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?