Ruminating on Kryal’s fan fiction story, The Dragon-King’s Temple (described here, and available to read through this link here), a little while ago, something about the story struck and stuck with me. For those who have not read it, this fan fiction tale crosses Avatar: The Last Airbender* with Stargate SG-1* in an original episode created by Kryal. Zuko and Toph, two characters from A:TLA, meet Samantha Carter and Janet Fraser after a Goa’uld kidnaps them from their homeworld.
It is amazing the things one can learn from reading fiction closely, especially if he or she is striving to learn the craft in order to better his or her own works. On one or more of my re-reads of Dragon-King, I realized something of great interest with regard to Zuko and his interactions with the male members of SG-1, specifically Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson. The young Fire Lord is wary of and distrustful of the two in a way that he is notably not with Major Carter, Doctor Frasier, and Teal’c, the Jaffa member of the team.
Finding this curious, I started to consider just why Zuko had such difficulty trusting Jack and Daniel. It is not simply because he is the Fire Lord and therefore a valuable political target; having grown up in a palace, Zuko has likely been the subject of political intrigue from a very young age. As the only heir to the throne at present in the story, he has to consider whom he can and cannot trust among total strangers with his identity. Though the Fire Nation means nothing to SG-1, Zuko cannot be certain of what they would do with the knowledge that they had a nation’s ruler in their power. He has to think of his people as well as himself and Toph in this situation.
And yet, on some level his distrust goes beyond the merely practical. It bothered me until I realized one simple fact: Zuko’s experience with male authority figures has largely been unpleasant. With the exception of his uncle and, possibly, the men under his command while he searched for Aang at sea, he is not accustomed to recognizing the social cues paternal or non-aggressive men send through body language, tone, and facial expressions. In essence, he does not recognize when Jack or Daniel is reacting protectively or making an effort to demonstrate that they are friendly and/or non-threatening.
He does, however, read and understand Sam and Janet quite well. Aside from the fact that they helped save one another, his positive experiences with his mother enables Zuko to better recognize what the women are thinking or trying to convey fairly quickly. He is also more relaxed with the two and somewhat less suspicious of them and their motives, since they made the effort to rescue him and the earthbender girl when they really did not have to do so. Their social cues, body language, vocal tones, and his ability to read the two women only cements his belief in them and adds to his willingness to trust in them.
Left to right: Daniel Jackson, Teal’c, Colonel Jack O’Neill, and Samantha Carter
Teal’c is also considered more worthy of trust by Zuko due to the fact that the Jaffa presents an air of control which does not lend itself to subterfuge. If Teal’c decides to attack or to threaten someone, he will telegraph his intent quickly, obviously, and honestly. On the other hand, Daniel typically tends to try to talk his way out of a fight or to defuse it with words, spending his time puzzling out the culture in order to move through it without causing conflict. Growing up with Azula, who would cloak her goals as a search for knowledge and seek out weaknesses in a similar manner, Zuko finds this disconcerting.
Jack, meanwhile, has a tendency to work his way into his opponents’ heads. It is easier to win when one’s enemy is off-balance, and Jack O’Neill excels at putting his foes on the wrong foot. Even when he is dealing with friends or children he wants to protect, he retreats into this sort of behavior; either to make his friends feel better or to distract the youths in question. Since such diversions only caused rather than prevented Zuko pain, he reacts to the colonel’s well-intentioned deflections and games as covert threats when they are not meant that way at all.
On the other end of the spectrum, during the series’ run, SG-1 does not deal with child abuse. The television series itself eschewed the prevalent trope of having the heroes rescue children from abusive homes and parents throughout its long history. While the heroes did encounter situations where children were captured and/or harmed, domestic abuse was not something that the flagship team of the SGC ever truly encountered. Thus they see Zuko’s many scars (and Toph’s lack thereof), and come to several mistaken conclusions.
Some of their conjecture is near the mark. But on many points they are in error, for the simple reason that Jack, Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c would sooner cut a limb off than mistreat a teenager or a child. Their war with the Goa’uld, a species which enslaves humans as a matter of course, renders their contact with cases similar to Zuko’s non-existent. They know such situations occur, of course, but they have no firsthand experience dealing with the fallout from these damaged relationships. For this reason they miss several important cues in body language and tone that would, perhaps, allow them to intuit at least some of the reason for Zuko’s caution and wariness.
Meditating upon this and a couple of other stories, I was reminded of a post made here at Song, one written near the dawn of its existence. This article focused primarily on Panic Attacks and Shell Shock, presently called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as Combat Fatigue. As stated in that article, this author still prefers the term Shell Shock or PTS to the more recognized PTSD. She also stands by the points she made in the previous post, and wishes to expand upon them here.
In a military context, PTS has been mischaracterized and misapplied throughout much of modern fiction. Writers’ use of it in more domestic situations has not been handled better in many cases, though there are perhaps more exceptions to this rule than to those in military fiction or speculative tales with militaristic leanings. Avatar: The Last Airbender would count as one of the stronger pieces that deals with the subject well.
Leverage* is another example, primarily with the thief known only as Parker. A foster child who grew up in abusive homes, Parker’s social skills and her ability to read people are severely stunted. The deficiencies of a stable home, caring parents or parental figures, and her lack of self-consciousness make it almost impossible for Parker to function “normally” in “mainstream” society early in the series. It also lends her a near-childlike naïveté in certain situations; one memorable example is that Parker has no idea what “sexting” is. When she asks point-blank about it during a case, the other members of the team refuse to tell her what it is because doing so would destroy her innocence.
