July 22, 2013

PTSD and Zombie Fiction: As If Zombies Weren't Enough




As If Zombies Weren’t Enough


RJ Kennett

Zombie apocalypses, by definition, are supposed to be extraordinarily dangerous affairs for the protagonists. When the dead rise, hungry for the flesh of the living, a common ailment can be life threatening. What if the protagonist has terrible allergies and sneezes constantly? Stealth becomes a challenge. What if they’re paraplegic? A whole new set of survival issues arises based on mobility.

PTSD in the Zombie Apocalypse

In my debut novel, “Central Outbreak Response: Genesis” (or “COR: Genesis” for those of us too lazy to consistently spell out the entire title), the protagonist Max Newsome suffers from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A veteran of the Iraq War, Max suffers from night terrors, and stress threatens to trigger full blown hallucinations even when he’s awake. I wanted Max to face challenges beyond the “ordinary” problem of flesh-eating zombies or murderously selfish survivors.

One of the other effects of PTSD is often hypervigilance. Veterans I researched described it as “always having your radar on, scanning for threats.” It wasn’t a feature they described as a problem for themselves beyond perhaps overreacting to loud noises, but was sometimes a barrier to communication in relationships. That is to say, they can’t turn it off. So hypervigilance could actually be an advantage in a zombie apocalypse. But how does an author show hypervigilance in play?

Max Newsome: A Hero with PTSD

The book starts with a bang (literally), and devolves quickly into a visceral, immediate life-or-death struggle on a college campus. Hypervigilance helps Max hear gunshots before others do. He is attuned to the sound, and when he hears it, his pulse quickens to show stress levels building. Further applied stress triggers a PTSD episode, which introduces the reader to Max’s experience from the war.

Later, hallucinations of his friend Riggins (who was killed in Iraq) act as a “sixth sense” for Max; cryptic warnings he doesn’t always understand or obey. In another scene, he subconsciously hyperventilates following an hallucination, flooding his muscles with oxygen to prepare for a fight.

PTSD is omnipresent for Max, part of his character makeup rather than a mere story mechanism. He is a tortured soul with a good heart and an iron will.

PTSD and Character Development

It was an interesting challenge, to write intimately of a character with a problem that I don’t have. I’m not a veteran, I’ve never seen combat, and never been in particularly stressful situations beyond public speaking to a few hundred strangers.

As the son of a Korean War veteran, however, I know that PTSD is a very real phenomenon, which haunts many of our service men and women to varying degrees. I wanted to treat it with respect, in a realistic fashion, so I researched a number of veteran’s stories online. I hope I got it right, given some artistic license for storytelling purposes. If I missed, I’m sure there are some veterans willing to set me straight for the second book of the trilogy, and I’d love to hear from them. I can be reached via http://www.rjkennett.com.

RJ Kennett is the author of  Central Outbreak Response: Genesis

The cover was created by Craig Spearing

In Kennett's words:
"I invite everyone interested to read the preview. If you decide to honor my work with your purchase,  it’s cheaper than a cheeseburger, and lasts longer, too!"

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