Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Rape in Fantasy

Much has been said on the subject of rape in fantasy across the blogosphere. And yet, it keeps coming up in novel after novel. To some people, it must seem like fantasy authors have a sick obsession with a violent and depraved act. But I don't think it's that at all. I would like to offer a defense. Not for rape--heaven forbid! But a defense for authors choosing to include it in their novels.

It may seem strange to outsiders, but lovers of fantasy really do like to keep it realistic. We generally like gritty novels that tackle the problems of living in a non-modern age head-on. Even with systems of magic, we are picky. It must make sense. It must have rules that we can accept.

Long ago, Walter Scott wrote a popular novel called Ivanhoe. I loved Ivanhoe, but I don't think it would fly in today's world. Ivanhoe is full of long speeches and high-flown language that today's readers rarely tolerate. But at its heart is a terribly romantic story.

In Ivanhoe, there is a virtuous and beautiful "Jewess" named Rebecca. The dastardly and evil Brian de Bois-Guilbert (an unfortunate name for a villain--I have a hard time conjuring up dread for a guy named "Brian") abducts Rebecca. But he will not force her and she'd rather cast herself off of a tower than let him have her. Since he is a Templar, he is supposed to stay celibate. Therefore, later in the story, Rebecca gets blamed for his passion and is tried as a sorceress. In chapter "XXXIX" Brian approaches the doomed Rebecca in her tower room. He offers to fight as her champion in trial by combat if she will become his lover. After a long and speech-filled conversation, she refuses him and he departs.

In real life, he would have raped her. But Scott wrote the "escapist" novels of his day, and his villains had an interesting code of honor. He has no problem with having her accused of sorcery and coercing her into becoming his lover to avoid death by burning. But he will not rape her.

Scott was one of the most popular novelists of his time. Many credit him with inventing the historical novel.

Nowadays, grit and realism are popular. When we read a novel set in medieval times, we expect a well-researched escape into the past. And like it or not, the threat of rape was something every woman had to dread. Only a certain type of man will rape a woman, but how is she to know whom to trust? And once the rape did take place, it was shameful for the woman. Even as recently as the turn of this century, women were often blamed for the rape, because she supposedly "enticed" the man. (Rapes of ninety-year-old women--which I hear about with alarming frequency--would disprove this theory.) And it wasn't until well into this century that men lost the "right" to take their wives by force. To this day, there are lingering questions of if "no" ever means "yes"-- which makes no sense at all to women. No means no.

Therefore, when writing about times past, rape is--unfortunately--historically accurate.

Do I think the rapes are usually necessary to the plot? Probably not. If its a random act of violence, it probably could be avoided since we generally don't want purposeless violence of any sort in our novels. In The Deed of Paksenarrion, the rapes that took place toward the end were, unfortunately, necessary for the plot. I hated them. But without them, a great deal of impact would have been lost. And thank God Elizabeth Moon didn't go into any detail. And in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, a rape of a different sort takes place. I'm not completely convinced that its rape was necessary to the plot. But boy did it ever have an impact, so perhaps it was necessary after all.

I think authors should weigh the decision to include a rape in his or her novel very carefully. Many readers will hate it enough to avoid the author's works in the future. In fact, I think that goes for any type of torture. Not too long ago, I had to stop reading a novel because of too many stomach-turning torture scenes.

What are your thoughts? Does a rape in a novel put you off the author forever?

36 comments:

Jo said...

To be honest, I have only read one book with a rape scene in it. I think it was The Ship of Destiny with Robin Hobb. And to be perfectly honest, I think it was pivotal that this rape happened, because of the character and the issues of the rapist. The Ship of Destiny is the last book in a series, and you knew something was going to happen. It had to happen. It meant so much afterwards to several characters, and things couldn't progress t

Jo said...

(sorry, I submitted before I was ready) things couldn't progress the way tings stood. Once the rape happened, several people changed, relationships, not the plural, changed, eyes were opened, the plot progressed. It was pivotal. And whether rape or something else, the rapist had to do something, because of who the character was. If the author decided not to, well, it would be untrue to the character.

