Writing Abused Characters Respectfully and Authentically
If you’re looking for tips on writing abused characters, you’re already on the right track. The key to portraying trauma authentically is to approach the subject with curiosity, humility, and a willingness to set aside assumptions.
As a writer, you hold a remarkable superpower: the ability to make difficult topics safer to discuss. The fictional nature of our stories allows our readers to explore painful ideas without sacrificing their own vulnerability or risking confrontation.
Storytelling also invites readers inside the minds of people whose lives look very different from their own. Great writing inspires empathy and a deeper understanding of unfamiliar experiences.
But this only works when we tackle tough topics mindfully. There are major pitfalls we must avoid—pitfalls that can turn our traumatized characters into stereotypes or plot devices.
But please don’t let this be the only advice you read on this subject. A wide range of perspectives and suggestions will provide deeper clarity. And that’s exactly what you need to do this topic justice.
Clarify Your Reasons for Writing About Abuse
Before you even begin step one, make sure you understand why you’re including abuse in your story.
If you’re planning to write an abused character, ask yourself:
- Does the abuse of this character only serve to motivate a different character’s arc?
- Is a non-white character being abused on the basis of race so a white person can learn a lesson or be a hero?
- Is a queer character being abused on the basis of sexuality or gender so a straight, cisgender person can learn a lesson or be a hero?
- Are you subjecting a female character to sexual or domestic abuse so a male character can learn a lesson or be a hero?
- Is a character with a disability being abused on basis of disability so a non-disabled person can learn a lesson or be a hero?
- Are you just trying to write something shocking, edgy, or devastating?
- Could you remove the abuse storyline from your novel without changing the plot?
- Do you consider “abused” to be the defining personality trait of this character?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, I’d encourage you to reconsider whether you need to write an abused character at all.
It’s not that it’s wrong or bad to bring this type of storyline into your work. It’s that we want to be careful about using very real human trauma as a tool to score tears from our readers.
You can assume most of your readers’ lives have been touched by abuse, whether they are a survivor or simply love a survivor. Our job as writers is to acknowledge the complexity of those experiences.
If you’re still with me, let’s jump in.
Step 1: Research
There are many different forms of abuse, countless motivations, and an endless range of psychological and behavioral responses.
Without research, you’re likely to fall back on stereotypes and assumptions. This is how you end up writing one-dimensional victims instead of three-dimensional survivors.
Here are some aspects of abuse I highly recommend researching.
Types of Abuse
You can cover a lot of ground by starting your research here. As you dig into your character’s specific experience, you’ll learn a lot of new information, including:
- Common abuse tactics in that category
- Common emotional and psychological responses
- Types of relationships that are especially vulnerable to that type of abuse
Your character’s experience with abuse likely falls into one or more of the following categories:
This category includes all forms of bodily contact intended to cause physical harm. Slapping, punching, choking, and use of weapons are some of the most common examples.
Psychological/emotional abusers are often seeking to control their victim by breaking their spirit, destroying their confidence, or causing them to question their reality. Tactics include humiliating, shaming, gaslighting, or threatening the victim.
Unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment fall under this category. Kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse all count as sexual contact. Please also note that contact does not have to be forced in order to be abuse. Coercion, intimidation, and guilt are common tactics of sexual abusers.
This occurs when an abuser forces their victim into a state of financial dependence. Tactics can include sabotaging the victim’s job prospects, destroying the victim’s credit, gaining access to the victim’s accounts and moving assets without their knowledge, and much more.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases. It’s a common tactic for entrapping a partner who seeks to leave an abusive relationship.
Digital abuse is the use of technology to intimidate, harass, manipulate, or threaten. This category includes cyberbullying, online stalking, revenge porn, and harassment through text and social media.
Your abusive character could simply be a sociopath. But in the real world, it’s far more likely that you can trace an abuse pattern back to something like:
- Fear of abandonment
- Feelings of unworthiness
- Confusing personal emotions with objective reality
- Need for control
- Victim mentality
- Personal history of abuse
This is not a comprehensive list. It’s also not encouragement to paint an abuser as a misunderstood victim.
The main reason you need to know the abuser’s motivation is because your abused character might know it. And that knowledge can influence the way they respond to it.
Psychological and Behavioral Consequences
This might be the most important aspect of your research when writing abused characters.
Trauma does not manifest the same way in every person. Some people withdraw and avoid relationships while others constantly seek affirmation through intimacy. Some protect themselves with cynicism, others put on a facade of chatty cheerfulness.
