1. Warde
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    Warde Member

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    Childhood sexual abuse in a character's backstory - how do you write it?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Warde, Jul 16, 2012.

    I'm interested in people's experiences with and thoughts on writing about sexual abuse in a back-story/sub-plot and particularly with writing about child sexual abuse.

    One of my current characters was severely sexually abused as a child (from about age 4 till age 8). This is well before the time-frame of the current story, however, several aspects of what happened then are important to why she makes the decisions she does in the present. Specifically, the reason her abuser gave her for abusing her and the reason she ultimately ran away are important.

    Generally, I approach back-story through a combination of flashback chapters/dream sequences, deep conversations with other characters in which the back-story is shared, and more subtle hints in the character's conversations and behaviour. On the one hand, this feels like a topic that needs to be more than hinted at if I'm going to get the pertinent details across to the reader. On the other, I worry that directly recounting the events in question would introduce this massive theme which is not directly relevant to the main plot.

    Have any of y'all managed a similar situation? Anyone written something like this in your own writing or have a book they enjoy reading which deals with this issue?
     
  2. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    To be honest, I wouldn't enjoy reading a story that showed this no matter how it was handled. Even the characters talking too much about it in detail would turn me off instantly.

    At age six I was sexually "abused" by someone who was meant to be looking out for me - inverted commas here because my memories of it aren't as bad as people would expect them to be: mostly because I didn't realise just how wrong/illegal what he did to me was until I was older (although of course I knew it wasn't right - just didn't realise the severity of it). Even so, the only lasting effect was a lack of trust and an odd view on sex throughout my teens, rather than any trauma. I'm now in my twenties and the only people who I know in real life that I've mentioned it to are people I've been involved with sexually and my best friend of sixteen years - but no one knows any details of the acts or even a hint as to who the person was and I never plan to reveal that information. I know this isn't the same reaction everyone who experiences this has but it does mean I often find that, as a plot device, it can often feel over-dramatised/unrealistic when portrayed by a writer who doesn't know what it really feels like to be in that situation while having the limited knowledge a child has. So, if you do need to describe it, then I would say that less is more.
     
  3. Warde
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    Warde Member

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    Thank you very much for weighing in on this. This is actually a large part of the reason that I haven't even really considered addressing those experiences by including them in a conversation with another character. It's just not something she would willingly talk about without an extremely good reason for doing so. Furthermore, for the reasons you stated above, I am also wary of writing about it in any other context. I'm not at all sure I could do justice to that part of her story and if I'm not going to do it well I'd rather I not do it at all.

    The early sexual abuse is just one instalment in her very mucked up life to date and, if that were all it was then I would be inclined to skip over it. However, when this whole mess started she thought she was protecting someone (a thought planted by her abuser but no less real to her) and that fact is very important to who she is as a character. Additionally, the way she understands the world and how people relate to one another is, by most people's standards, extremely skewed. In large part, this stems from the conclusions she drew during her early experiences with her abuser and her particular issues are very much consistent with a history of repeated sexual abuse as a child. While I have very little reference for describing sexual abuse itself, I have had significant exposure to its aftermath through working with children in the foster system and support programs. That, at least, is something I can write. Unfortunately, it brings me right back to needing some way to point to the early experience which caused her to become that way.
     
  4. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    In my last book I had a character with a similar background. I left all the details of it out, and just alluded to it as it became important to the story. So what happened wasn't as important as say the fear that the MC had of his father, or the nightmares he had of his father's tread on the stairs at night. I felt I had to walk a fine line between writing something completely gross which I didn't want to do, and writing something insipid where my character had no real reason for how he had become the man he had, or the choices he would make.

    Yoshiko, I'm sorry to hear of your background, and I agree with you. Less is absolutely more in this case.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  5. tinyplanets
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    tinyplanets Member

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    I decided to write about abuse and its possible effects, as the main theme of my last book. It was a difficult decision to make and a difficult book write. Given that it was the main theme, it was necessary to go into some detail but I found I had the dilemma of not ever wanting to make the abuse gratuitous for anybody. Very difficult and I hope I got the balance right.

    I also made my characters with a fairly big age gap in order to try an convey responses to abuse depending on age.

    Part of my job is raising awareness about abuse and key to doing this is being open about the topic. I know the subject matter will automatically put off a lot of readers and completely understand that peoples own experiences will determine weather or not they will want to read.
    I reasoned in the end, that yes, people are trying to forget and move on but others are desperately wanting to talk but nobody seems to want to listen.
     
  6. MeganHeld
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    MeganHeld Senior Member

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    You can allude to it. If you wanted to, so that you would not have to go into detail I have read a few books that when the character reached something about his past they had a flashback to the abuse. For example: The sound of the machine punching holes into the metal made him freeze in his spot. He thought back to the sound of the belt hitting off of his back.

    That was not exact, but close to what was written. Child abuse does not always need to be described. Some readers will think of their own form of what kind of abuse existed, or some would not want to think of the details because the thought is revolting. Hope that helps. Its always such a difficult topic in real life and the writing life.
     
  7. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've done flashback sequences for some things and just had a character talk about others when it comes to backstory, although I've rarely done your topic as actual backstory. I wouldn't recommend getting to gory in the details but at the same time, you also cannot let difficult scenes make you brush over a scene. You don't want to detail something to the level of making it just seem gratuitous, but you also don't just wanna skip it cause it's a difficult topic. With a topic like this, you obviously are not trying to make people comfortable. If the reader is a bit uncomfortable, I'd say that's good, and I don't think most readers will mind being uncomfortable if it's well-written and feels relevant to the overall story.
     