Would I never read another Robin Hobb? No. I love her novels, and I'll continue to re-read them, and read her new novels. It was an awful scene, but it was needed. I would have felt cheated if it wasn't there.

Tia Nevitt said...

I keep reading such good things about Robin Hobb, that I really must try reading her. Does anyone have a recommendation of a book that would be a good introduction to her work?

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

You speak of rape as if it were uniquely of the past in the real world... and then I look at some regions of Africa where a women has over a 50% chance of being raped before she is 20.

The instrumentality with which rape is used is fantasy is overdone, as Jo said, but its gruesome graphicness is a needed reminder of the world in which we live.

That said, those are sections I tend to try and skim.

ediFanoB said...

There was a big discussion about rape in April 2009. Ana from The Book Smugglers wrote a review of The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. The book contains an explicit rape scene.

Anyway it is a difficult. I agree with Jo. Only write about it when it is absolutely pivotal for the story.

My first Robin Hobb book has been the
Assassin's Apprentice. Fitz the farseer is still one of my favorite characters.

I think this is a good start.

writtenwyrdd said...

I am not bothered by violence in a novel, including rape, if it makes sense. It does add some needed realism. But I admit I vastly prefer said rape to have been either in the past or a threat and not a reality in the story.

Rape, torture, incest, child abuse and similar bother me immensely. Holly Lylse wrote a series of elvish stories in the 90s (Burning Chrome?) that included child abuse as a main element of the plot and I found I just couldn't enjoy the stories because of the subject matter being so disturbing. Yet when I read "Such A Pretty Girl," about a girl dealing with incest, it worked. It made me feel horrified, but it worked, and it was because of how the story was written.

So, in the end, it really depends on the story's construction, on how the author leverages the 'objectionable' stuff, and also on how the reader takes it.

Great big gray area!

Merc said...

I usually only stop reading an author if their work starts to bore or irritate me. ;) I guess my tolerance for any other content is pretty high.

While usually I prefer that torture/rape/etc is necessary to the plot, in real life people do these things--and not for "plot purposes". So as a realism aspect, I can read about these things in a novel without it turning me off the author (assuming it's done for SOME reason, and not because it turns the author on... I'm not fond of tortureporn and rape fantasies).

I think it comes down to: would the characters do this? If yes, then let them. How much the author shows it and how it's handled and how it affects the rest of the characters and plot is how I gauge how effective it is. *shrug* Could be just me.

~Merc

A. Grey said...

Too much rape or enuendos of it bother me and I'll skip through a novel with them. It also bugs me if a novel presents a girl being ogled and threatened by every man she meets simply because he's a man and she's a girl.

That being said, I do think it can be used in a way that furthers the plot. In my Wip, for example, there's a near rape of a former prositute. The entire point of the scene is to impress upon the readers how the former prostitute's new friends value her and will fight to protect her, as well as point out just how UNCARING one of the other companions is. The prostitute's outlook on life is changed, and the plot furthered.

I do feel that some people (some of them successful at that) throw rape, incest and all manner of other horrible occurances for no obvious reason beyond disturbing the reader.

Lori Devoti said...

Actually, I dealt with this issue when I wrote a Nocturne Bite last year. My heroine has a history of being raped. I really went back and forth on that because it is a sensitive issue, but unfortunately rape is also real. And like any other horrific event gives a character a history that can give them a very strong motivation to propel them through the book.
Now so far as reading an actual rape scene...I have read some, and they made me squirmy, but I've also read some horrific murder scenes that made me squirmy. It really depends on if the scene fits the book for me.
Lori

Tia Nevitt said...

Good point about rape not being a problem that is in the past. I unintentionally made it sound like it is no longer a problem today. Which, of course, would be nonsense.

I don't recall that the rape scene in The Warded Man was explicit. I think he dealt with it after-the-fact, didn't he?

Raven said...

I've been thinking about this very question myself lately because I'm working on an urban fantasy novel that deals with human trafficking and contains two rapes of a young man, and we know he went through others when he was a teenager. I'm not explicit, but it's clear what's going on, and his outlook is shaped by his experiences as a sex slave. It's disturbing to write and will probably be disturbing to read. At the same time, I really want to see this character heal. But I can't help wondering if maybe I should write something less gritty, especially since I'm not yet a published novelist. Opinions welcome...

