The Commissions I Turn Down
Sometimes I get clients who want to include questionable material in their work with me. While I understand that many people have some psychological issue or other that they want to work through, want to add a dash of extra drama to their stories, or have a fetish they would like to express, and creative writing is how they choose to do it, I do not support the positive portrayal of abusive behaviours.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate a handful of examples of the kind of work I turn down and explanations of why, followed by examples of work that I have accepted. Please note that some of this article may be difficult to read. If you do have difficulty reading it, take a break. You are not obliged to read it in full. A list of keywords follows to give readers an idea of the issues that I will be discussing:
Keywords: psychological realism, slavery, rape, gang-rape, prostitution, underage prostitution, sexual assault, child abuse, child sexual abuse, mind-control, self-harm, demons, cannibalism.
In this article I will be discussing several past examples of work I have cut short or discussed with my clients due to the nature of the content they have wanted to include. Names of places and characters, and easily identifiable details have been changed to maintain anonymity of the clients whose work I have turned down. We will be looking at:
‘Client A’, whose worldbuilding scenario, ‘World 1’, is a dystopia. During a break in the months-long course of our work he saw underage porn on an art web site and subsequently declared a wish to process the trauma of seeing it by including a child prostitution trade in his worldbuilding setting.
A backstory of a female character, ‘Character B’, who was used as a domestic and sexual slave by her family, and later by several unrelated characters.
The creator of a fictional historical soldier, ‘Character C’, who wanted to portray his character being issued, and obeying, military orders to commit rape on civilian women, and for this character to also be portrayed as a virtuous man.
‘Character D’ and ‘World 4’. This character experienced gang-rape as a teenager and subsequently sought to re-enact the event and similar traumatic events.
‘Character E’, who engaged in mind-control practices with the intended purpose of having sex with any character of his choosing.
‘World 6’ in which ‘Character F’ ran an island resort that offered prostitution among its services. These prostitutes were encouraged to travel to the island from developing countries to make more money than they could reasonably expect to back home, but were not informed of the type of work they would be expected to do. Once on the island they were not paid enough to allow them to easily leave.
To balance the above examples I am going to also examine the following cases:
Rebecca Sterlington, who experienced physical child abuse which was depicted realistically at the client’s request.
Buford Mack Hudson, a contract assassin who is depicted neither positively nor negatively, but with with a close eye on the most likely psychological impact on his career choice and overall situation.
Jericho / “Jewel”, who was subjected to physical child abuse and experienced a long-lasting impact from it, including self-harm.
John Mirath, a drug lord with two brothers, but with little focus on his criminal profession.
Adversus, a slasher-villain who I agreed to work with as I personally didn’t find him offensive to work on.
Gabriel Jutke who, like Buford Mack Hudson, is written with psychological realism in mind.
And Randall Quinn Cera, a child soldier who found that his childhood impacted his adult life, and whose psychology was explored by the client and I with a genuine interest in the impact of such a childhood on this character.
Before I discuss the above examples in full I want to define the term “psychological realism”. It means that I approach characters from a ‘social worker’ perspective as opposed to a creative one. The service I provide through The Character Consultancy is to make characters easier to write my ensuring that their stories make sense from a psychological standpoint.
This can mean that a character’s backstory or personality becomes less dramatic after an analysis by me. On the other hand, it can reveal drama that hasn’t previously been spotted.
Examples of Rejected Work
Dystopia with child prostitution used to process trauma and for ‘Rule of Dark’
‘Client A’ and I worked together for many months on a complex dystopian world in which the lives of the poor or economically disadvantaged were often exploited and little space for empathy remained in day to day life. Among Client A's goals were to attract an audience to his work. After a few months of work Client A expressed a wish to include child-trafficking and prostitution as part of the setting.
I asked him why to help him stay on track in creating a world that others would be able to enjoy without alienating them as many people find childhood sexual abuse extremely uncomfortable to read about, especially when it is exploited as Rule of Drama1. Client A revealed that he had seen child pornography on an art web site, had found it traumatic, and wanted to process his trauma by including it in his worldbuilding setting. I suggested therapy as an alternative to this. I also recommended books for him to read to better understand the subject including Rescuing the Inner Child by Penny Parks2 and Victims No Longer by Mike Lew3.
