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Writing About Rape, Part II

In April of last year, I did a post on writing about rape, and how we as authors often do it badly.  Recently, I received an e-mail from one of my readers asking if I could do a follow-up on how to write about rape in fiction and do it well.

I’m not going to sit here and proclaim The Right Way to write about rape.  What I can do is talk about how I’ve written about rape in my fiction. I’m not saying I did it right, but maybe this can be a starting point for discussion.

~Spoilers for some of Jim’s fiction beyond this point~

The most obvious example of rape in my fiction would be Goldfish Dreams, a mainstream novel I wrote which drew upon my experiences as a rape counselor.  In the princess series, you have Talia (Sleeping Beauty) who was raped by a prince while in a cursed sleep.  I also explored ideas of rape and the Sleeping Beauty myth in the short story “Sister of the Hedge,” and there are rape/consent issues in “Heart of Ash.”

In the princess books, I wanted to make sure that while Talia’s rape affected her, it didn’t define her.  She wasn’t “Angry Rape Victim,” nor was rape the sole motivating event driving her actions.  Yes, rape affects her.  So does having to flee her homeland.  So does her love for _____.  So does her choice to leave her children behind.

If I were to rewrite Stepsister Scheme, there are things I would change.  In Talia’s case, not only was she a rape survivor, she was also angry, violent, and gay.  One reading of the text would suggest that rape made her these things.  That’s not what I intended, but authorial intent is pretty much irrelevant.  This is something I try to address in book three, but — as much as I love Talia’s character – I wish I had presented her a little differently from the start.

Goldfish Dreams is a very different kind of book, one which was specifically about Eileen Greenwood trying to come to terms with a history of incest.  Eileen’s experiences were a synthesis of things I had learned, people I had talked to, cases I had read.  One deliberate choice when writing the book was that I wouldn’t try to show how Eileen “got over it.”  I wanted her to be in a different place by the end of the book, a stronger place, but rape isn’t something you just fix.

Looking at “Sister of the Hedge” and “Heart of Ash,” one thing I notice is that none of my stories involve stranger rape.  Stranger rape does happen, but more often rape is committed by a significant other or “friend” or family member.  Yet the media emphasises stranger rape almost to the exclusion of anything else.  I choose not to do so.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m writing fiction.  It’s one thing to share strong opinions in a blog post, but when you can hear the author lecturing you in fiction — even if you agree with the author — I feel that makes for a poor story.  Call it an example of “Show, Don’t Tell.”  In fiction, I don’t want to tell you what to think.  I want to show you characters and their experiences, and let you react to their stories.

For those of you who prefer the quick, bullet-pointed approach, here are some of my guidelines:

  • Research.  I’ve done a lot of reading about rape, as well as listening to more rape survivors than I can count.  I would never betray those survivors’ trust by writing about their experiences.  However, listening to them has given me a more realistic (if still incomplete) understanding of rape.
  • Characterization.  Every character should be well-rounded, with multiple motivations and desires and fears.  Defining a character simply as “The Rape Survivor” is just bad writing.  This advice holds for the rapist too — they need to be a real character, not a caricature.
  • Don’t try to fix it.  (This is hard advice in real life as well as in fiction.)  Let the characters grow and change, but there’s no such thing as an easy fix.
  • Don’t preach.
  • Less is often more.  In Goldfish Dreams, I had to write flashback scenes in which Eileen remembers and relives times her brother raped her.  I thought long and hard before deciding those scenes were necessary.  If you’re going to write a graphic rape scene, I would suggest making sure you know exactly why that scene is necessary.  Also be aware that it will have an impact on your readers.

In some ways, this is just the flip side of the essay I wrote in 2009.  I’m not claiming that I always get it right.  I make mistakes like anyone else.  But these are some of the things I think about when writing rape in fiction.

What do you think?  And what books/stories have you read where the author does a good job of handling rape in fiction?  What does the author do to make the story work for you?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 67 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
One where I thought the author did an excellent job will be coming out soon, Beth Bernobich's Passion Play. Ordinarily I wouldn't mention the rape, but (this is anent what you're saying) so far, some of the pre-buzz focuses right on that aspect. You're right. Rape does have an impact on readers. It takes a very strong story to wrench reader focus away from the rape itself to the people involved, and how they move on in their lives.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
I was already planning to read Passion Play, though I haven't caught much of the buzz yet. One more reason to get a copy!

