Dear Authors,

Pulling Out All Stops.

“Do not be nice to your characters,” they say.  “Pull out all stops. If it’s going bad, make it worse. Make them confront the dark, their worst fears.”  And then you picture them throwing back their heads and cackling madly to a thunderstruck sky, fire blazing in the distance, raining soot and ash.

Oh, please.  Do you know how often this gets repeated? It’s like when corsets were in style and women were told they couldn’t get a man unless they had a man-made waist. Why do you need to artificially throw bad things at your characters in order to make plot happen?

Plot does not consist of Bad Things Happening to Good People.  That is not conflict. That is not even very responsible.  If any of you readers are Christian, consider this.  God does not make a list of everything that could happen to you and make it all happen to you at once. Not even to Job, and he had it really bad.  You should not do the same to your characters.

One of the main reasons I have come to feel so strongly about this–is rape.

I am tired of authors thinking it is a great idea to rape their female characters.  I am beginning to wonder if any of these authors (male and female) have BEEN raped.  If they had, they would not handle the subject so brusquely to be thrown into the story as a “great plot element” for our heroine (or hero, if they’re feeling audacious) to deal with.

But these days it seems that it is quite within the fashionable norm to do so.  I don’t know, maybe they look at statistics and wonder.  They say, “Huh, look at how prevalent rape is in the world. I wonder if that means I should make it happen to my protagonist. Okay, that sounds like a good idea.”

Yeah, sure.  To them, I say, “Look at  the statistics. See how many people get murdered every year! Why don’t you let THAT happen to them instead.”

Please, authors. Think. Think of all those women who wish they could read your books, but instead–since they have been raped or abused–you throw triggers at them and then the rest of their week  is ruined in the fight to recover themselves.  Please, show some responsibility and realize that there are plenty of OTHER conflicts that can happen. Break the mold. Overcome plot fashion. Grow some creativity–and maturity.  Let someone ELSE write rape into their plot. You can pick some other conflict.  Stop hurting my friends.

Please help heal the world by not writing rape.

Give the victims of the world a safe harbor in which to lay anchor.  Injured souls will benefit more from this approach than by any other. There is no depiction of rape (whether on or off the visual stage of the progressing story) that brings catharsis.  It only retriggers the trauma.

If you are dead set on using the theme because of its prevalence in the world, show us how to be free of it, how to escape it, or how to defend from it. Or if you want injured souls to have a champion who understands them, put the event in a character’s past.  However! Don’t let it happen. Anywhere. Not even on the page.

Remember, that with as many stories swimming about your head as you have, what you choose to write about is as important as how you choose to write it.

Thank you.

– – –

– – –

If you want some personal statistics.

Number of friends I have had who have been raped or sexually abused: 10.

Number of said friends who are at the point they can talk about this relatively openly without triggering…2, maybe 3?

Number of book series I’ve stumbled into where rape/sexual abuse is an issue at some point during the course of the story, (aka not including the distant past of a character): 9 (different authors)


14 responses to “Dear Authors,

  • Joe Vasicek

    Wow. I hope I’m not one of those writers who triggers people who have experienced that sort of abuse. It’s certainly not something I want to do. I do have to admit, though, one of my other novels kind of borders on this sort of thing…the female protagonist gets captured and enslaved, but she is able to gain enough respect from her captors to prevent them from raping her…at least until the second half of the book, when the balance shifts. I have no idea what you’d think of it; I know that Desert Stars had some pretty explicit scenes, and I hope none of those would be triggering, but I don’t know. If they are, please let me know.

    • Laura

      For the book I haven’t read where she’s raped in the second half of the book–I would say that would be triggering, yes, and needlessly so. Granted, you’ve already written the book and there are plenty of people I am sure who won’t mind the story. I, however, would not be able to recommend it in good conscience to any of my friends who have been abused. And I don’t know enough about the others that I would in good conscience recommend it to them, either.

      When I learn that rape is going to be dealt with in a later book in a series, I immediately abandon the series. I can’t stomach it anymore.

      If you’re going to publish it despite my request in the post above, I would put a content warning specifically mentioning what sort of issues are going to be involved. That might give your plot away, but it might save a lot of people the heartache of being surprised. Being triggered is hellacious. Being triggered is not worth it to read the book, no matter how clever the author thinks s/he is being on handling the topic.

