1. TheSecondMouse
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    TheSecondMouse New Member

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    How to write a difficult but not abusive character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by TheSecondMouse, Aug 13, 2014.

    I'm trying to write a character who completely shuts down after the death of his parents for the sake of those who were depending on him. That means he does his job, and he gets things done, but behind closed doors, there has been a major personality change. He becomes self-obsessed, angry, and controlling of his two younger sisters.

    My problem is that the second half of the story is about what one sister does to try to save what's left of his good side after the other sister runs away. I don't want to do anything that comes close to saying that abusive relationships are okay, or give the impression that they'll change if you just stick it out.

    So how can I write the character so that he is bad enough that it warrants fairly drastic action on his sister's part, but not bad enough that their situation could be seen as abusive?
     
  2. JamesBrown
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    JamesBrown Active Member

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    You could read some psychology books, that might help.

    On another note, why would I tell you how to do something when I could keep my ideas for myself? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you're not able to write the book you want and you should write another book maybe - I don't want to read a book based on someone else's ideas!

    Edit: I clicked your profile, you're quite young, so I didn't mean to come across as being rude. To be honest, you don't want to know about such things at your age. If the brother became controlling this may manifest it self in something like beating up the sisters' boyfriends and you could give the indication they did not really deserve it.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2014
  3. Garball
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    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

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    The brother could form an addiction that needs attention or self-mutilation. Make him self-abusive.
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    This sounds pretty abusive to me. We all have a degree of free will to our behaviour, and even if we lash out sometimes, we decide whether to own up to it and apologise, or refuse to accept any responsibility. If he drove his sister away with his behaviour, I suspect he was the latter.
    This sounds to me like you want to have your cake and eat it too. What's your issue with your character being abusive, that is, why are you insisting that he shouldn't come across as such? Abusive characters can change for the better, particularly if it's their own pain making them short-tempered. I would not buy a non-abusive character who acts abusively.
     
  5. MandyC
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    MandyC New Member

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    Such an intriguing idea! Perhaps you might paint the relationships with a subtle brush and really give the reader something to chew on. For example, if the brother is unexpectedly put into the position of being responsible for the girls but unsure of how to be a father figure, he could be more demanding of the younger sister — she has to shape up, grow up, behave, be responsible, etc. — but maybe she has loss/grief issues that light her fuse. The older sister may have responded to the loss differently and is desperate to try to hold the family together. The brother might not be abusive in the usual sense we perceive, but it might come across quite differently to the two girls depending on their personalities and perspectives.

    Exactly how they were before the parental loss and how each responded to it would drive the relationship into rocky and uncertain waters. But if you keep it subtle, so that we can see their points of view in a compassionate way, the story could have enormous depth. Good luck with it!
     
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  6. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    This would be a good approach to take. Remember that the girls will have issues from the loss, too. They can't be there just to interact with big brother.

    If you don't want him to come across as abusive while showing the rift he creates in the family, you could have him sublimate his anger. Don't have him yell at his sisters, or hit them, or do anything overtly violent. No, when he goes into control mode let him think he's doing it for their own good, in honor of their parents. Let him hold "What Dad would have wanted" over their heads. And "Mom would be so unhappy if you . . . " Besides, he's giving up so much of his own life to be a father-figure to them, nobody could blame him if he gets a little impatient at times! :rolleyes: (It's usually woman who pull the martyr act; putting a guy in the role would be an interesting challenge).

    You can find out a lot about your character by digging into why he's angry after the parents' death. Is it a generic "O God, why?" Or does he hold someone at fault for their demise, someone he can't get at, so he misdirects his anger towards himself and his sisters? Maybe he blames himself (reasonably or not), or perhaps he believes the parents did something stupid to cause their own deaths? The source of his anger will help you decide how it should affect him and his sisters.

    Don't forget the fear he is feeling as well. That can trigger actions that don't have the good effect he intends.

    BTW, @TheSecondMouse, in your OP you say he "completely shuts down." The character you describe hasn't done that at all. Sound more like he's acting out a heightened/overbearing sense of responsibility to me.
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It sounds to me like the brother is abusive and that there's no getting away from that.

