Abuse in literature used as a plot device.

I read this amazing, moving post on Beautiful Bookish Butterflies – and it just made me finally voice my opinions on this issue : using rape/sexual assault/abuse as a plot device, and not doing it actual justice in books (especially YA).

I have talked about this on my blog before (probably in some review which I cannot seem to find right now) but I’ve never really gone in depth about this topic – and reading that post made me drop everything and just pen down my thoughts about this.

Now, I really do not like books which use sexual abuse as a way to garner sympathy towards their characters. I’ve read way too many books dealing with this issue, especially YA books, in which it seems like as soon as the character gets attached to a backstory dealing with some form of abuse, immediately people lose it and suddenly the character becomes ten times deeper and more profound and well-loved, which is a wrong way of character development.

Authors who use abuse as a plot device – to make their characters’ life more sympathetic, or to make their characters more ‘deep’ who has gone through a lot, or to make their characters seem older and profound and more mature – I just feel that authors are doing it wrong.

Abuse is atrocious. And when authors use abuse in their books, and do not do it proper justice, and do not spread the proper message, and do not make it clear that it is a crime, and do not show its true affects and consequences and impact – and merely use it as a backstory to gain sympathy – that’s a shame.

And let’s look at the bigger picture – diverting from the topic for a while – and comment on how authors use some devastating incident to make their characters more deep and sad and in a way, make us as readers feel more about such characters. Parent’s death, parents’ divorce, single mother, single father, sick other, sick father, sick best friend, best friend who died, abusive aunt, abusive uncle, abuse in childhood, abusive relationship, abusive ‘dad’s friend’, abusive neighbor – I’ve just read so many, many versions of horrific incident which don’t really talk much about the incident and its impact, but do more in making the character more loved.

Sympathy is always used as a way of making characters more loved. Be it the famous William Herondale who wascursed in his childhood (he was, right? Something about the people he loved being taken away from him? ) or Neville Longbottom whose parents were killed, or Charlie from Perks of Being A Wallflower who had an abusive aunt or Augustus Waters who died of cancer.

Things is, we love sympathy. We love sad back stories, we love broken protagonists, we love tragic childhoods. Readers gobble it up, and feel more for their characters and instantly love more.

But are these sad back-stories – are they done right? If they don’t even reveal the real impact of the incident, if they don’t even comment on the event, on the society?

-coming back to the topic-

I don’t like it when authors use abuse as a way of character development without really entailing the severity of depth of the event. There is also a part of me which feels like the more we read about such stuff – the less are we impacted. Like, five or six years ago, when I read Perks of Being A Wallflower and read that Charlie was abused – it hit me hard and the impact was huge. But now, when I read a book involving abuse or rape – it pulls at my heartstrings but comes nowhere close to invoking that kind of an impact. Which is a shame, but also a reality.

So yes, I feel that authors should look at abuse as more than just a tool – and work on how to actually make a difference by adding them in their books.



15 thoughts on “Abuse in literature used as a plot device.

  1. I actually really don’t like to read about sexual abuse in books at all. It leaves me feeling sort of wrong, so I tend to avoid things like that.
    But I agree that the more this kind of thing is portrayed as just a back ground story to push sympathy, the less impact it actually has because we’re so used to seeing it done without seeing the real aftermath of it’s effects.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a hard time reading about abuse and addiction in books. They literally make my stomach hurt, but I do think it’s important to read them since it does happen to real people. I just read a book about child abuse and addiction that was really good. I think if the author knows what they’re writing and is not using it only as a way to build sympathy for the character it works well to give the public more of a realistic view of a hard topic. I’ve been wanting to write a post about it since I read the book, but I haven’t sat down to write it yet. Nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I too feel that as long as the author does justice to the topic and does it well, the book is a good book. But some authors use such incidents as character development and that’s what I have a problem with.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A Child Called It, which is a memoir, is one of the most popular books in the school library, and has been for years. I cannot bring myself to read it, even to connect with all the students who love it. In my mind, it’s even harder to read about someone’s actual abusive childhood. It feels really exploitative and way too personal. And yet, it’s certainly #ownstories, so I’m not sure why I have so much trouble with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes reading about such things can be really, really difficult. Sometimes I guess once you’ve read one horrible version of a particular act, you can’t read about it in any other book.
      I, for example, cannot read or see torture. I just can’t. I can read about murder, abuse, any other thing but physically torturing someone – I just can’t.


  4. I really enjoyed this post. I think if you’re going to touch a subject like this, you have to do it right. It’s taking on a lot of responsibility because these narratives influence the culture’s viewpoint on abuse.

    One of my all-time biggest pet peeves is when we have a character who is a pretty awful human being and just really not very likeable, and then about halfway through it’s like “surprise! He/She was abused as a child!” First of all, it’s so overdone that it’s not even surprising, and second of all, I think it sends a really bad message. Because the majority of people who were abused do not grow up to become horrible individuals, and being abused is not an excuse to be a horrible individual. It takes the power away from the abused person. As if being abused makes it so that you no longer have choices about who you’re going to be and what you’re going to do.

    I feel like I could rant about this longer, but since you wrote such an insightful post about it, I will refrain. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohmygawd that is one of my pet peeves too. Seriously, I hate authors who make abuse an excuse for being a shitty person. Like, that sends the wrong message and is completely unethical. Treating abuse as anything other than its reality is wrong and so few, few authors seem to be able to do it right.
      Anyway, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly!!!! Just, I wish authors would stop before inserting abuse and really consider what their motives are. If it is anything other than showing a realistic and respectful representation of the issue because it is actually one of the themes of their novel, then they need to find something else. And as an added bonus, their story will actually be original!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes exactly! And I also hate it when abuse is simply ‘there’ in the story, just to make the character more sympathetic.
          The one example which comes to my mind the minute I think of abuse being ‘there’ in the book, is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. It’s a hugely popular book now but I read it first around two years ago. At that time, I gobbled it up and it became a part of my favorite books.
          But, there’s this part in the book : everything was going fine, the romance was cute, literally EVERYTHING was beautiful when suddenly the girl opens up about her being raped/abused in her childhood. And that was it. She just said the story and instantly, as readers, we had to feel sorry for her and love her more.
          And two years ago, I was younger and that had an impact on me, so it so easily became one of my favorites. But like I said in the post, the more you read about something atrocious, the less impacted you are by it. Had I read the book now, it definitely wouldn’t have made it to my faves.

          Liked by 1 person

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