I think -- with the full disclaimer that I could be wrong -- that authors often underestimate that power. I'm thinking mostly of authors who don't have real life experience with rape, either as survivors or from talking to rape survivors. There isn't an understanding of how powerful or even triggering it can be to read about.
(no subject) - sartorias - Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
I quite liked Saber and Shadow and The Cage by S.M Stirling and Shirley Meier. It probably wasn't perfect, but I thought the aftermath of sexual violence, and how people outside the assault react to it, was well-handled.

The character was profoundly affected by what happened to her, but it didn't break her and she was finding ways to work around the cracks that it had left.

It didn't break her but it wasn't something to just be lightly dismissed either?

(I read Friday at an early age...It made me a bit judgemental of rape in fiction.)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I don't know if rape is something that can be written about perfectly. Perfection implies a sort of neatness, and rape is anything but. (I'm probably overthinking here...)

I remember that scene from Friday, though it's been decades since I read the book. Someday I should pick it up and reread, just so I can write up a coherent response.
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Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Rape (and long-term adolescent sexual exploitation by a trusted adult) is part of the backstory of one of the male characters in That Show I Like, and I think they handled it very well. It informs his character, but it doesn't define him.

When I've dealt with rape (three times, I think?) it's been as a backstory issue, and it's been some of the hardest material I've ever written. As with anything, I find that all I can do is try to be authentic and honest, and do my best to understand what I am writing.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
I did like the way That Show handled That Character's history. (But then, That Show handles character history and development pretty darn well in general!)

"As with anything, I find that all I can do is try to be authentic and honest, and do my best to understand what I am writing."

Agreed. Though I'd say you're ahead of many authors just for recognizing that it's hard, and it does require thought and work.
(no subject) - matociquala - Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
I think the way you handled Talia was perfect. Just saying.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Opinions vary, and that's okay. But thank you :-)

She really is one of my favorite characters...
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this, Jim. I've been wondering about it, and what your take on it is.

In Talia’s case, not only was she a rape survivor, she was also angry, violent, and gay. One reading of the text would suggest that rape made her these things. That’s not what I intended, but authorial intent is pretty much irrelevant. This is something I try to address in book three, but — as much as I love Talia’s character – I wish I had presented her a little differently from the start.

This is exactly the thing I wondered. After all your posts on the topic, I knew that you didn't intend to make it seem that way, but I figured you'd address the issue in your own way.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
Mostly the "addressing" meant two things: one is showing more of Talia's backstory, and giving a fuller picture of how she came to be the person she is today. The other (addressing an alternate problematic aspect) is to make sure she isn't the only nonwhite or gay character, which hopefully removes some of her role as the One Representative Character, if that makes sense?

Hard to say more until the book is out and people have had a chance to read it, but I'm proud of the story and the work that went into this one!
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
I've depicted a rape with the victim just turning off his mind during the act and trying to deal with the moment-to-moment practicalities afterward, without dwelling on the mechanics of what occurred. I don't think I'd actually want to read a graphically specific scene of what a rapist did. It might not be triggery for me, but I'd be thinking the whole time about whether other people found it triggery, and there's the whole questioning yourself about each moment, and could you have done something to escape, fight back, etc.

In this story, the rape survivor in question had a lot going on in his life. He was very far from being defined by the rape although it did have an impact on his sex life (but he wasn't defined by his sex life). He didn't really deal with it until years later, although when he finally did deal with it he was a more integrated person and no longer closing off a part of himself (his attraction to men). The rape depiction was also a flashback, although, as I said, a non-specific one. The fact that the rapist was a loved and trusted person led to a rather conflicted reaction, since at one time the victim would have welcomed consensual sex with this person (although he definitely no longer felt that way afterward). The breach of trust through an act of violence was what was important, not the specific, step-by-step process of what occurred, and that breach of trust had the greatest emotional fallout in the character's life. I didn't see the point in a blow-by-blow description; it was his emotional response that was most important.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
One of the things I think it's important to remember -- and it sounds like this is something you already know -- is that everyone is different. Meaning not everyone is going to react to rape in the same way. Reactions need to make sense both for the specific situation and for the character.

