I have a family with a highly domineering, mentally, emotionally and physically (but not sexually) abusive father, a complacent and compliant stepmother (the biological mother having died) and a highly talented rebellious young adult daughter. This is a pseudomedieval fantasy scenario, so the father is legally (and to a degree socially) in the right to control and discipline her as he pleases, but it's an important part of the daughter's character that she remains, at her core, unbroken and continues to resist him with the means available to her (including but not limited to magic).

My main problem is that I have (luckily) relatively little experience with familial psychological abuse and I have a hard time being subtle with it. I do know what I want the father to mean, but it always feels too on the nose, too artificial. I'm like a lifelong atheist trying to write as a faithfully pious person - I seemingly have no true access to the mindset in question. How can I express the father's controlling behaviour, assessment of authority and constant belittlement without it feeling too puppykickingly blatant?

EDIT: What I would find especially useful is a) a resource for typical psychological mechanisms that take place in the background of such relationships

and b) what I mostly asked for is ways to express the relationship in dialogue without directly stating the obvious. For example, instead of the father just insulting the daughter he might do things like belittle her indirectly by dismissing things she is good at or values, he might talk about her in third person while she is present, he wouldn't entertain the notions of her having a choice by saying "You'll do X" instead of asking of even telling her to do it, things like that. Typical patterns of communication in a relationship with unequal power and a controlling, hyperauthoritarian person.

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    you'll have to do research. Read books, talk to a psychologist or counselor, talk to people who have endured this kind of abuse. If you haven't experienced it, you will need to talk to someone who has. Jul 24, 2017 at 12:52
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    To add to @LaurenIpsum's comment, you want beta readers who have experienced this kind of trauma. Just be sure to warn them about what you're asking of them, and what kind of feedback you want.
    – TriskalJM
    Jul 24, 2017 at 13:41
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    There is an ancient writing dictum: Write what you know. One of the things that fiction can do well is to humanize a traumatic experience in a way that a psychology textbook cannot. But by the same token, a psychology textbook cannot give you the human experience of a condition you have never suffered. You can, of course, deal with all kinds of trauma that are incidental to your story because you do not have to get them deeply authentic. But for matters that are central to the story, particularly to the emotion of the story, write what you know is excellent advice.
    – user16226
    Jul 24, 2017 at 13:51
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    @MarkBaker that's fine to a point, but if you adhere to that too strictly, you limit yourself from creating experiences which you (or anyone) cannot have. I can't go to space. I can't travel back in time. I can't fly. I will never be a mercenary warrior, a mage, a WWII spy, a gay man, or King Arthur. Am I forbidden from writing those stories? Is Dorothy Gale's story less authentic because it was written by L. Frank Baum, who didn't get swept up in a Kansas tornado? I just think "what you know" can sometimes be too limiting. Jul 24, 2017 at 17:33
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    I think this is not an a question of whether an author has experienced something or not, but whether the emotional aspect of the situation resonates with the author or not. True, mostly we resonate with emotions that are somehow connected to us, but I also believe that fiction is exactly about exploring emotions that we haven't gone through yet. In this sense, I encourage the OP to explore the topic with the help of external testimony, but then make it his or her own by staying true to herself/himself, or better still to the character.
    – Filip
    Jul 25, 2017 at 8:33

2 Answers 2


Writing about psychological abuse is not going to be easy. As someone who is with someone who's previous was psychologically and physically abusive, it's a state of mind. It's something you have to feel and experience to understand.

Watch someone who has endured a decade of abuse and learn their ins and outs, understand that even something as simple as looking at them, even in a loving way, could cause them to go into an anxiety attack if you look too long.

Abuse means that they believe this person to be in control through fear. It means they believe they are worthless to anyone but this abuser. It means that even though the front door is wide open to escape, they believe and are convinced that the second they walk through it, there is nothing they can do in the world and that the abuser will find them, torture them, and bring them back.

To be unbroken from abuse while... not impossible, is not... likely. You can be defiant... for a time. You can be mentally able to endure the verbal lashing... for a while. If it's her father, this abusive behavior is all she knows and would not particularly be "resistant" to it because it is all she knows. Would something feel off? Of course, but it would be rationalized to well every family has their issues or it's just his way of showing he cares. There are going to be deep rooted issues that may not come to surface until someone else comes and hits a trigger.

Until someone shows them the light, the truth, until a kind hand gently touches them and pushes them out the door and says you have nothing to be afraid of or that this situation is very wrong, this life is going to seem normal.

Your idea isn't bad, but it needs more research. A human mental state cannot endure 10+ years (especially if MC is a teenager and the abuser is the dad) of abuse without being broken. There are going to be trust issues with men. Someone like a Father who is one of the most important roles to children and daughters, broke their trust, and will. There is a reason that people have "Daddy Issues". It isn't as light of a joke as people like to toss it around.

You would be better off having the MC girl be in a state of ignorance, followed by realization of abuse through an outside means (supporting character), followed by the struggle of breaking the abusive control and spending 90% of that time failing (for those of you who don't know, on average it takes someone being abused at least 2-3 attempts to leave an abusive situation), followed by her coping being out of a stressful situation (there is a huge emotional and physical shock once leaving a stressful environment full of abuse), and then dealing with the shortcomings of triggers from abuse from trust issues to trying to regain her life, her dignity, to feel like they are human again.

