Handling Rape in Fiction

Someone asked about how to handle rape in a writing group I’m a member of on Facebook. In particular, she was worried about legal issues when portraying a rape victim who happens to be a child. That is a very serious and heavy issue to write about. It was interesting reading the answers by various people.

Some people were outraged and asked her how she could even think about writing about child rape. She clarified that her book was about a woman who had been raped as a child and how she coped with it. It’s meant to also draw attention to the problems of human trafficking and how her government (the UK) was turning a blind eye toward child rape in certain ethnic groups. It is an issue in many places. Someone else pointed out that it’s a big problem in the US, as well, involving children being taken from Mexico into the US.

Other people provided some useful information. Basically, it’s fine to write about it, but don’t describe how it happened. That’s fine, because the author said she was writing about the aftermath, not about the actual event. Some who were rape victims themselves were supportive.

I’ve read books that involve child rape, including George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Although it’s a fantasy series, it’s similar to medieval Europe, where it was common for early teens to get married and start having children. It provides a degree of realism, rather than being politically correct.

I have a future fantasy series in which I will have a character who was a victim of rape as a teenager, and it looks at the response of both her family and society as a whole, as well as how she handles the attitude toward her. I don’t take this subject lightly. In my writing, I don’t take anything lightly. Although I am writing for entertainment, I also want to tackle important issues and make people think. I want people to be angry about various issues, or at least take them seriously. The treatment of women and children is a very serious issue, especially as a husband and father of a young child.

Authors often deal with very serious subjects. As an author or reader, how do you feel about rape being addressed in fiction? Not only rape, but also any kind of sexual abuse. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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18 thoughts on “Handling Rape in Fiction”

  1. Rape is a reality. We, as authors, can’t be held accountable for realities, whether they happen in real life or in fiction. Can you imagine a world in which serious issues were glossed over and turned into something Disney would produce in animation? Hell, even Bambi dealt with death.
    I agree some things are more difficult to talk about, and I’m not sure I would “go there” on purpose. But if it happened to my character, I’d have no choice. I would do my best to keep my prose respectful, however.

    1. Yeah, keeping it respectful is the best. I don’t like glossing things over at all. I didn’t grow up sheltered. I saw violence on TV, I even saw some movies with nudity and sex. My parents didn’t hide it from me. I knew about war and many kinds of suffering, although it was difficult to relate to while I was a kid.

      1. We were lucky that it was hard for us to relate to. I remind myself once in a while that there are children out there who live through worse scenarios than our kids see on the screen.

  2. Hi there, felt I needed to comment on this one, as you propose an interesting question and something for which I’ve got experience. As a former Undercover Operative with various law enforcement agencies all over the country and one who needed to research the legalities of writing about such things once I decided to go public with my own story, I might assure you that it’s perfectly OK to write about it everything, including the details. The biggest concern from a legal stand point is changing names, but many will also change, locations, dates and relations. I do not however. You will avoid any potential lawsuits by simply stating that your story is fiction (although, might be based upon true events). See how I’ve done it here: http://jessiejeanine.com/my-stories-3/ as I write about everything from being molested to kidnapped, raped and tortured. It’s a tough path to travel, but a needed one, especially when the intent is to help bring awareness. I might add that my editor at the time still had me cut back on the details quite a bit though, because you don’t want to lose your audience either, as most people can only handle reading so much on extremely sensitive topics like that. Sure hope this helps!

    1. Thanks for the comment. This is certainly very helpful, and I think it would help a lot of people with their writing. It’s certainly eye-opening.

      I wouldn’t want to lose my audience, so I won’t be explicit in anything related to rape.

  3. I wish I could recall the article exactly, but I read an excellent one about how to use rape in a story. Now obviously a writer is free to use any paradigm any way that they want, but of course just as they are free to use it, readers are free to critique it. The article suggested ways and means to use rape in a way that would be beneficial to victims of that horror instead of just having it in there gratuitously. It’s one of those things that’s so utterly horrifying and terrible that it should be used responsibly in a way that isn’t just to showcase violence but to make a statement.

    I take this as a way to examine my own usage of the motif, which I’ve done a lot (more so than ever in my WIP in narrative retrospect). As said above as a writer you are free to use whatever motifs you wish in your story, but rape/sexual assault should have a specific purpose in a since stories are one of the most powerful ways to change minds and introduce new ideas and how such a terrible thing is handled could do a lot for public discourse. Instead of upholding the status quo, a writer could do something to fix it.

    1. I fully agree. I’m not a fan of things being in a story for gratuitous purposes. It should have a reason. For my story, it has a purpose, and is a central reason for the main character’s motives.

      1. Yup. I have it in my WIP but the whole reason behind it is to show how victims/survivors of such should be treated. I use it in my original novel, too, and like you it’s the foundation of my main character’s motivations and mindset. This might sound cheesy but I fully believe that writers of influence can change the world and I get upset when they use their influence to further reinforce horrible instances of the status quo when they could work to change them.

        1. I know what you mean. We have the ability to change some people’s minds. I know I have already. Some people have told me that I’ve inspired them, even if it was to help them work harder on their blogs. But for serious issues, I think we can and should use whatever influence we have to encourage change.

  4. The Library Police by Stephen King has a four to five page section where a young boy is pulled into the bushes by a tramp and raped. It left me with a lump in my throat.

    I agree with LindaGHill in the comments. If it is important to the story and handled correctly then there is nothing out of bounds for a writer.

  5. This is an interesting thread, because I have a short story planned that deals with the rape of a being that appears to be a little girl. I’m having trouble plotting it out because I’m not worried about legal implications so much as the audience putting it down as soon as they find out the conflict. Some people will do this regardless, it’s not their thing. But it will be a challenge to portray what happened without coming across as gratuitous.

  6. I think it is possible to imply a rape scene effectively with emotional gravity without necessarily going into graphic detail, but it depends on how gritty you want your fiction to be. If you’re writing gritty fiction you can’t turn away and gloss over scenes that make you feel uncomfortable, or because it isn’t PC. I don’t agree it has to be written necessarily to ‘benefit’ rape victims – that’s what non-fiction is for.http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/20/concert-pianist-james-rhodes-wins-right-to-publish-autobiography and that book sounds completely in your face with it, which I personally find off-putting, though I totally get the author’s point.

    But it does have to be believable — someone who went through the trauma of rape is likely going to have issues in future relationships, for example. When things like that are cast aside for the sake of the plot, then it seems insensitive and implausible.

    1. I’m going more the way of implied rape, since it’s something that happened earlier in the main character’s life. But I will be doing a fair amount of research to get the effects of rape right. I want it to be believable, and have the character’s actions believable.

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