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I am writing a novel in which characters do bad things to one another. For example, I have recently been struggling over a scene of domestic violence.

Essentially, a husband hits his wife, after the wife had provoked him, and intentionally tried to make him angry. I feel very strongly that verbal provocation NEVER justifies domestic violence (or any sort of violence, for that matter), and I have been worried that this scene could appear to either make an argument to justify abuse or that I believe that provocation justifies abuse.

I tried to resolve the potentially poor messaging by having a character act as an Author Avatar, and give a long speech about misconceptions about abuse, and strong moral guidance, but this didn't really seem to fit.

I write a lot of characters who do a lot of bad things, in a narrative that can seem morally ambiguous. How can writers ensure that their characters' bad actions, or their structuring of events that lead to bad actions, do not read as endorsements or arguments for bad behavior?

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    You might do better by trying NOT to justify it. Let the main character do a bad thing, don't try to make it not so bad. That way your MC can err without it looking bad on the author. Flawed heroes are awesome! – Mac Cooper Feb 16 '15 at 10:07
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    What's your motivation behind your characters' misbehavior? If this is a theme in your work, shouldn't there be some reason for it? – Caleb Feb 16 '15 at 15:19
  • You are not your character and trying to explain or rationalize will disminish the violence of the scene. As an addition to Philipp's answer, I advise you read Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. King knows how to write bad people and this particular book deals well with domestic abuse, the key justification for the abusive character being: "you made me do it". – kikirex Sep 19 '18 at 17:47

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When a character commits an evil act and you want to frame it as evil, there are different ways to acknowledge it.

  • Describe it from the perspective of the victim. When the reader is confronted with the emotional results from the evil act, they will sympathize.
  • Have the perpetrator condemn the act themselves and have them feel remorse.
  • When that would be out-of-character (they are so evil they wouldn't feel remorse), have them rationalize it in a way which is obviously morally flawed.
  • Have a 3rd character who learns of the act condemn it.
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    Or have the story universe condemn them. The simple version of this is in fairy tales, where the wicked characters always fall off cliffs, get stabbed, or dance themselves to death. – MissMonicaE Jul 28 '15 at 19:49
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    @MissMonicaE Or, in other words, introduce consequences. They can be more subtle than falling off a cliff. Perhaps showing the relationship of the husband and wife suffer is a consequence, rather than her fighting back with physical violence or calling upon law enforcement. – zr00 Feb 13 '18 at 17:47
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If characters never do bad things, you don't have a plot, and if every bad action is followed by a speech about how bad it is, you end up with a didactic polemic, not a novel.

It's possible to frame even the worst actors within a larger moral framework --consider Nabakov's Lolita where the main character in a first person narrative is an unrepentant molester. Nabakov eventually brings the novel to a point of resolution where the main character --in a way true to his personality and characterization --finally comes to at least a dim understanding that what he did was wrong, and why. This, in my opinion, is far more effective than just bashing the reader's head in with a message that we hopefully all know already anyway. Compare also Woody Allen's Match Point --superficially, it's about a very bad person who gets everything he wants, and isn't punished for any of it. However, you don't end the film admiring or envying that character --you come to understand that being that kind of person is a punishment just in itself (which is also the message of Plato's Republic).

Personally, I'm not ever bothered by bad behavior in fiction unless I feel the author is using it to actively promote moral principles I disagree with --it seems unlikely that what you write would give that impression.

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Reality is complicated. Usually, in the case of domestic violence, many factors lead to it. For example, both partners have specific fears, both show certain behavior, and all this slowly builds up to the moment when one partner hits the other.

Literature is not law. In law, one party needs to be found guilty. In literature, you can show the complexity of reality, and that there is not clear distinction between good and evil.

You could show, in your writing, how the culture, personality, and the history of the relationship of the couple in question lead to the "bad thing". You could show, how the perpetrator feels before, while and after he does it. You could show how the victim feels prior to, during and after the event.

