Trigger warning: Both my post and the post I am going to link both contain discussion of rape, including some descriptions of scenes in which this act takes place. Please, take care.
This morning on Facebook, I came across an article by Jim C. Hines, in which he talks about writing rape scenes and the major mistakes most writers make. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about books which put in gratuitous rape scenes, use rape as a way to define how bad their “bad guy” is, or provide motivation for their female protagonists; so it only seemed fitting that I link Mr. Hine’s article here on the blog. Please, take some time and read it in full for yourself.
Why do you want to include rape in your story? Is it just to show how bad your villain is? Is it because you’re writing horror, and sexual violence is such an overused trope of the genre that you added it to your story without thinking? Or does this scene really add to the story you’re trying to tell?
Ninety percent of the rape scenes I read in fiction, published and unpublished, are predictable. I see where the author’s going from a mile away. I sigh and keep reading, thinking maybe this time there will be something different or interesting or original here. But most of the time, it’s obvious how little real thought went into this part of the story.
While it’s clear that Mr. Hines has some privilege in this area, (such as not finding this kind of material triggering, simply bad writing) I agree so strongly with his thoughts. They mirror many of my own, and I’m grateful that he has a much larger platform than I do, because I so often feel frustrated and helpless whenever authors choose to use rape as a weak plot device.
I don’t know quite how to describe the relentlessness of it. Because it’s not just books–it’s movies, TV shows, even music sometimes. How tired I am of the nagging fear that, every time I watch or read something with a female protagonist (or hell, sometimes even just a female character), she will eventually be shoehorned into a rape scene or an attempted rape scene. Several of the books I have read for #MandarayReads have involved attempted rapes or sexual assaults simply so the “hero” or male love interest has an excuse to swoop in and save the heroine from the very same lurking, shadowy strangers that Hines mentions. That kind of shit is not only offensive to rape survivors worldwide, but it is incredibly bad writing. And it pisses me the fuck off.
The most recent example on this blog of this kind of terrible mishandling is Immortalis Carpe Noctum. I picked that book up with the naive hope that because the main character was a woman, the story would revolve around her power and her agency. The adventure would be more fun because she wouldn’t have to worry about the background radiation of fear I have held in my heart since I hit puberty. Looking back on it, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Because of course, the very beginning of the book kicks off with the protagonist, Alyssa, being nearly raped and killed so that she can be turned into a vampire. She gets no other character development besides this. We know she likes a local coffee shop, and has a friend who is late to things. That’s it. Everything else that makes her who she is happens because of this brutal assault–which of course the hunky male love interest saves her from just in time.
The author then has Alyssa blame herself for what happened, over and over again. But it reads like a PSA and reminding that how dare any woman want to walk alone at night without being assaulted. Other characters laugh along with Alyssa’s “jokes” about being foolish enough to think she could possibly be independent. No one ever tells her it wasn’t her fault. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) Whether she was aware of it or not, the entire book was the author using rape as a punishment.
In retrospect, I honestly don’t know how I managed to not throw that book across the room.
To be honest, in my 26 years of life, I have yet to read a book that treats rape and sexual assault respectfully. This saddens me, especially since I actually go out of my way to avoid books that have this material in them at all. I don’t like reading about rape, and I doubt I ever will. This isn’t to say I have a grudge against those who write about it or read about it–far from it. It’s just something I feel deeply uncomfortable with and don’t want to deal with in my fiction. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t get shoved in my face anyway. A lot of times, I am reminded of that time Seanan McGuire got asked–“When are your characters going to get raped?” as if it were an expected thing. And it is. I read about a woman going places alone, or defying authority, or digging into a person’s past… and there’s a part of me that is cringing, waiting for that moment. For a medium which is supposed to be wish-fulfillment, that’s pretty fucking sad, don’t you think?