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My character's home, both her family and society, are toxic, but in a way that she doesn't realise. They manipulate and essentially brainwash the inhabitants. It's not an evil place just a little immoral. Later, she gets captured and taken to an openly abusive, even torturous location.
As is the way with humans, if faced with abuse or trauma we will pick a situation (that in our eyes is safe) to idolise and dream about. This is what my character does. Her first (slightly toxic) home becomes her haven.

I'm writing 3rd person limited from her perspective, so her original home will be perceived as the haven. Once she returns, the readers will see what it's like and realise her viewpoint of it was completely blinded and wrong.
I want them to be able to read between the lines before this point and establish on their own that the place she is returning to is actually quite toxic. How do I do this?

There will be another character with her as she journeys back so I could use this person to question how safe her home is, but I also want the reader to see a statement/thought she makes and think 'Wow, how does she not see that that's messed up.'
What else can I do so they read between the lines? And if I were to use the other character, how do I do it without a clear statement of 'That's messed up'?

The main problem is that the origional society is subtley manipulative. How do I convey this in a way that it takes the audience a little while to figure it out whilst reading between the lines?

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  • What could the narrator's viewpoint change, please? What difference could most of that exposition make? Mar 2 at 21:20

3 Answers 3

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I suggest spending time revealing the character's normal world in the first act and place the kidnapping at the first plot point (around the quarter mark, 25% into the novel).

This way you show her toxic home first and instead of trying to reveal its toxicity you get to try to hide it and make it subtle as to not write the reader on the nose with the toxicity. Opposite problem, but, I think, much easier and also something that will help bring resonance to the ending (return to the normal world) and depth to the story (by contrasting your different types of abuse, etc.)

This way, you also get the first act to allow the reader to get to know the character before she faces her first major catastrophe (the first plot point/the kidnapping).

If the kidnapping comes too soon, your reader might be feeling as if "reading in the newspaper about a car accident that happened to some stranger" (as opposed to the police calling and informing the reader their spouse/parents/siblings/kids have been in a car accident...)

This doesn't mean the MC can't get into trouble before the first plot point, of course, or that nothing should happen in the novel before then... just, don't be surprised if you hardly have time to say "hi" to the character before that 25% mark (25 000 words or even less) comes around.

You say your character "Later" gets kidnapped, but not how much later so if the kidnapping happens before the first plot point, being kidnapped will be part of your MC's normal world because that's what she is in the first act. If this is right or wrong, only you can determine, but the normal world is one important part of story telling and what the character's normal world is will determine the type of story you're telling and the types of worlds you want to contrast in the beginning, middle, and end.

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One method is to use multiple narrators, and its the easiest. But that seems off the table.

Another method is to demonstrate clear contradictions between external events and the narrator's interpretation or reactions. If you are very committed to a closer 3rd perspective, where the narrative distance between the reader and the narrator is very intimate -- meaning experiencing the characters thoughts and reactions -- then I think you are constrained to showing the gestures and actions and dialogue of the toxic characters and having her react using internal dialogue and narrative that illustrates how she rationalizes their actions as indications of love and caring when they factually indicate gaslighting and manipulation.

For instance, the character is wanting to be safe in the heart of her family, imagining some idealize scenario but when she gets the opportunity, the scenario plays out along slightly different lines -- the toxic stuff -- and she explains away or reinterprets the behavior to cast the events closer to her imagined perfect visit.

I think a challenge is that part of the narrator is unreliable -- her interpretation of events -- but her capacity to observe and relate the events as the narrator needs to be seen as very factual and accurate. I think this stands as a bit of a contradiction.

One way around this challenge is to vary the emotional or narrative distance. At a great distance, the narrator isn't privileged to the character's thoughts, but can describe the setting or events with a dispassionate eye, almost like an omniscient narrator. That this great narrative distance, we'd have no reason to doubt any details and facts. It's like a wide angle view in a visual media. Then, you can zoom in steps, getting nearer to the POV character's inner state. Now, in this closer narrative you can share the character thoughts and reactions. I think this would make it clear that any incongruity between the facts and the reaction would be laid at the character's door.

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You can make something unmistakably apparent to the reader and show how the character intentionally or unintentionally misinterprets it.

For example, the following behavior will be clearly abusive to most contemporary Western readers:

"Are you too stupid to cook a simple meal?", John snarled and slapped Angie hard across the face.

We can now show how Angie twists this unpleasant reality into something that allows her to remain with her abusive husband. Maybe she doesn't even wholly realize how she is fooling herself:

Angie stumbled back, tears springing to her eyes. She knew he didn't mean it that way. He had so much stress at his job.

Or maybe she understands what she does, but has some reason to do it:

Angie stumble back, tears springing to her eyes. She felt the hate flare up but quickly suppressed it. She knew he would grow even more violent, if he saw even the tiniest flame of resistance, so Angie twisted John's violence around in her head and forced herself to believe that she deserved it. After all, she had let the potatos get burned.

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