There may be nightmares, insomnia, or panic attacks. There may be numbness or denial, cruelty or compassion. A survivor may feel protective of their abuser. They may go years without revisiting a childhood wound only to have it suddenly surface with a vengeance in middle age.
There are endless ways your character might respond to what they’ve endured. You need to understand those responses in order to make the right choices for your character and your story.
Here are a few considerations that could influence your character’s response to what they’ve been through.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
You’re probably aware of the “fight or flight” stress response. When we’re confronted with a dangerous situation, we experience a primal impulse to either fight the danger or flee from it.
Or we do a third thing, which is freeze. The freeze stress response is common among abuse survivors, especially children. It can also be a source of shame for those survivors because we tend to think that “good” victims fight.
But all survivors are warriors doing the best they can with what their mind and body tells them in the moment of stress. The fight, flight, and freeze responses are all accurate and valid. Research them, understand them, and refrain from painting a “frozen” character as passive.
How old was your character at the time of the abuse? And how old are they now?
Age can be a significant factor in the way your character:
- Processes abuse mentally
- Processes abuse emotionally
- Seeks (or doesn’t seek) help
- Views their own role in the abuse
- Protects themselves going forward
- Establishes coping mechanisms
Digital bullying from classmates can have life-altering consequences. So can physical abuse from a caretaker. But the relationships in these two situations are very different, and that can mean very different psychological and behavioral responses.
When researching abuse responses, consider aspects of the relationship such as:
- Power dynamic
- Level of dependency
- Pre-established trust
This information can inform not only your character’s emotional state, but also how they proceed with similar relationships going forward.
How has your character’s religion, geography, ethnicity, and family culture influenced their perspective of abuse? What—if anything—does their culture say is the “appropriate” response to an abusive situation?
It’s important to consider these things when writing abused characters, but it’s also important to be cautious about stereotyping.
If you’re writing about an abuse situation within a culture that is not your own, research relentlessly and hire sensitivity readers (plural) to make sure you have a well-rounded perspective of that culture.
Even better, ask yourself why you’re placing an abuse situation in that culture instead of in your own. If your answer includes a statement of judgment about the culture, you’re on the wrong track.
Once you feel you’ve researched enough, you’re ready to write.
Step 2: Draft Your Story Thoughtfully
In many ways, writing abused characters is the same as writing any other character.
You develop them with an awareness of how their past wounds shape the goals and fears that guide them in your story. You create an arc for them by designing challenges that force them to change. And you bring them alive with quirks, passions, flaws, and relationships.
But be aware that it’s easy to fall into a few bad habits when telling the story of an abused character. These habits can come from our own subconscious assumptions as well as exposure to other stories that incorrectly shaped our understanding of what the abuse experience is.
Scenes of abuse also call for careful handling. The line between exploring trauma and exploiting trauma can get pretty thin when you’re trying to engage readers on an emotional level.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing abused characters.
Consider Your Genre
Genre is a contract you make with your reader. Cozy mystery readers know you will give them the fact of murder but spare them from scenes of violence. Noir readers expect a darker, more candid take on cruelty and suffering.
Consult your contract when writing scenes of abuse. If you’re writing literary fiction, it might be appropriate to write a scene that is vivid and emotionally exhausting. If you’re writing middle grade fiction, you might lay out a few details that indicate abuse without painting too exact a picture.
The entire Harry Potter series is basically about a psychologically abused orphan who discovers new power through love and community (and also magic). But his abuse scenario and laughably idiotic abusers are just cartoonish enough to not scar young readers.
Set Clear Goals for Scenes of Abuse
If you choose to show your reader the abuse itself, you have to know why you’re doing it.
- Providing a deeper look at a pivotal moment?
- Revealing new insight into a relationship?
- Showing a turning point?
- Clarifying your abused character’s perspective or motivation?
Or do you feel like you just have to write something raw in order to be taken seriously as a writer? (No shame. Most of us have been through that phase.)
Make sure you have a good reason that genuinely furthers or enhances the story.
Give Your Abused Character Active Choices
This is a rule that applies to all characters, but it’s one that’s easy to forget when you’re writing abused characters.
Too often, abused characters are treated as victims that stuff just happens to. This is how they lose their dimension and their humanity. This is how they become a plot device in someone else’s story.
Real-life abuse survivors keep living life. They make choices, pursue goals, contend with failures, celebrate victories, and decide what to do with the burden of trauma.
Let your character do the same. Put them in situations where they have to make decisions. Whether they succeed or fail is up to you. The important part is that they still have authority over themselves.