I will say that "going numb" and pretty much shutting off one's mind and awareness during a rape is something I've heard a number of people describe, and so strikes me as a very believable response for your character.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
Nice blog post, Jim. I especially like your points about characterization and not trying to 'fix' everything. One of my favorite novels is 'The Kite Runner' and not insignificant part of my love of that book is that they didn't cheat and just wave a magic wand to make everything better.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I haven't read The Kite Runner, but I definitely agree with you about stories that cheat to get to a (false and unearned) happy place.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:53 pm (UTC)
If I were to rewrite Stepsister Scheme, there are things I would change. In Talia’s case, not only was she a rape survivor, she was also angry, violent, and gay. One reading of the text would suggest that rape made her these things. That’s not what I intended, but authorial intent is pretty much irrelevant. This is something I try to address in book three, but — as much as I love Talia’s character – I wish I had presented her a little differently from the start.

I've had SS on my TBR pile for ages, and hope to finally get around to it this month, but I'm quite glad to know this ahead of time. Like you say, technically authorial intent doesn't matter, but to know that someone regrets writing something the way they did and have taken steps to fix it in future books makes any potentially annoying tropes a lot easier to swallow, IMO.

... Especially if the rest of the book is awesome, which I'm confident it will be *g* (And hey, that part might be awesome too! We shall see.)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
A lot of people have told me they have no problem with the way Talia was written, and love her character just the way she is. Others have said it bothered them. I don't think this is something where there's a right or a wrong answer ... but the fact that some people are bothered is, to me, valid and worth thinking about. In this case, it did affect some of my choices for book three, and did so in ways I think make it a better book.
(no subject) - b_writes - Jun. 7th, 2010 12:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 7th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
The comment about characterization seems to apply no matter what the trauma or traumatizer, I think. A killer is not just "A Killer".

This is something I've been developing during a long period of research for a future novel which deals, among other things, with the nature of violence. The one most important realization I came to was that there was no talking about "violence" in the abstract; it only made sense to talk about people doing violent things. That was the only real way to look at it, and anything else was a sham on both the reader and the subject.

A major source of influence on my thought in this department was Richard Rhodes's book "Why They Kill", a mixture of biography and sociology about the social researcher Lonnie Athens. Athens researched the problems of violence for very personal reasons: his own father had repeatedly tried to kill him throughout his childhood. He ended up performing one-on-one interviews with those who had committed violent crimes after gaining their trust (he posed, rather convincingly if the book is to be trusted, as a fellow prisoner), and came to the conclusion that truly savage person-on-person violence is something that is learned and taught, and does not simply happen spontaneously. We may have the capacity for it, but it takes a hell of a lot of unlocking, and the way that unlocking is performed involves doing damage to the person -- what we otherwise call the cycle of violence.

I'll have more to say about this project when it's a little closer to being an actual project instead of just a collection of notes.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
Yep. Flat, one-dimensional villains are boring. Give me conflict and contradiction and motivation. I may not like the bad guy, but I want to at least be able to understand his/her motivations...

Have you read "On Killing" by Dave Grossman? That was a fascinating read (and also resulted in a short story I'm rather proud of).
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
I thought how you handled Talia in MM was good at both showing her as a) a victim of abuse and b) a gay woman, and that these are actually mutually exclusive. I had some tl;dr to post at you, but I'll spare you. *L* Regardless, I can think of plenty examples in the book that divide her trauma from her sexuality.

The posts you make about rape are really insightful -- this one in particular is challenging me and how I write my characters/their situations. I try not to use kid gloves, but I end up doing so because it's personally uncomfortable for me. Luckily, however, I'm years away from being a published author, if ever! Still, I strive for "realism" when I write, so I have time to work on it.

Edited at 2010-06-02 04:28 pm (UTC)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad Talia worked for you.

