Abused/Traumatized Characters in Fiction
With Good Guys:
- Very Little Effect - a prime example is Harry Potter. He's got a big advantage over Voldemort because he's 'full of love'. Where did he learn that love? From his parents? They died before he could remember him. From the Dursleys? They abused and neglected him and made it pretty clear that they hated him. From teachers or classmates? Until Hogwarts, none of those people cared about him either. For a boy with the unpleasant life history he had, Harry Potter was surprisingly healthy psychologically. A more common example is how little the story's events usually affect the characters. There are people they know dying all the time, they face their own death on several occasions, maybe experience torture, but they still act like a carefree kid a lot of the time. To get an idea of what living through those kinds of things is really like, talk to anyone who's lived in a war zone (soldier or civilian).
- Instant Healing - this is where a character has some kind of trauma, and for 10 years or whatever, they've shown a certain dysfunctional pattern as a result. Yet one transformative experience cures it overnight. A few stories stretch it out awhile, but very often it's still too brief. Or maybe they've recently experienced something traumatic and are showing symptoms, but something helps them deal with that and they instantly go back to being who they were before the trauma. Well, guess what? Healing from trauma is long and hard. You'll go through a great deal of pain, you'll come back through the same stages over and over, and maybe, years later, you'll finally be able to consider yourself to have healed. Only to realize you've still got wounds. And when you finally are healed, you will not be like you were before the trauma, or would have been without the trauma. It's not possible to undo something that happened to you, all you can do is integrate it into your life experiences in a healthy way. A series that portrays this really well is The Hollows by Kim Harrison - one of the major characters is a vampire who's experienced some pretty serious abuse, and throughout the series, she is gradually healing. As of the latest book, she's still clearly got issues, but she's not nearly as prone to unexpectedly attacking people as she was at the start of the series.
- 'Good Guy' Trauma - This is another thing Kim Harrison managed to avoid. A lot of characters, if they actually seem affected by their traumatic experiences, show it by depressive episodes, bad dreams, acting scared of certain things, etc, but never in a way that could actually make them likely to harm someone else. Sure, there are some traumatized people like that, but there are also traumatized people - who have good intentions, and are basically good people - who have explosive rages, misinterpret situations in a dangerous way, and so on. My Dad said when he was growing up, everyone knew not to take certain veterans hunting, because they'd start thinking they were back in the war. It's easy to feel sympathetic for the person sobbing xyr heart out because xe never realized just how much xe wanted the motherly love xe never got. It's much harder to feel sympathetic for the person who has pinned you to a wall and is demanding that you prove that xe can trust you, but that's just as much a part of being traumatized.
- Normal Standards - one of the most pervasive and damaging effects of trauma is how it changes your view of the world. But so many characters seem to be perfectly aware that what they went through is not OK or representative of what they can expect from life, even when they really had no way to find that out. An abused child who never got any sympathy from anyone for being abused, yet somehow knows that what they went through was abuse is a prime example. Real abuse survivors often blame themselves for not being able to cope, or being 'bad' and making their parents hurt them, or not being able to stop the abuse (my cousin seemed to think it was plausible for a 4 year old boy to be able to beat up his own father). Or they may think the abuse had no effect on them when it clearly did, or think the effect was positive. Then there's how they view the abuser. It's possible for an abused person to honestly care about their abuser (part of what makes it so agonizing). They may be able to see the good points in the abuser as well as the bad - if the abuser is a parent, for example, they probably did some things right in order for their child to even be alive. They may be aware that the abuser's life isn't easy either, and feel sorry for them. They may have been so dependent on the abuser that they had to care about the abuser or else they wouldn't have survived.
With Bad Guys:
- Dark Lord Was Abused - this is where the bad guy is given a backstory of abuse as a replacement for actually trying to explain xyr behavior. There are two big problems with this. Firstly, it often carries the connotation that abused people automatically become bad, especially if there are no other abused characters. Secondly, the standard villain types often don't act like abuse survivors. The biggest thing is that they have too much fun. If you're going to make them an abuse survivor, make them unhappy. It seems obvious to me, but there's the gleeful cackling evil guys with histories of abuse to prove that people can miss this. Thirdly, it still doesn't explain why they act the way they do. Let's say a boy grows up with regular beatings and no one who really loves him. Why would that make him decide to create a doomsday device? You can't just say 'because he was abused' and leave it at that. You should work out the chains of logic there. Maybe he thinks every child suffers as much as he does, and feels that he's doing them a favour by killing them all because they won't have to suffer anymore. Or maybe he wants to destroy all the people who've wronged him, views the whole world as having wronged him because no one stepped in to help him, and thinks everyone deserves to die. Or maybe he isn't really trying to destroy the world, but hoping that making this device that could do that will get everyone to finally see how much pain he's in and force them to care about that. It has to make sense from his perspective, however warped that perspective is. Best if you can get people to empathize with him and really feel sorry for him, even as he's putting the whole world in danger.
- Abusive parents - if you're going to have any development of the abuser whatsoever, you need to make them have more depth than just being bad guys. What they're doing to their victim makes sense to them. They have reasons for doing it. Maybe they snap under too much pressure or when their buttons are pushed certain ways, and then feel terrible about what they did. Or they honestly think they're doing the right thing (see 'Normal Standards' above for why an abuser might believe that). Or they might not care about the child or want to hurt the child - but I recommend limiting that, because it seems to me that most abusive parents actually do love their children.