought the French in France for years and years. Sigh. I know I’m not a perfect research goddess, but surely your hero’s background is at least worth reading a wikipedia article?

  6. Cara King says:

    What a truly interesting, thought-provoking post, Elena.

    I don’t think I agree with the war-profiteering analogy, though — war profiteers sell necessary goods (or goods that are perceived as necessary for the war effort) at inflated prices — making themselves rich at the expense of those dying, because of a wartime shortage or lack of access of some sort.

    I suppose that one could argue that putting a traumatized hero in a book *might* help sales — I can’t say whether it would or not — but even if it does, I don’t see the price-gouging aspect, nor the harm to the nation or military or civilians…nor the “getting rich” part! 😉

    And I think when authors first started putting traumatized veterans in their books, it was a big risk — and they did it out of conscience. Let’s be honest, a whole lot of literature has glorified war over the millennia, and that’s really the easy way to go. What’s more manly than a hero who’s strong, who saves his regiment and defeats the enemy, and then protects the heroine? An easy sell. But say that your hero was perhaps not all that heroic during the war — heavens, maybe he was even *scared* or confused — and then now he has screaming nightmares. I think that’s actually a harder hero to sell, in many ways — romance does love that powerful, protecting hero, and not so much a hero who *needs* protecting.

    But, as with so many things that touch reality, if it’s done really well, it can be extremely powerful. And I think that’s what happened. After a few authors had written traumatized heroes, in very moving books, it spread and spread… Some writers ended up doing it because they’d been moved by reading such a hero in another book…or because they thought that’s the only thing readers would believe…or because they didn’t do a lot of research and thought that every soldier in that era must have PTSD. (Rather than, as Todd pointed out earlier, very very few of them.) And some authors continued to write very true, moving books, without cliche or manipulation.

    (BTW, I don’t mean to imply that trauma and PTSD are synonymous — one can of course have a traumatized hero who has no PTSD!)

    Okay, sorry, this comment is getting *way* too long. And I’m not even done!

    More later…

    Cara the verbose

  7. Cara King says:

    Okay: the whole “write what you know thing”:

    I agree that one doesn’t have to write what one knows — heck, I write science fiction and Regencies and fantasy! However, I think one can often write more interestingly and powerfully about a thing one has experienced (in some way), or at least has some strong knowledge of.

    So, for example, I think someone who’s read some period military diaries or letters would probably write a more interesting military character than a wikipedia-only researcher…and someone who’d been in the military, or was a recreationist, or something, might have still more interesting insights.

    I was thinking on this concept while watching the recent Shyamalan film, THE HAPPENING. In it, there’s a little girl who, during a huge and virulent disaster, becomes separated from her mother, who may be dead. After a while, her father leaves her with some friends of his, and goes off to find his wife, and we all know he’s probably never coming back. After he goes, the little girl seemed just a little bit more sad and scared than she’d been before.

    And I’m not saying it was incorrect. But I once knew a little girl, about the same age, who’d undergone some trauma, and had highly gone or unreliable parents. And this little girl who’d been betrayed and abandoned and neglected was SO friendly, SO affectionate, and SO bubbly with happiness and love for everyone…and the effect was somewhat creepy and extremely sad. And watching the movie, I thought how much more powerful it would have been, if that little girl’s animal brain had told her “without parents here to protect you you’re likely to die, so do whatever you have to to make any adult you meet love you enough to protect you…”

    Cara, whose verbosity is legendary…and whose legends are verbose

  8. Ladyhawk says:

    Thank you, Cara! For mentioning the difference you saw in the child. I was thinking along the same lines, but as my post grew into a rant, I realized what a hot button it was for me, so started over. I know someone with PTSD and they tell me that it isn’t something you get over; it is something you learn to manage. I have seen some writers handle it very well. I’ve also read stories where the characters can’t sleep, night after night after night, and I wonder if the writer truly knows what happens when one is sleep deprived over a long period of time. Good research makes any story better.
    ~Judy T

  9. Elena Greene says:

    Judy, Kalen and Todd, I agree with you that characterization is key.

