Writing Abusive Characters

The characters in your screenplay are often portrayed as either good or bad. Sometimes they start out bad and eventually become good. Or vice versa.

Film and TV character who abuse others are a special class. Every action, every word is a premeditated step to subdue and control another person. Nasty stuff. However, they do make interesting movies, especially in the drama, thriller and horror genres.

Let’s take a look at the main stages of mental and emotional abuse so you can write more authentic characters in your screenwriting:


The abusers are often friendly, sweet and affable when they first meet their victims. This creates a baseline behavior to draw the victim into a relationship. They are kind, considerate and fool the victim into feeling safe and secure.


After the initial honeymoon period wears off, the abuser slowly reveals their true self. They may start a terrible fight, they may assault their victim or hurt themselves. They blame a trauma from their past for their uncharacteristic behavior, or some recent stressful event.

This is proceeded by profuse apologies and an assurance that it will never happen again. The abuser accepts this, since they have already established the abuser’s desirable baseline behavior and know what they’re really like. They pity the abuser and forgive them. Time after time. Until things get ugly. They don’t realize they’re being abused.


The abusive behavior is noticed by the victim’s family and friends and alert the victim. By this stage the victim is either confused, scared, or in denial.

When the abusers gradually starts to wield control over their victims, they start sequestering them. They don’t like them spending so much time with family and friends. In more extreme cases, they may choose the victims associates, or even ban them from contacting certain people.

Some abusers even physically isolate their victims by relocating to another place.


As the abuser gains further control, they often start restricting or cutting off resources, especially funds, communication devices, transportation and privacy. The abuser is really getting inside the abuser’s mind and asserting their authority.


This is a more insidious stage of abuse. The victim is so attached to the relationship, they feel that their abuse is an appropriate price to pay. Since they are manipulated so heavily, the are convinced that their predicament is normal or that they are to blame.

By this stage they are emotionally and physically disconnected from their support networks, that they either don’t seek help or reject it. Other times they are too ashamed to seek help.


If the victim threatens to leave or tell someone, the abuser inevitably threatens them with violence. They often execute some form of violence to ensure they are serious.

Why don’t victims leave their abusers?


The abuser often tests the boundaries of their victims’ tolerance. In some cases of abusive employers they claim this is what to takes to succeed in their business. They also threaten their self-esteem with accusations that their victims will iron their careers if they leave, or nobody else will hire them. They should be grateful of what they have.


Victims feel that quitting an abusive relationship makes them appear weak. They underestimate the level of emotional, physical and psychological damage being done to them. They believe the maxim “what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”


This is common theme in abusive relationships. The victim wants to rescue their abusers in the hopes that they return to their normal charming selves. By not realizing or accepting they’re being abused, they paradoxically feel they control the relationship dynamics by helping the abuser through a ‘rough patch.’


Victims are beyond denial by this point. They literally pray for a miracle that their abuser’s behavior improves. But it rarely does on its own. The victim continues to enable their behavior with their presence. They continue to suffer in silence.


Even if the victim is ready to leave an abusive relationship, they are sometimes scared to. Where will they go? How will they survive? Can they start over? How will they prevent the threat of their abusers stalking or manipulating them again? So much to consider during extreme emotional turmoil.

Abusive characters in the film and TV world tend to get their comeuppance more often than not. Regrettably, this is not always the case in real life.

For comprehensive Film & TV script analysis visit Script Firm.scriptfirm final logo colour

STORYBOARD SCREENPLAY DEVELOPMENT GROUP – If you’re near the Los Angeles area, we meet at Fox Studios on the second Monday of each month to comprehensively discuss scripts of soon to be released films.



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