On Character Development

Anonymous asked: “I have a character who is abused by her parents. She’s really timid and has been being abused to be “perfect” for all of her life. How would I portray her brokenness I guess you could call it, and how can I write her progressively becoming better – but not great – over time?” 

Abused to be perfect… let’s unpack that. I wouldn’t say anyone can be abused for not being perfect exactly. It sounds to me like maybe they set high expectations that she cannot hope to meet. The abuse might be verbal or physical after she fails to meet those expectations. 

Just since we’re on the topic of child abuse, there’s a few things I want to say. First, how necessary is abuse for the story? So many young writers tend to add excessive trauma to their protagonists’ lives to make their problems seem especially worse or more heart-rending, but really, a lot of the time, I find it unnecessary, over-the-top, and exhausting. Parents and children don’t always have to get along. I still have friends who don’t get along with their parents – and they’re old enough to move out – but I would by no means call the relationship on either end abusive, more like chronically disgruntled. 

Your protagonist can still feel the weight of her shortcomings, the disappointment (or imagined disappointment) her parents feel in her, and the inability to be the kind of child they want her to be, without there being any abuse involved. This might especially be the case if the girl does not identify with her parents – if she thinks her mother is superficial and that her dad only cares about her brother, she can feel broken, without there being any abuse. If you are set on writing abuse, know a little goes a long way. 

Next thing, let’s see… what is perfect? It’s subjective. You’ll need to define it for your reader. What does the ideal daughter look like? Your character should know. Is it an older sibling who set the bar a little too high? Is it the girl at school who has out-shined her since the second grade talent show? Having a character represent this ideal is an especially easy technique and it’s just something people do. If there isn’t an ideal person, what kind of girl does she think her parents want her to be? You should know how she’s tried in the past and what constitutes failure there.

So, now let’s get to character development. How should this kind of character grow and develop? If her parents are truly abusive, she will probably have to get away from them. If they aren’t abusive and their relationship has just been bad for awhile, healing is possible. To heal that kind of relationship, they’ll need to talk. Her parents will have to come to terms with the fact that she isn’t the academic, the athlete, the musician, whatever they’d hoped she’d become, and the daughter will have to show them that she has tried her best and possibly share with them the things that she likes or aspires to become. 

So, she’s not the academic, or athlete, or musician or whatever her parents want to her become, the next big piece of character development is really going to be on her end. What does she want to become? What are her aspirations? What is she good at? The way out of feeling defeated and broken from other pursuits is to find something that she enjoys doing and maybe is somewhat good at – or maybe there is no “good” at it where someone can compare her to someone else. She likely needs some self-confidence. Self-confidence in one thing will likely help in other places too, while she may never develop the level of success in other areas like she might have hoped, she might become okay with more mediocre achievements and even improve slightly in these other areas because the stress is off. 

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