      As for Desert Stars, I’ll e-mail you so as to avoid posting spoilers places, etc, while talking specifics.

  • Joe Vasicek

    To be fair, I’m not even sure if it is “rape.” Yes, she’s not exactly free to refuse, but whatever happens happens on her own terms, after they’re technically married. It’s basically a story of how she goes from being a powerless slave to a powerful and influential queen. But yeah, it’s definitely got some mature content, so I’ll have to post a warning about that.

    • Laura

      Alright. *nods* If it’s her own terms and she wants it to happen, then it isn’t rape.

      • Joe Vasicek

        Well…it’s a little more complicated than that, but yeah. I’ll just have to be careful not to be too explicit or triggering.

      • Laura

        Yeaah…okay. Well, just remember that if she doesn’t want it to happen or if it’s not on her own terms, even if the event is off-screen, it can still be triggering. Unfortunately, because of the way when we read we bring our own experiences with us and become emotionally involved in the story, having something be inexplicit or unseen may not be enough.

        It depends a lot on the character, her personality, her experiences, how she handles it, and so on and how you write it. If she’s doing the act for political reasons and reasons she chooses and she feels empowered thereby, that’s different, for example. There’s a difference between someone manipulative and in control like a Cleopatra and someone being manipulated and given little choice like a foreign princess forced into a harem.

        So…yeah. I don’t really know how to help without having read it.

  • M.

    You really made me think with this one. You’re always really making me think! But I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’d never really given a lot of thought to readers triggering in response to what we do to our characters. I guess I haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about my responsibility to readers, beyond producing engaging content. You’re absolutely right, though – there’s as lot more to it than that. While, yes, it is a part of our job to show that darkness exists, for me at least the focus of what I’m trying to convey is more on the fact that darkness can be overcome, and that it’s possible to get through difficulty and put the pieces back together to survive the things that break us. Forcing people to break down themselves isn’t going to further either of those goals.

    In response to your fellow commenting fan here: A part of my day job responsibilities is to assit people who are going through rape. I just wanted to put my two cents in here.

    If she doesn’t explicitly say yes, it’s rape. If she doesn’t have a choice, it’s rape. If she doesn’t want to have sex with that partner, at that moment, in that way, it’s rape. There’s no question or grey area here. It doesn’t matter if she has a relationship with that person, it doesn’t matter if she’s expected to want sex. There are no extenuating circumstances that excuse non-consensual sex and make it anything less than rape.

    I know that we live in a culture that tries to tell us that no means yes, that women secretly want to be taken against their will, that if a person is sexy, it’s a right to be able to have sex with them, but these are illusions hiding the truth:

    Lack of consent is rape. Period.

    • Joe Vasicek

      Yeah, that’s what I figured. Unfortunately, it’s also absolutely essential to the story. Perhaps that limits its audience; I figure the best I can do is to keep it from being too explicit or gratuitous, and put a content warning on the book description when it’s out.

      • M

        I mean, obviously it’s your story and you have to be true to your inner narrative etc. etc! If But I guess at least a big idea that can be taken from the discussion is a mindfulness of what kind of impact triggering content can have on readers? For me at least, that heads up equips me to treat that territory with a greater level of respect.

  • Charlie

    That book doesn’t need a content warning. I’ve read it, it’s not graphic, therefore no content warning.

    I think what it comes down is, “is this necessary for the character arc in the story, or is it just to make this chapter more gritty?”

    Take Juliet Marillier’s DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST, one of my favorite books. The main character gets raped in that story, yet I didn’t find it grotesque in any way–it made me heartsick for the main character.

    Then take something from George R. R. Martin. Great writer, but HIS books are something that would need a content warning (which they don’t have. Assume that if you’re picking up an adult-geared fantasy book, you get what you get). There are scenes in those books that, despite how I loved his writing, made me stop reading them. Too graphic, too unnecessary, too “now I feel like I need to repent”-ish.

    I think you make a lot of good points, of course. This is a very heartfelt post. At the same time, someone could argue that killing a character in a story is horrid, because maybe their father died, or their friend died, and it brings up too much emotion to let them keep reading. Or someone who’s staunch Christian will abhor a book that suddenly has gay romance in it. People throw down David Farland’s books because the “bad guy” is dark-skinned, and they think he’s racist.

