Friday, November 21, 2014

Query question: can you have Stockholm Syndrome without Sweden?

I wrote a scene in my fantasy WIP where a character was beginning to agree with the antagonist. Later on in the work, a supporting character asked him if the MC had Stockholm Syndrome. Then my brain, with a very good catch, thought of something really interesting that made me stop in my tracks.

In a fictional work, specifically works that do not take place in the world as we know it, is it even possible to use a phrase like "Stockholm Syndrome" when Stockholm never existed and the Norrmalmstorg robbery never happened? I tried thinking of other words or phrases to describe this syndrome, but none of them are as concise. I'm stuck on this one, and my research has proved unfruitful. What's your take? Yay or nay?

VERY interesting question.

If we take the lead from historicals, then the answer is no. The always Fabulous Gary Corby's great crime novels set in ancient Athens can't refer to things that the ancient Athenians didn't know or have.  Let me tell you, that's a really interesting list. You can be if we miss something, his discerning readers let us know pronto.

However, if the world is fictional, who's to know what happened or when?  I think Stockholm Syndrome which is so closely identified with a modern event, and entered the lexicon relatively recently is more problematic than say January, which indicates have a concept of linear time and cyclical seasons.

Not being able to use Stockholm Syndrome, or 23Skidoo, or QueryShark, or selfie, is a high price to pay for writing fantasy.  On the other hand...dragons!

I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here, but if you use it, you'll hear from readers who do have strong opinions one way or the other.


Craig F said...

Take a few minutes to explain it and call it something like Oberon Syndrome. If you can come up with a deposed cult or faction leader whose name rhymes better write that in.

Stockholm Syndrome will resonate in the mind of the reader but you will have, hopefully, a reasonable explanation for a real psychological concept.

Alicia W. said...

Perhaps you can call it Stockholm Syndrome, and then explain (via dialog or exposition) about something that happened in a place called Stockholm that exists in YOUR world.

I don't know what your world is, but, for example, if it's sci-fi, maybe there's a spaceship called Stockholm. Then people can get understand what you're referring to immediately, and you've given it a believable place in your world.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Here's a knee-jerk reaction/suggestion, (emphasis on the jerk part).
If the effects of Stockholm Syndrome are crucial to the storyline might a, (get ready, a lot of folks won't like this), a prologue be presented as a set up for the future comment.
Hey, quiet down out there, I here the moans and groans and see the eye rolling. It's just a suggestion. Jeez Louise, you guys.

Unknown said...

Don't do it. You might research the Syndrome and use that information to guide your character and plot development, but DO NOT label it as such in your fantasy. If it is a satire where you are going out of your way to break all of the rules and delight your reader with clever snark, call it another Syndrome as the first commenter suggested in a Douglas-Adams-esque kind of way. Otherwise, don't distract the reader with a relatively modern "Earth" term which will drag them out of the world you have spent so much time developing.

Ellipsis Flood said...

Nngh... Stockholm Syndrome's a bit too recent/specific. I'd go with Craig's idea.

If you're going to give an explanation for its name, there's really no need to still call it Stockholm Syndrome.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Craig, El El Piper, and Ellipsis Flood. Those suggestions make the most sense. This is an other worldly place. There is no Stockholm Syndrome. There is only a bonding disorder. It doesn't even have to have a name if it's only intended as a small part of the overall story. It can be explained via dialogue action, etc. If it's a huge part of the story -this is where you get to have fun and come up with a name like what Craig said. Then you have to also do the work of showing what this is. Sounds like fun, actually. But maybe that's just moi.

Carolynn - are you drinking? :)

Unknown said...

I wouldn't call it "syndrome." I'd call it infusion or obsession or something other than trying to wed with Stockholm. Great question & I wish you the best. Keep true to your story & something will come to you. Maybe in the car or a walk. But--it will.

Susan at West of Mars said...

As a freelance editor, I'd flag that and ask the author to re-think that. How would this alternate world know the terminology?

I see this more than you'd think. Not Stockholm Syndrome per se, but other terms that are very 21st Century Earth. Not only terms, but styles of speech, too.

french sojourn said...

