Tag Archives: character development

Cultivating words

Spring is springing, and my thoughts inevitably turn to gardens. I’m not planning on putting one in this year, instead I have assigned the design and creation of a garden to my daughter as a school project. I’ll give her guidance of course. But most of it is going to be up to her.  I’ll give her the information she needs, but the execution of knowledge is more important than simply knowing something. It’s not possible in this era of information overload for her to know everything starting out. She has to learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting course.

It has gotten me thinking, along with having written a garden onto a spaceship in my latest book, about gardening in general. But that’s not what I came here to talk about today. Rather, it’s a comment one of my alpha readers made while I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings and she was reading along.

I wrote a scene with the main character lamenting his limited potable water supply and how he’d have to wait on a long shower until he reached a station or planet. My alpha reader inserted a comment that it would be very simple to turn his shipboard garden into a giant water filter. I replied that “I know that, and you know that, and he doesn’t know that… Yet.”

It’s hard, as an author, to know all the things, but withhold that from the story until the time is right. In this case, my character has access to the information on how to build what he needs, but it’s never occurred to him to do it that way. It will take an outside influence in the form of another character for him to have that forehead slapping d’uh! Moment.

Because life is like that. To create a believable character, you can’t have them knowing everything. We all have those sudden eureka moments as we figure something out, usually something that should have been blindingly obvious to us in the first place. Now, you don’t want your character to be an idiot about it, either. As I said, it’s hard.

Sometimes we just have to figure things out the hard way. For instance, every writer is different. Some need a secluded room in the house, no interruptions, just a blank desk, a pencil, and a piece of paper. That would drive me nuts, and I know it. So when we moved, a few months back, I set up my big desk and main computer in the common household area. I thought the background noise of kids and the dog playing, easy access to the kitchen while I was cooking, that would help me work.

It turned out I was wrong. I’ve done my best, most prolific days at a table in my bedroom, typing on my laptop, with the door firmly closed between me and my family. I can still hear them, but they aren’t tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to play on my computer, and so forth. This does have some serious drawbacks. It means that I can’t hear the oven timer, and the kids can’t access me instantly which makes them pout.

On the other hand, it’s possible the next book will insist on a different layout. But I don’t think so. I just need to get into the groove. I’ve been cultivating words, researching, thinking about character motivation, trying to decide what’s the overall arc of this book, within the series it is set in… Just like a garden, it’s all about the soil. Build up a great soil, full of rich humus and a bit of sand for drainage…

Which brings me back to the gardens on a ship. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a ripe tomato warm from the sun, or the first strawberry of spring, will wonder about the quality of such raised in space, with no sun, and possibly no soil. Does that gardener know what they are missing? They may know in theory that microbes in the soil contribute far more to successfully gardening than we realize, now (but are starting to learn). They might even have the technology to inoculate their soil with a suite of beneficial microbes, fungus, and invertebrates. But just like in the human body, under the right circumstances those benefits can become opportunistic pathogens, and wreak havoc.

Why yes, I am planning a story where gardening gone awry threatens life itself…


Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, Uncategorized


I recently finished a book. It was a feeling of great relief, since I had begun to wonder if I would ever finish it. I’m still a relatively new writer, and I was slowly convincing myself that the other books had been a fluke. I couldn’t do this, I wasn’t a real writer… It took me two years to finish this book, when it had taken me at most six months to complete one before. It’s probably understandable that it made me feel like a failure, looking back, but while I was in it I lacked the perspective.

It was a learning process. I learned that I could keep writing after life-changing interruptions. I learned that I could hold a story in my head for that long. As a pantser, I didn’t think that was possible. Sometimes in this process I would put my head on the keyboard and wonder why I was bothering with this hot mess. As a result, I wound up with not one, but three alpha readers. The First Reader, who had come up with the original story idea, was too close to it. The others helped me regain confidence in the story which let me finish it. I couldn’t have done this without their encouragement.

The story went off to beta readers a week ago, and reader reports have been trickling back in. To my relief, they are all positive, with small problems that can readily be repaired. The story isn’t broken.

It would have been easy for me to break the story. Erratic pacing, that left readers bored or confused in turns. Pacing problems would have required major manuscript surgery – not fun when you are dealing with more than 100k words. I had been worried that would be a problem so I had written it in chapters, not my usual procedure. This enabled me to look back and plot the arcs when I returned from an interruption and then have a better feeling for where I was.

