Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Big R: How to Deal With Rape in Your Fiction

Fiction is often a mirror onto the reality in which an author lives. Even in the most outlandish fantasy or the most far-flung sci-fi writers have to inject realism into the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of their characters. Not all of those actions are pleasant. In fact, some of them are downright horrendous. Rape is one of those actions.

Let us make no bones about just how common rape is. The numbers reported by the Department of Justice (and found at the homepage for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network here) estimate that at least 1 in 6 women are victims of rape or attempted rape in America today. That rough 16% is based off the reported numbers, and common wisdom says the numbers are even higher than that because of the number of rapes that go unreported. Additionally, 3% of American men are also victims of rape, with the same caveat that rape is a severely under-reported crime. So yeah, including rape in a story does inject an element of horrid realism. That isn't the problem. The problems are some of these other things.

Problem #1: Making Rape Sexy

Rape is a total violation. It is the use of someone's body without their consent, often through violence. It leaves scars that can damage someone's psyche for life, and it represents a complete betrayal of someone's trust. I don't know why someone would try to put a glossy coat of sexy on this, but apparently there are writers out there who have. It is for that reason that even the most salacious erotica publishers have in big, red neon "No rape for titillation" on their submission guidelines.

Under. No. Circumstances.
Let's clear the air on this one. Lots of people enjoy forceful sex. They enjoy holding their partners down, or being held down, and being taken hard. However, rape is not about the type of sex someone has; it's about consent. Rape is not sex; it is an act which happens to involve penetration, but it is not about the intercourse itself. It's about someone's willingness to participate, and about that person's volition. It doesn't matter what physical form rape takes, whether there's leather and chains or candlelight and mood music; once that consent goes away, the act becomes rape.

On the one hand, yes, there is a marked appeal of rape as a fantasy. According to Psychology Today's entry here surveys of women's sexual fantasies consistently turn up at least a 40% of women who regularly have rape fantasies. On the other hand, I would personally be willing to wager that none of the women surveyed who are of sound mind and body would like to be raped in real life. That's the difference between fantasy and reality.

But isn't my story just a fantasy? some writers might ask. Yes and no. On the one hand if you're writing a piece of fiction, then yes, you are creating events that did not happen. On the other hand, authors have a responsibility to create a real, believable world. The depiction of that world is important, and by attempting to make rape into something sensual, by focusing on the pleasure the rapist feels or paying an inordinate amount of attention to the victim's body and reactions, authors are sure to snap the suspension of disbelief. Or worse they'll create a world in which raping someone is considered the sexiest thing one person can do to another, thus giving it the social rubber stamp that normalizes it.

Problem #2: Definition by Rape

This is perhaps the simplest example of lazy writing I can think of, and it is given a pass time, and time again. I'm looking at you Nora Roberts, and at least the first few books of your "In Death" series. A female character (sometimes a male character, but that's very rare) is raped. Maybe it was a random man at a bar, maybe it was her father, maybe it was even multiple persons, but whoever it was the rape changed her. It made her what she is today... and that's the problem.

Something's missing... I can feel it...
Once again, rape is a horrible experience. It can alter the way a person sees him or herself, and it leaves wounds that will be a long time healing. It is not, however, the only reason a person becomes who they are. Your characters, just like real people, are a collection of a lifetime of decisions and choices, experiences and actions. Being raped is often important, but so is losing a child, suffering from a terminal disease, going through a warzone, or recovering from drug use. None of these traits should wholly define who a character is, even if some of them are more visible than others.

There's one last, important note on this section as well. Defining a character through the short hand of the rape survivor is used almost exclusively for female characters. On the one hand, yes, women are victims of rape more often than men. Don't be fooled though; this insidious bit of sexism is used to create an optical illusion that a shallow character with a single, defining trait actually has depth. There are no shortcuts to making a rounded character, including a horrible back story.

Problem #3: Trauma Drama

If you were to ask an average person-on-the-street what the worst thing one human being could do to another was, rape would be near the top of the list.
Because average people lack twisted imaginations.
While the horror writers might have chuckled at that, the sentiment isn't very funny when you look at it. So often in fiction characters are raped not because it's an important part of the story, but because the writer wants to create tension. Rape does this, without question... but is that all you could come up with?