Yeah, agree with not using the name. Not unlike a Pavlovian effect. You can use the principal, but define it and call it something else.

It does exist as psychological dictum and could, and does I imagine, effect characters, and story line.

It also would give the reader a closer contact with the story, as they connect the dots.

Good question.

french sojourn said...

Proof reading 101;

If it does exist as psychological dictum, and it could, and does I imagine in any world. Then I would use it to effect characters and story line.

slow down hank!

Deep River said...

I don't think you need a term like 'Stockholm Syndrome' at all. If your MC is acting irrationally as a result of trauma inflicted by an aggressor, the story lies in the interplay between your MC's irrational defense of the aggressor and the rational friend who is trying to understand your MC. The conversation between the two characters can demonstrate the effects of Stockholm Syndrome without requiring a psychological term for the condition. In other words, an opportunity to show.

Craig F said...

Another line of thought came to me while I was...never mind.

Call it the Kiss of an opposing god and explain it as something similar to Stockholm Syndrome.

Susan Bonifant said...

Really good question and yes, writer, good catch. I hope you weren't driving.

Colin Smith said...

Just to throw in my two cents, I agree with those above who say if the term would make no sense in your world, don't use it. Just tell your story, let the reader see what your characters go through and let him/her label it for him/herself.

And Gary Corby is a gold standard when it comes to writing within cultural restrictions while making the story fresh and relate-able. If you haven't checked out his Athenian Mysteries, you simply must. That's not an option, folks. ;)

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Don't. It would be as if you had Daniel Boone pull out an AK=47. If it doesn't fit, you risk taking your reader out of your world you've spent so much time crafting.
In the young adult pirate adventure I'm writing, I can't let my characters say they're OK, because OK didn't come into usage until 1820. Maybe no one in my audience would know, but *I* would and it would drive me nuts every time. (On the plus side, I can use the word "clinchpoop!" A tradeoff I'm happy to make!
It's all about making your created world a real place, with its own history. Be true to that world, and don't take shortcuts.

Les Edgerton said...

The Stockholm Syndrome always gets a bad name! Well, sometimes it shouldn't. For example, my wife and I are the product of the Stockholm Syndrome gone right. Just sayin'...

Janet Reid said...

And there you have it, in a nutshell, why Les Edgerton is a terrific writer. Don't you want to know more after reading that last sentence? Yowza!

Jenz said...

This is a "trust the reader" deal. People know about Stockholm Syndrome (as evidenced by the comments here), and you simply don't need to label it for readers to figure things out. There is zero chance that someone would be confused by character motivations right up until they read the label and go, "Oh, it's Stockholm Syndrome! Well then that's all right."

This might be just me, but the idea of giving it a different name risks making it feel comedic. Whether that part works or not, it'll require more explanation instead of less; you'll have to describe the origin of the term AND the concept of capture bonding.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

More proof that Janet's blog-followers are a wonderful resource! There are some great suggestions for a substitute word or phrase--my own suggestion is "trauma-bond," borrowed from the field of human trafficking (it's how pimps work, and it's six kinds of horrible because it is conscious rather than the milder phenomenon of Stockholm).

As an academic who studies the history of the language, I find out of place or anachronistic words and sentence structures really bug me when an author is careless. Like how actual doctors and nurses can't watch "House" without twitching.

Obviously, it is literally impossible to write historically "accurate" dialogue in a modern language. To be pedantically "accurate" would mean, for speculative fiction, inventing your own other-worldy language, and for historical fiction, learning and using dead languages, and if you did that, then NO ONE WOULD EVER SIT BY YOU AGAIN. Don't ask me how I know this.

Another shout-out to Gary Corby for being so, so good at using contemporary English so cleanly that when I read his stuff I never find myself thinking "This is not an ancient Greek speaking." (But I do find myself thinking "I wonder if I could borrow Gary's brain..." or, "Why must my children need dinner EVERY NIGHT?") Can't wait for the next one!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Prologue is NOT a 4-letter word - or is it?
Donna, I think I need to take up the habit of a tasty early morning beverage besides caffeine, orange juice and a V-glass of eight vegetables in red-sauce.
"Wow Janet, impressive bunch today," she shyly mumbles from the corner, where she blends in with the flowering foliage on the vertical plane.

