That tragic past. That wound that can’t ever be explained. We all read stories in the news (like the Stanford rape case recently) that make us want to dive into the potential for character angst, suffering, and personal recovery. On the surface, it’s the perfect tragedy to write about, because it comes with few physical disabilities to keep track of. The pain is all internal. She (or he, because plenty of men get raped) can still be beautiful, alluring, yet damaged so badly in their psyche that plots spring forth in our minds.
Don’t do it.
Now, let me add a few caveats to that – since my own upcoming book, FLAWED, deals with this. It’s not that you can’t write about a rape survivor. It’s that you shouldn’t write the rape scene. With some studies citing 80%, others 66% of women fantasize about rape, you can see how quickly this could go wrong. (Granted, if you’re writing in taboo erotica, none of this applies, because, uh, taboo!).
The problem with writing the rape scene is that while it may be a very powerful piece of imagery, you just made it titillation. You just turned the horror story into erotica for a significant portion of the audience – whether they intend for it to happen or not. Never mind that 1 in 5 of your female readers has (statistically) suffered through it. You remove the power of that scene simply because we have so many strong social connotations wrapped around it. Nothing you can do will make it the horror you intended. But the aftermath?
That is where the story truly lies. In my opinion, it’s much more powerful to leave the reader wondering. She rounds a corner and… darkness. She looks up at her boyfriend, and he grabs her, smothering her shocked cry with his hand. FADE TO BLACK. Next chapter opens with her crying. Him trying to hide the evidence so he won’t be shamed by his guy friends. Her struggling to remember what happened and why she’s here. This leaves the author free to use the mental struggles without carrying the burden of the titillation. Just make sure you do justice to the crime as if it is, uh… a CRIME!
BUT! but but but but but but but but but (have I said it enough to get your attention?)
Do not EVER make rape into a plot device. Sure, it can be one character’s motivation (if you follow the above rules), but it shouldn’t be used to encourage some strong man (or determined woman) to save the object of their desire. Rape isn’t something that the victim can ever just say, “Oh, that was last week. I’m all better now.” It’s also not something that should be tossed about as if it doesn’t matter. What does that tell 1 in 5 of your readers? That she (or he) is only good to make someone “stronger” do the right thing? That they are just living to be an aside in someone else’s big story? That their nightmares, their insecurities, the ruination of their entire life is good for, oh, about a chapter? Anyone who thinks that’s ok is an asshole.
How about when we write about tragedy, we let the survivors tell their own story – not someone else’s? Maybe it’s time that we show the horrors of recovery from such a traumatic crime, and not the act itself. It isn’t the handful of minutes (20, according to the Stanford rapist’s father) that is the story. It’s the years that come after that. It’s something that never goes away, and if you can’t write a character that is broken and will stay broken – and figure out how to give them their power back – then pick another tragedy for your hero/heroine.
Oh, and find a survivor to beta your book before you put it out. Trust me, that’s the only way you’ll know if you’re respecting the atrocities of it all.