Last week, I raised three questions for authors to consider based on our collective experience with terrorism. We got some informative comments, and I’ve had some additional thoughts as events have continued to unfold here in Boston. And I have a confession to make, later in this post.
What can responsible authors do to help readers deal with actual or potential violence in their lives?
Reading teaches empathy. Children who read learn how to feel for others by immersing themselves in the lives of protagonists. The very nature of what we do helps children learn to care for and understand others. It’s a noble gig.
Books can be wonderful tools for helping children through their problems, anxieties, and rough patches. As Nicole said, children immerse themselves in the lives of protagonists, and through those protagonists they can explore difficult topics from a safe space. A librarian is often the best person to consult when a child is dealing with bullying, divorce, the arrival of a new baby, the departure of a best friend, or even the death of a loved one.
So what about terrorism?
Terrorists want to disrupt our lives and cause us to fear the places and activities we used to think of as safe. To some extent they have succeeded, even with adults, and especially with the adults in charge of airport security. Children are even more vulnerable than adults, because they have less control over their environment and less experience in determining odds and risks, so we are right to worry about how they can be impacted.
The trouble is, a terror attack is not just one traumatic issue. Victims may be dealing with injuries, permanent disability, lost friends or family members, shocking memories, nightmares, stress, fear, insecurity, and more. No book is going to speak to every victim in the most helpful way. No book is going to turn back the clock and put everything back the way it was. And no book is going to prepare a child beforehand for every possible terror attack they might experience in the future.
Responsible books are the ones that present acts of terror as realistically rare, show that good people are working hard to keep us safe, and let us know that life goes on even after the worst things that can happen.
Can we make things better, or should we just try not to make things any worse?
As writers, we need to [write] with care, compassion, and integrity to developmental needs and not cross the line with information that can increase trauma or secondarily traumatize like the media often does. Knowing how much and how to present is an art and requires research on difficult topics. If you are using difficult subjects and are not an expert, seek out a consultation.
–Diane Kress Hower
Secondary trauma is something to worry about. It’s impossible to entirely avoid. Diane’s advice is important for anyone who is intending to write about terror in a realistic way, but even if we are not, we can never know what might trigger a post-traumatic event in a reader we have never met.
Jerry Spinelli wrote Maniac Magee long before last week’s bombing, and at the time could never have anticipated that someday a child might associate running with the horrible images of the Marathon finish line. I don’t know any children or adults for whom running is now a trigger, by the way, but they certainly could exist. We can imagine any number of possible triggers. In the news today, a child might be exposed to a theory that the elder Tsarnaev brother was a boxer who suffered a drastic personality change, possibly after too many blows to the head, and suddenly any book about boxing could become a trigger for devastating flashbacks. Or a scene with a pressure cooker. Anything we write has the potential to bring back echoes of tragedy in the mind of a particular reader.
We authors do have an advantage over some other media because we are able to deliberate over what we write. We have extra time we can use for research or consultation, as Diane suggests. We can maximize the good we do but there’s no guaranteed way to avoid any chance of causing harm.
Or should this not even be a consideration at all when it comes to telling a good story?
We need stories.
So tomorrow I will start back again. I will get it all as right as I can.
Our heroes need villains, and what can establish villainy better or faster than a terror attack? When Darth Vader blows up an entire planet in the original Star Wars movie, it stays with us. When a James Bond villain reveals his or her master plan, it needs to be something a lot more potent than voter fraud or insider trading. Terror is a classic plot device, or at least the fictionalized terror we see in most stories. But thankfully fictional terror is not realistic, because realistic terror makes bad fiction.
Fictional villains need to be smart and resourceful, while real terrorists often succeed through dumb luck and the fact that an overwhelming majority of people are good and trusting of each other. Fictional villains need to have a logical plan and understandable motives, while real terrorists tend to be deranged ideologues who believe they can advance a cause through random violence against innocent people. Our stories promote a larger narrative with positive values and hopeful results, while realistic terror is just random and horrible.
Nobody wants to read about dumb villains stumbling through a half-baked scheme that hurts trusting people for no good reason, but that’s the story that is emerging from the news reports.
So here is my confession.
There’s a fictional terrorist act in one of my middle grade books.
In The Challengers, after Earth first makes contact with aliens, a political movement promotes planetary isolation in order to preserve the traditional cultures of Earth. In the story, some Seclusionist groups are passionate or desperate enough to commit acts of violence. One of them bombs a stadium that was set to host tournament games between Earth and other worlds, on a day when the players are attending an orientation there.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene over the past week. I’ve been wondering whether it might cause secondary trauma to readers who have been through an actual terror event. And I’ve been feeling all kinds of guilty. But this scene is integral to a larger story about humanity’s most positive attributes, and that larger story has more potential to inspire and uplift than to cause harm.
And of course, since real terror makes bad fiction, my fictional terror scene is not much like real life at all. For starters, my terrorists call in a warning ahead of the detonation, because they don’t want to hurt anyone. My terrorists just want to damage the stadium enough to prevent its use, which makes the bombing an understandable method to further an understandable motive. My terrorists are taken seriously by competent security forces who evacuate the team and ensure that nobody gets hurt. My terrorists are immediately denounced by other Seclusionist groups who share their goals but find their tactics deplorable. And most importantly, my terrorists do not succeed in stopping the Galaxy Games.
I drew strength from rereading that scene this past week, because it models a victory over terrorism. The Games go on, the people refuse to be intimidated, and humanity proves itself to be on the side of goodness except for the few bad apples who try to ruin things for the rest of us.
Stay strong, everyone!
Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the “Galaxy Games” series of midgrade sports and science fiction from Tu Books at Lee & Low Books. Visit him at http://gfishbone.com.