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I'm not planning to get into graphic detail, but it's possible this post could be triggering for people. (Also, it has a small spoiler for Stepsister Scheme.)

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


( 77 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC)
It's not an easy subject to write about. I know the struggle over whether or not to try to press charges is a huge dilemma for a lot of people.
Apr. 7th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
I actually wanted to do my thesis on the portrayal of heroines in genre - focusing on the rape as motivation/punishment - but one of my supervisors didn't believe it was a persistent problem in genre fiction.

I always find the rapetagonist irritating because they are so...stereotypical? It's always, you know, bandits or evil prison guards. They are unremittingly vile. (Not to say that a character can be a good guy aside from their raping issues - but there's something almost stigmatic about a rapist's foulness?)
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
::Boggle:: With all of the esoteric topics people expound upon in academia, your advisor shot *this one* down?

I think the problem with the skeevy rapist is that it plays into another rape myth, that rapists are always filthy, foul, obviously evil people. I wish that were true, since it would make it so much easier to identify them... And like other myths, it's certainly true that sometimes filthy people commit rape, but in fiction, it seems like that's the vast majority of what we see and read.
(no subject) - shekkara - Apr. 7th, 2009 02:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Apr. 7th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_ - Apr. 7th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
I'm really glad you mentioned the fact that people can survive and that their trauma isn't the only defining characteristic about them. One thing that troubles me in discussions of rape is the notion that it is the Worst Possible Thing That can EVER EVER Happen To You and You Will NEVER RECOVER. EVER.

It's a horrible thing to suffer, and some people indeed may *not* recover. But if we say, as our default, that that's the fate of anyone who's raped, then we're doubly condemning the victim. We're telling the victim that not only has she just suffered huge violence but that she'll never recover. What kind of a message is that?! No matter what happens to me, I want to believe I will have a chance to make a new life. I think hoping for that and striving for that doesn't need to belittle or trivialize the horror of rape.

Apr. 7th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
I'm debating a third rape post, talking about rape survivors and the range of reactions. Everyone responds differently ... there are some commonalities, but people are individuals, and they find their own ways to survive and cope and move on.

There needs to be a balance between Heinlein's rape of Friday (relax and enjoy it) and the other extreme where all rape victims are victims forever and ever with no hope of moving on.
(no subject) - filamena - Apr. 7th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Mar. 16th, 2012 10:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
As a writer, I've never included it, except as a threat made by somebody who is then immediately killed off. Part of that is just insecurity about not wanting to handle a very difficult subject badly, but another part is that whenever I read something that includes a rape, or a rape victim dealing with her reaction and recovery, two things happen:

1) I want to put the book down, because I read for fun and escapism, and as soon as somebody gets raped, I'm not having fun anymore. Sometimes I power through because I really am enjoying the rest of the book a lot, but a lot of the time, someone getting raped is what makes me go, "Okay, I have no further interest in this book." I have friends who suffered rape in real life. It's not fun escapism when that gets brought up in something I read.

2) I charge the author a bunch of Author Cred points, because my default assumption, unless the author has enough Author Cred points for me to trust him or her, is that the author has just raped a character for ratings. Okay, not ratings, exactly, but "raped for ratings" is one of those horrible things I remember hearing about on television shows, where having a major character get raped was considered as a ratings stunt. And that is what it feels like, barring Author Cred ability to back it up. It feels (to me) like the author went, "You know what would really dial this up? Having someone get raped!" And as soon as I can see the puppeteer moving the strings and DECIDING that someone should get raped to make his or her book better, I get sick and put the book down.

I didn't have that reaction to Talia, btw. That was handled really well and didn't hit my triggers.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
It depends on the book, too. I couldn't have written about rape issues in the goblin books, because those were more escapist stories, and it just wouldn't have fit. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time talking about rape in Goldfish Dreams. But that was a book about rape and recovery, and the reader knew what s/he was picking up.

I do think it's important to write about, and to do it well as opposed to the "raped for ratings" thing you describe. (Damn that phrase makes me wince.) But I can also understand that sometimes it's just not what you want to read.
(no subject) - pats_quinade - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jul. 31st, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
Just want to point out that the rape in Hominids wasn't really a stranger-rape - the rapist turned out to be a man who works with Mary and resented her superior status in his field.
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
I missed that. Did we learn that in Hominids, or was that in one of the later books?
(no subject) - skylarker - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvia_rachel - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tchernabyelo - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
In Shirley Conran's Lace 2 the rapist was a friend's friend who was portrayed as a respectable person. He never thought of what he did as rape, at the time he was just a young prince having his way with a servant.