Design an Authentic Relationship
For many real-life survivors, the abuse situation isn’t entirely black and white. While they may feel anger or hopelessness about the cruelty they face, they might also feel:
- A sense of obligation toward their abuser
- Hope that their abuser can one day become the better, kinder person they once were
- Guilt for having failed their abuser in some way
- Shame for being in an abusive situation
- Fear of consequences if they try to leave the situation
- Confusion about their own value and the true seriousness of the situation
Meanwhile, many abusers use manipulation tactics to make their victims feel those complicated emotions.
The more you can tap into the realistic dynamics and dialogue that define these types of relationships, the more dimension you give your abused character.
Without this insight, writers can fall into the rut of writing generic villain dialogue for the abuser. And when the abuser is so undeniably and unspecifically evil, how can the writer justify the survivor’s choice to endure the abuse?
Too often, they’ll do it by writing abused characters who are mousey or have crushingly low self-esteem. A nuanced survivor needs a nuanced antagonist.
Consider Your Redemption Arc Carefully
This one is tricky. Do you give the abuser a redemption arc?
It depends on the situation, the nature of the abuse, the character, and—most importantly—your goal as a storyteller.
I think there is a place in literature for stories about people who do horrible things, choose transformation, and then do better. I also believe there is value in telling stories that explore the cheesy-but-true axiom that “hurt people hurt people.”
But I will raise a few major cautions as you consider a redemption arc for your abuser.
First, don’t make it easy. All the work you did to create a thoughtful, authentic depiction of abuse means nothing if your character’s abusive tendencies are easily reversed and quickly forgiven.
Second, don’t redeem the abuser in everyone’s eyes. Let this character live with the consequences of their actions as your story comes to a close.
Most importantly, consider very carefully whether you want to involve your abused character in the redemption arc. It is not the abused character’s job to save the abuser from themselves. It’s not their job.
One more time for safety: it is not their job.
Once you’ve written your story and done a couple rounds of self-editing, you’re ready for step three.
Step 3: Seek Feedback
Feedback is crucial when it comes to writing abused characters. An extra set of eyes (several sets, ideally) can help you clear out cliches, stereotypes, and generalizations. Not to mention, feedback helps you write a better book.
Now, when you’re dealing with a sensitive topic like this one, there are a couple important things to keep in mind.
First, make sure your readers and editors know what they’re getting into. A simple statement is enough. “Hey, I’d love to get your thoughts on my newest draft if you have the time. Just a heads up: it involves a sexual abuse storyline and there’s a scene depicting assault.”
Second, actively seek readers and editors who can offer a valuable perspective on abuse. This could include psychologists, social workers, activists, or abuse survivors who you know to be open about their experiences.
Side note: Approach survivors who already provide consulting services like sensitivity reading. Refrain from asking a friend who’s only discussed their history during personal conversations over drinks.
Not all your readers have to be experts on abuse, but a few of them should be. These readers can fall into one of three categories.
Beta Readers - You typically use beta readers to find out if your story is engaging, your characters are memorable, and you’re delivering on the promises of your genre. But with a topic as wide-reaching as abuse, you might find that one or two of your readers have helpful opinions on the way you’re writing abused characters.
Sensitivity Readers - These are professionals who get paid to review a written work for understanding and accuracy on a specific topic. These professionals are tremendously valuable because they are offering insight based on lived experiences. They can speak to the complexity of your character’s situation in a way no one else can.
Developmental Editors - This is what you probably think of first when you imagine an editor. Your developmental editor ensures you’re telling a well-structured and compelling story. While they are probably not experts in abuse, they will catch things like gratuitous depictions of violence or unmotivated cruelty.
You don’t have to take all the feedback you get, but I encourage you to receive all feedback with an open mind.
Empathy is Your Compass
Writing abused characters requires a bottomless well of empathy. You need empathy for your characters, empathy for the readers who might see themselves reflected in your work, and empathy for yourself.
Bringing your best efforts to this process means opening yourself up to deeply painful topics. My last piece of advice is to be gentle with yourself. Step back when you need to. Have some ideas on hand for resting and recharging when it gets to be too much. And let it take the time it takes.
An authentic and respectful abuse storyline has the potential to enlighten, clarify, and make others feel seen. It’s well worth the extra work.
There's no avoiding it: critical feedback is an essential for becoming a great writer. Here's how to navigate the process with grace, create excellent work as a result, and get through it all with your self-confidence intact.
While it's not for every story, tragic irony can be a great way to mess with both your characters and your readers... in a fun way, of course. Learn all about it in this article.
Sensitivity writers are more prevalent than ever before, and for many authors, they're an essential part of the editing process. But what do they do exactly? And how do you know if you need one? We've got those answers right here.