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?