A rape usually won't turn me off an author unless it's committed by the main character and I'm still supposed to root for him (Thomas Covenant, anyone?).

TK42ONE said...

For me, it depends on how the scene is handled. Clearly you can't write a rape scene "tastefully" but I think as long as it fits with the rest of the tone in the novel and it fits the plot, then I'm okay with it. If it's there to just add some gratuitous violent sex, then no thanks.

I was dreading The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks because several reviews talked about children being raped. But in the end, it was more implied than I expected and it didn't take me out of the story. He was simply giving the reader an idea of how violent the city was/is/could be.

Merc said...

(Not to get off topic, but I wanted to reply to Raven.)

Raven, I would say if that is the book you want to write, write it. Maybe it won't be your first published novel, but I don't see why the content (and what other people think--because you will ALWAYS have people who will not like it) should decide if you write it or not. Do you want to write this novel?

(Actually, it sounds like something I'd like to read. *cough*)

I suggest that you think about it and decide whether or not to write the book based on what YOU want at this point. :)

(I'm writing a novella right now which has... similar themes. The MMC is a slave in a culture that doesn't believe rape is wrong if it's done to slaves (human slaves in particular). He gets very broken--and then the story question is whether or not he can heal. So... touchy subject but I'm not letting that stop me writing about it. *shrugs*

~Merc

Maria said...

I think the graphic descriptions are often overdone (whether it be rape or torture or both.)

I think you actually covered two topics: Realism. And Rape.

For number one...I don't actually require a lot of realism in my fantasy. :>) I read about goblins (nose-picking ones at that in Jim Hines series) for crying out loud. I mean, sure they gotta stay in character and be consistent...but I guess if pressed, I'd have to admit that the whole story isn't very real...

As for rape, yes, it puts me off a story. Almost no matter how it is handled, but if it (or torture) is graphic, then I'm not going to read the passages, and I may put down the book. If I haven't read that author before, it will be the first and the last. If I've read other stuff where I thought the author did great stuff, I might skim the passage, finish the book and try something else by that author.

But. Like it or not, even an author I like (and one comes to mind here) it affects my future reading. An author I LOVE wrote such passages in one of her novels. She tried to handle it well, but...

I bought another book by her, but it's been over a year and I haven't read it.

Torture? Even worse. It's almost a guarantee I won't read another book by that author.

The author has to be true to the plot and the story. But I am not always going to be capable of reading about it.

I think there are some such cases where it's handled (hands off enough) that I can accept it and continue reading. But in today's writing, graphic (and often excessively so) is the rule.

Raven said...

Merc, thanks for your thoughtful reply, and I'm glad to hear it sounds like something you'd like to read. :)

I really do want to write this book. I love my character. But sometimes I have a bad habit of second-guessing myself too much.

Your novella sounds interesting. The main character you describe reminds me of mine. My character starts out very broken and has to grow and in some ways become a hero long before he's done healing.

Janet said...

For me it matters immensely how it is presented. I'm really not interested in a play-by-play. And if it's a child being raped, I close the book. There are lines I won't cross, and that's one of them. I stopped reading The Kite Runner and Stones in the River for that very reason, even though I thought they were fantastically well-written. Perhaps BECAUSE they were fantastically well-written. I couldn't laugh them off as "just a story" because they felt too real.

Basically, there's only so much pain I'm prepared to deal with. I like my entertainment to be challenging, but not that challenging.

Having said that, I have a story idea in which a rape would be the central event of the story. But it would happen off-stage. It's not HOW it happens that's important, but THAT it happened. So I don't object to dealing with the reality of rape but I don't want to be dragged through the details. Another concern I have is that we can't help but have a hormonal response to a graphic scene (either of rape or other violence) and I certainly would not want to become a "pusher" getting someone addicted to that rush.

Merc said...

Thanks, Raven. :)

I think mine takes a darker turn, but still...

Heh, maybe we should beta-read each other sometime. O:)

Anonymous said...

