When I was twelve, a well meaning adult asked if I could live one of my favorite books, which would I choose? In a true moment of epiphany, I realized just how horrible the lives of book characters were.
Authors put their characters through hell. It’s not cruelty. The journey to hell and back is a long established station along the heroes journey. To see a character arc progress, you have to see a character at their lowest.
But the YA books of the past only showed the journey, not the effects. The character’s were “resilient” and “strong.” They could pick themselves up off the floor, put on a cheerful smile, and carry on with their lives as though pieces hadn’t just been ripped out of them.
I know now that this was a trope left over from the days of Victorian children’s literature, when a child’s innate goodness was enough to spare them, if not from the cruelty of the world, than from its lingering effects. Female protagonists in particular have long been expected to “rise above” the worst.
But rather than inspiring twelve-year-old me, I remember feeling this moment of intense defeat. I could never be that person. I knew I wasn’t the type of person who was “strong enough” to survive the life and trials of a protagonist with a smile on my face.
I found myself chasing flawed protagonists. And not the kind who overcame their flaws and became literal angels and paragons of goodness (looking at you Vampire Diaries), but protagonists with flaws that spidered and cracked when pressure was put on them, but didn’t break.
I wanted to– needed to– know it was possible to survive protagonist level changes without being perfect. Because my much more minor problems were changing me, only I didn’t like who I was turning into. In fact, I kind of hated her.
I was needy and desperate in a way my protagonists never were. I was lonely no matter how many people were around me. I craved attention in a way no heroine ever had. And I felt like I was breaking in a way no protagonist ever would.
Twelve-year-old me might not have been dealing with the fate of the entire world. But I was dealing with a hellish school environment. I had two friends, but they weren’t normal friendships. They were toxic, co-dependent things. The result of being friends, not due to common interest, but because we were backed into the same corner by a popular group that routinely wrote us notes explaining how much better the world would be if we freaks would just kill ourselves.
Or each other.
Whatever, as long as we were gone so they didn’t have to look at our ugly faces anymore.
They called us poor and verbally ripped to pieces everything we wore, every hair cut, every tiny thing we might have enjoyed choosing, they called us lesbians because we sat too close together, they called us weird because of the books we read, they called us traitors because we weren’t from the south, they called us hideous and flinched every time we looked at them straight on, they never put hands on us (because the one time a boy snapped my bra strap, my friend drop kicked him), but they spent every moment of every day tearing us down.
And it wasn’t making me a better person. I wasn’t smiling through my trauma, minor in comparison though it was.
I didn’t find my refuge in books. YA hadn’t matured yet to that point, yet. I found my solace in Sailor Moon. The reason I loved her was because she was allowed to have flaws. She could cry and be a brat and it never got better. She had the same kind of weird, love-hate friendship with Sailor Mars that I did with my friend. The same kind of strange hero worship friendship with Sailor Venus. For once, I could see myself in fiction.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it saved my life.
It couldn’t have just been me who saw this lack, because over the next few years, there was a shift in young adult fiction. When Harry Potter saw Cedric die, his newly awoken determination to destroy Voldemort wasn’t a healthy thing. He was obviously traumatized, and he dealt with it by lashing out and getting angry.
Katniss Everdeen experienced PTSD after a situation that would give literally any human PTSD.
Holly Black’s characters dived into the nitty gritty underworld and let themselves enjoy the escape from the hell that was their normal lives.
These characters would have made such a difference to me growing up, so when it came time to write my own stories, I knew my characters had to deal with their trauma in authentic ways. Even if it was hard to write.
Persephone survives the events of her trilogy, but she isn’t left unmarked by them. She has nightmares, she has issues she needs to work through. Aphrodite has panic attacks. Tess experiences disassociation and traumatic flashbacks. And in my work in progress, Celeste struggles with uncontrollable outbursts of anger and depression. Their issues are not the story, and they don’t get magically resolved by the last page. It’s just a part of who they are and it influences how they deal with the events of the story.
It wasn’t easy to write characters who found realistic ways to cope with their trauma. It took time and research and frankly, a mental toll. But I will never forget the day I didn’t feel “strong enough” to be a protagonist in the books I read to escape my day to day life. And I never want my books to be the reason someone feels that way.
So, dear readers, please know that you are not weak if you don’t pick yourself up off the ground, force a smile to your face, and radiate positivity. You are not less if you aren’t a never ending fountain of kindness and good feelings, even to, or especially to, those who have hurt you. You are not failing if you reach out for help.
Thank you so much to Eva Pohler for including me on this World Suicide Prevention Day campaign. Please check out the rest of the stories that will be posted over the next several days. And come by and talk with myself and the other authors in our live facebook event on September 10th.
We’d love to talk to you.