In critique group the other day, the issue of writing batterers and domestic abuse came up. Here are some thoughts on the matter. (My alter ego is as a crisis counselor in a domestic violence (DV) safehouse.)
(Note: I’m using male to female violence as shorthand because it’s the most common and most studied form of DV. Partner-violence also occurs in lesbian and gay relationships and from woman to man in straight couples.)
In order to decide the nature of your abusive character, you must first make the same writing choices as you make when starting any novel. Whose story is this and what’s the story? Is your batterer a pure antagonist meant to be the obstacle to your main character? Films like Enough and Sleeping With the Enemy and Lifetime original movies make the batterers so evil, it’s a cheering moment when the women fight back. But maybe you want a more subtle depiction of a troubled marriage. Or you might want your abuser to be the main character trying to change his ways and save his family. If so, you might not want to show your protagonist committing particularly heinous acts, or creating sympathy for his character arc will be difficult. Your ultimate story goal should shape the nature of the violence in your story.
If you don’t have personal experience with DV when creating a character who abuses his wife or partner, you’ll likely think of images from movies and TV as well as the news. Films that are based on real-life cases, like The Burning Bed and What’s Love Got To Do With It, are realistic depictions of abusive relationships, though they’re from the point of view of the victims rather than the perpetrators. How to get inside the heads of people who behave in such reprehensible ways?
- Batterers are not all blue-collar brutes in wifebeaters. Abusers come in all shapes, sizes, races and social groups.
- They’re not all drunks or drug addicts.
- Some would describe themselves as supportive of women’s rights.
- In general, abusers are not raving lunatics. Some behave like normal husbands and fathers most of the time. Some are police, DAs, judges, and social workers. They come into contact with and protect victims of other abusers. The degree of mental compartmentalization necessary to sustain this kind of hypocrisy is a real clue into their psyches.
- Some saw abuse growing up but not all of them did.
- Cultural stereotypes are not very useful when envisioning a batterer. How many times have you heard reference to the macho nature of Latino men, or the woman-hating Arab husband? In truth, every culture has wife abuse. A woman is more likely to be beaten by someone from her own community than another.
Abusers don’t have every trait in common any more than men in general do, or women, or the Chinese or people from Cleveland. That said, there are some common types of batterers who can loosely be defined in three groups (this is culled from an article by DV advocate Elaine Whitefeather):
1. Approval seeker
-tends to be highly educated
-needs constant approval
-fear of inadequacy, esp. in sexual matters
-tends to have affairs
-other partner can’t be in any way better than him
-protector of the family, breadwinner
-traditional gender roles
-assumes teacher role, “it’s for your own good”
-there’s a clear victim/perpetrator relationship
-utilizes all types of abuse, esp. marital rape
-rationalizes violence, “if you hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have had to…”
-“It’s my duty to take care of my own, outsiders have no say.”
-substance abuse usually present
-will isolate the family
-tends to abuse the children
-weapons frequently involved
-will hunt the victim down; murder/suicide is common
-often were abused as children
Write your abusive character from the ground up. Make him make sense given his background and personality. Understand that some, especially impulse abusers, don’t feel any more in control of their own actions than their victims do. Others, who might be more sociopathic, feel no remorse and no conflict about their own behavior and maintain a steady campaign of terror to keep their victims in line.
In short, there’s no formula for creating a believable batterer, just like when writing a member of any group. Try to see past the cliches and concentrate on making your character three-dimensional, consistent and believable.
A good overview of domestic violence: Experts in Traumatic Stress
Resources and help: helpguide.org
National speaker on DV Lundy Bancroft’s book about abusers: www.lundybancroft.com/books.html
Next up on Devlin’s blog: My Origin Story Part 7: Another Novel, More Lessons Learned (Sort of)