Abuse is tricky to handle. A query I read recently brought that home with a vengeance. Some stories treat characters with a cruelty that shocks and grips and grieves the reader, and some brutalize the characters until the reader mentally and emotionally detaches. In fiction, as in life, there’s only so much pain that we can take.
When pain or grief become unbearable in real life, human beings often develop fictions to cope with it – we call it insanity. When pain or grief become unbearable in fiction, readers simply disengage from the story, and either abandon the tale or laugh at it.
Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint
The problem is determining where the line in the sand is drawn and how to extend it, but here are a few guidelines I’d use.
1. Don’t let it come off as autobiographical.
No one wants to read self-therapy, especially when it’s poorly disguised as fiction.
2. Give it a twist of plot or character.
A good example of this is Misery, my favorite Stephen King novel. The protagonist, a bestselling writer, is physically and mentally abused – by his number one fan, who’s bitterly upset that he killed off her favorite heroine.
Most of us know what it’s like to be shocked and saddened at the death of a beloved character. Annie Wilkes just takes that a few steps further.
Abusive antagonists are often physically violent. What about one who refuses to lay a hand on anyone, but who controls and manipulates and hurts people nevertheless? Or one who, despite being cruel and abusive, is also amusing and talented? Maybe even protective of the protagonist when someone else threatens her.
3. Let the protagonist fight back.
This was a problem with the query I critiqued. The poor protagonist endured one thing after another with no indication that he was actively struggling to overcome these obstacles.
If the protagonist can’t fight back, please consider whether there’s any catharsis for the reader or whether the abuse (and, in the worst case scenario, death) of the protagonist carries any meaning other than “life sucks”.
That was one thing I loved about Misery. Paul Sheldon does more with two broken legs than a lot of characters do with all their bones intact. He never stops fighting against what happens to him, both mentally – writing the novel Misery’s Return – and physically.
4. Don’t take it over the top.
If a character gets it from all sides – if his dog dies and he’s bullied at school and his parents beat him – he’s going to look like someone whom the Fates have predestined for Great Suffering.
If such abuse has happened in his past, it may be more effective to hint at it after establishing other facets of the character. The heroine of Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn has been gang-raped, but I never saw her as a victim of abuse because that incident is mentioned two-thirds of the way into the book, with few details given. By then my first impressions of her were more or less cemented.
If any main characters are abused in your work, how do you handle this?