In reality, no two of these events will be the same. In some cases, the woman will have provoked the man to the point where he lost control. In other cases, the man will have had no reason for violence other than his own wish to dominate the woman or his fear of her independence. And there are many other cases (images of masculinity, childhood abuse of the perpetrator or victim, sadistic impulses, etc.).

I don't know your characters and what kind of story you want to tell, but there really is no need that you interpret your story for your readers. If you are not writing a propaganda piece for feminism or antifeminism, you can simply show things as they are (or would be, if they were real). Literature, if it is good, should lead people to question their prejudices, and both the belief that men must be able to control their aggression no matter what a woman throws at them as well as the belief that women "ask for it" are both stereotypes that your story could expose as simplistic.

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There are two approaches that are historically used in your situation, and some more modern ones that some people are trying.

The first thing often done is to only have evil characters misbehave. This makes things simple especially when paired with everyone gets what is coming to them (consequences). These two techniques make for a simple tool to show good and evil.

Now many people find the basic simple method to basic or restricting in that it is not realistic or not interesting enough, so they play with regret, or hiding the hats, or other new inventions.

For a first try to avoid the speeches, just draw a line in the sand: let the good guys do good and the bad guys do evil. Then rewrite until your characters are true to themselves and the line in the sand is blurred but still there.

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TL;DR: The story should include the violence if it enhances the story, and makes sense, and the consequences should reflect the interaction of the characters and their personalities. Almost any consequence that changes the situation to one where the domestic violence comes to an end could be construed as a condemnation of the violence, but it should fit the story's mood. You shouldn't consider your works as reflections of your morality, at any rate, because the best fiction is often those that stray from societal norms, allowing readers to view and experience things that they wouldn't normally view or experience otherwise, and wouldn't normally do in their own life.


Bad and good are actually just societal constructs, so you're asking about writing a fictional work about someone that does something outside the societal norm. This is something that happens every day in real life, to various extents. People break laws or morals daily, things that would paint them as "bad" in someone else's eyes. For example, speeding by just a couple miles an hour, only tipping 14% tip instead of 15% tip at a restaurant, or having a burst of anger over something and hitting someone with virtually no provocation; often a matter of that person being the "straw that broke the camel's back", to borrow a tired expression.

While it doesn't make it right, it does make it real, and realism is often what people look for in a story; as authors, we should be suspending disbelief by using realism. Sometimes people get away with it, and many times they don't. As authors, though, we shouldn't consider our works extensions of what we condone or abhor. It is our privilege to entertain our readers, and that often involves appealing to the societal taboos, since most people consider themselves to be good, even when others may see them as evil.

There are few that would claim Hitler was a good person, but there are some that would. The fact that we had a war over the matter is proof of this; if everyone had seen him as evil, they would have dropped their weapons and handed him over without a fight. If he knew what he was doing was evil, he probably wouldn't have done it. Humans naturally seek approval, and approval is found by doing good things, so most humans naturally want to try and be good, but often fail do to the negative human emotions of ego, greed, envy, anger, and fear (as well as others I'm failing to mention).

Unless you're writing a documentary or biography, your works are those of fiction and fantasy, and if the motive fits the plot, you should assume that realism and truism should trump your own morality. Anyone reading a story that later goes out to perform an action in the story, using that story as justification for their actions, are morally bankrupt at best, and probably would have done so regardless of reading the story. No story I have ever written, or enjoyed, has ever contained strictly acts that I condone, and I would expect my readership to separate fantasy and reality (not that I am a published author, or any story I've ever written has been seen by more than one other person).

However, there are a few considerations regarding the content of your story. You should consider if the domestic violence even makes sense to include, because some people will automatically shut down and refuse to read the book beyond that very chapter. Perhaps they've been victims themselves, or have seen the results of such behavior, or, like yourself, condemn the behavior as immoral and will refuse to read on, even if the perpetrator is later forgiven or punished. The darker and/or more socially taboo the story, the more likely it is that more people will not read your book. You must consider your audience to determine how graphic the details should be (or if it should be included at all), how severe the consequences should be, and how soon they are realized.