He approached me again about this at a later date. Another person involved with his worldbuilding setting had written a scene depicting the prostitution of children. This scene depicted child rape in a moderately positive light and Client A was pleased with it, and wanted to know what I thought.
I warned him that, if he posted anything positively depicting childhood sexual abuse then I would retract my support of the project, publicly if necessary.
Child subjected to physical and religious abuse and domestic labour becomes a “pet” in adulthood (and enjoys it)
‘Client B’ approached me to write a fan-character who he had created for an existing universe, who had been subjected to severe physical and religious abuse since early childhood, and who was subsequently kept as a “pet” by a religious cult leader. It was clear from the way Client B discussed this character that he did not identify with Character B but saw her as an object of desire.
Character B was described in the questionnaire Client B provided as having been used as a domestic slave by her family. I responded to this information with an eye on the clinically-observed impact of childhood physical abuse and child labour, and created a first No Frills draft for Client B.
Several details about Client B’s description of Character B did not seem to fit with what is known about the type of abuse she experienced so I attempted to explore these further with Client B. For example, the fact that the character taught herself to read with no help. While there is currently no evidence to conclusively prove that a child cannot learn how to read without support, I would like to quote Peter Gray, Ph. D. here: “Nearly all of the stories from home unschoolers include examples of shared participation in reading.“ Character B clearly did not receive any help in learning how to read, from any source. Client B insisted that his character had in fact taught herself to read unassisted, however he took little interest in discussing the issue and wished to focus on Character B’s enjoyment of her status as a “pet”.
I also attempted to discuss the realities of the long-term impact of physical child abuse and neglect with Client B, including the likelihood that Character B, in adulthood, would have emotional and medical support needs that would be likely to spoil the “pet” fantasy he wished to develop. Here is a list of examples of the impact of long-term physical abuse and child labour:
- Lack of motivation, interest or confidence in education
- Low confidence
- Poor social skills, possibly resulting in a strong preference for isolation or spending time in the company of animals
- Drug abuse (Character B would arguably be unable to source drugs however)
- Developmental delays
- Various long-term impacts of malnutrition
- Illnesses specific to exposure to specific chemicals4
- Long term physical pain5
An adult with this history would be deeply distrustful of all people, startle easily in anticipation of another beating to a point that some people might consider absurd, and would struggle with depression and irritability. These traits would probably not be desirable in a human “pet”, no matter how well she was treated by her new captors; trauma does not dissipate easily and even with therapy, it can stay with the victim for life. Client B insisted that this character would enjoy being kept as a “pet”. It was at this point that I realised the service I offer was inconsistent with the service Client B wanted, and terminated the commission.
The commission broke down before I could explore the impact of religious abuse on Character B so I will not discuss it in this article.
Rape portrayed as a virtuous act
I speculatively approached a person who had a soldier character in a fantasy historical setting. While discussing a potential commission he explained that his soldier was a virtuous man who committed rape as an act of war under military command.
While I understand that rape has been weaponised in some situations of war and as such is an accurate representation of some war-time settings of the past, I find it extremely distasteful to present it as an act of loyalty, courage, fortitude, or any other positive attribute.
Rape is an act of cruelty and has long-term consequences6. Given its devastating real-world consequences and the ongoing risk that many people face in the current day, any desire to present the act in fiction raise questions for me. A depiction of rape is not necessarily reason on its own for me to turn down a commission, but the spirit in which it is included.
World 4 and Character D
Childhood rape fetishised in adulthood
Client D hired me to work on a, immigrant character who initially appeared to have been written with psychologically realistic consequences to her life experiences. For example, she and her mother were isolated and this had a very realistic socio-economic impact. However, as I spent more time with Client D on Character D, they revealed that this character had been gang-raped during adolescence. Furthermore it became apparent that Character D had developed a taste for this experience in adulthood.
It became clear that Client D had based much of the presentation of Character D on the basis that she was trying to ‘chase away the ghosts’ of her past by actively seeking out repetitions of the sexual abuse and rape, if not engineering exaggerated re-enactments of the original trauma. I refused to work any further on this character after this became clear.
