Category Archives: Character

PTSD: Not Just for Veterans

As an author, when I think of an individual with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) my brain jumps to characters like Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon) from NCIS or Dean Winchester (played by Jensen Ackles). According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, “PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.” (VA.gov, 2019). Military veterans, emergency personnel, and those who play demon hunters on television, more than anyone, qualify in my opinion as enduring multiple life-threatening experiences. But PTSD also occurs in children, teens, adults, and even parents of children with special needs.

Anyone can develop PTSD from long exposure to high-intensity situations, extended stress, lack of sleep, grief, fear, etc. I am a mother of three amazing special needs children (two boys and a girl) who struggle with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders—Combined (ADHD), cardiac issues, anxiety and self-harm and I suffer from PTSD. The onslaught of my children’s diagnoses, information, advice, doctors’ appointments, guilt, financial issues, and stress grew over the years like a slow-motion avalanche, burying me until I struggled to breathe. Two years ago, while still in the throes of this emotional barrage, my father died from a sudden heart attack. Our relationship had been filled with rough patches over the years and we didn’t talk much, but he was still my dad. The grief, stress, and trauma of flying to Seattle to help my bed-ridden mother deal with the aftermath of his death was the final trigger. I spiraled downward to the point that I was curled in a ball on my couch, covering my head, and yelling, “Don’t touch me” to anyone who came near.

It took another three months of night terrors, anxiety, panicking at loud noises, and freaking out over personal space issues before I admitted to myself that my life was out of control and I called my doctor. After talking over my traumatic life events and the physical, mental, and emotional reactions I had to them she diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since then I’ve learned what events can trigger my PTSD (i.e. large crowds, competing noises, etc.) and have developed coping strategies to reduce the number of episodes I have—mostly relating to self-care.

My PTSD doesn’t only impact me. My children and husband are impacted by it as well. Although all three of my children live on the Autism Spectrum, each of them is influenced by it in a different way. The techniques one of my sons uses to cope with his autism is a natural trigger for my other son. When that occurs, they make mixed-martial arts fighting look like thumb wrestling. They need me on top of my game when that happens. But the extreme chaos of noise, motion, and emotion trigger my PTSD. Every time an episode strikes, I relieve those moments just after my dad died. My mother screaming in the dark of night. Me falling off the couch, scrambling for protection beneath the coffee table. All my senses screaming that an intruder was killing my mother. And I was going to be next.

I have spent the last two years learning pre-emptive coping skills, such as:

  1. Helping my children understand PTSD, why I have it, and what the triggers are.
  2. Time outs – not for the kids, but for me. When I feel the tension rising and fear kicking in, I let them know that mommy needs a time out. They’ve learned that when I can get 10 minutes of alone time, they will get 10 minutes of focused time with me when I come out.
  3. Hiking as a family (nature has a great calming effect for all of us).
  4. Sensory Garden – We’ve transformed our back yard into a calming tool that triggers all the senses in a positive way. It is our safe zone when any of us are stressed.

Yes, I still have those moments when the constant chaos of living within a special needs family can be overwhelming, but I’m pleased to say that the number of times I’ve curled into a ball on the couch has dramatically decreased over time.

I don’t want to scare you away from writing a character with PTSD; my goal is the exact opposite. I’m hoping that by sharing my story, you will identify ways to expand not only what your characters can do and be, but how their PTSD impacts individuals around them. discover what can cause PTSD, how to identify the triggers, what treatments are available, and find sensitivity readers who can help open up your understanding to new dimensions you may not have considered.

I suggest starting your research with the following websites:

With your newly acquired knowledge and a solid foundation of research, it will help you be prepared as an author to write that story about men, women, children, animals, and even robots with PTSD. We need more people, especially authors, who are willing to open the world to a discussion, support, and empathy regarding mental illnesses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Karen Pellett is a crazy woman with a computer, and she’s not afraid to use it. She was born in Utah, but over the years migrated to California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, and the greater Seattle area. In the end, she returned to Utah (though her heart still resides in Seattle).

Karen has worked as a photographer, a business analyst, and a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines. Most of her time is spent between raising three overly brilliant (and stinkin’ cute) children, playing video games with her stepsons, and the rare peaceful moment with her husband. When opportunity provides, she escapes to the alternate dimension to write fantasy, magical realism, as well as stories and essays on raising children on the Autism Spectrum. Karen lives, plots, writes, and hides in the suburbs of Northern Utah. 

Real Characters

Like many of you, I read a lot. I love the new stuff and the classics. LOTR, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, all fantastic books. But there is no denying that they hold a different voice than novels of today. It’s not just words either. 

First Person POV like, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought…” has changed. Before it was like the telling of something that happened. But now, even though most First Person POVs are written in past tense, there is a closeness to them that makes it feel as if it is happening now. Present tense often has the effect of feeling like it is taking place in the near future.

