Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part IV

It’s been a while since I posted an update in this ongoing rant, so I’ve decided to rectify the problem. Recall my earlier comment on “adult themes” as setting a narrative tone? Today I’m going to focus in a bit closer, and talk about one of the more infamous plot devices out there: rape. And, yes, this one is still going strong in the fantasy genre, now more than ever.

4. Rape as plot and character device.

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This one isn’t confined to fantasy, of course, but as a feature of storytelling it has been plaguing the genre since long before the rise of “adult themes”. Whereas “adult themes” sees it as adding edgy maturity to a work, in this case, it’s the author wanting to do one of two things – either provide motivation for their character, or demonstrate how evil their antagonist is. Either way, it’s as lazy as it is offensive.

I think the reason authors fall back on this is the same reason they fall back on suicide as a device – it’s dramatic. It captures the reader’s attention… well, yes, it does, but not in a good way. The problem is fourfold:

(a) It provides a tacky way of circumventing all the hard work required in developing character backstory or drama, to the point where readers are more likely to roll their eyes. Because it’s been done a thousand times, by a thousand villains. It’s actually one of the problems I have with Frank Herbert’s Dune – it’s like Herbert sat down and tried to work out how many possible ways he could make Baron Harkonnen seem villainous – he’s a fat, rapist paedophile (and gay). We get it, Frank: Baron Harkonnen is supposed to be a *bad* guy.

(b) In not one of those thousand times has the actual psychological complexity of the situation been worked through. It’s simply treated as X happens, so characters do Y (often seeking revenge, as though there aren’t an infinite number of other ways to set up a revenge plot), and rather than having a character with complex motivations, it becomes a case of pinning all their behaviour on one event. It’s reductionist analysis at its absolute worst (up there with Rowling’s “Snape does what he does because he loved Lily Potter”).

(c) Its handling in-story is often unrealistic. Fact is, most rapists aren’t crazy supervillains or Dark Lords or serial killers. The depressing fact is that most rapists are actually already known to the victim. Along these lines, a moment’s thought about the Harry Potter universe would reveal the absolutely chilling potential of Rowling’s love potions – not that Rowling actually seems to notice, beyond the banal and offensive comment that Voldemort was incapable of love because his mother resorted to a potion to seduce his father.

(d) It is entirely possible that one of the readers may have previous experience in this area. Which carries with it the danger that by resorting to this storytelling device, you are actually hurting a percentage of your readership, rather than engaging them. In fact, murder of all things is less problematic here, since murder victims aren’t going to be reading your work. Also, while it is comparatively easy to conjure up hypothetical scenarios where (fictional) murder may be justified, it is a good deal harder to construct a “justified” rape scene (the closest attempt I can think of is the 1970s film, Blood for Dracula, where Dracula can only feed on virgin blood, so our protagonist rapes a woman to save her. Given that the protagonist isn’t portrayed in a favourable light – to the point where Dracula is arguably more sympathetic – I’d argue that this is only a close attempt, since the film is really making the point that the protagonist is himself a monster).

In short, rape as a plot device is bad, and authors need to stop using it. This (of course) applies to homosexual rape as much as it does heterosexual – having real-life straight women ogling fictional gay guys via rape scenes is not an improvement over the standard “male author uses rape to motivate a female character”.

But wait, you say – surely it is wrong for authors to self-censor by steering away from particular subject matter? I mean, literature exists to explore the human condition, so surely that means exploring this area as much as anywhere else? True – there are exceptions, and I can think of at least three to all of the above.

One exception is the Stephen Donaldson route. Unlike other authors, Donaldson actually works through the psychological ramifications of the act in detail – both Thomas Covenant and Angus Thermopyle are subjected to hundreds of pages of character development, as the author studies their motivations, guilt, and possibility for redemption. So if you want to go down that route as an author, fine – albeit that it might end up overwhelming anything else you want to say in your text.

A second exception is black comedy, where being so over the top and offensive is the entire point. No less than Shakespeare himself resorted to this, but I’d argue that it is no accident that Titus Andronicus is considered a lesser play than Hamlet or Richard III. Terry Pratchett does it too, at least in the scene where Lord Vetinari and his assistant are discussing the shenanigans of Cohen the Nonagenarian (“what is the difference between rape and ravishment?” “I don’t believe there were any complaints”).

A third exception is where you are dealing with the truly amoral. This is harder to pin down than the other two, but I think it manifests itself in more supernatural settings, where the issue isn’t so much “wrongness” so much as the fact that the perpetrators are acting on a different playing field altogether. The classic one here is Greek mythology, where no less than Zeus himself gets up to all sorts of disturbing activities, but no-one is really supposed to see it as anything other than the callous and amoral whims of the gods. You also see this with the Elf Lords in Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword, and to some extent in Robert E. Howard’s Conan (at the risk of opening a gigantic can of worms about The Frost Giant’s Daughter, I’ll just note that with mysterious magic taking over Conan’s mind, you’re not dealing with conventional consent at either end).

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