    I think that you may be getting over-tangled in controlling the "moral" of your story here, and taking the risk of creating an even worse "moral". You're fearing that you'll have a story that says that an abusive person can eventually correct himself and fix his relationships. But by trying to make it not "really" abuse, you may be creating a story that says that a person in authority can make the people he's in charge of utterly miserable but it's not abuse, no, no, he did nothing wrong. You may be creating the excuses and extenuating circumstances that abusers and their victims use when they try to hard to pretend that it's not abuse.

    It's abuse. I'd say accept that and write the story accordingly.
     
  8. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    If he's in charge of his sisters, maybe he's overprotective. For example, his sisters used to have more freedom to go to parties and such, but the brother is now afraid something will happen to them, too, so he gives them a harsher curfew. That could make one girl run away, but I'm not sure if it would be abusive.
     
  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But abuse doesn't have to intend harm. If it causes harm, it's abuse, no matter how good the intention. That's my concern about the original concept, and I realize that I'm trying to tune the "moral", which is something that I think is generally a bad idea. But a lot of people who are emotionally abusive or being emotionally abused try to excuse the abuse because the abuser has good intentions, and a book that did the same thing would bother me.
     
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  10. BFGuru
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    BFGuru Active Member

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    Are you sure you aren't writing my ex's story? He totally did that after the death of his father.
     
  11. molliemoogle
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    molliemoogle Member

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    It's as though his world has crumbled away and he takes control by controlling everything he can within his sphere of influence, is that what you're trying to say?

    In the second half of the story, something serious would have to happen to one sister (or both) to demonstrate to your MC that he is being a control-freak. Abuse can be "hidden" in various ways.
    @Catrin Lewis mentioned that you could have him hold "what would Mum and Dad have wanted" sword over their heads, or even manipulate them by guilt-tripping them into doing what he wanted (e.g., "I work 50 hours a week to make sure you have clothes on your back and food on the table. The least you can do is let me know when you're going out!" or "You wouldn't do this if Mom and Dad were alive, would you? So, why are you doing it now? All I try to do is take care of you."). The abuse (because let's call a spade "a spade") is subtle and manipulative (I sound like a psycho, don't I?) and it can gradually worse until said sister takes action. Maybe his father's dying words were "take care of your sisters". This whole father-figure/mother-figure thing is foisted on him and he probably doesn't know what to do. Your MC sees Dad as a protector. Maybe protector = warrior in his mind?

    It doesn't sound like your MC is a physically abusive guy, but could very well be an emotional or psychological, even verbal, abuser to his sisters. One puts up with it because she knows what he's doing (why not give the character that insight; that she sees right through him).

    However, as @jazzabel mentioned, you can't have your cake and eat it too, @TheSecondMouse . He can't be bad and controlling and not abusive. He can be emotionally/psychologically abusive without physically harming them, but at some point, he will end up physically hurting them; it's only a matter of time.

    What I find really intriguing is what steps one sister will take to save him. I look forward to finding out.
     
  12. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    I can see this turning into one interesting debate. :D

    Anyway, to the OP. First of all, abuse and a controlling behavior are usually seen as one and the same, unless the kind of control we're talking about is your run-of-the-mill maternal overprotective inclination, which might afford little violence or belligerence but may be the general "obey me or else". And there may be many ways he may make them oblige without being violent--perhaps excommunicate them from friends, call up their boyfriend(s) and threaten to kill them, cut their access to internet and telephone, and so on.

    I had a friend whose mother, being highly protective of her, would go through her stuff she was at university, so much that my friend was forced to burn her diary entries as soon as she wrote them (apparently, she tore them up once and the mother put the scraps together to read it). Additionally, I remember watching a movie once, The Virgin Suicides, and while I felt the movie itself was pretty boring, it is an excellent show of how parents can strip their children of their freedom and eventually drive them insane. The brother might not be in a position to enforce this on his own, but he can work around that--if the sister is trying to shove her way out, he could taze her, or give her a sleeping pill. That borders abuse, but still not as bad.

    Well, in all fairness, this is emotional and psychological abuse, but in this way you avoid physical and sexual abuse. And I'm sure any person in this situation would want to run away, while another may want to try and see good intent. With this, you can also blend into psychosis and paranoia--easier to garner sympathy when there is an obvious psychological disturbance.

