The Very Real Abuse of an Abused Fictional Character

When my content editor had finished her passes through my last novel, Tempering the Rose, she said, “You’re quite brave choosing a central protagonist who’s experienced such terrible abuse.” I didn’t know why she would say that.

Now I do.

I want to preface this blog post by saying I am married to a wonderful man who respects me and treats me as an equal, and I have two kind and intelligent sons, whom I love with all my heart. This is not meant to man bash. Both women and men have obstacles to face in this world, but today I am choosing to focus on the struggles faced by women because they are women.

I also felt I had to defend my stance on child abuse because of an ill-thought-out review posted today by someone who has not read the whole book. As an author, I believe readers are entitled to their opinion, even if that opinion is that they hate my writing. I’m okay with that, but sometimes reviewers can cross the line from opinion to outright misinformation, which in this case is an attack on me personally and on my reputation.

A reader has my book on a Goodreads shelf titled: dark-erotic, wtf, arc. She also makes the comment: “I’ve read my fair share of “dark” reads, but I am not fan of sex with young children.” This implies my book is an erotic fiction that contains child pornography, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m disgusted that this woman would suggest I would do this. This is an epic fantasy novel in the same vein as Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s works. This is NOT a romantic, erotic fiction, and nowhere is this listed as such. In fact, my book shows how damaging child abuse is to the victims. Child abuse is something I abhor, and my heart breaks for anyone who has been abused—whether it has happened as a child or adult.

We live in a world where we view women through the distorted glass of the existing patriarchal ideology—in other words, we all look at women the way men look at women. And I acknowledge that not all men in first-world countries are trapped in twentieth century ideals (many men treat women with respect and love), but many still believe in sexist ideals, and even worse, so do many women. We have been conditioned from the time we are born to see things a certain way, and it takes an open mind and the ability to think critically to question our beliefs. Unfortunately, there are still many without the ability to do this. Which brings me to Tempering the Rose and how my main character has been perceived.

I purposely created a character who had been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused as a child. I wanted to shine the light on it. I wanted people to talk about it. I wanted those who hadn’t had to suffer the terror of it to empathize with those who had, and I wanted those who had been through it to know that others believe is not okay and that there are people out there who care about what happened to them and who know they did nothing to deserve it.

If it’s not a writer’s job to have or initiate these conversations, I don’t know whose it is. Abuse of children and women continues because of silence. Speaking out about this abuse is the only way to begin the healing process for victims, protect future generations from suffering the same fate, and confirming to ALL of society that this is not okay.

Addy (the main character) was not only abused as a child, she is also a woman. She is a strong person. She is a survivor. She sees what men have done to her and to other women and children. Every day men treat her as if she’s stupid and unable to make decisions for herself because she’s a woman. Addy stands up for herself in these situations and is effectively pushing back against the patriarchy. Some readers find this offensive and have called her immature and whiny. Funnily enough, most of these readers are women, and that makes me sad. They still don’t get it. Addy is not whining—she’s being assertive and standing up for herself. Maybe these readers don’t think she should call these men out when they belittle her. She should just keep her mouth shut and appreciate that these men know better, that they’re just trying to help her see what she can’t see. Thank you, Patriarchy.

Some readers think she’s immature because she doesn’t trust men, even the men who have helped her. They don’t see that if you’ve been abused, you can’t trust anyone more than you can trust yourself. That kind of trust takes a long time to develop. When you’ve been beaten by a stick multiple times, you learn to hate and fear that stick; you don’t second guess those feelings and wonder if maybe that stick could also do other, nicer, useful things like be a toy for a dog or burnt to make a warm fire. Why do women hate her for this? Do they think because a man says something, it must be true? Are they questioning Addy’s judgment because she is a woman? Do they lack emotional maturity and think she should ‘just get over it’ as has been said to many a (male and female) rape survivor?

I know not everyone will get the same thing from a book, and every reader comes to a book with their own experiences that define meaning for them. I don’t expect everyone to love my book, and in fact, I know I’m not the best writer ever, that I can always improve. What does disappoint me is that women still resent other women for demanding equality, for daring to think they are just as good as a man. I also find it extremely disheartening to know that a reader would go out of their way to misrepresent my book to others. Instead of aiding the fight against child abuse, they are perpetuating it by trying to silence my written words.

I know my book will not single-handedly change the world, but if it helps one person see they are worth it, or shows someone a different way to think about who they are and how they can help make society better for everyone, I’ve done my job.