Uneven development of character was another concern, as the story pivots around a young man who must grow into his role. Just like in real life, I wanted to show him try, slip up, and finally come to a place where his confidence was not self-concious. Characters are easy to make succeed. You’re the author, you have omnipotence in the book. Forcing it, though, leads to unbelievable characters who are too good to be true – or whiny useless characters in roles that leave you wondering how they got there, much less were kept in it.

Finally, and the place where I do have work ahead of me… Foreshadowing. Years ago, when I was a dewy-eyed writer, I sent my baby manuscript, my first book, off to my mentors. In return I got a coconut off the noggin. I knew it was delivered in love, so I just rubbed the knot on my head, made a coconut cream pie, and went back over the book. My foreshadowing did suck, and being told that by a man who is superb at it didn’t hurt (much). I’ve got a pretty thick skin. This book (which I wouldn’t bother the coconut-thrower with, his life is even busier than mine in the decade that has passed) took two years to grow from planned short story for an anthology that died, into a planned series. I literally had no idea, when I wrote the first scene, where it was going. Or I was.

Now, I have to go back and weave in hints of what is to come, but not big whopping clues. I have to decide if I will include part or the whole of Jade Star, which takes place in this same universe, and is a story told to my main character in the book I’ve just finished. I have to be sure there are loose ends to tie on the next book to the events of this one, but not so many the reader is left unsatisfied. Just writing the end doesn’t mean you’re finished!

But in the meantime, there are interruptions. Real life intrudes. I have begun working on the next books, or rather one insistent story and three novels. I can’t write all of them at once, I’m simply waiting for the dominant story to come to the forefront and writing on them in turn until then. To facilitate, I’m reading for research. This book can’t take me two years to finish. It just can’t, because I don’t think I could go through that again. I need to write.




The Gentle Art of Escalation

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!

Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.

I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…

Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.

Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.

The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.

Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?

Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!

A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.

And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…

Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.

The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.

Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.

The cake is not a lie

The cake is not a lie




Characters can break

The last couple of weeks have been busy. There’s been the writing and the editing. There’s been family stuff and medical stuff. There has also been a lot of reading, most of which was for entertainment. There has also been recharging of the creative part of my mind — as well as beating my muse into something that, at least on the surface, looks like compliance.

It is the reading for enjoyment that sparked today’s post.

Last week, with my muse demanding I put aside the current wip to make some fairly detailed plot notes for something that hit me out of nowhere, I stepped back some and read. Over the course of two and a half days, I read eight or nine novels. One of them, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Correia and Ringo, kept me up much too late. It was a fun read and shows what happens when two talented authors who care more about story than some artificial checklist. They created a story I want to continue, characters I loved reading about and left me smiling and laughing. Oh, and there are guns and things that go boom!

I also read a multi-book series by another author and found myself scratching my head and then shaking my head and, finally, realizing that I needed to finish reading the series not because I was enjoying it but because it showed how not to do something. In other words, it became a lesson in character development or, perhaps, un-development.

Let’s face it, if our readers don’t have a reason to care about our characters, it doesn’t matter how beautiful our prose happens to be. They don’t have to love the characters but they have to feel something for them. It can be hate. It can be fear. But they have to connect with them. If they don’t, and if you are writing genre fiction, you won’t keep those readers for long. More importantly, they will remember they didn’t connect with your characters the next time they see one of your books and possibly pass on it.

What happened with this particular series is the author started off creating characters who were engaging, competent and flawed. In other words, they were human. They had their strengths and their weaknesses. They had hopes and fears. They were, in other words, interesting.

In this particular case, the books could be classified as modern fantasy or romantic fantasies. Each book had male and female main characters. There was a common set of characters between the books with the leads being supporting characters in one book and then the leads in the next. When done properly, that makes for a strong series, not only for the reader but for the writer as well. For the reader, you have that sense of family. You already know and are invested in the characters. You want to know what happens to them, not only in the book where they are the leads but in the other books as well.

As a writer, if done properly, it means you don’t have to worry about making sure readers are reminded of the backstory in each book. Each book can stand on its own but you have characters that are, even as supporting characters, fully developed and who can hook new readers into going back and reader the earlier books. But done poorly it can cost you not only new readers but those who have been fans of the series.

In this case, it was done badly. After the third book, it felt as if the author was doing nothing more than retreading the worst parts of the plots of not only their first three books but also of every bad romance out there. This isn’t anything new, especially not in the romance genre. I could name any number of best selling authors in the genre and books where all they’ve done is change the names and locations and then dropped in the same plot used in other books they’ve written.

But, in this particular case, it was worse because the author broke the characters and not in a way where they were going to grow stronger or anything else in the process.

