Saturday, August 1, 2015

But It's Realistic! The Delicate Issue of Rape in Fantasy

If the title of this post isn't a warning, I'm talking about a very unpleasant topic today, one that can be a trigger for some people.

Rape is an unfortunate and disturbing facet of human behavior. In a world where a significant percentage of women (and a number of men too) have been subjected to one form of sexual assault or another, it makes sense that it would make its way into fiction, including fantasy.

It is a real thing, for both men and women. It happens in war, in prisons, on the streets, and even in people's homes and private lives (in fact, with most sexual assaults, the victim knows their assailant). I don't think it should be off limits, either as a story focus or as a plot device. I learned about how horrible it was by reading some stories where characters were raped (a couple were even issue books, aimed at teens) and also learned something about the problems victims have with shame and self blame and so on. These novels dispelled some myths about rapes, gave me some information about how to protect myself from it, and helped me develop more empathy for victims.

However, it's a topic that is rife with misconceptions, and it is often handled badly in fiction.

In the first draft of the novel I'm querying now, my female main character was a rape victim. It felt so natural to do this. My story isn't set in a sugar-coated fantasy world. I wanted a bit of grit and realism. Plus, a past sexual assault gave her a reason to be hyper-vigilant, focused on her work, and leery of intimacy. And it gave her a traumatic past that would allow her to empathize with the male main character's outsider status.

But then I started to think about my choice in more detail, and I began to wonder if my unthinking gravitation to rape as backstory for this character wasn't problematic. Here's why:

1. It's the ultimate crime of erasure and un-personing, and it's just about the worst thing a person can do to another without killing or mutilating them. It is a very powerful thing, and it shouldn't be trivialized. Yet is often is in fiction. Did I want to make the issue of rape a specific focus of this novel? No, I really didn't, but if it's handled in passing, then it suggests I think it isn't all that weighty.

2. Adding insult to injury, rape (or other indignities) committed against a female character are often used as a motivator for a male character. It's not about her, it's about the "real" character, who happens to be her lover, husband, father, brother or whatever. It's a form of the infamous "women in refrigerators" trope first identified in superhero comics, but also in movies, video games, and books. Was her rape really there to be something the male main character would have an emotional reaction to later? I didn't like the answer to that question.

3. It's often used as a cheap way of showing how evil someone is: cardboard villain rapes character (or threatens her with rape). It's just been done so darned many times. Same for using it to show how dark and unjust one's fantasy society is. But aren't there other ways I can make a villain thoroughly unpleasant or show the reader how gritty things can get in my world?

4. There are a lot of real, live people walking around who have been victims of sexual assault. Reading about it in a book can cause them to relive their own experience. My character's rape was "off screen," and of course every victim processes his or her experience differently, but even so, did I want to dredge up those emotions in some readers if it wasn't necessary for the story at hand? Not really.

When so many of one's potential readers have been a victim of sexual assault, it's a good idea to consider how it's portrayed, because it will affect them. Graph from Sarah Kliff's Blog.

5. It's often misunderstood. It's a planned crime of violence, humiliation and control, not lust that got carried away. This has been known since I was a kid at least, yet many people haven't gotten the memo yet. Rape is sometimes portrayed as something raiders or soldiers do simply because they haven't been with a woman for a while. It's also one of the only crimes where the victim is routinely blamed.

I did address victim blame, both self blame and blame by others, as problems for the character in the story. But did I really want to explore how that would play out and spend the time to make it clear this rape was a crime of control and anger, not misplaced passion, even if most of the characters didn't realize it? Again, the answer was no.

6. If a character who is meant to be sympathetic rapes or is accessory to a rape, then he/she will cease to be sympathetic to a large number of readers. If the writer wants a redemption arc for a rapist, their work is cut out for them. I call this the Thomas Covenant problem. It wasn't relevant in my case, since the proposed rapist was a villain, but it's definitely an issue in some stories. It's not impossible to make a rapist relatable to a high percentage of readers, even if he isn't on a redemption arc (Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is a great example of this, as is Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns), but it's a hard needle to thread.

7. Rape portrayals might be titillating or erotic to some readers, or at least read like they're meant to be. This is a particular problem when the assault is shown as part of an actual scene, rather than summarized or recounted as back story. This wasn't really an issue for me in this particular story, but it's another thing that can come up. And more problematically, what's horrific for one reader might be titillating for another.

8. Men get raped too. It's actually quite common in warfare and torture situations, yet rape of adult men seems to be omitted from most stories where authors justify female rape for its realism. Funny how my "go to" rape victim was female. I had actually considered rape of a male character at one point, but I abandoned the idea, because I feared it would make him too unsympathetic or unmanly in the eyes of some readers. Why is this, and why didn't I fear the same thing might be true for my female character? The answer is pretty uncomfortable.

9. And it's been used by so many writers (especially in fantasy) in such lazy, clich├ęd ways as the life-defining trauma for female characters. Or it's presented as a sort of comeuppance or life lesson for adventurous, naive, or "careless" female characters who presume to go out and risk themselves in a man's world. "Silly girl! Don't you realize all these rules and restrictions that hamper your freedom and agency are really there for your protection? So now you've been raped (or threatened with it). Hope you've learned your lesson and find a man to protect you!" I absolutely, positively did not want to send anything approaching that message.

For all these reasons, I realized that even careful and realistic portrayals of the rape trope can feel (to female readers, at least, but maybe to some male ones too) like being poked over and over in the same patch of deeply bruised flesh.

I decided it might be fun to write a story where the main female character has some other past trauma or dark secret for once

And I really think the one I ended up going with actually works a lot better for her as a character and for the way things unfold between her and the male main character.

I'm not saying rape should never be used by authors, of course. There are too darned many rules out there to baffle and confound new writers. However, I do think it's best to proceed with care and to carefully consider one's reasons for including it.