Showing rape in SFF

Here’s a good post from Marie Brennan at Swan Tower: Thoughts on the Depiction of Rape in Fiction

Brennan has an archive of good essays at her website, many about the craft of writing. This one demonstrates that. Here’s a sample from near the beginning:

There are a lot of reasons you might have one of your characters be raped. Some of them are better than others; all of them are things you should think about.

1. I need to show that my villain is evil.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to method for showing he’s evil?

It’s one thing if you’re writing a mystery about a detective hunting down a serial rapist. In a story like that, the bad guy raping people is the entire point. But if your villain is a genocidal tyrant? Then I kind of give the side-eye to the notion that you need rape to convince me he’s bad. If that’s true, you haven’t done a very good job writing the “genocidal tyrant” part.

This is a serious topic, obviously, but I did chuckle at the last sentence of the excerpt above. That’s definitely true.

The broad category of “worst things I’ve seen in fantasy novels” doesn’t include many instances of rape — I know other readers say their experience differs in that regard, but I think the books I’m reading must not overlap much with the ones they’re reading.

The “worst things” category does include Gedder, in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin, who burns down a city after blocking the gates so that no one can get out. There is a genocidal tyrant, even though Gedder is not really a tyrant, at least not at the time, as he doesn’t have that much power.

Enough to burn down a city with the population locked inside, though.

It is not necessary to show Gedder doing anything cruel, in person, to an individual. In fact, showing him being cruel on an individual level would make him less awful. A villain who glories in being vicious is probably not as utterly horrifying as a villain who sort of stumbles weakly into mass murder, then justifies the act afterward.


This moment, and this character, are not the only reason I never went on to the second book in that series. But they contributed to that reluctance.

A good example of epic fantasy with a gritty edge and many villains, some quite complex and some simpler, is The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler. I will note that in that series, Wexler shows attempted rape. But he never shows successful rape on screen.

Off screen, in a character’s backstory, yes. Marie Brennan has something to say about that too:

2. I need to motivate one of my characters.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to motivation? …

… time and time again, we have female characters being motivated by rape, and male characters being motivated by the rape and murder of their wives/sisters/daughters.

Try harder. Think about the emotional impact of everything else this character has experienced, and what else you can use if the current material isn’t enough. Ask yourself why rape is the best answer to this question, when it’s about as fresh as having a Dark Lord with Armies of Monstrous Minions as your villain. 

In Wexler’s case, there is in fact a reason why rape is one motivator for Jane (not the only or probably the most central motivation, I’ll add). This is the case because being sold into slavery/marriage was the whole point of that home for girls where she and Winter were both held for part of their childhood. It wasn’t incidental. That institution set up everything about Winter’s backstory as well as Janes.

Being sold to that brute was not only a motivator — again, not the only one — for Jane; having Jane sold that way, and failing to save her, was a central motivator for Winter. So in this case, that element of the backstory ticks both boxes for the “time and time again” comment Marie Brennan makes.

Why it works: Lots of reasons, I think. It’s in the backstory; it’s not only non-explicit, it’s not shown and barely referred to; the rapist is killed because of his act; the victim is the ones who kill her attacker; Jane’s primary motivation comes from other issues that have only a tenuous relationship to that aspect of her backstory.

And most of all because of the complicated way the whole situation feeds into Winter’s backstory and into the relationship between Winter and Jane. The primary problem for Winter was that Jane asked her to murder the man for her and Winter couldn’t bring herself to even make a serious attempt to do that. Not only did that motivate Winter’s escape from the home, it became for her the central defining failure of her life. Then later, well, Winter’s and Jane’s shared background has a ton of ramifications and in fact the relationship between those two characters is arguably the central pillar of the whole series.

So, Brennan’s essay is definitely a good one and well worth reading. And Wexler’s series is definitely one I’d pick over Game of Thrones, not only because of treatment of rape in the respective series, but just because as far as I’m concerned The Shadow Campaigns is just a better epic fantasy.

In fact, it would be great to see it turned into a TV series. If we were voting on next epic fantasy series to be picked up for TV, I’d vote for it. I’d even actually watch it.

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6 thoughts on “Showing rape in SFF”

  1. Rachel, agree with you on The Shadow Campaigns vs Game of Thrones. And Wexler did an excellent job bringing his series to its conclusion, although I must confess for the first few chapters of the last book I was threatening DNF if the storyline followed a well-worn trope (sorry cannot go into it without spoilers). In the meantime, GRR Martin seems to have lost his mojo, or maybe he is trying to come up with a spectacular finish to make up for the last season disappointment of the TV series.

  2. By the fourth book, I would probably have finished it no matter what. But for some time I was afraid Wexler was not going to stick the landing. I think he did pretty well, though. Good epilogue that helped with that.

  3. While there’s certainly a strong argument against overuse and redeployment of cliched tropes and character motivations, her essay feels like trying to frame a personal preference as an artistic recommendation.

    In terms of “some readers may be sensitive to this because they’ve had real world experience of it”, that’s true for any depiction of violence. There aren’t murder survivors, but there are certainly people who’ve lost friends or family to murder, and nonfatal assaults aren’t an uncommon source of trauma.

    (And one doesn’t have to be a victim to be squicked by something. I avoid graphic depictions of violence even though I’ve been relatively lucky in that regard thus far. But that just means I don’t read splatterpunk, not that people should avoid writing it.)

    By all means, don’t be hackneyed, don’t be gratuitous, think about your intended audience and the effect you want to have on them. But that seems more like a broadly applicable policy to write as well as possible than something that specially applies to one particular thing.

  4. Good points, Mike.

    I’m opposed to trigger warnings on this basis: There have been times when I was genuinely distressed to see pictures of other people’s happy puppies on Facebook. There is, however, absolutely nothing wrong with posting pictures of puppies on Facebook. Therefore, no one should be asked to anticipate that someone might find this distressing. If someone can find pictures of puppies distressing, there is absolutely nothing that is safe to post and we might as well shut down the entire internet, stop all other forms of communication, and huddle in our bedrooms.

    So I think I’m going to lean toward agreeing with you, though that wasn’t my initial reaction.

    One caveat, though: how to write a rape scene “as well as possible” depends on whether the author considers the incident titillating. If so, ugh. This tendency does exist and it is, I think, one major reason Marie Brennan wrote that article.

  5. Agreed. (But I feel the same way about, e.g., torture porn, and clearly that has an enthusiastic audience.)

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