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  1. jmh105

    jmh105 Active Member

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    This topic is full of OOF. What should I do? (TW: Sexual abuse)

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by jmh105, Sep 20, 2020.

    More trigger warnings: Sexual abuse of minor, age-gap relationships, statutory rape, suicide

    Hello, all -- I come to you with a heavy topic in my novel. The novel is split into three perspectives among the three siblings, which evaluate how the suicide of a certain individual has affected each of them differently. One of these perspectives is that of a thirteen-year-old who was involved in a relationship with the individual in question -- who was eighteen at the time, while she was twelve.

    The man who died by suicide already has a lot of dirt on him, since he's been a powerful, manipulative force in the family's dynamic (being the best friend of the older brother), so if I have him take away the girl's virginity, that would provide a heavy hit to the character's legacy. The character will no longer be sympathetic (to a certain degree) with all his mental health struggles; he will be perceived as a definite villain with no morals or conscience.

    However, I want to get across that the guy did, in fact, have guilt and shame that he had carried with him to his grave. And if he goes all the way with this young girl, that would imply that he didn't have debilitating guilt until after the act, which is more than a little odd to me. I'd think that this guy would have had more than second doubts the longer the "romantic" aspect of their relationship persisted -- hence my thought that maybe he shouldn't have committed the statutory rape.

    At the same time, if I tone down that part of their relationship, I could risk invalidating/watering down/censoring/etc. the young girl's trauma, which could come across as insensitive to some degree.

    I don't know... oof. This is really tough. How can I shine even a sliver of light onto the dead man's character without compromising the severity of what he's done to the girl? Do I go ahead with the statutory rape, or do I write only about the inherent imbalance in an age-gap relationship involving a minor?
     
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2020
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  2. marshipan

    marshipan Contributor Contributor

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    I'd say think of addicts or even think of when you know you shouldn't be doing something but give yourself permission "this time", "one more time", "next week I'll straighten up", etc. The desire can compete with the guilt. Also the will and strength to fight something can be difficult to maintain. Sometimes it can even be relieving to just bury the guilt down and ignore it. People are also excellent at fooling themselves that something isn't so bad, especially in their case.

    Other than that, I'd be careful with how you present the relationship. I'm a bit confused by what type of relationship you're trying to get across? When I think twelve year old girl, I think of a child. I would never consider what they had as having "romantic aspects".
     
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  3. jmh105

    jmh105 Active Member

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    Thank you for your insight! I can definitely see the man adopting that kind of thought process as a self-defense mechanism. He'd probably convince himself that he'll end it "next week" but never gets around to it. He could also mistake the girl's desire to spend time with him as "consent" and thus keep on keeping on. But for sure, he'd have that desire compete with his guilt.

    I wonder, though, how a guy can even begin to justify something like this as "not so bad" when he's literally screwing around with a child. How would someone justify this? I'm not sure if only giving himself permission as you describe is all that is needed to persist in his bad decisions. He has too much negative inner dialogue going on as it is to ignore this completely.

    As far as the "romance," I wrote that without explaining it adequately (so I went back and put air quotes around the phrasing). The girl sees it as a romance, for sure, since she doesn't know better...
     
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  4. marshipan

    marshipan Contributor Contributor

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    He could justify it any way he pleases. People aren't being logical when they justify heinous acts. They spin logic to give themselves the answer they want.
     
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  5. TheOtherPromise

    TheOtherPromise Senior Member

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    Ultimately you should write the story you want to write. Just know that this character will be an unsympathetic villain to a large percentage of your potential audience, no matter what you do. That is the cost of including these sorts of topics.
     
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  6. jmh105

    jmh105 Active Member

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    That's terrifying! Thanks for reminding me of this.

    My main focus in the story is to evaluate how different people deal with mental illness, whether it manifests in themselves or in others, and how extremely difficult it is. With that in mind, having the deceased character take advantage of this girl simultaneously supports this theme while also tearing it down for some. How far can I push the envelope?

    Is there anything you guys would recommend I add, in that case, to make a villain as this even remotely likable? If that is even possible at this point, of course, haha.
     
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  7. JessicaT

    JessicaT Member

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    One thing to keep in mind when dealing with the topic of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) - in this case, the abuse being statutory rape, the power dynamic being the age difference - is that it is no longer just a mental illness, it's a crime. It's criminal behavior. That's something society is having trouble wrapping it's mind around.

    I suggest you do society a favor and address the criminal aspect of his behavior as well.
     
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  8. marshipan

    marshipan Contributor Contributor

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    Likable to who? The other characters or the audience? I don't think an audience could like him unless it's a surprise twist.
     
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  9. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    This is something you should have a sensitivity reader for.

    But some thoughts of mine: something I would keep in mind I what exactly you really want or need to put in. Not every detail needs to be depicted or otherwise specified; while details can help to confront the audience with the reality of a bad situation, they can also be gratuitous in a way that can be off putting, even insensitive to the issue. Make sure that graphic and sensitive content like this is used for valuable effect, not cheap shock value. And in general, be careful to make sure you aren't putting in any of this just for shock or just for something to have characters angst about and give them 'depth'. It's 'message-heavy', if you will, in that it's hard to include at all without it leaving strong impressions on the audience about how this work perceives the issue. The more you highlight it, the more you need to back it up with something worthwhile to say about it. You'll need to dedicate some time just to exploring the issue in your story.
    But the reward for this is it'll make your story interesting and meaningful. I'm in favour of doing the work to include hard issues in stories. It's worth the effort.

