Writing about trauma/abuse/recovery?

Discussion in 'General Advice' started by Kittenly, May 3, 2015.

  1. Kittenly

    Kittenly Just Squish That Cat!

    I've been kicking around some plot bunnies for a while now in which most of my main characters have some serious abuse in their past and it has left them pretty wrecked in a variety of ways. I want these characters to be the heroes of the story.

    So I guess I'd love some of y'alls advice. I know there are a lot of survivors here. What sort of thing do you want to see in a POV main character who's got a serious abuse history? What are the worst stereotypes and cliches to avoid? What is a realistic "happy ending" recovery-wise?

    These are just some questions that I can think of right now, but I'd love a discussion on how to fiction well in regards to this sort of thing. And I don't trust Tumblr with a rational discussion on this.
  2. Vacuum Energy

    Vacuum Energy waterwheel on the stream of entropy

    Don't write them as a collection of symptoms. I like Cory Doctorow a lot but one of the things I like least about his writing is he's trying to be aware of trauma but is handling it mostly just by occasionally going "ok now suddenly a panic attack" at plot-relevant moments. Yeah, no. Forget the symptom lists. You're writing a person, and trauma colors their worldview from top to bottom.

    I actually got this article from a blog called F- Yeah Character Development, which isn't a bad blog but the article is, as far as I'm concerned, required reading. (It's actually not nearly as long as the scrollbar makes it look, most of the page is comments.)

    Edit: I see the author of aforementioned article wrote another one on how to get it right.
    • Like x 2
  3. pixels

    pixels hiatus / only back to vent

    I think an important thing to remember is that, just like everybody else, survivors have good days and bad days. It's just that they look completely different. A good day is "haha, I was able to go to the place Abuser abused me without breaking down in tears!" A bad day is "oh god why do I exist except to be abused I will never amount to anything but a thing to be pushed around please let me out of this shithole of reality nothing ever gets better and I'm sobbing just from the whiff of a stranger's perfume that smelled kinda like the one Abuser wore." And it changes with how much you've processed and how much you haven't, and you can gauge that (somewhat) by time removed from the event(s).
    • Like x 2
  4. albedo

    albedo metasperg

    ... it'd be really nice to have some more nuance in characterization of abuse. Fictional portrayals tend to be 'abuser was UNAMBIGUOUSLY HORRIBLE AT ALL TIMES', or maybe 'abusive boyfriend was okay at first BUT THEN TURNED BAD'.

    And just... I mean, you can tell from the ITA forum in general that it's usually not that simple. People normalize behavior and aren't comfortable calling it abusive even if it sure as hell looks like it from outside. Abusers have good traits, and sometimes they protect you from an even more abusive situation, and sometimes you feel like you have to be loyal to them because they did things for you or because they're family even if they're horrible and... it's complicated.

    I'm still not comfortable with calling my mom's behavior abusive, even though a number of people have looked at it and gone 'yeah, she's a narcissist, RUN LIKE HELL'. I'm not comfortable calling my grade school abusive, because it fucked me up, but I've repressed pretty much all memory of what happened so I can't judge it on an adult basis. But I'm totally okay with calling Creepy Stalker Boy from high school abusive, even though in the long run he fucked me up the least.

    Relatedly, it's sorta frustrating when everybody knows All The Right Buzzwords right off the bat.
    • Like x 3
  5. BPD anon

    BPD anon Here I sit, broken hearted

    Just for once, somebody who DOESN'T fit the following description:
    "Abused Jimmy learned to be quiet all the time so as not to upset his abuser(s). He didn't talk much, but he knew how to listen and learned body language, and he was quick on his feet. He was old and wise beyond his years because he was forced to grow up at such an early age."

    -A loud, brash, immature abuse survivor (IRL, not so much on the web) who was even more loud, brash, and immature while she was being abused.

    I mean, okay, that's not every single fictional abuse survivor, but it's enough that I was worried that I couldn't actually have been abused because I wasn't quiet. Like, there are some villains and bullies with abuse tacked on as a backstory, but it's not dealt with in a meaningful way.
    • Like x 3
  6. Kittenly

    Kittenly Just Squish That Cat!

    Thanks for those articles! They were really interesting, especially the whole "Pull back the curtain" metaphor.