    Also, I don't condone abuse of any kind, however it would help if you thought why you don't want the sister to help her abusive brother, instead of getting away. Just because the society considers something taboo doesn't mean you cannot brush it in a novel. Do you truly believe there is one sure-shot way of dealing with abuse? Some specialists (not all of them are reliable, though) actually recommend not trying to get away from an extremely abusive relationship and seeking counseling to strengthen oneself and possibly help the spouse. His abuse isn't justified, but it has a trigger and a root cause. Counseling or rehabilitation tries to hone in on that, and so could your MC--not highly recommended, but maybe the circumstances call for it. Maybe she's skeptical of the system, or she loves him too much. You could have her own thought process address the absurdity, so that the reader knows you're not just plainly justifying staying in an abusive relationship, simply relaying a different dimension of it.

    Perhaps it's not just the brother's personality that is out of whack, but the sister's too. Some extremely abused people tend to have personalities because of which they are unable to be a part of a functioning, healthy relationship--they tend to substitute one abusive relationship for another. They want to be controlled and told what to do, and their gender roles are awry. I'm not saying they're to blame for abuse, it's simply something they've learned over the years, stemming from abuse in childhood, to abuse as an adolescent and so on. Helping the reader see neither the girl nor the boy are hues of black and white, but broken in their own way--yet, the girl wants to change, break the cycle that controls them both, which is inspiring, and you could definitely cash that.

    In summation, there are many ways to go about it. Don't let yourself be confined by what is socially acceptable.
     
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  13. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Uh, you think so? Threats and actions like this would not only be openly abusive, but downright criminal. You can go to jail for stuff like that.

    Funny I should end up saying that, because today while I had no access to the Internet I was thinking about this by @molliemoogle:

    Sorry, as written that is not abuse. Any minor child who just leaves the house without telling her parent or guardian she's going out and where she's going and who she's going to be with should feel guilty. If the guardian doesn't take care to know these things, he is guilty of abuse-- the abuse of neglect. And why should such a child take advantage of her parents' tragic death to try to get away with things she knows are wrong? Such talk on the part of the guardian, while a little martyr-ish (is he really working 50 hours a week? :D ), is not manipulation (Well, maybe "All I try to do is take care of you" is overly-dramatic), but a simple appeal to the girl's good sense and gratitude.

    Nope, to make that abuse he has to insinuate (or say right out) that she must be getting up to no good when she goes out without telling him or really beat the "you're so-ungrateful-to-me" drum, even when he knows good and well she's not that kind of kid. Or he has to play the gratitude card to influence her in ways no teenager should have to put up with. (Like picking out her clothes for her in the morning or standing over her until she eats all her vegetables or telling her what electives she has to take in school.)

    Maybe that's what the OP intends her character to be like. I mean, that would definitely be

    If so, it will be necessary for her to let the reader know what (in addition to his parents' death) drives him to those extremes. Otherwise, who of us will believe he has a good side or be rooting for his redemption? But if @TheSecondMouse wants the brother to be "difficult but not abusive," it might be a good idea to have the problems arise out of his good side, and as he does his best have his actions have consequences he didn't intend. Have it start slowly until it builds up to the point where he does say or do something that could clearly be called abuse, and that's what drives the younger girl away.

    As for anything that causes harm being abuse (@ChickenFreak), it depends on how you define "harm." If I as a high school student tell my parents that everybody is going to Party Cove for Spring Break and if I can't all my friends will think I'm stupid and nerdy and drop me, and they say No anyway and my crowd does drop me and I'm miserable the rest of the year, I'll really think I've suffered harm. "You've ruined my life and I hate you!!!!!" But the true harm would have been in letting me go.

    It's like when newbies to this site get tough-love critiques on their first post in the Workshop. If their artistic egos are underdeveloped, they may feel abused and never reappear. Does their feeling turn the critics into abusers? No. Is there misunderstanding and drama involved? Yes.
     
  14. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    I'm not sure what point you're trying to make.
     
  15. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe I misunderstood you, but you seemed to be saying that threatening to kill a sister's boyfriend or tazing her or slipping her a sleeping bill would not be violent and that it would fall short of physical abuse.

    If that's not what you intended to say, I apologise.
     