    And yes, I really did read a published novel with that error. Though to Sharpe fans it’s totally egregious, I imagine the average editor might not know. I don’t remember being taught much about the Napoleonic Wars at school. This doesn’t excuse authors from doing at least some basic research!

    I can’t remember whether it was a published book or a contest entry, but I’ve seen at least one book where it was clear the author thought Wellington’s army had fought the French in France for years and years. Sigh. I know I’m not a perfect research goddess, but surely your hero’s background is at least worth reading a wikipedia article?

    Susan, that is awful! But I expect you are indeed a most excellent research goddess. In fact, readers like you make me nervous of my own scholarship. 🙂

    Cara, your verbose comments require a comment of their own! After I get the kiddos to bed…

  10. Elena Greene says:

    Cara,
    The war profiteering analogy does break down eventually, but so do all analogies. I definitely think that tortured heroes are considered a selling point. So many authors have been successful with them. That’s why there are imitators.

    But say that your hero was perhaps not all that heroic during the war — heavens, maybe he was even *scared* or confused — and then now he has screaming nightmares.

    Well, all the PTSD heroes I’ve read (the good and the bad) conducted themselves heroically. The nightmares, etc…, came later. And some of the depictions were not the sort that makes them seem weak, precisely. Sometimes these heroes get violent during the nightmares. Some readers find that intriguing; it’s the same appeal as the heroes in paranormals who fear that they will hurt their loved ones while in some out-of-control state. It’s edgy stuff. If it’s written without understanding and respect for the real sufferers, it seems like exploitation.

  11. The difference for me is when the hero can cope despite his past. I look at myself and acknowledge that while my pain has led to me to make certain decisions, it doesn’t rule my life the way it seems to in romances. lol. I’d love to read about a wounded person (but then again, whose life has been sunshine and daisies? Everyone has wounds)–clarify that, non-PTSD or “momma was a whore” or “daddy was a cold bastard” trauma–who could still make jokes, or be a comforter, or just be human with all our frailties and faults. I just grow tired with characters being given issues to make them seem “edgy” only to have them fall away as insignificant in the face of “true love.” Is that the point of the romance genre? To make it seem as though once you fall in love, you become perfect?

  12. Cara King says:

    Well, all the PTSD heroes I’ve read (the good and the bad) conducted themselves heroically.

    I could probably have phrased that better. I didn’t mean they were running around abusing civilians or deserting or anything…I meant “heroically” in the old sense — that, once upon a time, a “hero” in fiction was pretty much expected to have no fear during battle, no reservations about killing people when told to, no doubts about his commanding officers’ competence, etc.

    So I imagine that the first Regency authors who wanted to show what they thought was a more real picture of war had a difficult task: to figure out how to make a sexy hero out of a man who wasn’t behaving in the way that was at that time the norm for strong men in genre fiction…

    And some of the depictions were not the sort that makes them seem weak, precisely.

    I agree with you there — but I think that’s because a lot of smart writers thought about it a lot when the subject was new. When a certain type of hero hasn’t been done before, it can take a lot of work for an author to figure out how to make him appealing to her readers… Of course, now that it’s been done a lot (and done very well), it’s much easier for those of us who follow to have some grasp of what works, what doesn’t, etc.

    I think this probably goes for any type of hero in a romance who hasn’t been done before, and who might seem less than “manly”…the first hands-on father of young kids in a category romance, for instance…the first romances where the hero was a lot younger or less sexually experienced than the heroine…the first dandy hero…

    Okay, I’m not sure if that’s any clearer… 🙂

    Cara

  13. Cara King says:

    La Belle Americaine wrote:

    Is that the point of the romance genre? To make it seem as though once you fall in love, you become perfect?