First Person today or Close Third allow the reader to get inside the POV character’s head. This sets the medium apart from movies or television and I would propose that this is why the book is most often better than the movie.

For an author to do this effectively, the character needs to be alive with real thoughts and preferences and opinions. How else will they react to what comes their way? And isn’t this fantastic story telling? When the characters take hold and even argue with us the author.

I saw a documentary about the filming of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a scene where a samurai guy whips around his sword and taunts Jones. The documentary said that the original script called for an intricate fight scene where Jones eventually beats the Samurai. But Harrison Ford argued that his character had a gun and would simply shoot the Samurai dead. The story was rewritten.

Recently I have been writing a thriller involving a hitman, an FBI agent, a financial guru in witness protection, and I needed another character to round out the mix—a face of the evil corporate conglomerate. Fei. She is a middle-aged Chinese national and she runs a section of the corporation, laundering money made from sex trafficking and drugs.

I’m a discovery writer so often times I start with an idea and see where it goes with a distant idea in mind. I did not expect what Fei decided to do.

I needed her to ask the hitman to kill this guy, but Fei let me know that this was not an easy thing for her to do and that she’d developed feelings for this dude. I pushed it. She had her lover killed. Part of her was sad, and another felt power and control. She handled the death in a very interesting way. Two chapters later and Fei is now a serial killer. I did not expect that at all, but Fei, with her personality, her childhood issues, her lust and disgust for men, her struggling marriage with a husband who is reluctant to come out of the closet, all of these dynamics have formed and created Fei, a person, a character, someone that I would recognize if I bumped into her on the street (and then I’d run like hell in the opposite direction).

Real characters aren’t cliché. They aren’t faceless drones. They are a compilation of many people. They have wants and goals and dreams and they struggle and have weaknesses. And when they are real, we as readers recognize that and the story resonates with us.

I watch people. (Not in a creepy way). I observe their mannerisms. I listen to their word choices. I notice their posture and eye movements. These things make someone unique. And I ask them questions. I listen to how they respond. I strive to understand their ambitions and fears.

All of these mesh and mingle and come out in my writing.

I came up with Jared Sanderson about 7 years ago. He is very real to me. I could describe his physical features that are a mesh of three of my friends. But this little segment, which is his intro into the story, shows a bit of who he is as a character.

“Jared Sanderson gnawed on the side of his thumb as he waited for the attorney. He had forgotten to moisturize so his skin flaked and cracked at the sides of his fingers. By impulse, he chewed away the dead skin, especially when nervous.”

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Jace Killan

I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can check out my books here or at my website www.jacekillan.com.

The Series Trap

So you want to write an epic sci-fi or fantasy series… Related image Been there, done that. I know authors who have written double-digit books in their series. I suppose that’s a great thing if it’s making money. But to me there’s a sort of hidden trap in creating a series that becomes self-perpetuating and endless. Part of that may just be my own proclivities as a reader. In general I find three or four books to be about as long as even the best writers can keep my interest in one story, one protagonist, and/or one set of supporting characters. I just have too much interest in other stories to keep going back to that same water hole. So when I started my War Chronicles epic fantasy series, I very deliberately set a story line that would be finished after three, maybe four books. I had no intention or desire to be writing War Chronicles books for years. I wanted to write other stories. Now, had that series taken off like Harry Potter, and publishers were flying to my home to shove money in my mailbox, maybe I’d have a different perspective. But that didn’t happen, so I’m happy with what I did earn on my first series, and am glad that I have since written a sci-fi novel, and am now working on a contemporary murder mystery novel. From the first time I decided to pursue writing as a hobby and (hopefully) a career, I wanted to keep my options open and write widely in different genres. I think that will make me a better writer in all genres. Now, from a career perspective, maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe sticking with one sub-genre for my entire career might be a better way to establish a loyal fan base and churn out stories that are eagerly anticipated by those fans. But even if it is, I’m enjoying my foray into contemporary murder mystery. Who knows, my next book might be a romance novel.