  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    When it comes to sex and violence you really don't need to put in all the details. The focus on your character's thoughts and feelings about it are what will convey what happened to the reader. In this case, it may work perfectly well to simply allude to what happened. Readers can figure it out.
     
  9. mickaneso
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    mickaneso Member

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    A lot of people have been sexually abused so it's one of those things that'll make a lot of people uncomfortable. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (the movie, never read the book) even though it was a good movie the rape scene made me and my girlfriend both really uncomfortable even though neither of us have been raped or sexually abused. Despite the movie being a fine piece of art and that scene being necessary for plot and character development you still have to always be aware that you're writing for entertainment purposes. Scenes like that can put a lot of people off because it doesn't really fill you with positive feelings. So it is a fine line of entertaining and art. Obviously Hollywood treads on the entertainment too much where as a lot of indie films are too focused on the art aspect to the point it's completely boring despite its good intentions. I think truly great stories are the ones who hit the sweet spot between both.
     
  10. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Dragon Tattoo was one where the details were helpful to really understanding what the character does -- creepy and disturbing as it was. And the scene in the book was worse than the one in the movie. That whole Millennium trilogy was fantastic, but goodness gracious, it almost made me think that Sweden is full to the brim of sadistic, perverted killers.

    It really depends on what you are trying to show with the abuse and how central it is the main plot. In Dragon Tattoo it was pretty important.
     
  11. Psychotrshman
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    If you get a chance you might want to check out Finding Fish by Antwon Fisher. It's not the main thematic element of the book, but it is a part of the young mans journey. It's been several years since I've read it, but I remember it being handled as tastefully as that subject matter can be handled. And if I remember correctly he was about 6 when it happened to him. Good luck!
     
  12. mickaneso
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    It's funny you say that because I recently read an article that surveyed and found Sweden to be the happiest country on earth. Though I'm not sure how reliable that is because I don't really know how you can measure happiness for certain.

    Anyway on the Dragon Tattoo I think the story definitely justified the scene. In the end I enjoyed the movie, I'll probably see the next one. I'm just saying it's something you should be wary about because it'll make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. There are always morality and artistic issues you'll encounter as a writer. Are you glorifying violence? Are you representing both sides of an arguement for a view you take a strong stance on? I just think you should always be aware of the audience you're writing for and then with that knowledge make a decision if you think the scene will make the story more powerful than it would be off-putting.
     
  13. marktx
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    marktx Contributing Member

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    In a flashback, I would recommend taking an implicit approach rather than an explicit one. After all, what really matters about the abuse is the damage it does and the terror it provokes in the victim. The specifics of the physical actions will vary greatly from case to case, but the effect is the main thing. And you can do a lot with an implicit approach. The manner in which the abuser interacts with the victim in public, the reactions of the victim to the abuser, all of these things can get the message across quite effectively. If done well, the reader will fill in the details themselves, and often they will do so in ways you would never wish to put on paper anyway.
     
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  14. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Totally agree, Mickaneso. Oh and BTW - you should totally read those three books. As always, they are better than the film (even though the film was pretty good.) It is such a shame Larsson died before he could complete his envisioned 10 books.
     
  15. mickaneso
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    mickaneso Member

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    I'm reading the last book in a series at the minute then planning on some writing/grammar help books (because I actually haven't even had the idea to read any before!!) but I might check them out after that. Never realised that the author had died through the series, a shame.
     
  16. Warde
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    Warde Member

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    Thank you very much for pointing this out. For some reason, I had been focusing on flashbacks in terms of looking back at the actual incidences of abuse. I think you are right that it could be much more effectively done by flashing back to different moments in that same time period. I feel like this would combine well with hints in her present behavior to give an accurate idea of events to the reader without going into what happened too explicitly. Alright, time to actually write it!

    On which note, thank you also to everyone who recommended books with this sort of content, these should be really helpful for me in the writing phase. Dragon Tattoo has actually been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a while now so I'm going to start on that and see if I can find the others at the library. Thanks again!
     
  17. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    I recommend focusing on the emotions more than what actually happened. Just hint at it indirectly, but write your character panicking at odd moments that would make sense in the context of sexual abuse, or thinking something that most people would find strange but that her sexual abuse taught her to think, or avoiding or denying certain things about herself that are uncomfortable to admit. Do research on the impact of sexual abuse, and read accounts by those who were abused.

    Also, remember that your sexually abused character may not be your most traumatized character. It really bugs me when authors stick a sexually abused kid who was seriously messed up by the abuse alongside a kid who seems completely unaffected by his mother dying when he was young and him being rejected by his father and stepmother. Sexual abuse is just one kind of trauma, there really isn't something special about how it affects kids, and many kids who weren't sexually abused have had it as bad or worse than kids who were.

    I was sexually abused. I still consider myself to have been lucky, because it wasn't my parents who abused me and my parents have been consistently supportive and helped me through everything bad in my life. Many kids are probably worse off from simple school bullying than I am from sexual abuse simply because they didn't have supportive parents.

    In one of my stories, I have a sexually abused character who's actually one of the healthier characters, because the protagonist was a boy who killed his mother in self-defense at a young age. In another story, I have two characters who are about equally messed up - one was a sexually abused orphan, the other accidentally created a tornado with weather magic that killed half his hometown. I do my best in every story to have characters be realistically affected by trauma, even when the circumstances of the trauma are fantastical.
     

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