Kat Waclawik said...

It sounds like you might be worried about wandering into "calling a rabbit a smeerp" territory. (Thank you, Turkey City Lexicon, for that wonderful phrase.)

On the one hand, it drives me crazy when I'm reading some convoluted description of a fantastical beast with long ears and soft fur and amazing jumping abilities...oh. You mean rabbit. Why couldn't you just call it a rabbit? After all, everything else in this world is being translated to modern American English so I can read it.

On the other hand, I think a proper noun like Stockholm would be jarring. It evokes very specific images which do not fit in a fantasy world.

In this case, I'll add another vote for Craig's suggestion to briefly create your own world's equivalent. You're not smeerping here, just enriching your setting.

Anonymous said...

Right after I posted my comment which ended with my inquiry as to whether 2N's was drinking, I opened the book by Chelsea Cain to do some investigating on her writing technique, and was slapped silly because the beginning is:


Like we all know. If you're a bestselling author, you can do anything.

And yes. I do want to know why Les Edgerton and his wife are perfect Stockholm Syndrome types. Except something tells me this has to do with simply having a bonding disorder - with each other?


Doug said...

This issue barely scratches the surface of a whole conundrum of world-building problems. In my WIP, I'm struggling with things like units of measure ("He inched along") and other culture-dependent terms. I decided that "month" is okay because my world has the moon, but "week" is not okay, since it's an arbitrary designation derived from the Judao-Christian Bible. The toughest part: ordinary phrases all sound like cliches. I remember reading the "Clan of the Cave Bear" and thinking that these people sounded like Wall Street bankers. Ugh.

Karen McCoy said...

Perhaps a simile? I came across "traumatic bonding," but I'm sure you can come up with something better. What's nice about sci-fi/fantasy is you can take real-world stuff and make your own twist on it. Good luck!

Kalli said...

Deep River said: The conversation between the two characters can demonstrate the effects of Stockholm Syndrome without requiring a psychological term for the condition. In other words, an opportunity to show.

Jenz said: This might be just me, but the idea of giving it a different name risks making it feel comedic. Whether that part works or not, it'll require more explanation instead of less.

I agree with both of those. I don't think you need to name it, you just need to ensure you're effectively conveying the concept, and your readers will get what you're referring to (whether they realise it is commonly called Stockholm Syndrome or not).

I have the same problem when writing HF set in ancient Egypt. You have to be very careful with word choices in order to avoid dragging in anachronistic concepts or technology, but at the same time acknowledging the language you're writing in is an anachronism anyway, and your job as a writer is to use it as effectively as possible.

Some words do not pass my (highly arbitrary) anachronism test, simply because they 'feel' too out of place, while others I'm more confident of getting away with. So for instance, I wouldn't use words like mercurial or saturnine, because the cultural reference to Roman gods is totally out of place. But I have no problem with using other words with Latin or Greek etymologies, like sanguine or sycophant, because they are part of the English language, and no less anachronistic than any other word I use.

I do sometimes come across one that I can't decide on though. Like 'train of thought' - can I get away with that in a pre-industrial setting? Or does that idiom rely on a different definition of train? *ponders*

Anonymous said...


"Chariots of thought?"


Jerry said...

It’s easy enough in the English language to make up words and phrases that, while you were the first to use them still have obvious meanings. The Wikipedia example of capture-bonding is a particularly poor example; I suspect it’s the result of experts trying to create a hard word that lets them be obscure.

I see on Wikipedia the phrase traumatic bonding which works much better for this purpose. If you believe that Stockholm Syndrome is a subset of the syndrome that also contains battered spouse syndrome, you could use that.

But if you were to use a completely made-up phrase such as abused captive syndrome or isolated hostage syndrome or just ask the person if they’re not identifying too much with their captor you should be able to get the same effect.

The problem I see with recreating fantasy names for Stockholm syndrome is not just that the phrase then needs to be explained, but also that you’re literally recreating earth history in your fictional world. Unless that’s part of your plan overall for the book, it is likely to add humor where you don’t want it, or even confusion about how many events indoor work have analogues in the real world.

LynnRodz said...

