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?
June 2, 2010 @ 11:59 am
As always, I think there are a lot of great points here, particularly about not lecturing; if the writing is effective I think the message gets through just fine. I think it’s also important to make sure that the autor treats the issue with honesty and respect; I have read a number of books where either there is no healing process, it’s just all suddenly okay for whatever reson, or where the author seems to almost revel in the dark vileness of the deed and personally I think both of those attitudes demean real victims of real rape. I also can not ABIDE the (thankfully now outdated) romance trope of “he raped her because he loves her and now they’re married so it’s okay, doves and cake all around.”
In fiction, I do like how Patricia Briggs dealt with the rape of Mercy Thompson and continues to deal with the aftermath in the Mercy Thompson series; also Anna Cornick (nee Latham) in the Alpha and Omega series. In both cases the rape has very real consequences for the victim in terms of how they handle issues of intimacy and sex, love, trust, and personal worth; the answers don’t come all at once or easily, and the actual personalities of the characters are changed by their experiences.
There are several rape related issues in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, and none of them draw to neat conclusions for the characters involved; all show the process of relearning trust and personal interactions, although each character is uniquely affected by their experiences. (For others who are familiar with the Vorkoverse, I am thinking of Cordelia; Bothari; both Elenas; and Mark, in particular.)
June 2, 2010 @ 1:34 pm
Another interesting post, Jim. Your attempts not only to look unflinchingly at rape (of women), but also compassionately and realistically, is one of the best things about you and your writing, IMHO. I’m glad your voice is out there about this, because a lot of people either wouldn’t have the courage to write/speak out about it, or use it from a purely external vantage point simply to act as a plot point or (worse) to get a rise out of readers (in various ways… ugh).
One other excellently handled example of rape in fiction (specifically SFF) is in Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind.” You mentioned that “less is more” with a rape scene, and Rothfuss does this masterfully well. He makes it a point to include the hero’s experience with it, but as it is told through his own words, leaves the mention of it fleeting but matter-of-fact–no gory details–the way a real rape victim might. That matter-of-factness, especially, made me understand the reality of it and how he’s had to deal and live with. But at the same time, you also see (like you said) how having been raped doesn’t define him and isn’t the end-all hang-up of his life in the least. I think it’s just one of the most realistic and “positive” (??) ways I’ve seen rape handled in fiction–it’s obviously still present in the back of his mind, but it eventually gets diminished to some degree by the passage of time and simply because he’s lived/experienced more, and it becomes just one memory in a sea of others. I wouldn’t say the scars of that experience (or various other bad ones he’s had) are healed, but it’s just there and at least not actively hurting him in the present day anymore.
June 2, 2010 @ 10:16 pm
There’s quite a few rape scenes peppered throughout the works of Bernard Cornwell, who writes historical fiction with a military slant. He doesn’t get sensational with the lurid details (usually), but he does graphically present the brutality of men in the throes of bloodlust during wartime, especially in his Saxon Series and Grail Quest novels. It’s not a pleasant side of the nature of man — raping, pillaging, murder — and Cornwell doesn’t shy from it. Sometimes, though, I find I have to put the book down for a moment before continuing.
June 3, 2010 @ 5:22 am
Aside from your Princess series, Jim, I’ve had very little experience with rape in fiction. I believe Stephen King does use it in his Dark Tower series, although it’s more a case of “is it rape because she doesn’t want it, or is it consensual because of the situation she’s in?” for the “major” event of that nature.
I think it’s one of those topics that unless you can write about it tastefully, you shouldn’t do it at all. I remember there’s a lot of alluded rape in Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule”, and the nature of it really put me off the book. Yes, it made you despise the bad guys, but I just didn’t want to continue reading it as every time it popped up I wanted to skip to the next chapter.
But it’s a real world issue, and one I think that would be tackled in books whether one wants it to or not. It has a lot of uses as a storytelling device, whether it helps shape a character (Talia, I guess), opens the door to a plot later on (Dark Tower) or is used to make you sympathise with (Talia!) or hate a character.
Just like sex in a non-“adult” novel, less is more. Allusion is all that’s needed, because the mind will fill in the blanks.
Jim C. Hines
June 3, 2010 @ 7:34 am
I haven’t read the Dark Tower books, so I can’t comment there. And I’d agree that sometimes it’s better not to try to write about rape at all than it is to do it so badly and (IMHO) offensively as we get in certain books.
I also think it depends on the books. It’s not something I could have written about in the goblin series. The tone of the books was just wrong, and there’s no way. On the other hand, it’s a part of real life, and if you’re writing realistically, the odds are very good that rape will be a part of some of your characters’ stories.
Jim C. Hines
June 3, 2010 @ 7:36 am
Even when you do everything “right” (whatever that means), the mere fact that you’re writing about rape is probably going to make some people put the book down, and some of those people may not pick it up again. Either because it’s too personal, or too unpleasant, or whatever the reason.
Jim C. Hines
June 3, 2010 @ 7:37 am
Thanks, Cy. I need to go back and reread Name of the Wind … if only because it’s been way too long, and I need to remember what was happening for when the next book comes out in March.
Jim C. Hines
June 3, 2010 @ 7:40 am
Thanks, Anita. And ugh … don’t get me started on that old “romantic” trope.
One of the comments to this post elsewhere was someone linking to their “erotic rape” fiction. I do understand that there are people who enjoy reading this, and I can recognize that there’s a huge difference between fictionalized rape fantasies and the real thing, but … just not something I’m personally interested in reading.
Briggs came up as an example several times, and I remember the fan reaction when that book came out. It actually makes me want to pick up that series to see how she handled it.
And Bujold is just a damn good writer.
June 3, 2010 @ 11:28 am
I agree completely, Jim. I wouldn’t expect Pratchett to shoehorn a rape scene into The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents, that’d be wrong – no matter how well it’s written. With Talia, it did make a lot of sense for that to occur. She was asleep, practically comatose I guess, and there was no way for her to fight back against the yet-unnamed-prince (if my memory isn’t failing me).
Damn it, Jim! I’m a reader, not a master writer! 😉
P.S. You should read the Dark Tower series. It’s one of those ones that messes with your head a bit, but is certainly worth the time. If you like King, anyway.
June 3, 2010 @ 2:32 pm
Yes… can’t wait for “The Wise Man’s Fear” next March. *__* I lucked out by somehow not hearing at all about “NOTW” until very recently. My first read-through was about a month or two ago, so I’m the wait until March 2011 didn’t sound as bad to me as it must’ve been for folks who read it back in 2007. Sometimes, living under a rock is a good thing… lol…
June 4, 2010 @ 2:52 pm
Bujold *IS* a damn good writer, it’s true. 😀
The Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega books were probably just about the first fiction I read that involved rape in a way that didn’t seem to either revel in it ir write it off (other than in the Vorkoverse). I honestly feel like I have a better understanding of what it might mean to be the victim of rape better having read Briggs’ work; it is pretty rough going emotionally to read and I don’t think it’s for everyone. For me it gave me a level of understanding and compassion that I do not think I otherwise would have developed as fully. I would absolutely recommend either series, her worldbuilding and characters are fabulous.
June 7, 2010 @ 4:59 pm
I think the first book I ever read that talked about rape was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and it was phenomenal! I read it as a freshman in high school and I think it should be required reading.
I love the way you wrote Talia by the way. She is my fav. character. 🙂
Jim C. Hines
June 7, 2010 @ 6:21 pm
Thank you! She tends to be my favorite, too. (Though the others all have their moments 🙂 )