Thursday, June 17, 2010

Abuse in fiction

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?


Diandra said...

In a workshop, I was taught that, in order to really make people unable to put away your work (it was about movie scripts), you need to show the audience what your protagonist loves - and then take it all away from him. I am not sure I really agree with this... usually I find it more worth reading how people get out of situations (or die trying) instead of watching others beat them up.

(My most beloved example - rape in historical fiction to show how poor the women were in those times... *yawn*.)

Maria Zannini said...

Ref: autobiographical

I find that especially true with new writers. It's a little disturbing to see their therapy on a page. Most of what I've read in this vein is unpublished, and I can understand why.

If there's going to be abuse, I better see a proactive main character, or I will likely put that book down.

kim said...

Hi, newbie de-lurking, nice blog btw :). When reading this what immediately came to mind was that I loved Sherrilyn Kenyon's first two League books (believe she was a new writer when writing them), but I did find that the characters' abused pasts were so far over the top they became unbelievable to me. Rather than feeling badly for them I began to snicker when some new outrageous past injustice was uncovered. The unbelievable part really kicked in because the characters were still able to function in society (albeit a rogue segment of society) and still fall in love and trust. That they were still able to function so well after being significantly mentally and physically tortured for their childhoods was astounding and too much for fiction imo. Of the formerly abused people I know in real life, most can hold down jobs well but hardly any are in healthy stable relationships (few are even in unhealthy ones, and their pasts are far less ugly). It really was too bad because I enjoyed the books thoroughly otherwise, especially the world-building.

Marian Perera said...

Diandra - that's a good start to a story, the protagonist losing everything that's important to him. But the other half of the plot is what you mentioned, how he reacts to it.

He needs to fight back and to succeed in some way.

Maria - With such autobiographical fiction, even if the writers are asking for critiques, I'm reluctant to give any. If I say, "The main character is passive", they might hear "You were passive."

Kim - Hi, and thank you! Great example provided, too:

"Rather than feeling badly for them I began to snicker when some new outrageous past injustice was uncovered."

I know what you mean. That kind of plot device becomes "normal" and expected if it's used too often, and loses its shock/sympathy value.

Barbara Martin said...

In one of my manuscripts I have a secondary character who is abused but carefully written so as not to offend the reader. The abuse itself is inferred rather than blatantly exposed. There is no need to shock a reader into putting your story down.

Marian Perera said...

Barbara: "The abuse itself is inferred rather than blatantly exposed."

Good idea, especially since it's a secondary character. The readers' imagination is often more vivid - and effective - than detailed descriptions.