Rape has become the knee-jerk reaction when lazy writers want to do something terrible to characters without killing them off in order to keep the plot interesting. Just shop around for a little bit and read how often this happens. Ask yourself why? Why rape? Why not having someone's good looks permanently ruined with a scar and missing teeth? Why not having their house broken into and a cherished family heirloom stolen? Why not losing a limb in a car wreck, or developing a mental condition that makes the character struggle just to get through the day? If it isn't crucial to your story, cut it out and move on.

Problem #4: Making the Victim a Means

One of the worst things about rape as an act is that it turns someone from a person into an object. They are acted upon, and thus they were stripped of identity, of meaning, and in a real sense of their personhood. With that said, why would a writer do that accidentally by making rape in a story about anything other than the rape itself?
There are better ways to make villains evil.

This happens a lot when the writer is looking for ways to make the bad guy seem more vicious or evil. This in turn makes the hero all the more heroic when he defeats the villain, and sets his victims free from a life of sexual violence and objectification. Notice something in this setup? The rape victims are pawns; set pieces whose only purpose is to cast brighter lights on the good guy, and darker shadows on the bad guy.

Don't. Just don't. If you're including rape in your story, then take a long, hard look at what that rape is doing. If it's only purpose is to make the bad guy twirl his mustache, or the hero step up to protect a nameless, faceless woman, then you are doing it wrong. If you want to make better bad guys, look here instead.

Problem #5: Not Doing Your Research

Writers are consistently hammered with the idiom "write what you know". However, a more useful maxim is "know what you're writing". If you're going to include rape in your story then take that second one to heart. Write it on your wall. Tattoo it on the back of your eyelids. Carve it into the skulls of your enemies.
Whatever you need to do.
Jim C. Hines makes a big point out of this in an entry he wrote for Apex Magazine here. Hines says when it comes to rape he's seen so many mistakes in who commits rape, who gets raped, and what decisions lead to rape that it reads like a formulaic guide on how to write an offensive scene. It isn't that someone is being raped. It's that someone is being raped by a scruffy nobody in the back of a deserted parking garage when the victim had been drinking. And the guy has a knife. Because symbolism.

It's your world, and it's your story. If your character is one of the remarkably few cases of stranger rape (most rapes are committed by persons known to the victim), and if that rapist is an angry, recalcitrant thug unable to approach women (it's much more common for rapists to be normal people, or even highly charismatic ones), then that's your business. But if you're going to take on the task of portraying rape as part of your story, then don't shirk at your due diligence.

Again, thanks for dropping by the Literary Mercenary. Thanks for your support, and for spreading the advice in Notes From the Editor's Desk to all your friends. Feel free to make a small donation in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

1 comment:

  1. For an excellent example of how to do a rape victim RIGHT look at the full expansion of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" that Harlon Ellison did for the video game adaptation script.

    It's really blatantly obvious the twist (you're not told she's a victim, just that she has a phobia) but what actually defines the character is being the last one of the survivors that's defiant, the fact she's an amazingly strong character, and the most technically adept of the group. Ellen is a computer scientist that happens to have been raped in the past, not a rape victim that happens to be a computer scientist.

    In fact, that right there should go in every writer's "questions for yourself" list, to avoid odious stereotypes: "Am I writing a [class/race/gender] that happens to be a [profession/skill/personality] or am I writing a [profession/skill/personality] that happens to be [race/class/gender]." A woman that happens to be an elite computer hacker means you're focusing on their gender and making the part that's actually carrying weight for your story the afterthought. Paint the plot-important and unique part in broad strokes, fill in their race/gender/religion/other sensitive aspect in the small strokes. Of COURSE someone's gender, race, religion, nationality and culture matter but the more central to the character it becomes the more likely it is you are about to write an odious stereotype.

    Anyway, Ellen is an outstanding example because you see her being strong and sarcastic and determined before you see her being a rape victim. Plus [spoiler alert, sort of] the choice to try to torture her with that ends up leaving the opening that the protagonists use to defeat the antagonist because of her positive character attributes (basically she's able to realize what the antagonist is doing in creating a psychodrama for her and use her technical skills to open up a weakness that is exploited later).

    THAT is an interesting rape victim, because yes, the rape and its horrible effects are there in the character, but she has so much more to her.