You can, as an author, break your characters. You can put them into situations that will be more than they can handle, or close to it. It will scar them, perhaps physically or maybe psychologically. If you do it properly, you will then show them digging their way out of whatever sort of hell you have put them through. They will relapse and they will be fragile. They will have temper tantrums and want to run away. But they will struggle, often with the help of a lover or a friend, to overcome. The person they are at the end of it is someone who has learned from what happened and who has, in one way or another, grown.

But when you begin a story, or a series, and your characters are strong, self-sufficient and willing and able to stand on their own, you don’t take all that away from them without cause.

Now, I am not one of these women who are going to get all up in arms because a man saves a woman in a story — at least not if it makes sense that he does so. But I will get perturbed if a woman goes from being able to stand on her own two feet to standing back and smiling and waiting patiently as her man goes off and does what she would have a book or two earlier, especially if there is no reason for her to do so. What changed? What took her from the take charge and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her man to waiting at home to find out if he lived or died?

I swear, in this series, even the strongest — and I don’t mean physically — of the women turned into someone who sat back and waited for the macho men to do their thing. Hell, I expected the guys to start beating their chests and the women to have the vapors. With each book that passed, the women became more helpless and the men more of a macho stereotype.

And it was all for no reason. If the author had kept with the tenor set in the first book, the women would have been partners with the men. Not all of them would have necessarily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their man as he went striding into danger but she also wouldn’t have been waiting at home, passive and weak. They would have done something that fit their particular talents.

What happened instead was the books turned into stories about the guys banding together and the women banding together and then sex scenes. Oh, and if you have a woman who has been beaten and raped and violated in other ways, know what the psychological wounds might be before you have her jumping into bed with the macho mountain man. That almost sent my kindle flying across the room.

In other words, just as the rules of your world have to make sense and if you break those rules, you need to have laid the groundwork for it or your readers will lose faith in you, you have to do the same with your characters. You will lose readers if you break the mold you cast your characters from without giving a reasonable explanation. Not every character has to be strong and capable. But, if you have a character who starts out that way and who proves himself or herself during one book, don’t make them all but incapable of helping discuss tactics or standing up for themselves in the next — unless you give a reason for it and that reason had damned well better make sense.

The overall impression I got as I read the series was that the author had gotten tired of it and of the characters. By the end, it felt as if the books were being written on autopilot. If an author doesn’t care about the characters or plot, the readers most likely won’t either. No one wins then. To be honest, the only reasons I kept reading after the fourth book was because I wanted to see if the author managed to right the course and because the author was very good at developing the third layer of characters — the shopkeepers and neighbors, etc. —  and setting.

Just as it becomes boring to read a series where the main character is either a Mary Sue or someone so perfect he or she can make no mistakes, it becomes frustrating to see characters you came to care about turning into something that is nothing more than a pale shadow of what they were. As authors, we need to keep that in mind, just as we need to remember that if the writing feels like it is becoming rote, we need to step back and take a long hard look at our work and decide what has gone wrong. Yes, wrong because that sort of writing rarely has emotion in it and genre fiction demands emotion, whether it is fear or that sense of soaring to the stars. We have to engage with our words. If we don’t, we will lose the reader.

And now for some self-promo:

Now that my muse has been satisfied regarding the new plot it infected me with, I am back toworking on Dagger of Elanna, the sequel to Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

War is coming. The peace and security of the Ardean Imperium is threatened from within and without. The members of the Order of Arelion are sworn to protect the Imperium and enforce the Codes. But the enemy operates in the shadows, corrupting where it can and killing when that fails.

Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, carried information vital to prevent civil war from breaking out. Cait was nothing, or so she had been told. She was property, to be used and abused until her owner tired of her. What neither Cait nor Fallon knew was that the gods had plans for her, plans that required Fallon to delay his mission.

Plans within plans, plots put in motion long ago, all converge on Cait. She may be destined for greatness, but only if she can stay alive long enough.

Like all my other books, Sword is available for purchase or for download through the Kindle Unlimited program.




Predictable Behaviour

As we learn to write, one of the greatest tools, and conversely, the most crippling failing, can be the understanding that humans are predictable. It can be very easy to predict that a man and a woman pushed into close proximity with, say, one of them in the role of taking care of the other who has been injured: we all know that story ends with them being in love. But if we do this too often, we fall into stereotyping. There’s a thin line between developing a cardboard character who hits all the clichés for human behavior, and one who is richly alive but still human in their motivations and reactions.