I'll admit it did add a level of squick to my reading of that book after that revelation because of his relationships with the female leads.

I still have issues with that particular character for other reasons, but on the whole Conran managed to portray him sympathetically, despite some cultural stereotypes that made me grit my teeth.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Conran, but what you describe sounds more ... realistic to me, both the fact that the rapist seems like a decent guy, and the fact that he doesn't necessarily think of what he did as rape.

Writing a rapist character was probably one of the hardest things I've done ... making him complex and giving him good qualities as well as bad, instead of writing him to be the total asshole I wanted to make him.
(no subject) - kenakeri - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Apr. 7th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU. I wanted to love the Neanderthal Parallax series, because the anthropology is so meticulously researched and engagingly and innovatively written, and I work with one of the anthropologists who Sawyer spoke to as part of his research, and that person spoke very highly of Sawyer as writer, but the rape as motivator/characterization right as you open the book, and the ongoing "magical healing penis" trope ruined it. It turned Mary from a potentially great female character into a caricature defined by her trauma and sidelined in her own story from page one. I gave the second book in the series a chance, hoping it would improve, but gave up halfway through.
Apr. 7th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
I did like a lot of things about the series, but the "magical healing penis", as you say ... ugh. And the specific magical-healing-penis scene I remember, double ugh. I started kind of skipping over those parts after a while.

The third book handled these issues more interestingly (not necessarily less problematically), I thought -- but I'm afraid when I look back on the series as a whole, I mostly remember squicky parts.
Apr. 7th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Survivors of rape are still people, complex and contradictory, with desires and goals and likes and dislikes.

That's right. The idea that you can define a character by their victim status is rotten and worthless. I'm not defined by what happened to me. I'm defined by who I am.

It's always there in the background, and it does affect your choices, but it doesn't color all your choices.

It occurs to me that it might be instructive for authors who write this sort of thing to actually talk to survivors of this sort of thing if they're writing victim characters. It actually helps some of us to talk and make people aware. Approaching someone can be awkward, but could be done with tact and civility as well.

I'm not sure that talking to a rapist wouldn't be equally valid research, but certainly less desirable for most people, and actually impossible for some of us.

Apr. 7th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
I think, for author research, my advice would be to talk to the local rape crisis hotline. The workers there have a lot of experience (and from what I've seen, a lot of it will be personal experience as well as professional), and they're likely to be very invested in an author actually getting it *right* in a story.

For survivors who choose to talk about it, I definitely agree that it can be helpful for both the survivor and to educate those around her (or him). But I hesitate at the idea of an author seeking out rape survivors ... it may be that I'm being overprotective, though.

As for talking to a rapist ... vaulable research, yes. Disturbing and unpleasant as hell, too.
(no subject) - cathschaffstump - Apr. 7th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvia_rachel - Apr. 7th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
I think what's different about Talia's story, as well, is that you were using an established version of a very old fairy tale. Granted, not one that a lot of people know since the prettier one gets all the press but that was what happened in the original Sleeping Beauty. I've always thought that princess should kick some ass too.

I think the raped heroine uses the experience to go out and become badass theme has gotten much less prevalent in genre fiction than it used to be though it's still there. I have seen it used to establish how evil a villain is a couple of times fairly recently though. Interestingly, though I'd never thought till now, I've seen more women authors than men use it as a plot point...for some reason I'd have expected the reverse.
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
I do think a lot of things have improved in the way we treat sexual assault, both in our stories and as a society. (Speaking for my own U.S.-centric culture here.)

As for women vs. men, your point reminds me of another data point, that in some cases women are more likely to believe and hold on to rape myths than men. I'm not sure if the two points are related at all ... but I know it was a surprise to me the first time I heard it.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
One of the many things I liked about Talia was that though the rape did not become a defining characteristic, the anger was still there.

In talking to a relative who admitted to a rape fifty years after it happened (before then she didn't dare, because she knew she'd be blamed, even though she hadn't even reached puberty yet and had no idea what was happening until it was too late, and fought like hell) is that the anger stayed. She grew up, married twice, had and raised her kids, but she still knew where the guy lived, 3,000 miles from her present home, and half a century later.

Two things I hate in stories with rapes. The first is falling in love with the rapist, but just as bad (imo) is when the rape victim falls in love with her rescuer seconds after he saves her from the dirty deed. Oh yes, she's really in the mood to be attracted to someone, yep, sure thing.
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
The first is falling in love with the rapist, but just as bad (imo) is when the rape victim falls in love with her rescuer seconds after he saves her from the dirty deed. Oh yes, she's really in the mood to be attracted to someone, yep, sure thing.

