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I have a character who's being abused by his father. While most of the abuse is only implied/referenced and readers instead see the fallout or emotional/physical effects of it, there are a few scenes where his father is verbally abusive toward him. The issue is that the dialogue always feels cliche/cheesy, almost like a bully from any kid/teenage movie.

While I've researched what verbal abuse looks like, I can't seem to get it to transfer to the page. Any thoughts on how I can write verbal abuse accurately and authentically?

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My 2¢: a bully is trying to intimidate, a father is not 'intimidated' by his own child.

Here's my attempt to not do a mouth-breathing bully-dad:

Anti-Father

Try imagining the same scene but with a nurturing father who wants to guide the son to arrive at some moral or personal growth, working through the problem, and bonding. The father wants the boy to come to him with problems, until he is mature enough to stand on his own – that's the goal.

Now turn that character upside-down –– it is a lecture that goes nowhere, words to provoke not think, unreasonable ultimatums, punishments that are completely unrelated, 'should have known better', no faith the boy can grow or learn from mistakes, and no filter on his own emotions. There is no logical way the son could appease the father because the father doesn't understand the goal.

No need to explain it. In real life there are a scary amount of people who seem to be 'faking it' without understanding the goal. Maybe he had a dysfunctional father himself, or maybe he just never wanted kids and there is no upside for him. I would expect other signals of selfishness/lack of empathy from this character (a room where the son is not allowed, marital affairs, resentment, avoiding).

If the character sticks around, he will need to be more than just contrarian or he will start to feel like a prop.

Flawed Father

A flawed father might leave room for some sympathy, or at least character depth if the father should be seen as a realistic person (not an abstractly 'pure' antagonist).

The father might always center himself (narcissism, insecurity) without any consideration how the boy got in trouble in the first place.

The father might project his own desires/fears onto the boy, using him as a proxy for everything the father isn't able to be, or has sacrificed for.

Family dysfunction might transfer blame, or otherwise use the weakest family member as a scapegoat, with other family members participating in the pattern usually to avoid it pointing at themselves.

A family trauma might have the father in a perpetual grief-coping loop where day-to-day problems are never resolved because the father can't break from the thing that keeps him moving forward. Extra pressure to not disrupt the father's career/ personal time/ church activities – something that has taken the place of spending time with his family.

Lastly the father might just be overwhelmed, or have a personality type that is too analytical/impersonal, and the end result is the boy's problems don't amount to anything important. The father would feel impatience and frustration that the son can't just 'keep it together', meanwhile not offering any useful advice or constructive empathy.

One-way Dynamic

I think a common denominator of a flawed father is some behind-the-scenes character building where he has erased the son and replaced him with an idea which the son doesn't fit. Whereas Anti-father is negative parenting, the Flawed Father is in a relationship with the son that is not based in reality.

In both cases the dad is failing to perform basic functions as a father, failing to correctly address the problem, and failing to see what his son needs. Have an idea what's going on behind that character and then let him reveal his truth through what he says. He will ultimately steer the conversation to what he believes.

The son is powerless to change the dynamic but is forced to be present. He knows this doesn't lead anywhere, and he has to perform convincingly before the father will stop.

As author you are teasing the father's true nature while putting unfair agony on the sympathetic son. That power imbalance is important, it is why the father can be unreasonable. Whatever the details it will feel abusive.

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  • A good example of the "Flawed Father" would be Hank HIll's relationship with his son, Bobby. Time and again, many problems in the relationship is Hank learns of Bobby's interest in a hobby or subject that Hank may also enjoy... only to learn that Bobby's interest is not for the same reason as Hank's and Hank has to reconcile why he's interested with why Bobby is interested. Often Bobby's reasoning will stem from an interpretation of something he told Bobby when motivating him+
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 15:47
  • +Additionally, Hank is well aware of how overtly abusive Hank's own father, Cotton Hill, was when he raised Hank. Because of this, Hank will often try to do the opposite of what his father would do, resulting in an over correction that doesn't work at all. Bizarrely, Cotton thinks the world of Bobby and goes out of his way to avoid emotional abuse to his grandson (he does inflict it, but it's never intentional and he does show remorse when he finds out).
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 15:51
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If you want a good example of verbal abuse done correctly and efficiently, look no further than Mother Gothel from Tangled.

Specifically look at the lyrics to the song Mother Knows Best, both the initial song and the reprise.

Check out the song lyrics and you'll get a great example of how she manipulated Rapunzel throughout the movie, but let's isolate three key tactics she uses.

1-Attacking her victim's self-esteem The first version of the song is all about putting down Rapunzel and slowly breaking down her sense of self-esteem. She calls her "clumsy", "immature", "getting kind of chubby", etc. To slowly break down her sense of self-worth. Now we as the audience know Rapunzel is none of these things, but that's exactly the point. Someone who verbally manipulates you will always find a reason to pick on your performance because that's the point, to wear down your self-esteem until you start to believe these words to be true. Lowered sense of self-worth increases a person's susceptibility to lies and falsehoods.

2-Guilt-tripping Mother Gothel does this again and again throughout the first version of the song to deflect Rapunzel's attention away from leaving the tower. "Stop no more you'll just upset me" (Code for, if you talk about this anymore you'll only make me mad, and you won't like that, would you?) Abusers shove the blame onto their victims, twisting the narrative to make it seem like you're the one being unreasonable for getting mad. Ex. I only want what's best for you. How could you treat me like this? I raised you. I gave you a roof over your head and a place to sleep. You owe me. Etc. All are common manipulative phrases. Now we get to the most important part.