    I think those books where the serious problems disappear at the end are just flawed…I don’t think the idea in the genre is that love makes problems disappear (or, it isn’t usually, in the books I’ve read), but in many books the love and support of this person makes it a little easier to solve one’s own problems… (And in a lot of other books, the love doesn’t even do that — it’s just a nice bonus. Or maybe something that can only be experienced once the character has solved his or her other problem.)

    I agree with you, though, that it’s very frustrating to read books where a problem that we’ve been told for 300 pages is insoluble, suddenly melts away. Though I think I see this problem even more in movies — where one good therapy session can cure any mental illness, where one workout makes anyone buff, and where a character says “I want to be a writer/painter/whatever” and then two weeks later, their book is in stores or their paintings are being exhibited… 😉

    Cara

  14. Diane Gaston says:

    You all are scaring me as I struggle to write my PTSD hero.

    I just grow tired with characters being given issues to make them seem “edgy” only to have them fall away as insignificant in the face of “true love.” Is that the point of the romance genre? To make it seem as though once you fall in love, you become perfect?

    la belle americaine, I understand what you mean here, but I do think one of the common themes in Romance is “Love Transforms.” It is a concept I believe in and a message I love to convey.

    But you are absolutely right that the author must show this transformation in a believable way, a way that is motivated.

  15. Susan, that is awful! But I expect you are indeed a most excellent research goddess. In fact, readers like you make me nervous of my own scholarship. 🙂

    Well…I do my best. But I’m sure I’m missing all kinds of details that don’t interest me as much as military history. I feel like if I get too scathing over the mistakes of others, I’m tempting fate and will someday be mocked all over the internets for my utter ignorance of boots or piquet or for committing some howler with respect to London geography.

  16. Elena Greene says:

    Oh, Diane, I didn’t mean to scare you! Though of course this post is my way of exploring my own fears about my military hero. Actually I think the fact that we worry about these things so much is telling.

    I believe in the transformative power of love, too, but the message gets skewed in books that make it look easy. I want to see the person who is undergoing the transformation doing the work and not just allowing him or herself to be passively healed. And the one who is doing the healing should also be transformed in some way. That’s the key to making it realistic, I think.

  17. Elena Greene says:

    Well…I do my best. But I’m sure I’m missing all kinds of details that don’t interest me as much as military history. I feel like if I get too scathing over the mistakes of others, I’m tempting fate and will someday be mocked all over the internets for my utter ignorance of boots or piquet or for committing some howler with respect to London geography.

    There’s a difference though minor errors in background detail and the sort of blunders that reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of some major story element. The first could happen to anyone and usually just annoys a few experts. I’m sure you’d never do the latter, which is what really causes knowledgable readers to fling books.

  18. Kalen Hughes says:

    I agree with you, though, that it’s very frustrating to read books where a problem that we’ve been told for 300 pages is insoluble, suddenly melts away.

    Or even earlier . . . there’s a paranormal series that is VERY popular wherein the hero of the deubt book is set up as hating all humans with a passion that burns his very soul and then suddenly on about page 20 he’s making sweet humpie with a human gal and we NEVER hear about his deep dark hatred again. Gah! I tossed the book out. WTF?

  19. Anonymous says:

    >>begin quote
    I look at myself and acknowledge that while my pain has led to me to make certain decisions, it doesn’t rule my life the way it seems to in romances.
    << end quote I agree with La Belle Americaine. There is more to life than emotion, or sex, even though romances wouldn’t exist without either. I would like to see a little more of people dealing with a bad situation and going on, rather than wallowing in their emotions. Too often the wallowing, somehow, makes the happy ending come about. Yes, romances are fantasy, but they have to be grounded in reality. Linda Banche

  20. I would like to see a little more of people dealing with a bad situation and going on, rather than wallowing in their emotions.

    Well said. My personal benchmark as a reader for tortured vs. trite is do I want to give the character in question a dopeslap and tell them to get over themselves. I’m also all for moral ambiguity in romance–do only the nice get their happy ending?