    As for the, "write a person not a symptoms list," this is what I'm trying very hard to do. I'm not sure if this is a good place to talk about my characters so I'll put it under a cut
    Basically the idea I've been kicking around is a Dragon Age AU fanfiction in which some of the Inquisition characters were in Kirkwall. My Inquisitor and Dorian were in the Kirkwall Circle. For those not familiar with DA, the Circles are a place of forced schooling/imprisonment for mages. Abuse is pretty common by the Templars, who have anti-magic skills, and are essentially the guards/wardens of the mages, and keep them under control with the threat of basically lobotomizing mages. Fantasy Stanford Prison study results.

    My main characters are two mages (Ren and Dorian) who escaped the Circle together, Dorian's boyfriend who was sort of involved in helping them escape, and the former Knight(guard)-Captain of the Circle who, while he never actively abused anyone and didn't know/admit the full extent of the problem, has a lot to answer for.

    Plot wise, all of these characters are now on the same side and have to work together. There's a world to save, all that stuff. So the abuse is important to a lot of how they behave, but the story isn't really about abuse so much? (Wording is hard)

    Another general question about writing these characters, are there any particular things to do or not do when having romantic plots involving these characters? I know there's the whole, "partner makes them magically better" which is a big no-no.
  7. pixels

    pixels hiatus / only back to vent

    Partners don't make you magically better. What helps in your own recovery is having other people to play the real-or-not-real game with. You can play it with yourself, but it's harder to keep score, as long as we're using this metaphor. With others, it's easier to understand being affirmed as "yes, you're not crazy, that was fucked up." It's not the relationship per se that "magically" makes better, it's that for once someone is listening and nodding and giving affirmations and pulling your weight when you're out of spoons and all that shit.

    Relationships can also make it worse, because sometimes the other party doesn't know that what they did just set you the fuck off, and it's hard to explain (or even use words) when you're in the middle of a full-on meltdown/shutdown. Also relationships can just be emotionally exhausting, for all that they're rewarding, and when you want to put all your emotional energy into yourself you kinda don't have any left over for anyone else which isn't fair if the person you're in a relationship with is expecting that emotional energy. If that makes sense.
    • Like x 2
  8. Makizushi

    Makizushi Cheap, Easy, Delicious

    Hello! I made this alt account specifically to reply to this thread because I'm really interested in this topic.

    First, I think it depends how deeply you intend to get into the characters' heads. If you're going with an outside, more omniscient narrator type that is a bit detached from the characters' inner emotions, or if your view point character(s) are not the survivors then you're only going to be able to work with the outward presentation of trauma. So there is that.

    Then, you should figure out what (mal)adaptive coping mechanisms make sense for each character. Some people become withdrawn after experiencing trauma, some become aggressive, others end up being really talented benign or corrosive manipulators, etc. Maybe they're really really sensitive and have strong emotions when something bothers them, or maybe they're incredibly coarse and more likely to laugh, joke, and minimize when triggered. I'm a fan of writing young survivors cycling through coping mechanisms, trying to figure out the best "fit" for their situation.

    You mentioned about having a character who was present for the abuse but didn't participate. That character ought to draw some kind of reaction from the survivors. Maybe one clings to them as the only "safe" [type of person] they've ever met. Maybe a survivor is incredibly wary and polite around that person, and exhibit a totally different personality when among people that feel safer. You could have a character be coldly distant, or be the warm mediator that tries to smooth over all signs of conflict, or maybe an overtly abrasive survivor who needs to find the tipping point, the boundary past which the abuse resumes.

    What are the characters' base assumptions about their past abuse? Just off the top of my head you could have any or a combination of:
    The abuse is over and done with, in the past.
    The abuse is still happening, this is normal.
    The abuse will never stop and if this seems like a lull it's stupid to let your guard down.
    The abuse is something to run away from.
    The abuse is something to never think about.
    The abuse is a wrong perpetuated against me and I'm angry.
    The abuse didn't happen, nothing is wrong.
    The abuse happened because I'm bad.
    The abuse was normal and it's stupid to be worked up over it.
    And many many more.