    EDIT: an example to illustrate the point, the Game of Thrones tv show has a number of scenes in which the sexual abuse of women is used almost as a background detail. It's clearly intended to illustrate the prolific nature of the problem in historical times, but it so often just...happens, without really being addressed, that it's easy to walk away from without any real takeaway, especially after it has happened the first few times in the story. So make sure you do address such issues in your story more and probably just don't have it happen as much as that.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2020
  10. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Mod hat on here: So far this discussion is okay, but keep in mind that any depiction or deep discussion of any kind of under-age sexual activity is not allowed on the forum, for legal reasons.

    As far as your question goes, @jmh105 , I would suggest that you get the story written as you see it now. Don't be afraid of the issue. (Which I sense you—rightly—are, at the moment. It is a tricky issue.)

    The answer to your question of how to depict the issue—and how the readership will see your characters—WILL emerge as you write it. Don't worry, at this first-draft stage, about how others are going to take what you're writing about. Just get it down on (paper) as honestly as you can. Go with your gut feelings as you write your first draft. The result may surprise you a lot, depending on which characters you end up identifying with. But nobody else will see any of your story till you're ready to show it.

    Then comes the evaluation. You will evaluate it yourself, first—after giving yourself some of distance, so you can look at it from a neutral point of view. Then maybe get a beta or two into the picture, to let you know what THEY think of what you've written. And go from there.

    And good luck. It's not an easy issue to write, for sure.
     
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  11. Underneath

    Underneath Member

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    Something like this tends to ruin a person’s trust in others. If it’s a secret that one of the siblings is keeping, you should reveal it as a twist. If it’s somebody you want to create a sympathy for, put this twist in the third act.

    Maybe you can have the abused sibling act out throughout the first and second act’s without explaining why — which would drum up tension, and if done correctly, even bring some ill will from the reading audience to her. You would then drop the bombshell and transfer over all the sympathy and sadness felt by the reader about the dead pedophile and shift it over to her character — getting a nice “don’t judge a book by its cover” message. If you can get the character to begin to move past her prior behavior after admitting her abuse and becoming a more well-adjusted person, then you have wrapped up a nice character ark for both the dead man and one of the siblings.
     
  12. JessicaT

    JessicaT Member

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    Excuse me, but HER PRIOR BEHAVIOR? Never, repeat NEVER blame the victim.

    Excuse me again, but "a nice character ark for both the dead man (dead pedophile)...". Pedophiles belong in PRISON and not in a "nice character ark."

    What the hell, people?
     
  13. Underneath

    Underneath Member

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    These are not real people. These are not victims. These are not offenders. These are discussions of potential words and the emotions one wishes to extract from them.

    You are writing with emotions because of what you’ve extracted from the words already. This is proof of concept. “Pedophiles belong in a prison!” you say. In this book the pedophile would be dead. You need to calm yourself.

    Yes. You build up a character who appears to be acting out. You don’t provide the information as to why. You want the audience to dislike this character.

    You build up a character who appears to have come to a tragic end. You withhold information about this character. You want the audience to sympathize with this character.

    You then close the first characters arc with the revelation of abuse, shifting over the sympathy garnered by the second character to the first. The second character now rightfully despised. You would also want to show how opening up about trauma/abuse helps the first character in moving on. This is a lesson to the reader not to judge. It’s a message to those holding trauma to tell others so that justice can be meted out to IRL offenders and real trauma can hopefully be eased, and it’s the ending of the character arc for both characters.
     
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  14. jmh105

    jmh105 Active Member

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    For sure, I'll get beta reader(s) that can address the sensitivity of this topic!

    I agree that the use of detail is important. Sometimes subtlety is more effective, too. Too much detail can for sure come across as cheapening the situation, which is something I don't want to do.

    At the same time, I don't want to go too "message-heavy" so as to have obvious, black/white points. To most people, it's clear that this situation involving this young girl is wrong, so it isn't ambitious enough to state over and over just how wrong it is. My goal is to paint a picture of what it can be like to experience a trauma as this, as well as include all shades of gray in-between. My goal is to leave the character (the young girl) changed in some way, not necessarily to address a political point. It's her life that's worth exploring, rather than the "deeper message" behind all this.

    I'm not sure if that makes sense? I'm trying to say that teaching the reader what they already know (that CSA is bad) isn't as effective as evaluating exactly how CSA affects this young girl -- which may or may not line up with the reader's own experience. Life doesn't have as many answers as we'd hope it to have, and neither does good, nuanced writing.

    I definitely intend on addressing the issues, either way! Thank you for that example.

    Thanks for reminding me of the sensitivity of this topic! Let me know if I end up over-explaining or over-detailing topics I shouldn't. I'll try to be mindful of this, too.

    But especially thank you for the positivity in your post. Like many writers, I suffer from the evils of perfectionism -- what keeps me from putting myself out there or even attempting the first draft. I have to remind myself that it's never a waste of time to rewrite something, because all of it is a learning experience. I also have to remind myself that it's okay to not fully understand the subject; that's what writing and research is for. Life is a confusing thing; even if something has happened to us, we may still struggle all our lives to understand it. I know that for unrelated topics, I end up having to research the very issue I'm afflicted with! Even I don't understand myself or what's going on with me. That's just the human experience.

    Furthermore, I could be selling myself short here by assuming that I don't have what it takes to tackle this subject. It's true that I'm afraid that I'll handle the topic poorly (which is reasonable). But I'll never know until I try, and once I try, I can better able to flesh out and/or revise my ideas. I can't critique something I haven't written yet.

    Thank you! I need all the luck I can get. :)
     
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