When she joins the team of Leverage, Parker is practically the most childlike character in a semi-family setting. Nate and Sophie act as her parents while Elliot takes on the role of protective big brother. Alec Hardison develops a crush on her but has difficulty making it known due in part to the woman’s odd personality and relative inexperience. After she starts to reciprocate, Parker finds comprehending and expressing her feelings for Hardison hard to accomplish. The occasional bouts of jealousy she experiences are equally hard for her to cope with because she has never had them or their like before.
Instead of playing up her brokenness – which the series does nothing to hide – Leverage chooses to focus on Parker’s “road to recovery.” With the willing help of Sophie she begins to probe and understand her feelings. Even if she tries to deflect or avoid acknowledging her jealousy aloud, she still has the emotion and comes to understand it. Combined with Nate’s fatherly encouragement and Elliot’s protective, positive treatment of her in addition to Hardison’s love, she grows from a social oddity to a woman who can negotiate with wronged clients far more easily than she ever could have at the start of the story.
Parker’s transformation is one of the subtle highlights of the series as it does not dwell on the agonies of her past or leave her a nervous wreck. It does delve into some of the things that happened to her in order to explain to the audience why she behaves in the manner that she does, but it does not dwell on them or make them the focus of her character. Overall, the series spends less time on how broken she is and more on how those injuries are healed by the love of her surrogate family. This process allows her to heal and grow into a woman who can interact properly with others without changing who she is.
This last is particularly important, as many stories – those written in the past and those being produced in the present – tend to make the spiritual or mental injuries of the character’s history the defining characteristic of the heroes, heroines, villains, and villainesses in the parts of their lives that audiences most often see. In the latter two cases this can be a sensible decision, as certain irredeemable antagonists refuse to be “cured,” preferring their vices or spiritual wounds to being made whole.
But in the former archetypes and for adversaries that still have a spark of nobility or honor within them, healing must be part of the story. Even if it is only completed at death or a reasonable facsimile thereof, such as Frodo’s decision to go to the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings, it has to be in the tale. Otherwise, what was the point of the character and the audience setting out on an adventure in the first place?
Still other tales in the modern mold have characters do an incredible about-face from their previous brokenness. This lack of believability mainly springs from speed; recovery from abuse and/or PTS is a long road, and certain scars will always remain. This is demonstrated well in Dragon-King’s Temple with Zuko with his difficulty in reading and therefore trusting Daniel and Jack. And in the Leverage universe, where Parker will always be a relative innocent and be less ill at ease with, say, taking her thief’s shirt off in front of Elliot and Hardison so that she can change into more appropriate attire for the mission.
These are part of their personalities, shaped as they have been by their pasts even after they have overcome them. The end of each series leaves these characteristics intact while at the same time showing that the hero and heroine in these two series have progressed. Now both can move forward to take their place in their respective societies with more ease, gaining strength and healing as they go.
In a way it is less of a transformation and more of a transfiguration, one that hints at the Transfiguration seen on the mountain in the New Testament and promised after the Resurrection. From His appearances to the Apostles in Acts to St. Faustina’s visions of Him, Our Lord has always appeared with His wounds visible and glorified. Thus a character who has recovered from trauma – at least enough that he or she can maneuver among others – can be said to be amicably and amiably following in the Master’s footsteps, showing forth His glory for readers everywhere.
Star Trek: Voyager’s* resident former Borg drone, Seven of Nine, is another well-executed example of this trope. Assimilated into the Borg Collective at age six, Seven spent around five years in a maturation chamber that accelerated her physical growth until she was physically mature. When her connection to the hivemind is severed, Seven initially has a ferocious desire to return to the Borg. It is all she has known for most of her life, and to become a “small” individual disconnected from the greater Collective leaves her furious, frightened, and uncooperative. In many ways she is a child in an adult’s body with an adult’s knowledge, but without the formative experiences and care that help turn a child into functioning, socially capable adult.
It takes four seasons of continuous care, tough love, and extraordinary patience for Captain Janeway and the Voyager crew to help Seven heal. Unable to even eat, since the Borg survive by literally plugging themselves into their ships, the whole crew has to put forth energy to help her recover from the trauma she was subjected to as a six-year-old child. There are setbacks, of course, some of them quite grave. But like any good mother, Janeway refuses to leave Seven behind when she makes a poor decision.
Janeway also sets punishments, puts up boundaries, and otherwise enforces the order that Seven needs in order to learn how to function in a society of individuals. Though the former drone questions her, at one point accusing the Captain of denying her own claims about individuality for chastising her for decisions she makes, their clash of wills eventually leads Seven to a better understanding of her humanity and herself. This is only accelerated and improved when Seven becomes the adoptive mother of four adolescents rescued from a disabled Borg Cube. Like her, the children were put in maturation chambers and have had their intellects augmented. And like her, they have no idea how to behave in a society of individuals.
Unlike her, however, they are at the stage where hormones and rebellious behavior is only natural. Seven gets her own attitude thrown back in her face and has to seek the council of those who have helped her grow to not only maintain her patience, but to chart a path into the future for the young souls in her charge. The affection which grows up between her and the children, along with the rest of the crew, is the result of their collectively applied individual efforts.
While the effects of trauma are long-lasting, they need not be and are not always an ever-present issue. But they do affect how a character sees the world and those in it even after that character has had time and aid in recovering. Scars may stop hurting and/or fade, but they can never be completely forgotten or discounted.
So if you are writing a character with a traumatic history, think about the little things they do due to that ordeal without realizing what or why they are doing it. And be sure to consider what – or who – they most need to help them move on. Not only will it make your story realistic, but it will please your audience and your characters. Misery may love company, after all, but no one loves misery. 😉
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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