Let’s take, for instance, a denizen of a blog we’ll dub vile 666 and make an assumption. We could write them as cowardly creatures who stay in their safe space ranting about things they have extrapolated from other blogs, and those things bear little to no resemblance to what the rest of humanity would call reality. But that would be a stereotype. Instead, we need to look deeper and see what motivates these characters and drives them to believe the way they do with the concomitant reactions that leave the rest of us wondering just how delusional they can get. Here, we see that the characters are confusing a tiny space of their close, er, friends with the big wide world. Here’s a human assumption: the reaction of the larger population of humans to small cliques is, by and large, apathy. But inside the clique, reality becomes constricted to the small pool of light cast by their news sources, and they can only see what is illuminated by that light. In other words, a phenomenon known as gaslighting.

In a story, we sometimes see characters and wonder why they are doing a certain thing “that’s stupid,” we think, “why can’t they see beyond their noses?” In real life, this can happen. Humans are predictably short-sighted, and once they have allowed their world to contract into the visible range of the gaslight, the rest of the world falls dark to them. Powerful stuff for the author, if done right, to show that world being expanded again by turning on other lights and revealing a broader realm to the character. The most recent example I can think of in fiction is the Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia, with the culminating episode being the man who cannot see beyond what he was taught all his life traveling for the first time outside his proscribed realm. A redemption story is one that humans, predictably, crave as it promises that mistakes can be mitigated, and we’ve all made mistakes.

It’s not an easy journey to undertake for your character. Keep that in mind. Simply snapping on all the lights at once to reveal a once-hidden universe will shock a human into a whimpering withdrawal even if they are made of stern stuff. They will reject that which is outside their perceived reality. A very good example is writing a story of a human suddenly discovering that magic is real. Have you ever read a story where the character who learns all about some paranormal phenomenon, takes it in stride, and you the reader had your suspension of disbelief shattered? People don’t react that way. This is also a tool used in writing fantasy, the people who simply don’t believe their own eyes and reject truth in order to maintain their comfortable existence.

It’s not stereotyping to know that people do react in certain ways. The man who rescues the woman will indeed be very attractive to her. The nurse who tenderly cares for a man who in time recovers his strength will be dear to him. But if we look deeper, we can add depth to the characters, using the predictability as a map of highways and knowing we need to add the secondary and tertiary roads to create a fully-developed character. People resist change, and will return to old habits if not pulled away for some reason, or given support as they change slowly. Humans are this way for a reason: it’s not safe for a human alone to careen off in every direction, abandoning the cave for sleeping in the tree and picking that new shiny red mushroom for dinner. We take things slowly almost by instinct, and it’s not a bad thing.

In a story, we can precipitate our heroes into trouble that forces change on them. We can, authorially, shatter worlds literal and metaphorical, to make the story happen. But we must remember that humans are always human. Some of the characters, just like some people, will refuse to admit light into their constrained world, and will run around pulling all the blinds tight, taping tinfoil to the windowpanes, and then retreating to a small closet to pretend the world not-as-they-know-it doesn’t exist.

It’s much better to write the flexible characters, the ones who face the storm afraid but undaunted. These people exist in real life, too. The curious ones, the seekers of knowledge, the ones willing to take a pratfall from time to time, get up, dust themselves off, laugh at how silly they looked, and learn from it. The ones who follow the light and help guide those who cannot see out into safety as the skies fall. They are the characters that, predictably! we like to read about, and hope, in our hearts, that we are like.




Pam Uphoff

Two decades ago, I injured my right hand. Good doctors, good hospital, good antibiotics, brutal physical therapists . . .

I never think about it. Until I try to eat with chopsticks. Something in the motion finds a hidden weakness, and by the time I’d finished dinner yesterday, well, “survived without having to shamefully ask for a fork” pretty much sums up my relief.

I suspect we all have hidden weaknesses. Physical, mental, emotional. Sometimes just hidden from outsiders, sometimes hidden from ourselves.

Our written characters need those as well, but you have to be careful just how you smack the reader with them. You have to handle it in a way that doesn’t have the reader throwing the book across the room. You have to foreshadow a bit of touchiness on a subject, or, or, say a drinking problem, or a flash temper. I hate to say this, but you have to give trigger warnings for your characters.

Sometimes the explanation can come afterwards, hopefully getting it in before the book gets tossed.

“I told you. I don’t drink. What? Did you think that was because I’m a happy drunk? ”

“And that, children, was a stupid loss of control on my part. As you no doubt noticed, when angry, I didn’t seen to be doing much thinking . . . ”

And then there’s simply being out of practice. Yes, you won’t forget how to ride a bike, but after a decade of not actually doing it, gaining weight, getting flabby . . . you’re going to suck at it. Music, drawing or painting. If you’ve never smacked head on into “Oh crap, I can’t do this anymore!” I recommend thinking of something you haven’t done since you were a kid and having a go at it. Experiencing that horrified realization that you’ve grown up/lost the touch/gotten old can be useful in making your character’s reactions realistic.