In the end there is no such thing as being unbroken from abuse. Even at the most mild levels, it still leaves a stain on our soul. Someone may not be fully broken in every aspect of their life, but something, some part of them did break and will break.

I will leave you with a quote she told me when she first met me, describing what simply meeting me meant to her:

I was stuck in a dark caged room [that was my mind]. Afraid and counting down the days until I die. Thought about even killing myself. I had given up, to just accept my fate that this was the life meant for me. I was in a room with no walls, no doors, no way out, and I felt trapped. Then you came along, and you gently put your hand to my face and turned my head slowly, gently to a wall I have never seen before. This wall had a door and a window. The door was opening and through that door, through that window, I could see the green meadows. You showed me another way, that life doesn't have to be this way.

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    @Pahlavan: In the question you mention that the father's physical abuse is seen as legal and even socially acceptable. Doesn't that mean that people might see his discipline and control as natural rather than abusive? Even saints, in the 12th-13th century, spoke up against domestic violence, but they were talking about men beating their wives so badly they were scarred or injured for life. They were not talking about the man's right to slap/hit them or call them stupid, even if respectful treatment was an ideal. Similarly, rape in a marriage did not exist because the woman... Jul 25, 2017 at 15:16
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    ...was supposed to have no will in that question, but rather fulfill her duty. Basically, a woman did not have ownership of her own body. I do not mean that women did not suffer from abuse, even if they didn't recognise it as abuse but simply as Eve's lot in life. Still, it was the way things were and most people did accept it without a second thought. Jul 25, 2017 at 15:19
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    I'd suggest looking at strong historical women to get ideas for how a woman can be defiant in a society that accepts no defiance from women. Remember: to look up at a man was once a defiant gesture (whether because she was not submitting meekly or because she was offering herself and, therefore, dishonoring herself). Nevertheless, some women did overcome limitations and abuse and become powerful within their communities. Jul 25, 2017 at 15:22
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    @Pahlavan for an actual experiment with what you may be looking for, look up the Standford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. This experiment takes a look at the struggles of power control between a prisoner and a prison guard. While it may not be a parent child abuse situation, the psychological effects it held were very deep and life changing. In fact the experiment was so well done that they had to end it early due to health risks of the abuse the "prisoners" were receiving were crossing the line between experiment and actual mental deterioration.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jul 25, 2017 at 17:31
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    A significant part of this can be subtle abuse. The person says and does things that look totally innocent on the surface - and to any outside observer, but can be devastating to the victim. It's really hard to describe. If you read a bit on borderline personality disorder, you might get some clues. To everyone else and even to the victim, everything seems normal. It just feels really bad, but for no apparent reason. The abuser is the good guy and the victim is bad and probably accepts that because that's all they know. Being totally undermined, it is very difficult to find strength to resist.
    – Joe
    Jul 25, 2017 at 21:48

Looking at your edit, I decided to give a suggestion, but you need to enlist the help of a friend / family member you can really trust and make sure they fully understand what they're required to do.

Tell your 'assistant' that you'd like to undergo a social experiment for one day. The experiment is based on going on a short trip somewhere.

First, you'll treat your assistant as if they were a pet or a small child. It's not that you're trying to hurt them, they just have no idea what they need or want, or even how things work. If they do say something sensible, it's either surprising or they're probably just repeating mindlessly what they've heard somewhere else.

Choose what they'll eat based on what you think is good for them and, if they disagree or complain, feel free to get irritated by this disrespectful behaviour. There you are, being mindful and trying to make things work out, and this person shows no respect and appreciation! And it's not that they're stupid per se, you know it's not in their nature to understand how the world functions, but they should be obedient precisely because they can't act appropriately without someone teaching them right from wrong. They should be able to understand that much and act submissively for their own good. And since their intellect is not strong, a good physical reminder of their position is in order (although there's no point to actually include physical or verbal abuse in the experience).

The idea is for you to get in the shoes of a person who is entitled to order those below him and has every obvious reason in the world to do so. Interrupt this first stage whenever you feel the righteousness of your decisions over your 'assistant'. Then ask your assistant to take on the role of the one in control.

It's essential that the assistant understands they're not supposed to go out of their way to antagonise you. They should just dismiss your wishes and ideas and follow their own. This stage should be longer. Let the sense of being ignored and treated as intellectually inferior, even if in a mild way, sink in. You still won't know what active abuse is, but you'll have an inkling of what a lot of women in the Middle Ages felt was part of the natural way of things. Perhaps it will help you understand the behaviour of the ones in control (not including the actual cruel streak of the father) in your society better before adding on the active abuse.

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    This is a great suggestion though I would like to add that this should be done with someone who is sound on their character. That is, he shouldn't pick a close friend who has endured some form of abuse previously (even if it is school bullying). Doing this experiment may trigger a real and negative response that may end up hurting this person and relationship.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jul 25, 2017 at 17:27
  • @Pahlavan I would also take into the account of switching the roles around. See if you have any friend who would be willing to help you conduct a social experiment for a day or 2 where you are the one being treated like a pet. This would allow you to see and feel from both sides of the coin.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jul 25, 2017 at 17:47

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