I would generally recommend that any person with a fictional character with a traumatic past discuss the character in therapy. People don’t generally create characters with traumatic histories without reason.
Character with mind-control/hypnosis abilities hijacked others to commit rape, to be portrayed in a positive light
Client E commissioned me for a consultation-based No Frills of his character, who had mind-control capabilities and used them to have sex with various NPCs. Client E was happy enough to work on Character E’s childhood and family background, however he insisted on an end result where Character E could use his mind-control powers in the above described way, and for this character to be presented positively as ‘good’.
During our work, Client E confirmed that Character E’s entire family had the same mind-control abilities and that the character also had an older sibling, so I explored the impact of this on Character E’s personality development. This included asking, “Did the parents use their mind-control on the oldest sibling to make them more compliant / quieten them, and therefore make them easier to cope with as a toddler?” Client E’s answer was yes.
Toddlers need to be able to defy their parents for the sake of their emotional development. While this defiance needs to be controlled to an extent in order to not harm themselves, it is important for the toddler to be able to do this to develop a healthy sense of self. Being mind-controlled would entirely undermine this vital process. The real-world impact of this is difficult to prove given that mind-control is a fictional ability, but the outcome of maltreatment of a toddler is frequently Borderline Personality Disorder7 and I believe that this, and/or other personality disorders, would be a predictable outcome for Character E's sister.
From here, Character E’s family unit broke down in various ways that revealed details about the character that cast his adult tastes in an unpleasant light: Character E’s sibling would likely have severely damaged many family ties; the parents would likely feel guilty for the negative impact of their parenting strategy with their first-born; Character E would either have been victimised by his older sibling or been ‘adopted’ by them and encouraged to learn unhealthy behavioural traits.
Client E and I decided to terminate the analysis before our consultation time ended.
World 6 and Character F
Sex trafficking of people from impoverished situations under false pretences, and their enforced retention using financial abuse, to be presented in a positive light
Client F approached me with a worldbuilding setting – World 6 – run by Character F. World 6 was a combination holiday resort/sex club.
I worked with Client F on the details of this world and it became clear that the club was to be populated with prostitutes, trafficked in from developing nations with the false promise of good pay and kept too impoverished to safely leave the island until Character F deemed them too old, at which point they would be dismissed and replaced.
This was a clear example of sexual, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse8. However, Client F was keen for this situation and Character F to be presented in a positive light.
I discussed the ethical issues around this. Client F acknowledged these but requested to continue working on the project anyway. I turned down further work on this commission.
Conclusion of Rejected Examples
I generally find that with commissions that I turn down, I do so either because I am unwilling to work on them for ethical reasons, or for technical reasons.
My ethical reasons generally centre around a wish not to exploit depictions of abusive situations for shock value, to trivialise, normalise, fetishise, or validate them as healthy or virtuous, either from the perspective of the abuser or the victim.
My technical reasons are harder to embody in one or two sentences but can perhaps be boiled down to, “if your character has X characteristic, then they would necessarily have to have had a set of experiences within Y range”. This can be undesirable to some clients. While I work around constraints as much as possible I can only do so to an extent before characterisation becomes unrealistic. Once we reach that point, there is no point in hiring my services.
Examples of Accepted Work
Here is a list of examples of characters who I have consented to work on, but some readers may wonder why I did so. I worked on the following commissions because each has one or more of the following qualities:
- No desire to use the character to glorify or fetishise harm or abuse
- Request for help creating a plausible backstory
- Genuine curiosity about how a character will turn out in adulthood
- Celebration of the ability to recover from adverse life experiences
- Intrigue without glorification
I’ve already written about my approach towards fetish and abuse so won’t repeat them here, but I will add a few extra words about intrigue: two of the below characters are made to be ‘bad’ – Adversus and Gabriel. I recognise that the clients who created them are intrigued about what set of circumstances create a character like these. I am happy to work with curious clients, just so long as they are not seeking to make excuses or celebrate the ‘badness’.
I encourage potential clients to check potentially contentious character details with me if they are unsure. If you wish to check a character, either write me a description (as concise as you can please!) or complete the questionnaire and send it in to me with an explicit request for me to look at it prior to a commission. I do not generally read questionnaires before being paid to work on a character so you will need to ask.