And a character who is new to a certain action? There’s going to be a little bit of fumbling and awkwardness. You can give your MC a natural talent, but I’d recommend a couple of afternoons of fencing lessons before you turn him loose to hunt ogres. The character who’s instantly perfect is really irritating.

Or speech. If your character has never been stuffed into suit and stuck up on a platform before a thousand judgmental eyes, make him nervous. Let him successfully cover it, if that’s necessary for the plot. But let the reader see the jitters, and then the growing confidence and relaxation.

How does your character carry off his first compliment to a lady? Does your lady panic when a kiss turns into a grope? Dance in her new high heels and instead of enjoying the evening (or remembering every word a foreign ambassadors says for later analysis) can’t think of anything except the excruciating pain of her feet?

Even Superman needed Kryptonite to show that he isn’t so indestructible that he’s boring.

My Beta Readers called me on a lack of character development on my recent NaNo opus. At nineteen should he be so awesome already? No insecurities? No self doubts? URK! Dammit. They’re right. And what I’m editing right now has the opposite problem. The cocky smart asses I’m starting with need a few crash and burns to climb out of, to earn that maturity and resolution at the end.

Make your character sweat to earn his fictional role. Make him worry about it, then make him fumble his chopsticks. It’ll make him more human.


Filed under Uncategorized

Putting the “D” in

When do we add the “D” to the PTS?

Author’s note: I wrote this paper for my abnormal psychology class last year. My professor told me I should publish it. I don’t think this is what he meant, but in light of Sarah’s post yesterday, and my own review of a book that aggravated me beyond reason, I felt it was good timing to share it. It isn’t directly related to writing, but I am certain you can make the connections between character development and a thorough understanding of the human psyche.

In slightly related news, I will be appearing at Millennicon in Cincinatti this weekend. I’ll be signing in the lobby on Sunday between 11-noon, drop in and see me! I’ll have an escort, my beloved First Reader, because I am mildly agoraphobic, and although I face my fears on a daily basis, and refuse to let past traumas rise to the level of embracing the “D” I will still need a friend when there are crowds of strangers. 

Table of Contents

1. Medical Definitions of Normal

2. Practical Definitions of Normal

3. The Internet as an Interactive Tool

4. Seeking the Truth of Abnormality

5. Medical Intervention and the Internet’s Role

6. The Fuzzy Edge of Normality

Sanity: “It is thinner than the edge on a knife, sharper than a guard dog’s tooth, more elusive than a ghost.  Perhaps it doesn’t exist.  Perhaps it is a ghost.” – Philip K. Dick

1. Medical Definitions of Normal.

Where is the boundary between normal and a disorder, and how has that changed in the last few decades? By the definitions of the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (Axis V of the DSM-IV), that boundary lies somewhere between fifty and fifty-one. By the definitions of the man on the street, normal is ‘not creepy, or weird’ and most will say that normal does not really exist. The reality is, most people are normal, even if they do not define themselves that way. Most people lay somewhere between a sixty-one and the perfect one hundred on the Axis V assessment (Kearney & Trull, p. 75). They may feel mild symptoms from time to time, but nothing lingers.

Normal shatters in the face of severe trauma, not always a single initiating event, but ongoing stressors as well. After a trauma, or a series of them, life that once looked solid can suddenly give under the feet and leave the sufferer floundering. If the person can maintain a life on their own, are they normal? What if they can no longer leave their own house, or simply cannot mingle with others in a public place? Once, this would have meant they could not earn a living, have a social life, or meaningfully contribute to society. With the technological advances, this is no longer the case, and the boundary line of ‘normal’ has been moved.

“But, in my expe­ri­ence, PTSD doesn’t get fixed. That’s because it was never about get­ting shot at, or seeing people die. It was never the snap trauma, the quick moment of action that breaks a person. PTSD is the wages of a life spent in crisis, the slow, the­matic build that grad­u­ally changes the way the suf­ferer sees the world. You get boiled by heating the water one degree each hour. By the time you finally suc­cumb, you realize you had no idea it was get­ting hotter.

Because you kept adjusting. Because PTSD isn’t a dis­ease, it’s a world view.”