    Yes, rape shouldn’t be graphic or done lightly, but just about every book out there will offend or hurt someone or other. It’s a polarization of audiences. As sick as it sounds, there are people who love reading rape scenes. There are people who adore LOLITA because they like pedaphila. Audiences are segregated by more than just age group and genre.

    Very thought-provoking post, though.

    • Laura

      The thing is, it’s not about whether something is graphic or not that needs a content warning. Rape can be on or off the visual stage of the book for it to still be triggering and damaging to its readers who’ve experienced said for themselves.

      It’s not about the grotesqueness or the graphicness. It’s not about portraying lust or making people squeamish. My concern is for the readers being hurt.

      There are many stories that I’ve seen work with rape as a theme. An episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse season 1 exists where a little girl is sexually abused before the story happens and so a young woman is sent in to help her who has had the same experiences–just is further along in the healing processes so that they can confront the issues together. The young woman even confronts her rapist later in the story and flashbacks.

      Or the graphic novel Ice by Faith Erin Hicks uses rape in the backstory of her main protagonists and includes “graphic” flashbacks. Or the manga Mars by Fuyumi Soryo handles the issue of the main female protagonist raped before the story begins. These protagonists are raw and hurt–but the rape isn’t as immediate and they are on the road to recovery and putting themselves back together. This, I think, is a better story. A reader who has been raped needs someone who can understand them and a hero who can show them the way. A reader who has not been raped needs to be able to understand the issue and the damage caused. You don’t need to be raped within the covers of the book in order for that to happen.

      I really don’t care about offending people with books. There’s always someone who can be offended. But I am more concerned about hurting people unnecessarily when there are better ways out there to tell a story about rape and coping with it.

      Sorry about the bluntness. This issue has me in “injured mother bear protecting her cubs” mode.

      • M

        It’s true that there isn’t really a standard rating system or anything for adult fantasy. We don’t have a ratings board like television and movies do, so you’re right, discretion falls to the reader there.

        I think in online publishing though, authors have a little more freedom to be in control of the presentation of their own stories. If I have online books downloadable from my site, or if I have a profile on a book downloading site, it’s not hard for me to add a couple of lines of digital text saying something along the lines of Hey, readers. X book contains content that may be triggering for people sensitive to Y topic. It’s a minimal effort for me, and it saves a huge amount of heartache and suffering for my readers.

        You’re definitely right that some people are comfortable with or even looking for graphic content. They should have the right to read, and authors should have the right to write, as they see fit. Having a warning for triggering content, though, gives people the option to save themselves a lot of difficulty.

  • Rachel Frost

    Have you ever read Speak?

    I’m so glad you posted this. I think that as writers, we do have to have some sadism to allow bad things to happen to our characters, but we certainly shouldn’t glorify violence in any form. Rape is a horrific thing, and it shouldn’t be so prevalent in fiction–unless, as has been stated, it’s to show someone overcoming that trial in their life.

    • Laura

      I have read Speak, yes! I actually read it a long, long time ago back before I knew just how sensitive this issue can be. But (in hindsight) I remember the author really understood how traumatic and damaging rape is. She accurately portrayed the tangling doubts and fears and the jarring flashbacks. And yes, I’m glad the author chose to tell her story after the event took place and portray the protagonist’s road to recovery instead of starting the story before it happened.

      My one complaint with the story is how raw and heavy the book is all the way through. In real life, a victim has more going on than “trying to heal from rape”, but if I remember correctly, that was the central plot of the book and everything else (such as her art) was subplot. Granted, Speak is literary fiction, and so it can get away with a plot whose intent is to recreate heavy, raw, and numb feelings–kind of like how sf post-apocalyptic fiction is intended to be darker, bleaker, with the faintest glimmers of hope at the end like sunlight poking through the clouds. So for that reason, I still wouldn’t recommend Speak to someone who has been raped for fear of triggering them unnecessarily, though I may recommend it to the victim’s friends or family. There’s just not enough emotional distance. Is a harrowing reading experience worth a patch of sunlight at the end? Someone undamaged can take it, but someone whose wounds are open and bleeding? Why kick someone when they’re down?

      Wow, I talked a lot about that book! In summary, the author understands the issue and takes responsibility a lot better than most treatments of the subject I’ve seen, but since it’s the main plot and not subplot, I’d rather recommend a less-painfully-raw book to a victim.

      Thank you for your comment!

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