Showcases genuine historical abuse and the client’s healing from it
Rebecca Sterlington is a close reflection of her creator’s life. I recognised in the nature of the answers my client gave in the questionnaire that they were telling a story with a strong core of truth.
I can generally tell that a story is fundamentally true because the story tends to be less straightforward and includes details that don’t always serve the story efficiently (long gaps in time where nothing ‘interesting’ is happening for instance, or odd complicating details such as house moves). An entirely fictional story is usually very A to B, but genuine life stories usually have something of an A to B via S quality.
As an adult Rebecca is as emotionally free of the abuse in her history as she can be. Her abusive childhood is not exploited for Rule of Drama nor used as a platform to fetishise, glorify, or excuse abuse. Indeed, the details in her questionnaire implied that my client is excited to live a life free of the abuse and only wishes to look at their history to remind themselves of how far they have come.
Buford Mack Hudson
Client with assassin character requested help with realistic character development
My client requested input on what kind of childhood would create his character to become an assassin in adulthood. I advised on this and he integrated the necessary dynamics into his client’s history.
Buford is not glorified nor demonised for his profession. He is what he is, and this is why I accepted to work on him. As a final detail, Buford lives a very isolated life in the ‘current day’ and this is a realistic consequence of his professional choices.
I am happy to work with characters like this because I specifically offer consulting services to advise on the circumstances that can stimulate the character’s unusual life choices or personality outcomes. When I am being genuinely asked for input into something like this I am generally happy to work with a character.
Jericho / “Jewel”
Self-harm presented without resorting to ‘Rule of Drama’
This character has a story that includes self-harm. I accepted a commission for as his self-harm is a plausible detail given the stresses he was depicted as having experienced, and the self-harm is not focused on to add drama.
I do not shy away from difficult and painful life situations, so long as they are approached in an authentic manner, and this is why I accepted Jericho.
Sanitised drug lord character, main dynamic not related to drug dealing
John Mirath’s main design point is that he is ‘bad’ and this is presented as fun. Under most circumstances I would have turned this character down. The reason I accepted this commission is that John is part of a cast of siblings, with the dynamics that occur between the siblings, each of whom have drastically different personalities, being what my client was more interested in. My client had little interest in focusing on John's criminal acts.
This character is a good example of the ‘meta’ work I tend to do. Many of the characters people make that they show me, they have designed a specific way for a reason. I listen carefully for that reason. The client who created John and his brothers was interested in how a ‘big bad’, a nerdy, and a ‘low-key bad’ (i.e., cat-burglar) character would work together. If he had rejoiced in telling me all about the damage John did as a drug lord I would have turned this character down. Instead most of his communication with me was about the absurdity of the combination of ‘Big Bad’ and his nerdy brother.
Character that I subjectively don’t find offensive
I have added Adversus to this article to highlight the subjective nature of the work I do. Adversus is a slasher villain who acts as judge, jury, and executioner of sinners from a Christian perspective.
While I personally don’t find concepts of evil (demons, hell, etc.) frightening or offensive to read about, some people might, so I added a warning to his profile. This is how I generally handle potentially disturbing content that I decide to work with.
See Adversus' No Frills (coming soon)
Psychologically realistic psychopathic character, non-sanitized
Gabriel is an excellent example of a deeply unpleasant character who I am happy to work on. My client wanted guidance on creating a psychopath. I accepted this commission as my client approached me with curiosity about how this character would turn out as opposed to expressing excitement over how ‘impressively bad’ Gabriel would turn out to be or fetishising his cannibalistic tendencies.
Randall Quinn Cera
Non-sanitized child soldier
As a final example, Randall was raised in a deeply militaristic culture where he was expected to become a soldier. My client wanted to look at the impact this would have on the character as an adult so I obliged in working with him on Randall.
He is also a demon, I added a warning about this when I uploaded his finished No Frills.
I hope this has helped to clarify what kind of work I accept and what I turn down. If you're not sure whether I will accept your character you can email me and I will be happy to discuss it with you.
Title artwork by The Character Consultancy.