*Just an update. The reviewer has removed the misleading statement from her Goodreads review, but has refused to change the Amazon heading, and resents that she has been asked to alter her review in any way, as now it’s ‘not an honest review’.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “The Very Real Abuse of an Abused Fictional Character

  1. Well said, Dionne! As authors, we have fine line to tiptoe on. We know we need to meet reader expectations for certain genres, and we also know that to create believable characters we have to give them a “past” to make the “present” for the story we envision. Sometimes readers don’t *see* the stories we want to tell, and give it their own interpretation. And that also complicates out task as writer. We already have to meet the readers’ expectations, now we have to worry about how they will translate our story in their own heads. Because if they don’t like it, they will let you know about it! I’m so sorry this happened to you. Keep writing YOUR stories and creating the characters YOU envision. Don’t worry about one reader’s review.
    S.R. 😀

    • Thanks, Sandy. I wouldn’t have worried so much, except that one reader makes it look like I condone pedophilia, which is horrific. And the other stuff is stuff I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but I will keep writing what I want to write, no matter the backlash :).

  2. ..what an exceptionally good, insightful and erudite post, Dionne… thank you for that… on a much lesser scale than the intensely important issue you highlight regarding the prototypical view on women and men in most of our global societies, as a writer myself (of crime fiction/action), I try to steer clear of ‘typecasting’ the characters in my books, but as you correctly state, readers individually will come to a book with their own preconceived concepts of such things… as to the misguided criticism of your writing, may I recommend you step away from it, and regard only the the constructive critique that good reviewers will send your way … LUVZYA! … Seumas

  3. Funnily enough, Dionne, the heroine in my soon-to-be-released book has also experienced child sexual abuse. Obviously, it is set in a fantasy setting, but the parallels are there. It doesn’t matter where or why it happens, it is still sickening. I can’t really speak for the reader. I can only speak for myself. The silence allows rape culture to continue. It is a hard road, particularly because I’ve experienced sexual molestation as a child. And this is what leads me to make the point that for some women, it’s too hard to acknowledge the reality–even in fiction–because it re-hashes things that have really happened. Perhaps she couldn’t read the whole thing. I’m not defending her comments. I know you. Of course you wouldn’t glorify child sexual assault, however this is the conclusion she’s made. And so, now I must examine myself too. I’ve worried that a woman who has experienced sexual abuse will read my book, and it will trigger things for her that is painful, disgusting and dirty. There is nothing pretty about the results of that abuse. I’ve made it very clear in the description that my heroine has been raped repeatedly, but the risk is still there. We can only make every effort to talk about the culture of rape sensitively, and create women who have experienced sexual assault as strong individuals rather than wrapping heroines in victimology. So, I hear you, Dionne. Take heart. I know it has been tough for you; it is tough for me too. I expect my fair share of the same criticism.

    • Hi Georgia. Thanks for commenting and being so honest. My heart goes out to you. I’m so sorry you’ve been through that. You are such a strong, brave, awesome woman. You are a survivor, and who better to talk about these things than someone who has gone through it. Sending you hugs. I wish women who have experienced sexual abuse didn’t have to feel dirty and disgusting — they didn’t do anything wrong, and they are no dirtier than anyone else on the planet. Only when we can all talk about this will the stigma lessen. I know that even if someone criticises your heroine for being who she is, you can stand proud knowing you wrote the truth even though you had to revisit something that has given you great pain. I’m always here if you ever need to chat, even if it’s just to vent xx.

      • No need to be sorry. It was a long time ago, and to be truthful, I wasn’t the one worst affected. I agree with you. We must talk about the objectification of the female body; we must talk about the way society somehow takes sexual assault and normalises it. Absolutely, you stood up and you wrote Addy as only you could have! Whichever way we look at it, the need to silence women is about power and control. Stay true to the cause my friend.

  4. As someone who has survived extreme childhood abuses and is also married to a gentle man and has raised a wonderful son and daughter I applaud you for taking this on. I have not read this yet but if it is as well portrayed as domestic abuse and its effects in Mazie Baby I know it will not only be a great read but an educational one. Some who have not lived abuse, or have buried their abuse deep into their psyche will not “get it” but others will have their eyes and their empathy opened.

