Dehumanisation in Character and Worldbuilding Design
Since I started trading I have had to turn down several clients who wanted me to write backstories of their characters who are either abusive, or have been abused, and to fetishise the abuse in my writing. When I say no to such clients I've sometimes been met with confusion or anger. So to clarify, here is what I do (and don't) work with, my reasons for not working with it, and how you can predict whether or not I will work with you on the character in question.
Repetition of Childhood Abuse as Catharsis
I have been asked by two people to write the backstories of characters who experienced severe abuse in childhood, and who either actively sought out the same scenarios again in adulthood or accidentally found themselves in a similar position.
While it is possible that a person will seek out abusive situations in adulthood that mirror abuse they suffered in childhood, many people respond differently and develop a severe aversion to anything that reminds them of their childhood experiences, and build up personality traits that will help guard against the abuse ever happening again (e.g., physical abuse survivors tend to become very hyper-vigilant, jumpy, and ready to fight, while sexual abuse survivors often numb themselves towards their own sexual feelings). While I can and will work with characters that seek out familiar patterns of abuse, I will not write a character that does this if their continuing experience of abuse is being written for anyone's titillation, or to portray abuse as wholesome or ideal.
The reason for this is that it implies that seeking out abusive situations is healthy, fun, or sexy. Seeking out the familiarity of abuse is none of these things. At best, it recreates a miserable experience for everybody involved, and at worst is dangerous. It is not the same as exposure therapy.
Please remember that I am a trainee therapist. I often work in real life with clients who are seeking help to heal from traumatic situations. Fetishising abuse does not sit well with me morally, ethically, or professionally. As a character consultant and worldbuilding facilitator, I draw on my therapeutic training to help you create a realistic model, not one that creates a false impression of the outcome of abuse.
How To Add Abuse Into Your Work Realistically
Here are a few tips for writing abuse into your works.
Risky Adult Behaviours
If you are so invested in having a character who engages in risky adult behaviour then your best bet is to design your character so that they were neglected, as opposed to abused, in childhood. Neglected children pined for attention from their parents so in adulthood are prone to doing dangerous things in the hope that mum and dad will finally notice and do what is necessary to keep them safe, thereby proving that they do actually love them. The risky behaviour comes with an unspoken cry of, "What do I have to do to get your attention? Look, I'm doing something dangerous! Now, be a parent for once and stop me!"
They are unlikely to stop of their own accord because:
- if mum and dad weren't attentive in childhood they almost certainly won't be in adulthood;
- if anyone does try to stop the adult offspring then they may rebel (What can I say? Therapy can be a tricky beast, sometimes), and good luck trying to contain the behaviour of a grown adult; and
- the adult offspring is likely to develop a taste for a high-intensity lifestyle, and depending on their level of self-awareness they may, or may not, feel ambivalent about this. They are unlikely to admit this, however, as admittance of weakness didn't get a response from mum or dad, and is a poor fit with high-risk lifestyles. See my previous note about therapy being a tricky beast.
If a character like this finally gets the therapy (or love from family or a partner) that they've always needed, they may choose to stop the risky behaviour (which is almost certain to be a long process as they will miss it and want to return to it often), or they may find more constructive ways of engaging with it so that they can still get the exhilaration at a lower risk, e.g., by becoming an extreme sports instructor with a responsibility to demonstrate safety to their students.
See Krys Evensong Larcen for an excellent example of a character with a high-intensity adult lifestyle without an abusive childhood. Krys was neglected (check). Despite having a loving surrogate parent, she knows that her true mother gave her up, and suspects it was due to a lack of love or care for her (check). She likes to get into fights and engages in risky adult behaviours including a moderate-to-extreme sexual practices (check and check).
Note that she has a preference for high-intensity and has found a way to keep herself safe with each of these behaviours: she is very dominant sexually and takes her responsibility to protect her partners seriously, and she has taken the job of nightclub bouncer which offers her the training and support from her colleagues to mitigate the risk of attack. She also self-identifies as a punk and plays music that some would find too harsh, and has multiple piercings. Both of these are high-intensity practices, but can be done safely.
Slavery / Pet-play
Firstly, I fully recognise that there is genuine slavery, and then there's master-and-slave role-play. If you find your joy in role-playing this, then so long as it is safe, boundaried, all involved parties can choose to walk away without being at any kind of risk as a result, and neither disrespects nor harms anybody, then I have no argument with you.
Problems arise when the character is in a situation where they are economically, financially, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically incapable of independence and that this is being exploited for the gain (including the pleasure) of others. I make no exception for characters kept in luxury and/or shielded from 'real life'. As far as I am concerned, if the character is being kept from becoming independent of their keepers, then I consider that slavery.
The same is true of characters who are coerced into dependence on another character, or given inadequate means to develop and exercise their own freedom. In one situation I was asked to help with the worldbuilding of an island holiday resort, which turned out to be populated with sex slaves trafficked in from other countries. These slaves were paid a minimal wage and the potential client claimed that this meant they were free to leave if they wanted. The wage they were being paid was, in fact, a pittance that would not be enough to facilitate them leaving the island, and therefore, their job.