I like scenes that make me feel empathetic for the characters. Usually the gut-wrenching ones are my favorite. These can happen when violence is inflicted on the character (like torture and rape), or a major sacrifice is made, or even scenes that have the aftermath of such events.

Some books, like Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, deal with rape explicitly, and I loved the book.

As long as it is portrayed as an evil act, that the bad guys commit, I have no problem with it in the stories.

Maria Zannini said...

I think we all have our sensitive buttons. Rape scenes don't bother me, though I prefer implied rape rather than every gritty detail.

When it gets too graphic I get the strange feeling the author is trying too hard to make his point.

My only reason to put down a "realistic" book is if they hurt animals. I don't tolerate animal abuse under any guise.

Memory said...

I have a lot of trouble dealing with rape scenes, and I'll admit that I tend to steer clear of visual things, (movies, television programs, graphic novels, etc.), that I know include them. I'm also leery of books with documented rape scenes, but I don't avoid them. Most of the ones I've encountered in fantasy either pushed the plot forward in some way, or helped define and/or shape the characters. They chilled me the bone and left me wishing that things had happened otherwise, but they did serve a purpose.

The only time I take umbrage with authors who chose to include rape scenes is when they treat rape as either funny or excusable. It's neither. Not ever.

Raven said...

Merc, yes, maybe we should! It sounds like we'd be ideally suited.

I have no objections to dark. :)

Tia Nevitt said...

Wow; lots of writers here--including me! I admit to writing a novel that includes rape scenes. It takes place in ancient times. During the final conflict, my main character is captive of an evil god. I thought out the plot of the final conflict for days and I didn't think I could avoid the rape scene and still remain true to the evil character.

In the end, I decided to write "around" the rape scenes, because I didn't want to be explicit. I was prepared to discard the scenes if necessary--I discard scenes with impunity!--but it worked out well for the story.

And cool! Beta readers find each other here! Raven, I can vouch for Merc giving good feedback--because of her I completely discarded the opening scene to another novel. And Merc knows you write great reviews.

Maybe I ought to have a regular feature for writers because so many writers hang out here. Maybe a Writer Wednesday discussion post?

A. Grey said...

ooh, that would be fun!

Merc said...

Tia--I love the idea of a discussion topic once a week! :)Sounds very fun. You have such wonderful readers and commentators on this blog (along with coming up with great posts yourself) that I always enjoy reading the discussions, even if I'm not around much to join in...

Raven--awesome. :D I'd love to read yours. (Possibly we could take this to email if you're interested. My email is on a link in my blog.)

superwench83 said...

I don't necessarily mind rape in novels. (Now, if it had ever happened to me, I might feel differently.) I agree that with the nature of fantasy, particularly when it's historically based, sometimes you just can't get around it. I've written a rape scene myself, in fact, though an unusual one--a man is raped by a woman. But bottom line, just like everything else in a novel, it has to have a reason for being there.

And I'm totally on board for Writer Wednesday if you decide to do it!

Cassandra Jade said...

I have to be honest, I prefer my stories to ellude to things like rape rather than actually show them (should it be necessary at all to the story) but a rape scene won't necessarily turn me off reading something. As a courtesy there should be some indication on the cover that there is confronting content and then leave it to the reader to decide whether they want to read it or not.

Kat @ FanLit said...

Tia,
I agree completely with everything you said in your post. I do not like reading rape scenes, but as you said, that is real life (especially in medieval settings). An author should be careful, though, to write the scene well -- to make an emotional impact without making the reader squirm so much that (s)he has to stop reading.

Your analogy to torture is appropriate. I'm betting the book you had to stop reading was the one I gave you. (Sorry.) That one made me squirm, too.

Tia Nevitt said...

Kat, I actually haven't started reading any of your books yet. Too many review copies right now! But I am forewarned!

Most of the rape scenes I've read have not been explicit. It is one instance where the writer should "tell" rather than "show", and that's what I usually see. I think that's a recent trend, because I recall the rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear as being quite explicit.

And I guess we're on for Writer Wednesday, starting next week! Mark your calendars! Should we choose a topic ahead of time, like we inadvertantly did this time? And if so, any suggestions?

neesah said...