2. Practical Definitions of Normal

Since the rise of the internet as we know it in the mid-1990s, our culture has been shifting slightly, allowing those who were once ostracized or were unable to participate in society, made abnormal by their own fears, to once again join in social activities and hold jobs. The internet provides a buffer between the sufferer and the normal people outside their homes, allowing those with PTSD, agoraphobia, autism spectrum, anxiety disorders, and many other ailments to partake in life again. When work, interactions, and supplies can be had easily with a few clicks of the mouse, the abnormality is easy to hide.

This is good, certainly, both in allowing people to become productive and happy, but also may have the effect of allowing those who suffer to simply withdraw further into a shell. Some may not even be aware that they are so different from others that they could not hold down a ‘normal’ life and job. For people who grew up before the internet, they are aware, but in the rising generation might be oblivious, as their normal is defined by the ability to subsist online.

One such case involves a man in his early thirties, who displays physical characteristics of autism (high-functioning, what was once called Aspergers). When in a conversation he prefers not to make eye contact, when standing he shows restless, bird-like movements, and holds his hands in a characteristic guarding cupped position. He has a speech impediment, and while he is highly intelligent and well-spoken online, in person he comes across very difficult to those who do not know him with his rapid-fire stuttering and need for constant movement. Online, he is very articulate indeed, able to chat, play games, and earn his living writing with a higher level of competence than most, as a freelance writer and editor. Evaluated against the Axis V assessment, he would likely fall into the high thirties, a level considered abnormal, or impaired. Yet he is comfortable in his life, living vicariously through the internet and even outside it, in certain arenas where he is considered odd, but not abnormal.

3. The Internet as an Interactive Tool

While the internet allows some to remain hidden behind the glow of their screen, it allows others to find those who they identify with, creating global connections of those who would never have met otherwise. This, then can lead to in-person interactions and a support system for sufferers who might not have had this option if they were limited to their geographical community. For sufferers of PTSD, this has become a way of finding reassurance that they are not alone, particularly in the military community, where a certain stigma applies to what was once called ‘combat fatigue.’ “When I was coming up in the Army as a young Private it was looked down upon if you wanted to get help for anything; it was considered a sign of weakness. Times have changed, but we still (although not nearly as bad) have this stigma in the military, primarily in the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Corp, that anyone who wants to get help is weak.” (Gibson)

Recent political decisions endanger that fragile lifeline, however, as veterans who fear losing their rights will likely shrink from seeking professional help. Online, some anonymity is available, but with the passage of CISPA, that will be eroded. Already, the VA hospital routinely questions veterans about their mental health and possession of weapons during routine visits.

“’We do not believe an assumption should be made based on anecdotal evidence that an individual diagnosed with PTSD should automatically be considered incapable of governing one’s anger and thoughts of violence,’ he wrote. ‘This kind of assumption fosters the social stigma and discrimination that challenges individuals in their efforts towards mental health rehabilitation and recovery.’ That stigma has caused active-duty troops to try to hide problems from commanders and has long been a reason veterans avoid seeking help…” (Jordan)  

Even if enforcement of CISPA is not forthcoming, the perception of loss of privacy will drive fears and reduce the willingness of sufferers to share pain and seek recovery. With the line between normality and abnormality being so blurry to the average person, the decision to seek help will become even harder to make when balanced with these fears. It isn’t paranoia when they really are out to get you. “Therapists’ chief concern is that patients feeling suicidal or homicidal might conceal their troubles to avoid having their guns removed” (Bakeman).

While the outliers into abnormality are easily found and defined by the DSM IV, and we can all agree that hallucinations, hearing voices, and rage outbursts are not normal, what about fleeting flashbacks, nightmares, and depressed emotional responses? A person could suffer from the last, especially, and from altered emotional responses, without being consciously aware of it. Through internet discussions, those problems might come out and be talked about, as distance lends safety to the speaker. When talking face-to-face, the emotions are harder to control  and express than they are when anonymity is assumed. One study, published in Cyber Psychology, shows that reduced hostility is seen in patients who spend time chatting and interacting with others online. (Yen, et. al., p 649) Due to the stigma of suffering from post-traumatic stress, even below the threshold of disorder and abnormality, the sufferer may suppress their self-analysis and remain unaware of the depth to which the trauma has affected them. Online groups might help them to understand the true toll of their problems.