    If you work out the character's favored coping mechanisms and their base assumptions then they'll likely write themselves when you throw them in into a situation. Then, as the characters develop, you'll get to see how their base assumptions are challenged or change, and how their coping mechanisms either adapt or become maladaptive after that. Or it could work the opposite way; the outside situation is so radically different that the coping mechanisms are already maladaptive and that eventually forces them to confront and reevaluate their base assumptions. You could take this all kinds of directions.

    Also, a sort of baseline of things to avoid: I despise a lot of depictions of abuse survivors like we can only be distant hard-asses or delicate wilting flowers. Trauma should never make a character less funny, or brave, or dorky, or sexy. Survivors ARE funny, brave, dorky, sexy, etc.

    But yeah, like, this stuff just ads layers to your characters and doesn't need to be the focus of the story. It's mostly about how the abuse has affected your characters' personalities, base beliefs, and modes of operation. That'll show up pretty consistently even in situations that have nothing to do with addressing the abuse directly.
    • Like x 2
  9. Chiomi

    Chiomi Master of Disaster

    I think something to keep in mind, in addition to all this great stuff, is that it's going to change the behavior that seems like the best response in some situations. The internal narrative will be different. Like, if a non-abused person has X problem, they might solve it Y way, which is straightforward and makes sense to observers. A person who was abused, when they encounter X problem, might solve it Z way because whatever happened in their past is influencing their current perceptions of the problem and the most straightforward way to solve it. This may or may not seem straightforward to observers, but will make sense to the character.

    Like, if a friend said to a non-abused person 'Oh, you're upset,' or something else observing a mood, it would probably not elicit too dramatic reaction. From me, though, it would elicit incredibly disproportionate rage. Internally, the narrative makes sense because my mother did and does tell me how she thinks I'm feeling all the time as absolute edicts that I am lying if I say are not accurate. Externally, I just look like a bitch.

    It wouldn't always be that dramatic - though it might sometimes be more dramatic! But, just, keeping in mind that paradigms and relationships to the world at large can be different in abuse survivors, and keeping that consistent in your writing.
    • Like x 1
  10. raginghearts

    raginghearts Well-Known Member

    I don't have a whole lot to add that hasn't already been said (and admittedly I kind of skimmed so I might be reiterating something someone already said, but whatevs) other than one suggestion.

    A lot of times, from my own experience and from others' that I've seen, a lot of times it's really hard to see just how messed up/abusive something is. Like, I'm still finding out things that my parents did/do that apparently isn't normal parent behavior. So, in this case, since all three of your main characters are from the Circle, you could have them be at varying levels of awareness of just how messed up the Templar treatment of mages was--and in some cases, even if they DO realize that bits of it were very wrong, have other bits that they thought were perfectly normal and reasonable (or at least, maybe kind of annoying) but didn't register as abuse until a third party points out just how messed up that behavior is. Like... once you have the characters realize that they were in abusive situations, don't just have them suddenly realize and be able to recognize every instance of abuse, if that makes sense?

    Good luck on that fanfic, by the way! It sounds great and while I'm not a big fanfic reader myself I might point my moirail at the fic once it's done, I know they'd get a kick out of a fanfic like that. C:
    • Like x 1
  11. wixbloom

    wixbloom artcute

    I think personally I'd like to see an abuse survivor character who has moved past the I Am So Broken Can I Ever Truly Love Another stage. I think maybe because I'd like to see my own issues reflected, and mine are "HELL YEAH I'm loveable as all fuck and should be treated with kindness and respect but also when kindness and respect happen how do I???? hoW????" as well as a dash of "HELL YEAH I have loving and respectful relationships and I don't think I'm going to fuck them up but I worry that when I naturally disagree on something suddenly everyone's gonna wrongly think that I'm a bad person".

    In other words, I know what I deserve and what I should expect from people but I'm still a bit scared I won't get it and positively surprised when I do, with surprise ranging from "oh... oh, this is nice" to "I am overwhelmed and don't know what to do and need a breather and goddamn how can this person actually like me and be so nice????"

    And I'd love to see that kind of internal conflict more :3
    • Like x 2
  12. albedo

    albedo metasperg

    This, definitely!
  13. Makizushi

    Makizushi Cheap, Easy, Delicious

    Yesss... this is exactly where my longfic went and it was fantastically cathartic. I fully endorse this.
    • Like x 1
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