I'm OK with the second one as long as there's a reasonable time lapse. It's natural (IMO) to be grateful to someone who rescues you from a bad situation (and just as natural to resent it because of the fact that you needed rescuing), and if the rescuer then turns out to be a good person in other ways, and you get to know him-or-her, etc. ... yes, that can make sense. Sexual attraction is not always the first thing that happens when people fall in love.

But straight from the clutches of the would-be rapist to the bed of the rescuer, yes, mega-squick.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
A timely post for me, since the book I'm currently writing turns on a sexual assault the team is investigating, and... well, there are buttons pushed for everyone*, especially as more details are uncovered and stories are questioned. It's very very tough writing this book, trying to do everyone justice, and still knowing that whatever I do, some readers are going to be vocally unhappy about it.

But shying away from the issue doesn't help, either.

*including the author, as per my previous comments on this topic
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
I suspect though, that by not shying away and by writing it in a way that's well thought out and ... clueful, for lack of a better word, that you'll also have readers who very much appreciate the story.

None of which makes it easier to write.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
We have a real love/hate relationship with Law & Order SVU exactly as you pointed out. They do a real service by showing how things are, how people are affected and how often the bastards don't think they did anything wrong. But sometimes you just can't deal with the horror-for-ratings aspect of the show and it starts feeling dirty.

What is really interesting is reading interviews with the cast members and how people and cops have talked to them about real cases.

Dr. Phil
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised no one has mentioned the ways that rape is seen as a permanent change to a woman's sexuality: it makes her frigid, or asexual, or gay. Coming from male writers, that seems to be code for "Some other guy's penis has been in there and now she's useless to me".
Apr. 7th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
Or how male characters are now gay because they were raped. A common enough cultural thing. I got asked this a lot at one point.
(no subject) - rosefox - Apr. 7th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
The worst exploitation of rape I can think of is still the opening to the movie Strange Days, which starts with a graphic, extended rapist POV VR capture. I found it so repellant it turned me off from the entire movie.

In memoir, Lucky by Alice Sebold stands out as the best depiction of rape and its aftermath I've read yet. The recent YA book Sold by Patricia McCormick about a child sold into prostitution is another excellent example of the fine writing that can be done on this sort of topic.

Personally, and in disagreement with some of the posts on AngryBlackWoman, I found the use of rape in BSG to be accurate for the situation, based on reading history of events like the (condoned by Stalin as a reward for his troops) Russian rape of the women of Berlin at the end of WWII.

I also thought Talia in Stepsister was handled well, giving me uncensored Fairy Tale rather than its more market-friendly Disney counterparts.

For me, as a writer, it's much like the recent discussions on writing about race. It raises the ante. You damn well better do your homework, and you damn well better show it to people who know the topic a lot better than you do before you let it out the door.

But the alternative to our current mix of incompetent and exploitive and the occasionally insightful portrayals, namely, having it be a topic that simply isn't discussed, is still far worse.
Apr. 7th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
I haven't actually seen BSG, so I can't speak to that piece. (Don't tell anyone -- they'll yank my Geek Card!)

I was thinking about the parallels to the race discussion too. It definitely raises the ante, and if you're lazy about the research or you mess up, there's a good chance people will call you on it. And I think they're right to do so. But I also think, like you say, it's better to try and risk failing than to keep sweeping it all under the rug and limit our writing to "safe" ideas and stories.
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Half the books I've read this year seem to have included rapes, either as part of the backstory or during the book. I'm not sure if it's just because I'm reading darker books (a lot of UF lately) or if it's just coincidence.

Small possible spoilers for a few books I'm about to mention, incidentally.

In book 3 of Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson series (which I really love), Mercy is raped at the end of the book. The fourth book, Bone Crossed, picks up right after the last scene in book 3, and I like that Briggs has Mercy deal with her trust issues and panic attacks, etc., in a very realistic way. At the same time, she's also going about the big plot events of the book in her usual manner, as much as she's able to.

I thought the rape scene at the beginning of Melusine was particularly horrific--I had trouble reading it--but the characterization afterwards was superb. Of course Felix has also been driven magically insane (of a sort), but I liked that he wasn't a totally sympathetic character despite all the reasons the reader has to feel sorry for him.

One of the things I find lacking in a lot of books--especially fantasy--is that any traumatic event for a character, whether it's rape or torture or the horror of battle or whatever, seems to have little effect on the character unless it's a plot point. It's the psychological equivalent of cheesy movie fight scenes where the hero takes six or seven solid hits to the face but he's still able to pummel the bad guys into submission, with only a split lip or something to show that he's been in a fight. Real people take damage and have to deal with it, and they deal with it in different ways.
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Jim C. Hines


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