4. Seeking Truth of Abnormality

Children in particular may develop from the point of trauma unaware that how they feel, act, or react, is abnormal until they are told by others. A child well able to mimic others, or to avoid the company of people, can evade that observation for great lengths of time, until the affect has become acutely abnormal. In the Journal of Traumatic Stress, a study points out “It may be that parents of children with psychiatric disorders and complex behavioural presentations have difficulty recognizing PTSD symptoms in their children” (Loeb, et. al., p 434). Parents and friends may unwittingly aid in the child’s adaptations either through empathy or indifference. In empathy, they overlook the minor oddities and see the good traits of their loved one, or having sought advice, are told that a child will recover best if the trauma is never talked about. In indifference, they simply do not see the pain and stress at the root of misbehaviors, and sometimes exacerbate the problem by punishing those symptoms. Through these experiences, the child learns to fit into the culture around them, at least on the surface.

When the onset of the traumatic stress occurs in adulthood, the symptoms may be more easily observed, but become more difficult to determine where the boundaries of normal and abnormal are. As adults, most normal people have experienced mood swings, short periods of depression known colloquially as the blues, and their corollaries, days of elation or stretches of unadulterated happiness. In the early days of reaction to a traumatic event, while those reactions border on abnormality at any given hour or day, the sufferer may experience some confusion over whether something is indeed wrong with them. This is worsened if an atypical reaction is triggered.

In rare cases, for instance, a sexual assault can lead to hypersexuality. A woman responding in this fashion to an assault is understandably confused, often ashamed, and very unlikely to discuss her symptoms of PTSD and seek help. Even in the absence of an atypical response, the person’s willingness to disclose and discuss hidden symptoms makes the difference between being considered normal or abnormal, and possibly even a professional will misdiagnose someone who falls in the hazy borderline and hides well. The human brain is amazingly resilient, and able to stimulate normal behavior in the person’s own culture simply by the learned patterns instilled since infancy through direct lessons or the indirect method of observation.

5. Medical Intervention and the Internet’s Role

The lack of resilience may mark one threshold which the path to abnormality crosses over. If the traumatic event affects the person enough to cause them to no longer care, or know, what behaviors are normal, they quickly become obvious to those around them as adversely affected by the event. When the stress slips into disordered life, when the symptoms are severe enough to be obviously abnormal, then treatment becomes no longer a choice but a mandate by family, friends, and the medical community. By the patient’s choice, in seeking help, or through outside pressures, as when required after a failed suicide attempt. Dr. Roland Pies points out that: “In psychiatry, as in general medicine, it is often a family member or the soon-to-be patient who first recognizes that something is terribly wrong. This is based on our ordinary perception of suffering and incapacity in the absence of an obvious external cause (such as a knife wound).” (Pies, p. 36)

Treatment may include therapy, where someone who has been hiding their symptoms has, in effect, a mirror held up to them that reveals the true extent of their adaptations. The internet can become a safe place, a positive in a life that has become disordered, and the interactions with a screen instead of the intimacy of a face become a safer way to slowly rejoin the outside world. The intervening ‘screen’ of the computer or device serves as an emotional buffer and attentuates the interactions to the point that the wounded can get along with others. Robert Sapolsky, in an article about relieving stress, has this to say:

“In short, you are more likely to get a stress response—more likely to subjectively feel stressed, more likely to get a stress-related disease—if you feel like you have no outlets for what’s going on, no control, no predictability, you interpret things as getting worse, and if you have nobody’s shoulder to cry on” (Sapolsky).

There is a case of a woman who was precipitated into depression and agoraphobia through a breaking trauma in her life. While she had most likely been prone to the disorders before the event, after it she was no longer able to work, socialize, or control her self-harming impulses. For a period of several years she was hospitalized every few months, and in mandated therapy when back at home. In an informal interview, she expressed her appreciation for the internet, and the way she had been able to utilize it to maintain contact with reality during times when she could not bear to be face-to-face with other people very often, or for very long. It gave her a buffer, she said, and she could walk away from a screen when overwhelmed far easier than from a person, who might not understand, and be hurt.

Many studies portray the internet in a negative light. Internet Addiction is being considered for inclusion in the upcoming DSM V, under the same criteria that contains behaviors such as gambling addiction. Ronald Pies, writing for Psychiatry, points out: “There are enduring philosophical controversies regarding fundamental concepts in psychiatry, such as the boundaries between “normal” and “disordered” mental states; and the degree to which certain behaviors represent biologically based disorders as opposed to freely chosen lifestyles.” (Pies, p 31)

There may be cause for concern when an otherwise normal person binges on the ‘net, staying online for hours and neglecting their family and work. But for those who are already beyond that line between normal and abnormal, it can be a lifeline leading them back to health and productivity. Most often, those who are being diagnosed with internet addiction show comorbidity with some other disorder, revealing that their dependence on the internet is a symptom, not a cause (Pies, p 35).

