Discussion: The Absence of Non-Impactive Abusive Behavior in Books

Earlier this week I was reading a book where the primary villain of the book was also a domestic abuser. His girlfriend put up with being hit and the like because ‘he gave her what she needed in bed’. Other than the fact that this was acknowledged (he smacked her around, she acknowledged some of the behavior was unhealthy, etc.), it didn’t really play a part in the book. Now, while I ranted about the use of sexuality and sex in the book, I did not directly address this in my review. Because this question occurred to me:

 Is it wrong to demand we not see evidence of unhealthy relationships in books where destroying/getting away from/overcoming those relationships is not the goal of the book?

The book that most people are going to think of when it comes to this question is probably Fifty Shades of Grey. However, in that book, the relationship (unhealthy, unrealistic, and twisted though it might be) was the primary focus of the book. This is not a discussion post about books where the unhealthy relationship is the main factor.

But it’s not just romantic relationships in books either.

For example, alcoholism is not necessarily a precursor to physical, sexual, or mental abuse, yet it is not possible to have a healthy relationship with an alcoholic. When you hear people talk about their alcoholic parents, they might say “Well, s/he never beat me or anything like that, but…” And that but tells you everything you need to know.

The fact is, unhealthy relationships are a part of the real world, and one might argue that to keep fiction realistic, we should not exclude the mention of unhealthy relationships.

This is one of those things where I think it’s easy to act/speak out against something you disagree with without stopping to consider if you’re truly being reasonable.

Bad people exist. And the things they do aren’t always necessarily of the murder, robbery, and mass destruction variety. Sometimes they present perfectly normal on the outside, and then they go home and knock the ever-lovin’ hell out of their partner. Maybe they don’t even physically touch them, but they get their rocks off by making them feel like they’re worthless. It happens. So why are we so against it being portrayed casually in fiction?

Graciekat says: I think that the portrayal of unhealthy relationships should be present. I think trying to get into the psychology of the victim and yes, even the abuser as well, can be very important. My issue with some of the more recent examples is that it’s not being portrayed as unhealthy. They’re being portrayed as the normal and something that should be aspired to. Abnormal and unhealthy is being portrayed as romantic, loving and charming. I think the responsibility of the author lies not in trying to leave them out, but rather in how they are portrayed. It can be challenging.As Lilyn said above, it’s very easy for a person to rationalize an unhealthy relationship or habit of any kind. A skilled author can explore those rationalizations through the eyes of the character or the people around him/her. I do not think that it’s necessary to glamorize or shrug off the effects of it, even if it’s a side character with little to no plot motivation. Whether or not the characters in question overcome their challenges or roles is immaterial but in how the author as the omniscient narrator (barring first person) chooses to present the behaviors.

One of my fellow bookworms thought maybe it had something to do with the train wreck mentality coupled with the few books the average person reads per year.  Ie: If we’re going to read about bad crap, we want that bad crap to be the primary focus of what we’re reading. 

It’s sort of funny to be writing this up because as people who read a lot of horror you’d think we’d see pretty much everything. But that’s not really the case at all. Even in horror, while you might see rape, murder, and general evil – you don’t see a lot of casual mentions of bad relationships that don’t have a direct impact on the plot.

Another question that pops up as a direct follow-up is then: When authors do have abusive or destructive behaviors in books, and it’s not about them… are they tacitly saying that these behaviors are normal? I want to say of course not. I think most people will say of course not. But there’s also people who genuinely believe that violence in old-school cartoons like Tom and Jerry led to increased incidences of violence from kids. So….  Maybe authors don’t mention abusive/destructive relationships because they are afraid of this backlash?

Overall, it’s definitely a question to chew on for a while.

 Is it wrong to demand we not see evidence of unhealthy relationships in books where destroying/getting away from/overcoming those relationships is not the goal of the book?

When authors do have abusive or destructive behaviors in books, and it’s not about them… are they tacitly saying that these behaviors are normal?

Mind you, we are not arguing for the inclusion of these types of relationships in books. Merely wondering about their absence.

What do you all think?


