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Giving a character trauma but not "diagnosing" her?
In my post-apocalyptic novel, my MC Eris is severely traumatized by the death of her family at her own hands. Because of this, she has extreme aversion to social interaction and even physical contact.
In the real world, if something like this happened, Eris might be suffering from PTSD, depression, paranoia, etc., but this is not the real world, and no one is concerned with self-diagnosing themselves with an illness.
However, I have witnessed various authors come under fire for rarely/never addressing the fact that many of their characters are traumatized (JK Rowling and never mentioning Harry's trauma or possible PTSD, Suzanne Collins and only mentioning Katniss' PTSD with the fact that she has "nightmares"), and I wouldn't want that to happen to me or my work.
So, in some way that fits into the story, should I "diagnose" Eris? Should I address her obvious trauma, or just let the reader bear witness to it but never outright call it "trauma"? What are the pitfalls of both choices?
Let the Reader Diagnose
(But that means you need to give them symptoms)
You don't need to tell the reader "Eris has PTSD." You do need to give them enough info to get there themselves.
Harry doesn't need a diagnosis for you to intuitively understand why his heart is pounding out of his chest every time he sees someone wearing a cloak that looks like "You-Know-Who's". There's no need to explain why, after killing other children with her bow, Katniss' hands get sweaty every time she draws an arrow.
Arguably, these stories would be better if the authors gave us some insight into how these characters experience, and respond to, the side effects of their trauma. The things that trigger them. Their irrational fears, and their responses to them.
I this topic is important to you, research how PTSD manifests, and bring those sympoms to life in your character. Your readers will put the pieces together, and find your character more believable.
If you are afraid of being criticized, don't be a writer.
You are not writing a documentary. Your responsibility is not to correctly diagnose your characters. Your responsibility is to focus your story on the one thing that your story is about and push it to its maximum extent. To do that, you are probably going to have to put your characters through levels of trauma that would break most people physically and mentally.
Consider the amount of violence and gunfire that most characters in most cop shows endure on a weekly basis. Any real cop would have been a basket case by episode six.
Ask yourself how Tony Stark avoids a concussion when he get punched in his armor plated head by supervillains. Fictional characters are much more durable than regular people.
Unless, for the purposes of some particular story, they are not.
But there are lots of idiots in the world with an axe to grind or who simply do know how to read. If you are afraid of being criticized, don't be a writer.
In my opinion: you should let the condition speak for itself. I agree with Alexander when he says that people who hold authors' feet to the fire are overblowing things, as a lot of these people would probably feel safer about themselves if whatever condition they have could easily be tied to a character who was diagnosed with the same thing.
If you want one example of a character who has a real condition that's never overtly stated in the narrative, look at Minnow from Nick Anderson's Planet Ripple: she's a character who is mostly socially inept and whose brain functions much different from other people -- and is berated at the beginning of the story partly as a result of this. What isn't directly mentioned is that Minnow has ASD; this is something the author himself has talked about when the topic of his book comes up, but at no point does any character say "yeah, she has autism." And honestly -- even if the author hadn't said in interviews that the character had autism, most readers likely would have been able to piece that for themselves, anyway.
I honestly think it's more dangerous to directly say that Eris has PTSD than not -- because if you don't do all the research, go against what's expected of PTSD, or just forget something about the condition AFTER your narrative makes her condition clear to the audience, you are more likely to draw controversy from people in the mindset of "hey, not all PTSD people are like that! Are you trying to paint a stereotype of us?"
Like I said: let the condition speak for itself. Diagnoses are a modern thing, but literature has lived before and will continue to live after modernism.
You don't have to diagnose it as "PTSD" or whatever name WE use for it, but you can have a character call it out as a real thing: They are an expert, they have seen many soldiers with a similar collection of symptoms, perhaps as a comfort to the person suffering this (i.e. you are not alone, you are not imagining it, you are not weak or defective for experiencing it).
If it is post-apocalyptic Earth, then you can even use PTSD, somebody may still exist that has heard of it, or read of it. Post-apocalyptic doesn't have to mean everyone is stupid and illiterate, the infrastructure may have been destroyed, but parents can still teach their children to read and write. They did, in fact, for settlers in the American West, even though they were farmers with very little infrastructure, no electricity, using animals for travel and labor, etc. Post-apocalyptic doesn't have to mean knowledge of psychology and medicine are all erased, it might mean no more new knowledge is being generated, but the textbooks and papers should still exist, somewhere. I have three old psychology books on my bookshelves, from my college days. (I did not sell my books back for any class).
If you are concerned about getting dinged, just mention either a diagnosis, or alternatively, have somebody recognize it as a common condition, perhaps suggest treatment. The MC doesn't have to agree or participate, but it should satisfy you that you didn't ignore it, and if there are sticklers you can point at the paragraph saying you addressed their concern.