Like you, I feel that provocation doesn't justify abuse, but the truth is, it does happen. Every human everywhere has a breaking point, many of which are at different thresholds. That threshold hovers somewhere between "an evil look" to "they're killing me," with the actual level somewhere in between. Very few people have the will to die for what they believe in, which is why we have a special word for them: martyrs. Once the breaking point is reached, one of two things will happen: fight, or flight.

If the wife provokes her husband daily, he will most likely eventually divorce her, leave with no explanation or note, harm her, or harm himself. This is the basis of our animal instincts, and they can be hard to repress. Justified or not, things do happen when our animal instincts kick in, no matter how civilized we are trained to be. Good people eventually do bad things, and bad things happen to good people. That's not what makes people good or bad. It's their tendencies to do things within societal norms that make them good.

Some ways that you could portray domestic violence in a negative view might include consequences like: the man, horrified by his own behavior, leaves suddenly, and never returns; begs for forgiveness but the wife wants a divorce or has him thrown in jail; has an epiphany, reconciles with his wife, and never lays a hand on her again; pushes her over the edge that she's been on for ages and attacks him back. The outcome of the abuse should reflect how you perceive the characters, with their personalities, would interact with the experience. No two interactions would be the same, so you'll have to draw on the knowledge of your characters and their personalities to determine the outcome.

The only unacceptable outcome from domestic violence is that the situation remains unchanged, or where the victim dies or is permanently disabled because of the event, and the aggressor faces no jail time, no physical retribution, no negative "karma", and no remorse. This one consequence would suggest that there is nothing wrong in such violence, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you condone it. Your works are not reflections of your beliefs, because if they were, you'd write about a perfect relationship with no arguments, perfectly behaved kids, no debt, a nice house, lots of money in the bank for retirement, etc. A story has to have challenges to overcome, and domestic violence is a challenge, and it should be resolved in a satisfactory manner to make for a complete story.

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I've had quarrels with some of my friends where they say that some book or movie is bad because it depicts people doing evil things. And I say, But look HOW it depicts them! It clearly depicts them as evil and destructive! There is a huge difference between a story in which a character does evil and it is portrayed as perfectly all right and having no harmful consequences for himself or others, and a story in which a character does evil and we see the awful consequences.

Those consequences certainly don't have to come immediately. A story in which every evil dead is instantly punished would probably be boring as there would be no suspense.

I'd be very careful about having someone give a speech about how evil it is. That could be good if done well, but I think it would be very tricky. It would more likely sound trite and moralistic. A good one-liner might work well, though. Like, I recall reading once -- and sorry, I remember nothing else about the story, just this one exchange -- a character is pondering whether he will do some bad action, and he says, "Decision making can be very complicated." And then another character replies "Yes. Especially when you have no morals."

You could also have the evil character give a speech justifying his actions that is obviously strained.

This reminds me of an article I once read about Milton's Paradise Lost, where the commentator said that Milton's Satan is interesting because he has both good and bad qualities, while Milton's God is boring because he is pure good. I recall at the time thinking that I disagreed. Milton's God is boring because he is continually justifying himself. Everything he does, he gives a speech about why this is a good and right thing to do. When I do something good, I rarely find it necessary to explain why it was good. Good people around me know it was good and evil people don't care. It's when I do something wrong that I need to justify myself.

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Consequences.

A strikes B. Even if B provoked A, A still gets arrested, processed, tried, convicted, and serves time. A gets grief from family and friends. A feels mixed anger, resentment, and guilt. Et cetera.

The way the reader knows the author approves is if nothing bad happens to the person who does the bad thing, and/or if the bad actor is rewarded.

Allow consequences to unfold, and you'll make it pretty clear what you as the author consider "good things" and "bad things" to be.

If this seems too easy, read a book by someone you don't agree with, and see how that author punishes characters who commit actions which the author doesn't agree with but you think are okay.

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I feel like I am only going to be adding a footnote to some very well made points and suggestions but I feel you pain and would like to offer some constructive advice.

As the author you clearly disapprove of the actions of one or more of your characters and that is probably a sign of good moral character. However if you drop out of the flow of events to lecture the readers both you and reader are going to loose interest.

