RAPE IN FICTION
MORE TIPS ON WRITING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS
AMBER LOVE 15-APR-2015 (TRIGGER WARNING)
By now you’re probably tired of of the words “rape culture” and really tired of me and my peers shout about the issues. Silence is difficult to accept when the news feeds and entertainment media are filled with stories of sexual violence. I’ve previously posted two parts about female characters and sexual assault plots on January 5 and January 6, 2015. There’s always more to say. Once again, I’m going to be approaching this topic for cis-female characters specifically. I think transgender victimology could be addressed separately.
I love a fair amount of crime fiction and TV dramas. On Vodka O’Clock I often reference lighter shows such as CASTLE, MONK, or PSYCH. Lately, I’ve been marathoning the much darker side of crime fiction with CROSSING JORDAN and CRIMINAL MINDS on Netflix. In serial cases, the detectives see what the victims had in common. I found myself also looking for similarities in the victims, but not per episode, across the board. I found Perfect Victims. They’re all of a certain prime age and all thin and beautiful. They’re almost always white too.
For a disclaimer on grammar, I’m trying to get used to using “them/their” as gender neutral singular designations.
DISSECTING THE PATTERN
The first thing the detectives look at is the geographic area known to be affected. This is the hunting ground for the criminal whether it’s a serial killer, rapist, child molester or whatever. Countless times plots will have a reveal that the reason certain cases weren’t solved is because a jurisdictional boundary was crossed so no law enforcement agency noticed a pattern. It seems to be the main element in plots where the FBI makes the local PD look like they don’t do a good job investigating. Failing to address crimes outside of cities continues to feed the myth that criminals are strangers in dark alleys.
- Are you accidentally forgetting that rural areas and suburbs have the same danger as cities?
- If you are setting the crimes in a rural area, are you making everyone look like they have low IQs and are dirt poor?
Things to consider:
Locations in the real world are often where people feel safe. Schools and universities, church, camps/team sports, the work place, and yes, even in a house or apartment.
FIRST DATE TROPES
I do see a fair number of plots that are willing to address would-be first dates or first encounters (like in a bar meeting for the first time), but few that speak to long-term dating or marital rape. If consent has been rescinded (not feeling up to it, stressed, ill, time constraint, no longer in love with partner), then it’s a violation of boundaries. The date rape tropes are almost always the “first” date. The producers and writers don’t seem to understand that violent people don’t always show their ugly side right off the bat. Maybe it’s the nature of time limits on television that holds them to the first date trope.
Things to consider:
- Is your criminal repeating sexual assault on the first date all the time because you have no idea what else to do with them?
- If this person is so terrible, why were they charming enough to get a first date? Charm takes time. The PUA (pick up artist) culture has people believing you can possess short term, drive-thru charm and get laid. What they’re really banking on is alcohol and drug use to weaken someone.
The old guideline is that if sex isn’t happening by the third date, there’s probably no chemistry. Dialog and body language needs to be addressed to show this. The assailant would be losing control and it would begin to show to someone, even if that someone isn’t the future victim. We live in a time when women are harassed via email and texts if they haven’t replied within a man’s rule for a reasonable time. Check out “Bye Felipe” on Instagram for tons of examples. Men who have run out of patience in as little as a few minutes send anything from insults to rape threats.
- Let’s say you finally wrote an assailant willing to put in the time; after three dates, where is he starting to lose control?
- Why can’t your villain hold out for three dates? Dating and finding a soul mate is probably not their motivation; or rather, if it is, it’s a twisted version of one-true-love fantasies.
- What’s their problem? If your villain has sexual dysfunction, what’s been their release up to this point?
- Has your villain ever dated successfully before?
- What about married or long-term couples?
- Are you forgetting that “nice” guys can be rapists? Their peer network, or even fanbase if it’s a celebrity, is not likely to think they would ever do such a thing.
LONG TERM COUPLES
Busy lives, raising children, losing a child perhaps, financial worries, and medications are all stressors that can diminish sex drive. Rape is about power, not sex. So if your villain simply isn’t getting any sex at home, they’ll more likely to have an affair. However, if you are going to write in a spouse/SO that violates boundaries at home, proceed with caution.
Things to consider:
- Was this an arranged marriage because of culture?
- Is there a huge age difference between the characters?
- Was the villain a suspected rapist the whole time but still a lauded member of society?
- Which partner controls the finances?
- Which partner has the most say in household decisions?
- Do either partners have a known substance abuse problem?
- Are you painting the victim as an unpleasant shrew who “deserves” punishment?
Those questions can also be asked if you’re writing domestic violence without sexual assault.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION OF VICTIMS
This is what really got me annoyed and compelled me to create a Part Three to these tips. TV shows are quick to point out when all victims are white with the same color hair and close to the same age. CRIMINAL MINDS, for example, uses ethnicity as a main factor claiming serial offenders don’t usually seek victims outside their own ethnic makeup.
- Are you really going to have all the women look like the rapists’ mothers?
- Does your criminal feel the need to ever change their own appearance between victims?
- Are you only writing “perfect” victims?
That one I want to get into further. On television and in every crime fiction book I’ve read, victims are perfect specimens. They fall into a couple of acceptable Hollywood characters:
- the innocent child/virgin.
- high school/college student – the student victim tends to fall into an extreme. It’s either a girl who was easy prey because she’s so invisible and nerdy that a male figure paying any attention to her at all was enough to get her to spend time alone with him; or, the opposite is also commonly seen – the popular cheerleader or sorority girl that is seen as a challenging target, a trophy to win, the ultimate notch in the bed post.
- the moderately successful adult who does well enough to live alone or with a single female roommate who keeps encouraging her to date because successful executive women would never have this happen.
- Hollywood’s under 40 rule – if a woman gets to be 45, the rape trope is usually never applied because she’s no longer seen as a pretty perfect trophy.
Writers seem to forget that victims come from all walks of life. They are all ages. ALL AGES, including senior citizens. Victims don’t all look like cheerleaders and models. Fat women get raped. Women who don’t wear makeup get raped. Women who drink daily, once a week, or never can be raped. The Perfect Victim trope needs to go.
The only time I can recall “plus size” average victims was in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and they weren’t being raped. Bill was collecting bigger girls for another extremely vile purpose. Of course that book/film had its own problems with the transgender character as a maniacal killer, an outdated and sad trope all on its own.
There’s middle ground to be found in creating your victims and assailants. It’s probably harder to write because they are so normal. The victim doesn’t need to be the soccer star, maybe she’s only second string. She doesn’t need to be studying 24/7 and perhaps actually enjoys going to a cafe with a few friends.
Your victim doesn’t need to be perfectly able-bodied, and for that matter, neither does your hero. Older women (40+) could be quite senior or middle age and have a disability that’s temporary, like a broken leg or hip, or permanent, like regular old age and needing a cane. Writers tend to see a cane or walker and think it’s off limits to put them through more than robbery crimes. Real women of all types are victims. The difference is whether you’re a lazy writer or one willing to explore the garbage of humanity.
Does your bookshelf of choice matter? Probably, yes. Tackling non-perfect victims also makes the story darker so it’s not likely to be found in things like cozy mysteries or even medium-boiled crime fiction. Readers want to distance themselves from victims.
* For more examples of sexual assault tropes, TVtropes.org has a ton of subcategories breaking it down.