Personally, in the movie I immediately recognized Katniss was suffering from PTSD, I had no problem with it not being named or treated, I wouldn't expect it to be in her primitive setting. It seemed like a fair enough literary treatment of the condition to me. A story does not have to be a public service announcement.
The issue is how "trauma aware" you are to trauma as a writer rather than calling it out as PTSD or labelling it as "trauma" explicitly.
The frustration resulting in the "call-out" is the anger at the lack of trauma awareness in writing. This unfortunately triggers the reader, especially if there is the denigration of the trauma experience and its impact on the character. As a writer if you can communicate how aware you are of trauma and its impact, that is probably the major issue to tackle rather than the labelling and how much the character follows the traditional trauma experience.
Whether you diagnose the trauma is probably not as significant as to whether you are sensitive to the trauma experience. Usually writers that are not aware of trauma have no idea how trauma impacts people and write totally unrealistic and probably insulting plotlines. Realize though, PTSD and trauma is highly constructed in our world and is very "medicalized" in the therapeutic community and society in general.
How much your world and novel engages with this structure and the therapeutic process is another important issue to tackle. It could be that your world is anti-therapy or that your world has a hostile attitude towards people with trauma and PTSD. However, somehow you should attempt to communicate your "trauma awareness" as a writer despite your world's stance towards trauma. If your readers (who have been traumatized) do not feel heard or respected, and you as a writer suppress their experience, then you may be open to the same criticism as JK Rowling etc. The lack of trauma awareness in writing is often felt as a silencing, and echoes the continual suppression in society of trauma. Trauma is often dismissed as being "oversensitive", insignificant and unimportant ("get over it", etc).
Other answers get into this, but I'm going expand a little on my comments.
Don't just describe symptoms, explain the reasons for the symptoms. Understanding that there's a problem is way different than understanding why the problem exists.
You have the right idea of not trying to diagnose the MC for your readers. This goes into the writers maxim of "Show, don't tell."
"Eris has PTSD" is overly clinical and explains nearly nothing. Is is because their dog died, her boyfriend abused them, were they in a car accident, did a bear attack them, what?
"Eris mentally curled up into a ball when the stranger entered, who reminded her of her step-father." Better, but what did the step-father do? Was it verbal or physical abuse? Did he hit her or was it sexual abuse? Still, we don't know why.
"When the stranger entered, it reminded Eris of her step-father, who was torn to shreds in front of her as he tried to save her from a wall of shrapnel in The War 10 years ago. He was the best dad she could have wanted and still weeps when she thinks of him." Now we know exactly what's going on: she has PTSD, why it happened (at least partly), what her reaction is, and now we're probably a little scarred now, too. When another stranger walks by 400 pages later and she wipes her eye, we're probably going to remember what's going on.
Most readers don't read a book or even short story in one sitting. I know I don't. I'll forget half the stuff told me in the first half of the story by the time I get near the end. If you leave a lasting impression on me of why things are, I'll remember it much better.
Chris Bunch was really great at this. His book series "The Sten Chronicles" was a great read because of it. I haven't read it in nearly a decade and I've only read it once, but I was just reminded of how the first book started, as I write this. It describes exactly how the MC lived before a Turning Point, what that Turning Point was, how the MC reacted to it, and how the MC changed their life after coming to a Realization. I'm not a writer, so I'd mangle a spoiler if I write one, so I won't. Consider reading at least the first book to understand what I'm talking about.
Again, "show, don't tell" your readers what they need to know.
Laymen often confuse "trauma", being "traumatized", and "post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)".
According to a WHO survey, about 70% of the world population experience traumatic events at least once in their lives. On average, a person experiences about 3 traumatic events in their lives. At the same time, only around 10 to 15% of these traumatized person develop PTSD. That means that
85 to 90% of traumatized persons never develop PTSD !
The numbers differ a bit between different trauma types. The highest prevalence of PTSD occurs among persons who have been abused by a care taker (e.g. sexual child abuse or neglect by a parent), the lowest prevalence among victims of events that weren't directed at them specifically (e.g. traffic accidents, natural catastrophes).
Whether people develop PTSD depends on what psychologists call their resources (e.g. mental stability, good childhood, supportive social network) or vulnerability (e.g. dysfunctional coping styles).
PTSD also isn't the same as grief or shock, both of which are normal reactions.
That said, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen apparently are among the large number of trauma victims that never develop PTSD.
How you handle your character – whether you want them to be unaffected, a little affected, or overwhelmed by their deed – is completely up to you. Everything is possible.
If you go into detail about how the characters' trauma effected their lives by comparison to how it wouldn't have effected them, that would be much better than giving the trauma a title. This is a story, not a synopsis.
If you go into that kind of detail for the sake of the story as a whole, defining the condition would be putting into a social structure where there is little to no social structure in a post-apocolyptic world. In other words, a title for it would feel out of place in my opinion.