3-Escalation Mother Gothel doesn't start by immediately berating Rapunzel and hitting her with insult after insult. First, she pulls her into a sense of security with a lulling voice and a gently motherly smile. She tells her it's only for her own good, that she's scared of the outside world, and that she's not ready for it yet. Then she gets to the bigger insults. You're clumsy, undressed, immature, ditzy, etc. Gothel leaves the first song on an ominous note but never quite loses her temper. Until the reprise where she goes for the throat. "Trust me my dear, that's how fast he'll leave you" snaps "I won't say I told you so!" "If he's lying don't come crying! Mother Knows Best!" The lyrics don't even come close to conveying the sheer menace in this woman's voice when she says them. The scariest part is that Gothel doesn't drop the pretense even when she's gone fully off the deep end. It isn't until after Rapunzel fully learns the truth that she becomes violent, and even then Gothel still blames Rapunzel for things going this way. So that's the key to writing manipulative dialogue: belittle the character, blame them for everything even if the slight is imagined, and start off slow but get worse over time. Rinse, wash, and repeat and you'll eventually write a toxic scumbag.

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Disclaimer: In no way do I endorse verbal or physical abuse; I am talking about writing fiction and getting into the head of a fictional character. I am not talking about any real person, in the boy or father.

See the abuse from the viewpoint of the father. He's angry. Perhaps at himself and his own failures, perhaps actually at his son, who is not living up to his pre-father fantasies of being a father. Perhaps he imagined his son a brave warrior, standing up to bullies, an intrepid fighter. A handsome lad, a sports star, with pretty girls lining up to be with him. Funny, and witty. Smart, but not an egghead, not a nerd, the captain of the big team, the quarterback with his picture on the news after a big win. That's my boy!

Maybe exactly like his glory days, or maybe all the things he wished he could have been and wished he had done.

But his boy is actually just relentlessly average, and cannot measure up. He cries over little cuts, collapses if you slap him. He's not the quarterback, he's not even on the bench. He plays stupid games with his loser friends.

He's raising a god damn loser, and he hates it. He doesn't deserve that!

From the father's POV, we see this disappointment, the loss of the fairy tale he hoped for, that he was investing in. No matter how unrealistic.

And his abuse of his son is an expression of his pain. And his anger. And what he says, in anger, is what he wants.

"Why do have to be such a coward? You play with losers, you are a loser! You have to take what you want, you god damn baby!"

He is simultaneously complaining and telling his son exactly who Dad wants him to be. The insults are intentional, to make his son rebel against what his son has become, to wake his son up.

And if there is violence, it is also this way. Anger and frustration at the loss of his dream son, having to raise this disappointment. The reason the father is angry and insulting is this son is not the son he was supposed to have. This son is not like him, is not the hero he fantasized about raising, is not the son he spent years looking forward to.

This son does not validate him and make his life worthwhile.

You need to flesh out two people. The real son, his talents and personality; and the imaginary ideal son of the father, the son he was supposed to get, was entitled to get.

Bring that attitude toward his abuse of his son, the anger and resentment, pointing out the differences, repeatedly, between the real son, and his imaginary son. The son he was entitled to have.

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You seem to have some kind of frame of reference since you see your own writing as "cheesy", so if you have any good examples for the kind of verbal abuse you're trying to write, I'd advise you to simply copy those examples to start out.

It's fairly common for writers to "borrow" good ideas in this way. Once "borrowed" you can tweak it as much as you need to fit your story. With enough tweaks a borrowed idea can become unrecognizable from its source. Or it might still be fairly similar. Either case is fine. Obsessing over originality is a paralyzing preoccupation that just gets in the way of the creative process.

If you don't have any examples to copy, I suggest you start looking for some and see how other authors have tackled this. Even if you don't copy them, you might find yourself inspired by reading these depictions of abuse.

Any thoughts on how I can write verbal abuse accurately and authentically?

Authenticity is when the example you copy from is actual, lived experiences. Your own or somebody else's. To be "authentic" is to be true to the experience. If you don't have any personal memories to draw on then you'd have to draw on somebody else's. For a sensitive subject like childhood abuse this can be an uncomfortable, delicate process, particularly if using somebody else's memories. So if you wanted to pursue authenticity that would mean talking to abuse victims, or reading their accounts. In other words: finding examples to borrow from.

If somebody has published details of their life for the public to read it's fair game to use as inspiration. But if somebody tells you something in confidence that you later use as material for writing, then that can create problems. Not necessarily legal ones, but personal ones. It depends on the person, and your relationship to them. Some people are very private and don't like the idea of their personal life being used this way, others are enthusiastically cooperative. Always ask and explain what you're doing. Nobody likes being "mined" for material without their consent or knowledge.

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Another way to interpret verbal abuse is to put yourself in the other person's position. Trying to empathize with both sides. Verbal abuse is received in different ways. Violent outbursts, not always with curse words, sarcastic comments, put downs, comparisons, humiliation, degradation. Not necessarily intentional either. Breaking a person down with words of scorn, words that can cut from the inside out. The tone those words are spoken in can make the difference on a person depending on who is delivering them. The violent tone from which they originated from. The angry threat that is felt from them. The cause and effect of these interactions can have many outcomes.

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