For me, looking back, one of the nice things about my unpublished phase is that I was able to mess up without anyone else (except a few unfortunate editors) having to read those stories. And believe me, there's a lot of painfully bad stories in my trunk, some of which were ... problematic. I think that's how we learn, by trying, recognizing where we've made mistakes, and then going back and trying to do better.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
Deerskin by Robin McKinley was a hard read to get through, because it was ABOUT rape and incest. The perpetrator was kind of a mustache-twirling villain (as someone noted in the comments of the earlier post you linked) but the whole book was about the heroine's recovery. She didn't magically spring back to kick ass and find happiness. It treated a horrific act-the parental rape of a child-as a horrific act, and not a cheap plot point.

Stepsister Scheme handled Talia's past well, I thought. She's a rape victim, but that's not her only motivation or reason for being the way she is.

I wish I could think of more examples, to be honest. SF/F fiction is just riddled with problematic depictions of rape, sex and sexual violence, and it's just depressing as all hell.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
"SF/F fiction is just riddled with problematic depictions of rape, sex and sexual violence, and it's just depressing as all hell."

Agreed. I do think authors and the SF/F community in general are getting a bit better and building some awareness. That said, I'm also having a hard time coming up with examples of stories that handle rape well. (Which partly just means I need to read more.)
(no subject) - alanajoli - Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:54 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)
Not off topic at all, and I think it makes a good point about characterization, especially of the bad guys. Characters aren't all evil in the same way. (And many/most of them wouldn't consider themselves evil at all.) Personally, I love characters with contradictions. I haven't read BSC, but if we imagine a villain who'll gladly murder you but then turns around and shoots one of his henchmen for suggesting rape, that would be a much more interesting character to read about.

I especially agree that rape shouldn't be the thoughtless default for a writer, whether it's "I need something bad to happen to her" or "I need something to motivate her" or whatever. "Default" usually means lazy writing.
(no subject) - b_writes - Jun. 7th, 2010 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I have a pretty important character upcoming in the book series I'm working on (it's going to kill me, I swear), who is a direct product of many years of sexual, physical, mental, emotional and verbal abuse by both parents... and I need to seriously consider how to make him more than just a product of his childhood.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Sometimes I think the hardest books to write are the ones most worth writing.
(no subject) - celestineangel - Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
I have, unfortunately, come across far more bad writing about rape than good writing. It often seem to be the sort of thing that gets added in to fill up the pointless violence portion of the book rather than because it actually adds anything to the story. (And heaven knows we need more pointless violence in our fiction. 'Cause, stories have just got to be worse than real life or nobody would bother reading them. Heh.)

I thought you did pretty well with Talia in Stepsister Scheme, though. It came across as an issue you wanted to explore in connection with foregrounding the normally backgrounded abuse in fairy tales. (Er... sorry, can't think of a less clumsy way of saying that.) Not especially politically preachy and not Talia as the requesite 'plucky rape survivor'.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you. And eep -- Talia is many things, but "plucky" has never been one of them :-)

I wonder if rape is one of those things where some authors just don't feel any research is necessary. But given how little we talk about it, if you're just going by the news stories or popular media, there's a decent chance you're going to end up with a rather distorted idea...
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Both of your posts were fascinating. In a sense they reinstated or verbalized ideas that I was aware of only in a background sense. While I try to think about what I'm writing from many different angles, it's always good to be reminded.