    As for the war-profiteering angle, do you think we’d have quite so many fictional military heroes with PTSD if we were not occupying Iraq? Is it a “safer” subject than using, for instance, the suspension of habeus corpus as a plot device? (It happened then, it’s happening now.)

    That said, I think dealing with so-called contemporary issues has to be done in historicals using a historical perspective. Would a Regency gent admit to anyone, himself included, that perhaps the war against the French was wrong, or even make the connection between the war and his disturbing physical symptoms? He’d probably slap on a leech or two and get back out there, honor intact.

    Similarly you can’t have an addicted hero doing a version of a 12-step program because that’s a 20th-century concept. Eloisa James, for instance, handled alcoholism brilliantly in The Taming of the Duke. And that’s enough from me.

  21. Diane Gaston says:

    As for the war-profiteering angle, do you think we’d have quite so many fictional military heroes with PTSD if we were not occupying Iraq? Is it a “safer” subject than using, for instance, the suspension of habeus corpus as a plot device? (It happened then, it’s happening now.)

    Gosh, Janet, I never think of Iraq when I’m writing my heroes. I do not want to think of something that upsets me so when I’m writing.

    I do not know about other authors, but my reference base is more WWII, a modern romantic comparison, IMO, than Iraq or even Vietnam, another unpopular war I lived through and prefer to escape the unhappy memories of.

    Note to all potential readers of this book I’m slaving over – my hero was not at all inspired by Iraq!!!!

    I believe the there were plenty of tortured soldier heroes with PTSD in Regency romances pre-dating Iraq. I wrote one in The Mysterious Miss M.

    My fantasy of the Regency is that the war must have colored much of the behavior and attitudes of the people who lived in it. I cannot imagine characters not touched by it.

    And a plug for Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake and the Reformer (released later as The Rake). In 1989 Mary Jo wrote a wonderful depiction of a hero’s struggle with alcohol and his recovery.

    I do agree with you that when we can “see” current events coming through too blatantly in our historicals that it ruins the fantasy. For me, at least.

  22. Elena Greene says:

    As for the war-profiteering angle, do you think we’d have quite so many fictional military heroes with PTSD if we were not occupying Iraq?

    I don’t read enough to know if there are more PTSD heroes than before Iraq. I know I’ve read stories of PTSD heroes, some sensitively done, some less so, over the past decade or more.

    I’d like to thank everyone who’s put in their two cents here. I’m starting to feel more confident of what I’m doing with my military hero.

    Diane, I’m sure you’ll do justice to yours, too. Your heart is always in your stories.

  23. janegeorge says:

    **Is it a “safer” subject than using, for instance, the suspension of habeus corpus as a plot device? (It happened then, it’s happening now.)**

    This was used brilliantly in Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil. (The old “Tuttle/Buttle.”) That movie gets more prophetic every day.

    I think a “disappearance” would be a fantastic Regency era plot device. Where is Mr. So and So? Didn’t I see him at Almack’s recently?

    I use a lot of characters in my fiction that I call the “walking wounded.” Some have the strength to make it, and some don’t. Those that do, end up with depth of character and an appreciation of the journey.

    Some of the darkest fictional characters I can think of are those that are convinced they live only in the light. (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Professor Umbridge, etc.)

  24. Oh, that’s the book I had in mind–I hated The Rake because it was so AA-based (sorry, Mary Jo). It seemed entirely anachronistic to me.

  25. Elena Greene says:

    I read the original version (THE RAKE AND THE REFORMER) and I’ve been told it’s less 12-steppy in feel than THE RAKE. I haven’t done the comparison myself.

    I know what you mean about MJP though. Even though her research shows, sometimes there’s a modern sensibility. But damn, she writes a gripping love story. She’s still one of my favorites.

  26. Cara King says:

    The Regency book with an alcoholic hero that I always cite is Carla Kelly’s LIBBY’S LONDON MERCHANT. It’s really well done, and has a lot of surprises in it, too (no spoilers, please!) 🙂

    Cara

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