Is Rape Necessary in Fantasy Literature?

There has been some tremendous discussion about the level of rape in Game of Thrones, and to a lesser extent George R. R. Martin's books. The general consensus from the vocal critics is that the scenes are awful and unnecessary to the story. The most persuasive argument from the defenders is that it's an authentic depiction of how violence and misogyny would have existed in a male dominated, pre-democratic society. As much as I love the books, it's exactly these sorts of things that remind me Westeros would be a horrible place to live for practically anybody. Is it gratuitously depicted for the sake of setting or are the GoT rape scenes essential to the narrative?

Here's how I handled it in my book, and why.

Before my first book, there was another project titled Runaways, a nearly completed first draft of a story that was the basis for The Queen of Lies. The book opened on Jessa, running away from her newly wed husband, a brutal man who surprise, surprise... violently raped her on her wedding night. My goal was to give her a motivation and establish the villain. The character never developed, no matter how much I tried to give her an identity. The arc about her finding strength was forced.

Fortunately my better angels prevailed. I scrapped that draft completely and started from scratch-- same setting, same characters but "remixed". Jessa's character is still a survivor, but of much more insidious emotional abuse; and she occasionally serves a witty riposte to her domineering mother. I challenged myself to come up with something different for her: A young woman from a highborn family who initiates consensual sex, in spite of the scandal. It's much fresher stuff and illustrates the character's development into personal agency.

But it's not just about telling a good story or moving a plot forward.

Storytelling is about emotion, not of the characters but of the readers. People have physiological reactions to what they read. People will laugh out loud at the funny parts (hopefully they were intentional) and when scenes get steamy... well people physically react to that too. Different readers respond differently. One thing you have to be very careful with in writing is making your reader upset to a point that constitutes emotional injury.

Animal torture or harm to small children get a visceral reaction of disgust. I think it's because we're biologically/culturally wired to form quick emotional bonds with babies and domesticated animals. I don't generally rub strangers in public; but if I see a friendly dog, especially a puppy, I think nothing of going over and getting all up in its business. If you gratuitously kill a puppy in your books, people are going to hate the book, and quite possibly the author. You need to handle those topics with the care and precision you would when handling ebola bacteria.

For survivors, rape evokes that same strong reaction of horror; often much stronger than a writer without those experiences intended to create. It's easy as a male writer, crafting in a genre where a certain amount of murder and violence is expected, to equate rape with any other "bad thing" that happens, like mass murder or cannibalism. After all, from a legal standpoint those other two examples are objectively worse. But a book is about the feelings and experiences of your readers and chances are they haven't been murdered or cannibalized.

So, is rape necessary in fantasy literature?

I don't believe in shying away from controversial topics or any form of creative censorship, but it's also about risk and reward. If the reward is a positive, transformative emotional experience, then any risk is worth it. If you're giving voice to injustice, same thing. We control the worlds our readers live in and that's a big responsibility. Creating an enjoyable experience is as much about distancing the reader from all the terrible things as it is connecting them with the story.

The writers of the Game of Thrones TV show take a risk when they air those scenes. While I'm not bothered by it, I completely understand why others are. Given the spate of controversy I don't think Sansa's scene at the end of last week's episode was a wise decision. The show is starting to alienate a lot of people without making any important point about the subject other than "rape is bad".

I'm very pleased I chose not to go with the first manuscript*. Jessa may not be a Strong Female Heroine™ but she works better when she's not a victim.


*In Runaways Maddox was also a horrible racist, Sword had no personality, and Satryn was a minor character... so you can see already what that book would have been like.


Mike bode is the author of The Queen of Lies, the first installment in the ongoing series, Architects of the Grand Design. His next book comes out September. Sign up for the mailing list for more info.

Mike bode is the author of The Queen of Lies, the first installment in the ongoing series, Architects of the Grand Design. His next book comes out October. Sign up for the mailing list for more info. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest . (You can also follow him on Goodreads and even Amazon)

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