I'm not going to get up on my Internet podium and proclaim The Rules for Writing About Rape in Fiction. Aside from the fact that there are few unbreakable Rules in fiction, I don't see the need for me as a white man to lecture about the Right Way to write about rape. I'd rather just share my own thoughts, the things that piss me off and the things I try to accomplish in my own writing, and then invite people to participate in the conversation.
I'm going to start by picking on Robert Sawyer's book Hominids. I like Sawyer, but the book pissed me off. Our heroine Mary Vaughan is raped by a stranger lurking in the bushes. It's traumatic, but she recovers ... in part thanks to the righteous anger and compassion of Ponter Boddit.
It frustrated me that in a book where Sawyer had done such in-depth research about evolution and science, he would then fall back on such a stereotypical rape. The stranger lurking in the bushes is included in most lists of rape myths, not because it doesn't happen -- it does, and I in no way mean to minimize the event -- but because it's the exception to the rule. I've never liked "Write what you know" as a rule. I prefer "Know what you write," which means research. Relying on stereotypes is lazy writing, and encourages those same myths and stereotypes. Combine that with the fact that the rape in Hominids was used as a way to make a man look good -- oh, look how caring and good Ponter really is -- and I was done.
Then you have Red Sonja Syndrome, where the writer uses rape to motivate a woman to get angry and set out on her adventure. (This is one area where Talia's character from Stepsister Scheme is potentially problematic.) There's nothing wrong with anger as a response to rape, nor is there anything wrong with a woman seeking justice. But why are men allowed such a broad range of motivations for setting out on their quests, whereas women are so often defaulted to rape victims?
Writers also use rape as a shortcut to characterization. Want to let the reader know your villain is really evil? Have him rape someone. It's as easy as kicking a puppy, but with more shock value! Just make sure he twirls his moustache when he's done. If you're thinking about making your villain a rapist, do you actually know what you're writing? Have you done any research into who rapes, their motivations, and so on? Or are you falling back on cliches again?
One thing I struggle with is going too far in the other direction. I'll find myself writing a story where the Message takes over, and suddenly I'm writing a public service announcement or an essay. This is one of the reasons I didn't spend much time talking about Talia's rape in the book. Because it wasn't central to this story. This wasn't a book about how strong and courageous Talia was to have survived rape. What happened to her is a part of her character, but it's only one part.
Which brings me to another peeve: characters who are defined by their trauma. Rape will affect you. But it doesn't turn you into a cardboard character. Survivors of rape are still people, complex and contradictory, with desires and goals and likes and dislikes. One-dimensional characters are bad writing, regardless of what that one dimension is.
Finally, I wanted to mention Law & Order: SVU. This is a show about sexually based crimes, and there's a lot I like about it. Their research tends to be decent -- better than in most rape-related stories, at least. (And I love Ice T's character.) But sometimes the show doesn't work. Either they hammer you over the head with Message, or they get caught up in the titillation factor, where the rape starts to become not a part of the plot, but a part of the entertainment.
I could keep going, but this is already a long entry, and I'm more interested in hearing what others think. What works for you as a reader or a writer? What are examples you've seen where rape was handled well in a story, or where it was done really badly?
Links (if you have suggestions, please mention them in the comments)
Angry Black Woman's thoughts about media portrayals of rape