I read a lot of what can be referred to as "dark fantasy" so I I've read more than one rape scene. Like any other person with morals, we feel discomfited when we hear or read about something that goes against our morals, whether it's rape, torture, slavery, etc., either in real life or in fantasy. Because in its core, any of these I mentioned is a show of power, an abuse of power. We dont mind seeing powerful people but it's another story once we see them exercising this power against other people (it especially hits us women harder, since we've been the targets of such misuse of power since the beginning of time). And this is a good plot device. It's the perfect (and easiest) way for an author to show a misuse of power and that's why many say that rape has been overdone in fantasy. I guess if possible, they should use other plot devices that might generate similar reactions but not as appalling. In the end, I dont mind reading rape in fantasy as long as it has something to contribute to the story and you feel that the author didnt just throw it out there to shock or add a bit of "darkness" or realism to his story.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

A great article. Rape is realistic, especially if a war is going in in the fantasy world. The only thing I require in a novel with rapes is A) no men-bashing, B) nothing too, too, graphic and C) the hero/heroine had better not be the violater. It's hard to connect with them after you see them hurting someone else. Plus there are so many different kind of violations that have little to do with physical rape.

Tia Nevitt said...

Great points, Carole and Neesah. We often forget that rape and pillage (and the taking of slaves) were a part of war. During ancient times, a conquering army often raped anything on two legs, and sometimes they weren't even that picky. If you know what I mean.

Chicory said...

Not exactly pertaining to the subject in the heading, but I once had to have a torture scene in a story I was writing and I didn't want to try a description, so I just had my main character overhear what was happening. My beta readers thought it was really graphic, even though I didn't describe ANYTHING. Sometimes writing around a subject is more hard-hitting than a graphic scene because it leaves so much to the reader's imagination.

A. Grey said...

Wow, this is the most involved and thoroughly explored subject! Very very cool to read everyone's opinion on the matter. So, throwing out a possible subject for Writer Weds, anyone interested in doing something involving villains, or possibly, bad guys (girls) who are really bad, but AREN'T actually the villains?

My suggestion actually comes from the rape discussion because one of the main characters in my Wip is a bad guy, an exceptionally bad guy, who has committed all manner of crimes, rape included, not always by his own choice (there is a reason that he doesn't have control over his own actions). He's a worse person than the real enemies, but he's on the 'good guys' side, for now, anyway. It'd be really interesting for me to hear everyone else's thought on, shall we say, unsavory characters, true enemies, or just bad apples.

Tia Nevitt said...

Chicory, that does sound chilling.

And A, I have some characters like that! In my last novel, I have a really corrupt police officer that just keeps coming up, and in the end my character is forced to let him take credit for her own heroism. So yes, that sounds like a great topic to me.

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin said...

{thoughtful look} I studied rape for a high school assignment. (Trust me, the alternative topics were worse. {small smile}) Because of that, I often shift into a kind of analytical mode when rape turns up in a story. I'm interested in seeing the responses to it. I want to see how well they fit with what I learned. I want to see if the differences make sense in the context of the culture portrayed.

My tolerance of rape in fiction is also higher than it might be because I know that certain approaches can help survivors heal. Then it is worth it, in my opinion. {Smile}

That said, I didn't make it thru Thomas Convenant's scene, either. I put down the book, and never felt like going back. {lop-sided smile}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

Win Blevins said...

Rape in a novel? Not sure why it's separated from murder torture, violent child abuse, and so on.

What I object to is not these acts in themselves--they are part of life--but the occasions when the author seems actually to relish making them gruesome, or reveling in the horror when pretending to condemn it, or using it to create a view of life that for me is unacceptably dark. For instance, sorry, but I won't read George R. R. Martin because his stories are so brutish. Neither will I read another Hannibal the Cannibal novel.

But there are good reasons for a writer to use rape and other violent acts. The most common is to give the victim, or someone close to the victim, a powerful motivation strike back at the perpetrator.

And sometimes, exceptionally, a violent can give rise to a meditation on and higher understanding of, violence itself, even on mortality.