Updated: Feb 15
Professional book editor in the UK lists 6 important questions to ask when creating a fictional character who's suffered an abusive past!
Some fictional characters have had a traumatic past, like many people, so it is important to make their behaviours, struggles and actions as realistic and relatable as possible.
When creating a character who has had an abusive past, whether physical or emotional, it is vital to research, research and research some more. With that being said, below are six questions to think about creating a character who has suffered abuse.
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Yes doesn't have to be the answer to all of these questions; your character may only struggle with two of these things, but whatever you choose for your protagonist or side characters, make sure they are realistic and relatable.
1. Do they find it difficult to trust people?
Many people have trust issues in some shape or form, or at least take a while to trust new people, but survivors of abuse can struggle to trust even more due to their traumatic past.
Perhaps they were always neglected as a child, left without food, warmth, or love, or maybe their first 'love' lied to them all the time and gaslighted them even though they were corrected with their worries and suspicions.
If their trust has been betrayed or broken before, maybe they now need constant reassurances, words of affirmation, or extra affection before they can fully trust someone. Or perhaps it takes triple the amount of time to trust new people compared to someone who hasn't been abused in the past.
2. Do they have specific triggers?
Most people have things that takes them back to specific memories. Perhaps a particular song reminds one person of a holiday they went on as a child, or maybe the smell of custard creams reminds someone else of their grandparents. The sound of seagulls and the smell of fish & chips reminds me of my childhood, for example.
However, someone who's been abused may not have the luxury of happy memories; instead, they may have 'triggers' that bring back their traumatic memories and experiences to the front of their mind.
For example, the idea of 'buy now, pay later' schemes, credit cards, and loans may be a trigger for someone who's suffered at the hands of a parent who gambled everything away during their childhood, selling all of their toys, clothes, and personal belongings to fund their addiction.
Or maybe someone else was sexually abused to a particular song, therefore causing the victim to always associate that traumatic experience with that musical artist. As a result, they may descend into a panic attack or withdraw completely if they hear them on the radio or in a shop.
3. Do they suffer with nightmares, night terrors, or insomnia?
Not all, but many victims of abuse suffer with sleep disturbances as a result of their traumatic past. Some get vivid nightmares that cause fear and distress, perhaps because of PTSD, others struggle with night terrors, episodes of intense fear while asleep, and others may suffer with insomnia, causing them to lay awake all night despite being exhausted.
Your fictional character may not have issues with all of these sleeping problems, but you may want to consider whether it works for them to struggle with one of them in your story.
4. Do they struggle with mental health issues as a result?
If your fictional character has suffered an abusive past, the chances are, they're likely to struggle with some kind of mental health issue as a result, especially if the abuse started when they were a child.
Here is a list of potential mental health issues to explore for your fictional character:
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder
These are just a few of the mental health issues and disorders in a much longer list, but these ones may be a useful place to start for your fictional characters.
5. Do they struggle with their identity or self-acceptance?
In some cases, a person's traumatic experiences may disrupt their sense of identity, which in turn can have an impact on the way they interpret and heal from the abuse they've suffered.
For example, if they've spent a large chunk of their life being forced to believe that they're worthless, unlovable, or stupid, those beliefs may become facts in their mind, therefore making them struggle even more with their identity and self-acceptance.
Alternatively, their abuser may have stripped their true self away over a long period of time, leaving the victim uncertain of who they actually are and where they belong in the world. Some people may therefore develop personality disorders or severe depression, for example, as a result.