When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense

Writing a Series: When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense. A guest post by Nathan Dodge Those that know me from the Superstars seminars know that I signed a contract for Shadow Warriors, the first novel of a YA SF series at this year’s SSWS. In brief, the series is a sequence of five novels about teenagers that are kidnapped and forced to train as the crew of a starfighter to fight in a galactic war. I wrote all five novels in an 18-month period. That might not sound very smart, having sold none of them, but I went into a writing frenzy and they all rolled out—about 450,000 words in all. And now, finally, one is sold, with the prospect of perhaps selling more. Like everyone else writing a novel series, I ran into “series problems,” the blips that come up for any writer of a series as the writing progresses. Example: continuity. It’s darned hard to remember all the stuff you’ve put down over time, especially about the time you get into the middle of novel 4. How many times have you started to edit something in the new book of your series and thought: Wait a minute—I said something about this situation (or character, or background element) in Book 2. Is it consistent? And sometimes it isn’t, and you have to sharpen the old red pencil, metaphorically speaking, and reconcile the two passages. And yes, I kept a “facts” diary, but you still forget. However, that isn’t the problem that had me buffaloed as I finished Book 2 of the Shadow Warriors series. It had very nice starring roles for several of my main characters, a couple of independent parallel plots, and the usual 1/3-point and 2/3-point crises. However, as I began to reread and seriously edit, a problem slapped me in the face: The book didn’t read like Book 2. It read more like Book 3! What was wrong? Mainly, I decided after some analysis, the characters had matured too quickly. They were already advancing in command positions, and they were becoming too important in the overall command scheme of their navy. I had let a little of that happen at the end of Book 1. The top male character had become a unit commander after only one major battle (sort of a “battlefield promotion”), essentially in charge of not only his crew but nine more fighter crews. In addition, the two main female characters had demonstrated excellent planning and strategic abilities, so that they were assigned part-time to their Carrier commander to assist in battle planning. Which was okay—my crew was still a group of base-level fighters, with some modest responsibilities above and beyond that of a fighting crew. That led to my realizing the problem: they had to prove they had earned the new positions by performing in them before they were again promoted in Book 3. That is, they had to gain more experience (and also more success), demonstrating that they had earned the right to advance further in their military careers. But that hadn’t happened. What was needed was a Book 2, in which my daring young warriors proceed to act in their new roles and prove to their commanders and the Alliance at large that they deserved more command responsibility. So editing Book 3 (formerly Book 2) was put on hold while I returned to the end of my first epic and designed another plot to allow my young charges to earn their stripes. Or, since they were all young officers (as in the US Air Force), to earn their officer ratings. Of course, that meant a new plot that would mesh with the already-established Book 3 events, but that would also stand on its own as an interesting story line. In addition to a main, galactic-war-related plot, all the Shadow Warrior books have a secondary, more personal plot. That presented a challenge in Book 2 until I considered: in Book 1, a relatively small Shadow Warrior force had defeated an enemy of fifty times as many warships. What if the upper hierarchy of naval command, far from the battle on their home planet, didn’t understand the unique strategy that had allowed victory, even at the cost of half its ships? What if they recalled the carrier commander in charge—the one whose faith in my crew had led to the victory—and court marshalled this commander before a military tribunal for her “excessive losses?” Not only would the crew be facing a new enemy threat, but they would also have to testify in an alien court to save their commander. All this required not only lots of new plotting, but a great deal of rereading of the former Book 2 (now Book 3) and its “facts” log to be sure that details in my new story didn’t contradict the events of the following story. At the start, I mentally groaned and moaned a lot, trying to find excuses to ditch the new volume. But I stuck to it—and about three months later, I had finished the new Book 2. Further, my revisions to Book 3 were minimized, with careful, regular back-and-forth comparisons and reading, so that in fact I did not have to rewrite the third book to any great extent. In only about a month or so more than it took to complete Book 3, the new Book 2 was done and Book 3 altered as required. Problem solved. In retrospect, I can identify three “take aways” from my experience. First, in a series about the same character or group of characters, they need to constantly mature and evolve—but that maturation/evolution must seem reasonable and natural. Second, careful plotting and story line management can assure that if you do have to change or rearrange your sequence of novels, the transition can be as painless as possible while bringing the maturation of your characters back into balance. Finally, this exercise brought home to me rather graphically that when you deal with a set of characters over an extended series of volumes, since these characters constantly evolve, you must deal in each new volume with what is essentially a new set of characters. Because the “old characters” are growing, maturing, and acquiring new abilities and capacities, you must constantly expand the texture and nature of their personalities and individualities. In my case, for example, the battle-hardened seventeen-year-old veterans of Book 3 were absolutely nothing like the timid, just-kidnapped sixteen-year olds of Book 1. If your characters aren’t constantly becoming new versions of themselves, your reader will more than likely lose interest, as the characters can quickly become flat, featureless, and boring. It can be a hassle to pay attention to the maturity level and complexity of your characters, to help them grow, and to make them continually more well-rounded and interesting, but in my opinion, the result is worth the trouble!     With BSEE (SMU) and MSEE and PHDEE degrees (The University of Texas at Austin), Nathan Dodge was an engineer and engineering manager before joining the University of Texas at Dallas. After 16 years, he retired in 2014, although he still teaches half-time. He won several teaching awards at UTD. Nathan began writing seriously in 2012 and has attended seven Superstars Writing Seminars. He has a story in the Purple Unicorn Anthology with daughter Sharon, a short story sale to Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, and recently sold the first book of a young adult science fiction series to WordFire Press. He and Sharon will soon release an anthology of SF stories, To the Stars. In his spare time, of which there is surprisingly little, he loves weight lifting, hiking in Colorado, and solving crossword puzzles with wife Faye Lynn.