I’ve read a few blogs about the common-place nature of rape in stories. Rape is becoming a cliched short-hand for “dark and haunted past” for female characters. Need a reason for her to refuse the romantic advances of the leading man? She was raped and doesn’t trust him. Need a reason why she doesn’t sleep well? Drinks? Is single? Is hell-bent for revenge? Career driven to the point of dangerous obsession? Yup. Rape will take care of all of those. But it’s not fair to women. And the blogs I’ve read on this issue do a wonderful job of explaining why.
Another thing they do is beg for a more varied set of backstory traumas in our female characters, and a few even give examples of when this was done in TV, movies, or books. But I’ve yet to see a helpful list of hints for writers to look at when deciding what sort of trauma will suit the character they are building.
So here it is. A by-no-means comprehensive list of horrible, scarring, events that will leave your characters disturbed, wounded, messed-up, and vulnerable.
- Physical abuse – this can vary depending on the situation and can come from many sources. However, none of this abuse is sexual in nature (in this case). Beatings, broken bones, black eyes, cigarette butts put out on the skin. Sorry. Okay – you get the picture. You can go as bad or as mild as is appropriate for you story and audience, without making it sexual.
- Emotional/Verbal abuse – insults, manipulation, lying, isolation, threats, constant observation/control/checking in, blame, rejection …
- Losing a loved one – a child who loses a parent to illness or violence, an adult who has lost a spouse or child …
- Divorce – either the parents of your character, or your character can go through one. Divorce can be traumatic especially in coupled with some form of abuse, or if the abuse is petty/nasty, and if there are children involved.
- Being lost or abandoned – it can be a temporary situation, a child who is lost in the woods for a few days and is now terrified of being alone, of the woods, etc. Maybe it’s a child who is lost and is never reunited with the parents. Maybe the child is abandoned and is waiting for the parents to return (Rey from Star Wars, Punky Brewster)
- Mental illness – diagnosed or not this comes with a lot of stigmas. If it is not diagnosed your character may exhibit symptoms that make it difficult for them to make friends or keep relationships. If they are hiding it, ashamed of it, that can be toxic to their relationships as well. And there are a wide variety of mental illnesses that can be used. Please, do your research and treat mental illness with the same respect you would treat child abuse or rape.
- PTSD – This can be caused by many of the above and more situations. It can affect children and adults in many ways. This may be a side-effect of the other forms of trauma you are using in your story.
- Physical injury – car crash, sports, cross-fire, a major physical injury can alter a life in so many ways. Whether this is a recent turn of events or something that happened years prior they may not be coping well.
- Substance abuse – the character themselves or a loved one may be (past or present) addicted to any number of substances. This can lead to abuse. This can lead to abandonment. This can lead to poverty. We see so many heroes who are recovering addicts, or alcoholics, but not so many heroines with the same weaknesses.
- Poverty – extreme poverty is hard to beat, hard to escape, and hard to live through. This can lead to abuse, mental illness, injury, neglect, gangs, substance abuse, and criminal activity.
- Criminal past – break and enter? stealing cars? dealing drugs? guilty or simple wrong place at the wrong time? Are they trying to hide it? Go straight? Is it haunting them somehow?
1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men are raped or sexually abused, and more are sexually harassed, every year in Canada, United States, and UK. The numbers are similar across Europe. I’m afraid I don’t know the numbers across Asia, Australia, or other countries/regions. It is a big deal. It has happened to so many women. Not all women react/grief/move on in the same way. Not all rapes are the same. I know we feel like these stories need to be told – I wrote a novel about a rape because the story needed to be told. But there are so many other things happening out there that can leave a person wounded and vulnerable, that can alter their decision making process, and provide material for our novels.
Let’s try to be honest with ourselves. What back story really, truly, suits our characters? And why are we giving them awful backstories to begin with? Is there something other than rape that could happen to our heroine to drive her story? This goes for all genres. We need to see more variety in all our characters across the board.
I hope this helps someone with future character development.