I agree with most of the other comments here. You're creating your own world, so either create a name for this bonding syndrome or just show it. Period.

I also wanted to know more about Les Edgerton's comment so I popped on over to his website and learned some interesting facts about this man. I can perhaps guess at what he's alluding to and if I'm right, that in itself would make a good story/memoir. Then again I may have let my imagination take flight. Either way, I have two of his books on writing and have bonded completely with what he has to say!

Craig F said...


The cubit has always been around. You can measure it with a piece of string and half it, quarter it, etc.

french sojourn said...

"oh Donna"

chariots of thought.

love it.

"cue in harpsichord music"

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I feel like a character might realistically turn to another and accuse them of being a sympathizer or a collaborator. Even in a modern work, it would ring oddly to me to see Stockholm Syndrome referenced in that kind of conversational manner.

Kalli said...

Doug, as far as measurements go, I find you can't go too far wrong with body parts - a finger, a handspan, a foot, a stride, the height of a man etc. Of course it's a bonus for me that they actually used these metrics in ancient Egypt, so I don't need to worry too much about converting to modern measurements.

The difficulty comes with measurements of time... the Egyptians were the first people to divide the day into 24 hours, which is handy, but minutes and seconds don't seem to have had any equivalent. Also, an Egyptian week was 10 days, not 7, because a labourer worked 10 days before they could have a day off. Ugh, when I get that time machine working, remind me to go back to a period AFTER weekends were invented.

Anonymous said...


Not bad for the ole mid afternoon slump, eh?

Anonymous said...

I have a similar situation in my epic fantasy. The MC has been held captive and knows she needs to escape, but she's been so manipulated by her captor she doesn't think she can try. Only a very strong inciting incident breaks her bind so she can attempt it.

Her captor knows she's escaping, but lets her and is very surprised she actually broke free of his control.

I didn't try to give it a name, I just gently described what was happening. People will recognize what it is. Trust your readers. This was something that happened before it was named Stockholm Syndrome. You don't need a name or a syndrome.

It reminds me of a politician who claimed PTSD is something that has only started with the recent conflicts and yet Audie Murphy testified before Congress about it and it has been identified in ancient wars.

One of my very pet peeves is reading epic fantasy and having someone use the phrase "OK". It makes me want to throw the book at the wall. Unless it's something like Magic Kingdom For Sale, it doesn't belong there.

Michael Crichton did a great job in Timeline with language and customs, in my opinion. It's not fantasy, but he does a great what-if job.

Anonymous said...

At the Rocky Mountain Writers Conference a few years ago, I attended a workshop where the writers had to send in x number of pages to be critiqued ahead of time by the classmates and the mod. The mod was a very kind editor at Del Rey.

One of the classmates was a friend of mine and one of my beta readers. Now Beth has a gorgeous-melt-in-your-mouth-honest-to-all-that-is-holy epic fantasy. It's beautifully written with some wonderful characters. We sent in our openings for this workshop.

One lady, sliced and diced every single story. I didn't so much mind her slicing and dicing mine and letting me know it was junk, even though the editor asked me to submit it to her, but I was astounded at what the gal had to say about Beth's.

Beth's opening is about her MC sharpening his knife as he prepares to kill someone he really doesn't want to kill the next day. Then he takes out a pipe that belonged to his dead mother and starts playing it. The woman comments, "This is all wrong. These people don't play pipes, they play drums."

I'm sure I had to pick my jaw up off the table. This is epic fantasy. This is Beth's epic fantasy. How does this woman know what kind of musical instruments they play?

So, this is fantasy. This is your fantasy. You don't have to call it Stockholm Syndrome. You don't have to call it anything. Just tell the story. No one is going to tell you you're wrong, unless Miss Priss happens to read it, I suppose.

JD Horn said...

I'm going to chime in on the side of those who say not to use the term, even if you use the concept. Readers who will happily accept any type of fantasy element will call you out if you have someone turn east on a real world road where traffic only travels west.They will also certainly let you know if you break one of the rules of the fantasy world you created. It's jarring for them, and detracts from their enjoyment of the story. I love the above idea of giving it a different name and maybe even alternative origin. How could the concept have come about in your fantasy world?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

@ JD Horn
"I love the above idea of giving it a different name and maybe even alternative origin. How could the concept have come about in your fantasy world?"