I do have a character who has rape as part of her back story, and I have been setting her and her world aside for a while, because I don't think I'm quite ready to approach it with the kind of depth that I want to work with yet. It's a difficult story for me to broach, and not only from the rape point of it (which is really a very small aspect of the whole).
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
I waited several years before trying to write Goldfish Dreams, mostly because I didn't feel I was ready as a writer to take on that story yet. On the other hand, I don't know that we ever feel *completely* ready for a challenging story. (Yes, this is me being wishy-washy...)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 08:01 pm (UTC)
The first book that came to mind, besides SS, is Patricia Brigg's Mercedes Thompson series. She's raped in the third book I think (maybe the second) and she isn't just magically back to normal at the start of the next book. She's affected by it and has to deal with it throughout the course of the next book (I haven't read book 5 yet, but it might still be an issue there as well). At the same time, there is other stuff going on that's unrelated to her rape and she has to deal with those events. Plus, she doesn't rely on all the guys in her life to save her.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
I think you're the third or fourth person to mention Briggs' series. I definitely need to pick those up.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
Just my two cents on one thing: I thought you handled Talia very well. As Talia got to know Danielle a bit better, and opened up to her (gradually), and with Snow offering that bit of information to her (as memory serves)...even though it was part of Talia's past experience (which clarifies her desire to take an active part, and not be victimized again), we also see, as the story unfolds, and Talia confirms it, how the fairy "gifts" also confirmed, and shaped, what she had become, prior to the story's opening, in little flashbacks.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Overall, I like Talia, and a lot of the choices I made were very deliberate. Some of the things people found problematic were going to be there regardless, but there were others I could have addressed better, in my opinion. On the other hand, every book can be better, so the fact that I'm looking at ways it could have been improved doesn't mean I think it was bad :-)
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jun. 3rd, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
Since you'd asked for examples where rape was handled extremely well, I'd like to point out Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone as a frankly STELLAR depiction of the emotional, societal, and functional intricacies of long-term incest. The heroine both loves, loathes, fears, and is desperate for the approval of her father, despite knowing that what he did to her was wrong, despite wishing with every moment that she could negate his power over her. The assaults were never portrayed as violent, but it's clear that they were unwelcome, and that in retrospect she has BIG issues with her 'failure to fight' at the time -- in the way that victims will often own their trauma through blame just to try and find some illusion of control over what's happened to them.

I'm a rape crisis counselor, like you, and I can honestly say that I have never encountered a literary incest depiction that rang quite as true as that one did.
Jun. 5th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Really excellent post, thank you for both of them. I was redirected over here via shadesong.

I think that it's so important simultaneously to acknowledge the suffering and the horror that many people have had to endure, by actually writing realistic rape into stories, rather than as a plot device, or an afterthought. It's really head-bangingly hard though.

Like a lot of the commenters, one of the key characters of a book that I want to write is an incestuous rape survivor. It's... difficult because that trauma is mixed in with some mental disorders and a tendency toward kink. The story is not about his rape, but the rape is a trigger event for a lot of things in his family, and the events around him to change. (The story specifically is about consent, both in an interpersonal, sexual, and social context. The character is from a created race, that were intended to be and kept subservient.)

As someone who thankfully has never suffered any sort of sexual abuse, though I have known many people that have, I'm SUPER PARANOID about writing a stereotype. I know him, I know the world and the forces affecting him, but I think I have a few more years of research and deep thinking before the story becomes publicly visible.

People are really squicky about thinking about the consequences of consent, and the responsibility that people have to created life. (You see this a lot in genres that deal with robots, actually. The idea of how people treat AI HORRIFIES me.)

Anyway, thank you for the post. I'm glad other people are thinking about it.


Something that I was thinking about as I left it out, I'm even more worried about this boy...as the violence cycles back later in the story. It's a fine line between being a victim.. and then becoming an aggressor fed in by his own illness and the societal setup around him. He's a hard character to write, though I think in the end the book will be good.

Are there any resources that you would recommend for reading both on rapists and those who are recovering?
Jun. 13th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
Thank you. I'm trying to think of resources, and I'm afraid I'm not coming up with much off the top of my head. It's been long enough since I was actively working as a rape counselor/educator that I'm out of touch with the current literature. Which is a very annoying thing to realize.

Sorry. I'd actually suggest talking to shadesong, as she might be in a better position to make reading suggestions.
(no subject) - thedigitalkuri - Jun. 13th, 2010 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 7th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
It's been a very long time since I read it, but I remember Beauty by Sheri Tepper as handling rape well.

Someone on my list talked about you dealing very well with trauma in your Princess series and I agree. I think the way you write about the trauma that each of the women has experienced made Talia's background less trope-ish, for me. I don't say that to try to negate others' responses. I can definitely see their point. But it made a big difference for me. The stories and books that deal badly with rape so often make rape the go-to trauma for shock value.

I do, however, wince a little when a woman is described as "gay" rather than as a lesbian.
Jun. 7th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
I do, however, wince a little when a woman is described as "gay" rather than as a lesbian.

Could you expand on that, please? I suspect this may be terminology ignorance on my part. I've talked to women who have self-identified as gay, though lesbian is the more common term, but I'm not aware of the winceworthy aspect.
(no subject) - acrimonyastraea - Jun. 7th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 7th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
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