  16. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    Threats, in the context applied, are verbal and do not constitute physical abuse. Physical abuse must be tangible, and yes, tazing or slipping a sleeping pill are technically physical abuse. So, in my opinion, threats are verbal/psychological/emotional abuse, while tazing or administering sleeping pills by force are physical abuse, which is why I grouped the latter separately.

    I guess the point I was trying to make was more about how the OP can work around the established archetype of "abuse" (beating and sexual assault, to be brief), so that she can help the readers avoid applying the stereotype of an abusive person here and be open to multiple interpretations.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm going with harm by a reasonable-man sort of definition, not harm in the mind of an hysterical adolescent.

    For example, let's go with compulsive hoarders. A compulsive hoarder may buy huge numbers of things because they think that they and their children will need them. They might refuse to throw out the trash because they might need it someday, and throwing out those potato peelings without composting them is a sin, and no, they don't have time to make the compost heap, and why does everybody fail to appreciate them WHEN THEY WORK SO HARD?!!!

    And there's no clean surface in the kitchen, and the fridge is full of rotting, molding food, and the furnace is broken but they can't call a repairman because he might report them to those nitpicky city code inspectors, and there's no space for the kid to do their homework, and why are those ungrateful kids' grades so bad WHEN THEY WORK SO HARD?!!! And the kids keep whining because the other kids at school say they smell, but they have all the best clothes, look at the back room full of them, it's not the hoarder's fault that the cat uses them as a litterbox, somebody should empty the real litterbox, no no no that litter is compostable, don't touch it, why is nobody appreciating them WHEN THEY WORK SO HARD?!!

    There are, absolutely, parents like this. They think that they're good guys who are doing their best for everyone, and the result is, without a doubt, abuse.
     
  18. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, yeah, agreed. In fact, I think everyone should watch a few Hoarders type programs, not so they can point fingers and say how terrible the hoarders are, but so they can look at themselves and reflect on how their own heads might be on backwards. Moral tales for the modern woman and man!
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, I was imagining the guilt trip as something more like this:

    "How was practice?"
    "Great! They loved my new cheer. And we did a--"
    "Want some franks and beans?"
    "No, thanks, we stopped at McDonald's."
    "Excuse me?"
    "We stopped at--"
    "When you knew I'd be cooking?"
    "But--no, I didn't know you'd be cooking. You don't usually cook on Thursdays, because everybody's out."
    "I see. So, since Mom and Dad are gone, it's not worth coming home for dinner?"
    "No. What? No, I didn't say that. I just didn't know you'd be--"
    "Don't I always make sure you're fed?"
    "Well, yeah, but Thursdays--"
    "Did I cook last night?"
    "Yes, but--"
    "Did I cook the night before?"
    "But last Thursday--"
    "You know, I think that this Thursday practice thing isn't going to work out. I'm going to call your coach in the morning."
    "What? But Thursday practice is mandatory. I'll be cut from the squad."
    "I never liked those cheerleader friends of yours anyway."
    "But--"
    "And tomorrow I want you home by three-thirty."
    "But debate team--"
    "I don't want to discuss this any more."
     
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  20. molliemoogle
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    molliemoogle Member

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    I had to think long and hard about my answer, @Catrin Lewis . You are correct in saying that my examples were not abuse, but I was thinking something along the lines above by @ChickenFreak .

    My dad is a master at this kind of manipulation. Certain permissions are given, then, as soon as something goes wrong, BANG! permissions are taken away. No ifs, ands, or buts. It didn't matter what it was. Something went wrong and it was turned around to be my fault, my brother's fault, or my sister's fault. Granted, this didn't happen all the time with me and my siblings, but a guilt trip like this kept our asses in line. I figure that a reasonable parent might admonish a child for not communicating what was happening. This MC just takes X away from his sisters, probably out of his warped sense of protection. If the MC wants to keep them insulated and protected, he'll keep them isolated and any excuse will do.

    @Catrin Lewis , I will agree with you on this point as well
    I think this gets to the heart of @TheSecondMouse 's dilemma.
     
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  21. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ooooh, yeah. I don't know how the OP will think about it, but that would be nice and nasty. And the sort of abuse that the abusee would feel guilty about identifying as such.
     
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