6. The Fuzzy Edge of Normality

“I can pass as normal, if nobody has to spend a whole lot of time around me. It’s much better to be online and just be me. I can drop the mask and just be me.” -S.B.

“Without the internet — or, at least, my friends who live in the computer, as it were — I would have slit my wrists years ago. The complete isolation would have consumed me. I never had the capacity to interact with other people in a normal fashion. “Here,” I can pretend to be more normal than I am. “Here,” I come across as more outgoing than I actually am. “Here,” there are a scant precious few who can keep me from self-destructing.” -J.S.

“When Byte opened Bix to the public in 1981, it was Such a blessing. Suddenly, I had people who got what I was trying to say without going to a Con. My kids suffered for it. I was emotionally and mentally absent many evenings, but it kept me from sinking into depression.” -R.B.

“What is normal? Facebook and such give me a chance to talk to interesting people. Meetup (internet driven) helps me find folks that share my hobbies. I don’t think I am more “normal” because of the internet but I am less isolated. PS, I joined Baen’s bar just after 9/11 because I very much needed a group to talk to at that time and there was website listed in the back of one of my paperbacks.” -J.L.

An impromptu poll with a question, posed on Facebook, yielded the quotes above, taken with permission. The question asked was: “If you didn’t have the internet as an outlet, would you be normal? Do you think being able to interact online helps you live a fuller, more productive life? No, I’m not asking about the time-suck that is facebook in general. I’m very serious, I’m writing a paper on how technology is redefining what ‘normal’ is. If you’d like to PM me, please do. Anything I use in the paper will be completely anonymous.” Out of 998 ‘friends,’ fourteen responded to to the question in comments and emails. Two chose to contact privately, the remainder simply commented on the thread. All of the respondents are adults, most in the 40-60 age range.

As was expected from the group polled, a largely positive response to the internet and what the online community offers to people who self-identify as odd, slightly broken, and abnormal. Most of those who responded are also part of the overall Science Fiction ‘fan group,’ another support system for those who do not fit with normal society. Yet they have chosen to form a psychological sense of community (Obst, 87)

“While much current rhetoric points to the danger of the internet in destroying community and promoting social isolation, the present results suggest that community and a strong sense of community can exist among those interacting within cyberspace. This may have an important impact in reducing the social isolation of those who currently find themselves isolated due to living in remote areas or to physical disabilities. Perhaps rather than technology breaking down communities, communities themselves are evolving in meaning and spirit, in line with technological and societal trends.” (Obst, 103)

While few of those who responded to my survey might be considered abnormal by the Axis V on the assessment scale, some do fall below a fifty on that scale, and yet, through the use of technology, they have found a way to contribute, to participate, and to live a life, rather than lurking in the corners of society. What was once considered fringe behaviour is rapidly gaining general acceptance, as the borders of normal are redefined by our digital era.

Works Cited

Bakeman, Jessica. “Mental-health Officials Clash on N.Y. Gun Law Reporting.” USA Today. Gannett, 24 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Cole, Myke. “What PTSD Is | Myke Cole.” Myke Cole. Myke Cole, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Gibson, James. “Nightmare: Changing the ‘Suck It Up’ Culture.” Leader Development for Army Professionals. Mark Gerecht, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Jordan, Bryant. “Vet Group Responds to Proposed PTSD Gun Limits | Military.com.” Vet Group Responds to Proposed PTSD Gun Limits | Military.com. Military Advantage, 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Kearney, Christopher A., and Timothy J. Trull. “Chapter 4 | Diagnosis, Assessment, and the Study of Mental Disorders.” Abnormal Psychology and Life: A Dimensional Approach. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Loeb, Joanne, Erin M. Stettler, Traci Gavila, Adam Stein, and Susan Chinitz. “The Child Behavior Checklist PTSD Scale: Screening for PTSD in Young Children with High Exposure to Trauma.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 24.4 (2011): 430-34. Print.

Obst, Patricia L., Lucie Zinkiweicz, and Sandy G. Smith. “Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom.” Journal of Community Psychology 30.1 (2001): 87-103. Print.

Pies, Roland. “Should DSM-V Designate “Internet Addiction” a Mental Disorder?” Psychiatry 6.2 (2009): 31-37. NCBI. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719452/&gt;.

Sapolsky, Robert M. “Greater Good.” How to Relieve Stress. University of California, Berkeley, 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Yen, Ju-wu, Chen-Fang Yen, Hsu-Yi Wu, and Chih-Hung Ko. “Hostility in the Real World and Online: The Effect of Internet Addiction, Depression, and Online Activity.” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking 14.11 (2011): 645-55. Print.


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