    • Hi Yvonne, thank you for commenting and speaking up about your experiences. I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through and the strength it took for you to create the stable life you now have. It doesn’t matter how many times I read those words “I survived abuse”, it breaks my heart every time and brings tears to my eyes. And thanks for your encouragement.

  5. What confuses me about this, is that you needed to write it. Since when do readers expect the main character in a novel to be perfect? Or to have a perfect life?

    Your response was sadly needed and it shouldn’t have been.

    I think back to other books I have read and enjoyed. One book I saw at my child’s primary school library display of books available to purchase for the school. It had clearly been considered acceptable. It was the story of a young girl in India and her journey through child marriage. Her husband was also a child, they were not expected to consummate their marriage for some years, but then he died. She did not know that she still had to go live with his family, who blamed her for being “unlucky” and made her into a domestic slave. She was a widow at the age of ten years old, then a slave. Because it was the culture, her parents enabled this. She managed to escape but knew she could not go back to her own family or she would be sent to her bridegroom’s family again. She ended up as a refugee living in England, completing her education and writing the book.

    That was a book considered acceptable for primary school children. I read the book and felt it shone a light on the complexity of the issues within a culture still struggling to change.

    Other books I have read had flawed characters including women who were at times abrasive and repellent. And yet we were able to identify with these women, to understand where these personality traits came from and how they helped these women survive the challenging circumstances in which they found themselves.

    When you’re writing fantasy, you’re creating a different social system and your characters have to be true to that system and their own life circumstances. You can then use this to highlight social issues within our own social system, with your fantasy society throwing the issues into sharp relief.

    It is through our characters learning to deal with their problems and their imperfections that our readers can watch them grow. Without that growth, what is the point? And what is wrong with OUR reality, that some readers cannot see this?

    What constitutes pornography is coloured by our own social mores. In some cultures, wearing a sleeveless shirt would brand me a hussy. In centuries past, showing my ankles would have branded me common. Loose. I have written about under-age sex, but only where it is within a cultural context where it was the norm. I have also covered the problems this can cause. I have also been criticised for writing this way, even where I am re-telling known mythology.

    Some critics just don’t understand writing.

    • Beautifully articulated, Helen. And that book sounds like an incredible read. I bet it helped the children who read it have empathy for others in different circumstances. If stories aren’t told, nothing ever changes.

  6. Michelle

    I’ve had several comments on my own writing on this subject. It truly is a fine line we as authors draw.

    I resent the fact that I must “dumb down” or “politically correct” my writing. It takes away from my characters. But every reader sees something of themselves in my protagonists.

    I have not yet decided if I wish to tell my readers to go f- themselves and write what my characters tell me to write, or bow down to societal pressure and write what is acceptable.

    I feel your pain and sympathize.

    • It’s a tough question, Michelle. I guess it depends on whether an author wants commercial success or to tell the story they want to tell. There are too many ‘perfect’ characters out there and part of the character journey should be internal as well as external. I think fiction should imitate life, and even if it’s fantasy, if it’s not realistic, it loses credibility for me. And you never know what character people are going to gravitate towards. I know authors who have sold hundreds of thousands of books by starting their own genres with work that would never have been considered mainstream. I’m going to stick with writing characters I feel are true, and if I happen to write one people love, yay, if not, you can never please everyone :). Good luck with your writing. I hope you can find a happy medium.

  7. I have a novella about a young woman who goes through years of abuse from her father and mother, including incestial rape, and I can’t imagine how pissed I’d be if someone tried to classify my story as erotic. So the whole time I was reading this, I was thinking of some of the darker sides of life I’ve written (many) and how mad I’d be if the only response it warranted from someone was, “Ew, gross erotica.” NO. Or that my female characters who push back against sexism are whinny or whatever. I’d probably lose my *stuff*. There isn’t enough empathy in this world. If only everyone practiced it, we’d all be a little better off.

    • Thanks, Nathan. I hear you! No, there isn’t enough empathy in this world, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who feels this way.

      • Not that I wanna attack your reader in anyway. But my guess is she’s kinda prudish. People who are very uptight about sex tend to see any sexual references as taboo. Someone on Facebook once posted about how horribly pornographic the movie Black Swan was. Clearly that person had not seen much porn. Black Swan wouldn’t even fit in during the Skinimax hours.

        In related news, I loved this blog post very much. Though sorry it had to be written. But maybe this means we as writers need to talk about WHY we write what we write more often.

      • Irony is stupid. I just saw this today, day after America elected Trump. SON OF A…

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