Please be honest with yourself over the slaves' genuine ability to leave their masters or the situation in which they live/have lived in. I have included a link at the bottom of this blog post including one to how to recognise modern slavery, and this should help you to recognise coercive situations in your own work.
Mind Control and Hypnosis
Mind control and/or hypnosis are two tropes I sometimes see used in characters who are able to subvert the free will / autonomy of other characters. As far as I am concerned this is tantamount to the use of date-rape drugs or coercive behaviour in order to engage in sexual assault, rape, or mugging, and I will generally refuse to work with a character who uses either of these, particularly for fetishistic and/or harmful reasons (ie., harmful to themselves or other characters).
Abused Characters Staying in Situ
Some people in abusive situations choose to stay in the abusive situation rather than leave it. This is a reality of abusive situations (we have all heard of beaten wives who stay with their husbands and wondered why they didn't leave).
The truth is, leaving can be terrifying and require resources that the abused may not have access to. Abusers often pick partners who have already been abused before and are therefore susceptible to further abuse, and abuse has more than one layer: along with the more obvious abuse there is often emotional abuse that robs the victim of the confidence to leave.
People who have lived with abuse since childhood often see an abusive situation as normal or a necessary evil and remain for this reason. I accept that this can, and does, happen, and will not rule out writing about a character who does this. However, I will not write about such a character if their decision to stay is intended to imply that the abuse is good for the character, erotic, morally preferable, funny, or positive for any other reason.
One potential client expected me to write his character, who was a soldier, as somebody who commits rape in the line of duty as a soldier.
I recognise that sexual violence has been, and may continue to be used, as a weapon in war and that it is therefore a realistic depiction of abuse under certain circumstances. However, this client assured me that the character was 'a good guy', only committed rape because his general demanded it, and had a wife and children at home, which in itself was intended as an endorsement f the soldier's moral fibre.
I will note here that rape is now considered a war crime and no first-world officer would ever give such an order. This behaviour may still occur in less stringently disciplined military groups. However, I will not support anybody who designs this into their character or worldbuilding as it is easy to avoid, and deeply unpleasant for many people to see - including myself.
I declined to work with this character. The client was surprised that I would not.
This situation once again required me to represent an abuser in a positive light, and that is the reason I turned this commission down.
That is the only example of military violence I have been asked to write. I will take depictions of characters in the military on a case by case basis, but will likely turn down any where I am asked to portray a character who has committed war crimes or other morally dubious activities in a positive manner.
To finish on a more positive note, I am content to at least consider characters who work as boxers, martial artists, wrestlers, cage fighters, superheroes, etc. depending on the circumstance. By all means ask me about this, as ultimately I am content to work with characters who only fight willing participants.
Abusive Experiences Mirroring The Client's
A few of the characters I have worked with have abusive backstories, and it has later turned out that the client is telling their own life story through the character.
I do not automatically rule out commissions where this happens. However, if I suspect that this is what is happening then I proceed carefully and will discuss with you whether you are sure you wish to have an analysis written of such sensitive, personal material. Ultimately, the work I do as a TCC analyst is for the purposes of entertainment. I do not wish to use anybody's abuse stories for entertainment, or to present it at all if it will be to their detriment to do so.
If I suspect that you are in a fragile state of mind then I may check with you whether you have had / are getting / are considering getting professional support for it. Please do not be offended by this.
Here is the reason I ask: counsellors and psychotherapists are answerable to professional bodies whose job it is to protect both clients and their counsellors / therapists. It is standard therapeutic practice for both therapist and client to sign a contract agreeing that a therapeutic relationship is taking place. This contract exists for a few reasons, and one of these reasons is to ensure that it is clear when both/all parties have agreed that the relationship has become a therapeutic one. If no contract exists, then the relationship is not therapeutic and the client is not protected by the professional bodies the therapist is answerable to.
Therefore, if a TCC client approaches me and tells me their life story via their character and I believe that they are implicitly asking me to meet their need for therapeutic help, then I will make that request explicit so that the request can be discussed clearly. Then I will ensure that the client understands the nature of their relationship with me. As the TCC analyst I offer critique, not therapy.
If you believe that your character may be abusive (or perceived as abusive) then you are very welcome to ask me prior to ordering a commission from me via my email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. After the conversation you are, of course, free to choose not to commission me.
If you do not ask, but simply submit a questionnaire, pay for my services, and then it becomes apparent that the character falls foul of the above, then I will refuse to work with you on that character (and possibly future characters) and keep the money. The responsibility to check out potentially abusive aspects of your character or setting is ultimately with you.
If you wish to know more about the definition of abuse please see the following links:
If anyone wants any other sources here, be sure to let me know and I'll write up another blog post about it.
Title image of and by MostlyWood, and used with their kind permission.