Perfect, and you can do all that in a PROLOGUE. Hey, hey, hey, calm down. I was only kidding, sort of, not really. I'm a non-fiction essayist, what the hell do I know about pretend.

Gary Corby said...

Terrific question!

The difficulty is, Stockholm Syndrome is a purely modern concept. I don't know of an equivalent term in any other place or time. I'd be fascinated if anyone could name one.

If there was, for example, an equivalent term in mediaeval Japanese, then a literal translation of the Japanese into English would show you how problematic it is to transfer cultural references.

Let me offer this test: if you were to do a translation of the book text into the characters' fantasy language, would your characters recognize their own dialogues?

I can imagine Ulfgar, the King of the Northern Marches, leaning against the dragon he has just slain, scratching his head and saying, "What is this Stockholm Syndrome of which, apparently, I spoke?"

My thanks to Colin Smith and the non-WarriorPrincess for their kind words!

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps a great example of Stockholm Syndome in ancient times is Vlad Tepes and his older brother Radu who were held as political hostages by the Ottoman empire. Vlad, of course, later became known as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracul and Radu completely embraced the Muslim lifestyle and became an Ottoman leader and enemy of his own country and family.

I guess this was ottoman Syndrome.

Craig F said...

These neat comments have changed my outlook. I would tend to say that you should walk away from the concept completely.

Even if you have the right level and type of civilization for such a concept to arise you still need a person placed at the right level of the society to be affected. That would mean the top person.

People read fantasy to escape from their real lives and release their inner barbarian. You don't want to drag them down with these kinds of characters.

About the worst psychological problem should be a fear of failure. Anything more doesn't really fit any layer of the fantasy genre.

Kat Waclawik said...

I just wanted to jump back in to add, as Jerry said, you don't want to just recreate Earth history. Don't call it Longdale Syndrome, after the hostages who sympathized with their captors during a famous robbery there.

Call it traumatic bonding or something similar if it's an understood concept in your world.

Call it sympathy for the enemy if this is not a good time for a digression.

Call it wife-taking, after the ancient custom of kidnapping a woman from a neighboring tribe and having one week to win her love.

Call it Timar's Folly, after the fable of the shepherd boy who was ensorcelled by a goddess for one night and loved her ever after. You can still see his star chasing hers across the sky.

Call it Lurana's Victory, after the princess who was kidnapped during a war, fell in love with her captor, and ended the terrible war with a happy marriage.

This is why fantasy is so fun. You establish your own cultural references.

Anonymous said...


I write epic fantasy and my characters go through a lot more than fear of failure. I would venture to say G.R.R. Martin's do as well.

Of course, I'm not published yet, but I think readers can handle more than fear of failure.


Anonymous said...

Just where to draw the line is tricky. There can also be a strange sort of flexibility where someone in the middle ages might more reasonably consider possible "scenarios" than someone in the 1930s, since there's already enough translation going on that all of their language is willing suspension of disbelief of a sort we aren't required to give a story set set in the 1930s until they suddenly start using terms from Opera jargon with meanings they didn't acquire until the 1950s.

In this case though, I think what could jar the most wouldn't be "Stockholm" ("Kings Landing Syndrome" wouldn't be much better) but both the turn of phrase "(X syndrome") and the very way of thinking about psychology: Stockholm syndrome is so well-known among lay-people as much because of its counter-intuitive nature as anything else. If capture-bonding was met with the incredulity that led to its infamy in the 1970s, why would these characters be able to speak of the phenomenon as something well-understood? It would make more sense for them to suspect pre-meditated betrayal by fake hostages, or enchantment or madness, or perhaps for them to just boggle in disbelief when the results of Stockholm Syndrome played out. The reader can understand something as the result of capture-bonding without the characters doing so.

Anonymous said...

Oops, my example of possible anachronistic language before was a bit wrong, in the 1930s a character would perhaps have thought of "scenario" as a shooting-script for a movie, rather than as related to opera. They still wouldn't have used the word as we do now, though.