So, you’re writing a genre fiction novel in a pseudo-medieval setting, and you a) need something bad to happen to your strong female lead, b) need a way to show how heroic your hero is, and/or c) need to show how evil your villain is. I know, you think, I’ll have the villain rape the heroine and the hero can rescue her or comfort her afterwards. Gosh, how original and ground-breaking am I!
Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but if you want an example of just how trite and thoughtless the use of rape can be in genre fiction (and, actually, plenty of other fiction categories), I refer you to Betrayal by Fiona McIntosh. The rape in this book is not the only reason I stopped reading it (the general mediocrity contributed) but it was a large reason.
Why is it bad? During the rape itself (of the heroine, by the villain), Heroine thinks something along the lines of, Oh, Hero, I thought my first time would be with you. Now, who knows what kind of random thoughts might go through a person’s head when they’re being held down and violated. Certainly, they might experience thoughts of how their loved ones will react. But, would they really think about who they’d rather be having sex with?
[As I noted in my book journal at the time, "Meanwhile, Hero is off having sex with a Whore with a Heart of Gold. Of course he is! And does he pick up a nasty STD? Of course he doesn't!"]
But that’s not the bad bit. The bad bit is afterwards. The next day – the next day – the heroine flirts with her rescuer and his sons and thinks naughty things about them. And again, I’m not judging rape survivors, and reasserting control over your body with lots of meaningless sex is a true-life coping strategy. This was not an example of that. This is an example of where rape is used as a plot device with no actual impact on the character. It’s lazy and disrespectful.
Later, when Heroine sees Villain again, how do you think she reacts? Bear in mind that one traumatic part of pressing charges for rape is having to sit and face the smirking little shithead in the court room. So does Heroine shrink in fear and rage at seeing him? No, she merely thinks, oh no! He might hurt the people I’m with!: her fear is all for her companions, not for herself, how noble. Because the rape was just a plot device with no actual impact on the character. Lazy and disrespectful! I could be wrong. Maybe later she starts having massive PTSD flashbacks – I wouldn’t know, because I stopped reading.
Rape is over-used in genre fiction; it seems to be the first thing that writers reach for when they’re looking for a way to hurt their female characters (male rape being much rarer in genre fiction, though I can think of an example off-hand). It doesn’t have to be taboo – you can still use it – but here’s things to think about before you do:
1) Do you have to use it at all?
Years ago, I heard veteran Grant Stone of the Faster Than Light radio show rather disapprovingly ask an author why all her female magicians were limited to being healers and other traditional feminine occupations (this also bugged me about the Harry Potter books – when everyone can do the dishes and cook dinner with the flick of a wand, why the hell are the women still stuck doing it?). She replied that it was the way that world worked. News flash, lady! You made up the world, so if you reverted to traditional gender roles without thinking it through, you’ve no-one to blame but yourself.
Same with rape. You’ve sat there and painstakingly built a whole new world, and when it comes to giving your character a challenge to overcome or coming up with a plot turn to move the story forward, you just revert to rape? Come on, put a little thought into it. I’ve already mentioned once the excellent alternative used by Patricia A McKillip. Another story (title and author escape me but rest assured it was a good book) had the villain turn the heroine’s best friend into stone and then smash her into a thousand little fragments beyond all hope of revival. Nasty and brutal and more original than rape – and making use of fantasy elements like magic.
That said, there are legitimate uses of rape. Lady Lord, a rather obscure book I read years ago, features a rape which sets the entire story into motion (a revenge plot). Daughter of the Forest has a rape which serves to move the story forward and, importantly, affects the character’s future relationships. Yes, it would have been nice to see the writers come up with something else, but at least the rapes in each case were handled well – and it had character impact.
1a) But…but…but it’s historically accurate
Okay, so your book is set in pseudo-medieval times and rape was a high probability then (actually, I have no idea if this is true – the way some books read, the odds of being raped if you stepped outside your front door unescorted were 100%; perhaps I’m being optimistic to doubt this), and therefore it’s a likely risk for a plucky and beautiful young girl fallen among bad people.
The problem with this argument is that, firstly, very little else about genre settings are historically accurate – people aren’t dropping dead of plague and other nasty diseases, everyone seems to have their teeth and be able to eat and move around the land freely, people live a fair long time and so on. So why ignore those unpleasant aspects but happily be ‘realistic and historically accurate’ only when it comes to violence towards women?
Secondly, the mindsets are usually modern – the way characters think about rape are contemporary to our times, not the pseudo setting. So, for example, rape is recognised as we define it now*, and the good characters are against it. This destroys claims for a ‘realistic’ basis for the use of rape. Consider Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost for the way a man in the 1600s views his rape of a servant girl – he doesn’t ever even remotely consider it rape (a little like the self-entitled date-rapists of today, though they should damn well know better [and I think they do, frankly; I think no date-rapist is ever genuinely surprised, deep-down, to be accused of rape, just shocked that it turns out women have their own opinions on what they want to do with their bodies and who with]). I’m not sure that otherwise sympathetic male characters see it as rape either. A parallel would be the way good characters in historical fiction are usually against racism or slavery, whereas odds are they wouldn’t have been, if real.
[*Side note: the way we define rape now is still very loose and dependent on all sorts of social norms and asumptions. Look at the rape in action blockbuster The 400 - if you just wondered 'what rape?' then you have missed the point that forced consent is not consent and failure to struggle is not consent - when the sleazy villain guy blackmails the hero's wife into having sex with him, that's rape, boys and girls. Feminist lecture over, on with the post.]
The way rape is defined differs; so does people’s reactions. Consider Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl for the way a woman in 1949 reacts to her rape by a soldier – she struggles to even comprehend it as rape, given she can only go on what she’s heard about it (again, she is comparing date rape to stranger rape). That’s only 60 years back – how much difference does 500 years make?
So if you’re going to make the argument of historical accuracy, make sure you back it up by getting the context, details and attitudes right, which leads me to…
2) Do your research
There’s plenty of rape-survivor memoirs out there, and studies of the mindset of people who rape (both stranger rape and date rape), and historical overviews of rape. I know they’re not pleasant, but suck it up and immerse yourself in them – you want to use rape, it’s your responsibility to get it right, particularly in how it affects the survivor, male or female, and their family. Because…
3) Make it count for character development
…No-one walks away unchanged from rape. If you’re going to use it, you better be prepared to devote some page time to having your character cope with it and recover (or otherwise). It better change the way they look at people, at their bodies, and at their relationships. It better be very relevant to the plot, character development, or character interactions, and not just a page-filler or a convenience. Because if you use it like McIntosh used it, you’ve failed.
I’ve used rape, though off-page only [and not my current two books, an upcoming one] – but I thought long and hard before I did and I felt I had no choice because of the set-up of the book and the way character loyalties were placed. I’m not trying to be a hypocrite here: I’m not saying a genre writer should never use it. I’m not even saying a genre writer shouldn’t use it because think of the poor rape survivor who’s trying to read some escapist fiction and just keeps coming across these awful, badly-done rape scenes.
I’m saying – as I am often saying on this blog – be conscious of using it, and be conscientious about it.