I often say to other writers what I am about to say to you - show rather than tell. The character has done a bad thing. We the reader have been witness to the bad thing. This sets some expectations for us as the reader. We may want to see justice, retribution or just understand why they acted as they did.

However you as author wish to show that what happened was "bad". So explore why it is bad and wrong. Show the repercussions. I do not mean just that the man is likely to be arrested but the more subtle repercussions too. If he has children how do they react to him - the chances are that he has started down a path of alienating the children. If he has friends how do they react? If he has a sense of guilt how does he deal with what he has done?

Likewise the other half of this story is the result for the female in the situation. In your plot her provoking him is deliberate so he has fallen into a trap. This gives a great amount of momentum in terms of him trying to defend his actions and his feeling of entanglement and no one understanding before reaching a point past denial of accepting his flaws and failings as a human being.

The chances are that this is going to cost him his marriage, perhaps also his children and home (and perhaps mental health and job too).

This gives you a great way to show that not only was what he did bad but that there are better ways to deal with being provoked or getting cross. As part of his character development through the story it might be possible to show him having realised what a dick he has been to undergo change which can be shown by similar situation arising at the end wherein he reacts in far better way showing that he is no longer that sort of man.

If the story is more about her than him than perhaps she tries the selfsame thing on a different sort of person and is then confused when he defuses the situation and refuses to get angry.

Likewise if the story is about the man and him changing that much is beyond the story scope then showing a contrast argument between a friend and his wife where said friend is much better at dealing with what gets thrown at him can lead, at least, to him realising that he is going to have to should a lot of the blame and take responsibility for his own actions.

Or show what a fool he is by having him make excuses despite all of the chances to grow and learn and show him spiralling down into nothingness through his own refusal to become a better man. The readers will start to see through his lies and denial and loose any sympathy they might have had for him. Like any battered spouse that finally wakes up to the abuse and says "no more" they will be glad when he is finally shown the door (whatever form that actually takes for this character).

TL;DR: Show that what he has done is bad with consequences, growth (or lack thereof) and contrasting scenes with different outcomes.

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Adding to @Philipp 's answer:

Know your plot and the consequences:

  • If you describe the scene from POV of the victim, who provoked the action, you need a reason why she provoked it. If the reader thinks she did it for no or void reason, the reader might agree with the aggressor. Is the victim suppressed by the aggressor? Why does she stand up to him now, if not earlier?
  • Don't have the aggressor show remorse. Yes, that's somewhat contrary to what Philipp's answer says. If you do, readers might sympathize with him instead of the victim. Let him make up stupid excuses, one after another until he gets aggressive again, because he notices the excuses don't do any good. Then you might have him confess, he doesn't believe his own excuses. That's enough to show he's feeling remorse without getting undue sympathy. If you let him break down and vow he won't do it again, that's quite stereotypical. If so, he has to secretly (not to the victim; he's tricking her) confess that he's not sure, if he can hold true to the vow. Otherwise, again he'll get undue sympathy. Reveal that he's indeed unable to control himself.
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The people who justify domestic abuse and the people who condemn it have significantly different views of human psychology and human relationships. By choosing how to place that abusive act in context, you as an author are signaling what your view is, and by implication, your moral judgement of the abuse.

You could have a story in which a hard-working husband is constantly nagged and berated by his shrewish wife, and while he tries to absorb her tirades with manly self-control, he reaches a point where he just can’t stop himself and smacks her.

Or you could have a story in which a terrorized wife tiptoes around a husband with a massive sense of entitlement, trying to anticipate his every need, getting emotional and verbal abuse whenever she—even accidentally—fails to meet his expectations, and then one day she talks back to him because she can’t stand it any more, and he beats her senseless.

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    I think this is generally a good answer, however you might want to "over-explain" it a bit so it isn't misunderstood. I'd also point out that, aesthetically speaking, this sort of thing can definitely be overdone. You don't want to rob your characters of depth to prove a point --that's arguably even worse than including a moralizing speech after each action. – Chris Sunami Feb 17 '15 at 19:52

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