14 thoughts on “Discussion: The Absence of Non-Impactive Abusive Behavior in Books

  1. Last year, I wrote a story whose protagonist was a male womanizer and a drinker (not an alcoholic, though). I wanted to see if I could do it: write a character who is flawed and fundamentally unlikable, and yet who has his virtues and even friends, and sometimes does the right thing. His bad nature did have a role in the plot, so he doesn’t qualify as just incidentally abusive.

    It says something that my predominantly female readership seemed to agree that I’d depicted a charming heel: a guy they really couldn’t like, but they still had a sneaking feeling for.

    Am I anything like my protagonist? I can safely say “no.” I think I gave up on thinking I was God’s gift to women in seventh grade. The evidence against it was a bit overwhelming.

    By contrast, I find that how incidental characters with abusive traits are received by my readers depends on how much I explore their psychologies. I think we accept abusive behavior as bad (as we should), but especially when its origin is not explained. That’s why casually using it is so grating: this fictional character is bad, AND THAT IS ALL YOU KNOW. But if you know why? Then it becomes more complicated. It’s not so much we excuse the bad behavior, as we begin to see why an individual may engage in it, and what it costs them.

    Plato argued in “The Republic” that bad people are something like 600 times more unhappy than good people. (His argument is bonkers, but let’s just run with it for the moment.) If we SEE in a literary work that being bad makes the bad person unhappy, aren’t we likely both to say it’s justified, and yet that we can’t help but feel sorry for that person?

    Which brings me back to my protagonist from last year’s story. He was a womanizer and a bit of a coward, but his evils were limited. Had he been a serial killer, my readers would have been much less likely to excuse his bad behavior.

  2. Excellent topic! I agree with Gracie Kat. There are many dysfunctional people in the world, and I believe they absolutely should be portrayed in fiction – but not casually, and not as a trope. Their flaw or perversion must be relevant, if not central, to the plot. A lazy writer will make a villain abusive or perverted for no other reason than to make him unlikeable. They must be made human so we can understand them. Otherwise, they don’t affect us at all.

    1. But why shouldn’t they be portrayed casually? Mental illness is at times. Or at least its a convenient reason for something prophetic to be said. How many times does a character walk past someone twitching and saying things, or just ‘looking crazy’ etc? Its dysfunctional and casual.

      (I’m not really arguing for this, I swear. I’m just playing devil’s advocate.)

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that the cardboard character is not appealing to me as a writer or a reader. A story is about how a character deals with a situation. People are unique and flawed and the product of upbringing and experiences. Plus, not all protagonists are good. That said, there are some behaviours that are simply not redeemable in some people’s eyes, and the absence of the ‘lesson’ a character learns might not win some readers over. I think it would depend on the book.

    1. Is the lesson justication for acknowledging the presence of, then?

      This convo makes me think I’m going to be looking at everything I read now just a tad bit different, you know?

  4. One of the things that bothers me when they do it is it’s usually a certain ‘type’.

    Like the book I just read the guy was a smoker, tattooed, and druggie. And that’s a common portrayal is trailer trash as abusive and upper classes as not.

  5. Very true. I was actually just mentally on a tangent with the character of Hannibal Lecter and thought that in the scope of Silence of the Lambs his I was going to say abuse, but murder didn’t have much to do with the plot of the story. It did for the entire series arc, but not The Silence of the Lambs movie itself.

  6. I’d say yes/no to the first question. Even though it’s rare to see, the author may not be saying these behaviors are okay, but trying to portray a character in a certain light. Then again, there are other ways to show that a character’s personality than through abusive behavior.

    To the second question: I wouldn’t say that these behaviors are normal, but a reality. These are, all too often, unfortunately, real behaviors and issues that happen in real life.
    Going to an extreme as an example, look at some of the fictional monsters. Wild Bill and Hannibal Lecter were influenced by Edward Gein.
    Doesn’t the saying go something like, “Fiction imitates reality”?
    Granted I do believe that all too often there are few references to abusive behavior that has no bearing on the plot.

    1. It was really hard to word the question about what authors might be saying when they include non-impacting abusive behavior. I guess I didn’t mean “normal” but “okay” sounded completely wrong, ya know?

      There are definitely other ways to show a person’s personality. I definitely agree.

      I think this is one of those things that you never really even think about, and then when it does occur to you, you are like “huh. Thats weird .”

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