When is rape ‘OK’?

Well, that’s a bit of a shocking heading to show up here in my blog. Bobbing corpses and squished skulls, yeah. Fiberglass, leaky decks, engine work, mice under the hood, sure. But rape? OK, no less? On what planet? Planet fiction. Come, let’s visit.

I once read that in order to create a sympathetic character that readers will embrace, you need to ensure that they first suffer undeserved misfortune. Readers who are shocked by what a character has suffered empathize more, and this is especially true for female characters. During the time I was searching for an agent I was told this on more than one occasion. I was breaking a critical rule by not having my protagonist first suffer some type of devastating harm. I was informed that you can’t have a tough, capable female character simply because she is tough. No matter how epic she may be, we must first see her broken, humiliated. Simply put, in order to make Hazel a more sympathetic character, I should adhere to a time tested formula: I should have her raped and/or brutalized early in the story. Let readers see her suffer, and she’d win more hearts in the end.

While I see the logic in this approach, there’s something I find particularly troubling about the underlying concept. It makes rape ‘acceptable’ within the guidelines of the plot, because we know the poor victim is going to get her vengeance by the end. I’ve been told The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander (in both the book and movie, neither of which I’ve read/seen,) is FAR more violent and vengeful than Hazel, though each time, the standard “it’s because she was brutally raped,” disclaimer applies. Translation: her violence is acceptable and understandable, as is the, so I’m told, extremely graphic sexual violence she first suffers. Don’t let it upset you, it’s just a plot device, and our fair maiden will be stronger for having endured it. So long as she’s first been force-fed a large helping of brutal but plot driving violence, our delicate little hero can now fight back – though I was also advised that she should be very troubled and remorseful by her actions, no matter how justified.

Perhaps I might have won over more fans if I’d gone that route. Maybe it was advice I should have followed. I didn’t. But it does raise the question: is sexual brutality acceptable when it’s not necessary to the plot but used simply as a device to gain a character sympathy?

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8 responses to “When is rape ‘OK’?

  1. Excellent question, C.E. I am prejudiced, since I prosecuted sexual assault cases, including some very high profile rape cases. For every tough woman I ever met, she had been tougher before the rape than later, and my desire would be to never never use it in fiction as a device. When it is essential to the plot, that is one thing, but to popularize a work product, No! I am presently struggling with a scene in my book Midwife’s Secret in which a Benedictine novice is about to be sexually assaulted. Originally I had planned to have her kill the perp in self-defense, an act which puts her in a tailspin. I have since considering having the rape interrupted by a third party, who is the avenger. I haven’t made a decision and I am going to write it both ways and let my sensibilities take over. As for The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, Ms. Salander was pretty street wise and tough enough before the sexual assault. But it does drive the plot, and not just in the first book, but throughout the trilogy.

    • Linda, I can understand your feelings on the subject, having dealt with victims first-hand. And I agree, it has repercussions that leave an individual forever changed. As you pointed out, in Lisbeth Salander;s case, this is pivotal to her motivations and the plots of each story. In my case, it wasn’t a necessary element, and adding it would have been for effect. For what you are writing, it’s a question of who this character is and who she becomes, and how that plays into where the story is headed. From an author’s perspective, there are so many facets to this choice,

  2. I remember Jo Rowling once saying or writing that her character Snape was just not a very nice person. But the more we found out about him, especially in the final 2 books, we did find some “reason” behind his antisocial, often plain mean, behavior: the neglect and abuse as a child, the tormented target of the school bully. Male or female, I think every reader wants to know, “But why?” How did he/she get so full of rage/hatred/tough? Hazel has a past, it’s just not well-defined (yet).

    In the first installment, Last Exit in New Jersey, there is a reference to an assault that occurred when she was 14 (or near 14, I’ve forgotten, sorry). She didn’t lose that fight either, but there is a rage in her…I think maybe some readers would like to know…why? I wouldn’t be adverse to understanding her more than I do. Perhaps it isn’t easily explained, perhaps she is simply a sociopath. But those questions make me want to know more, and perhaps the third installment (or 4th) will answer that nagging question, “why?”. It only makes me want to read on!

    • Diane, I never saw it that Hazel started out with rage and hatred. When she is assaulted at fourteen, she first panics and cries for help, but that fails and survival instinct takes over. She’s armed and knows how to defend herself. Myself, I see that as perfectly understandable. No, at that point she isn’t lugging around any specific emotional baggage, but that event, coupled with others taking issue with her lack of remorse for defending herself becomes her foundation for wariness and suspicion of others from that point forward.

  3. Richard Norman

    The formula is probably ok to follow but you can’t “Un-rape” your character and such a thing will forever be a part of her mskeup. I would imagine that you could generate similar sympathy (or allowance for brutal revenge) with other brutaevents – car forced off road, shooting, mugging and so on. Just piss her off an perhaps cause some injury requiring a hospital stay or significant recovery time. Linda makes some great points above. Remember, Lisbeth was forever motivated and altered by that rape. Thimk about where Hazel needs to go before using the rape card.

    • Well said, Richard. You can’t un-rape a character. I didn’t want that as a part of who Hazel was, and including it in the plot when it was never there to begin with would have been a mistake, especially when there were enough other things going on to sufficiently piss her off to the point of violence.

  4. There is no question but that you cannot “unrape” a rape victim. I can think of no more dynamic, hideous experience than one encountered by a victim in one of the cases I initiated, who was lured into her landlord’s house and asked to help him change a light in his bedroom. (She was very tall and he was short). Then he zapped her. She saw that there was the kind of truss rigging over his bed that butchers sometimes use, and there was plastic sheeting spread on the bed. She knew exactly what was coming, and she fought like a banshee. She was a pretty street wise woman when she entered that room, but that experience made her even tougher. Who would expect her to remain unchanged after an experience like that one?

  5. I hate the modern trend of having raped female protagonists and hackneyed plots involving childhood sexual abuse. However, the “Dragon Tatoo” trilogy is a classic example of how to do it well. Lizbeth Salander was a fighter long before she was raped. Her character was established more through the abuse her mother suffered and to which she was a witness. She avenged her mother with extreme violence when still a child. Most of the trilogy is about society’s attempts to brand her as “unstable” and to keep her under control. They really are out to get her. Her actions to defend herself are quite sane and logical.
    I’m glad Hazel is not labouring with a back story of abuse. She seems a bit irrational at times (like stabbing Jake!) but nearly all her violence is simple self defence. No need for a load of emotional baggage. I like her as she is. Besides, you’ve left yourself plenty of scope for character development. (assuming we’re in for a series ).

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