Are Some Plot Devices Off Limits?

The furor over the recent Game of Thrones rape scene has me thinking—much more than I care to—about when and whether we can include this kind of violence in our work.

Within the span of a single day, I read several different articles that address this issue, though not all in the same way. The first was at The Mary Sue, where they were highly critical of the episode.

Using rape as the impetus for character motivations is one of the most problematic tropes in fiction. Rarely is it ever afforded the careful consideration it deserves. Was there more gravity given to the act on Game of Thrones than in the past on the series? I would say yes; however, it took Sansa from her growing place of power, cut her off at the knees, and put the focus on Theon’s ordeal, instead.—Jill Pantozzi, at The Mary Sue

One of the points Pantozzi makes is this: “Rape is not a necessary plot device. Really think about that before shouting ‘creative freedom’ in our direction, please.”


Photo © HBO

Meanwhile, at his blog Whatever, John Scalzi opened up a huge discussion on the topic with a post in which he recounts how he was discussing a story idea with a female mentor, and the story included a rape—“at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.”

“Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device,” Scalzi writes.

The comments at Scalzi’s blog are perhaps even more informative than the post. Most notable is this comment from Skiriki:

To put it bluntly, and to focus on whom the violence is actually committed upon—I, a survivor of sexual violence get to live with what happened, every day…If, however, I’m murdered, I, the victim, stop living, and no longer feel anything…there are no “murder survivors” as there are “rape survivors.” Attempted murder survivors for sure, yes.—Skiriki, commenting at Whatever

I’m struggling with this as a writer because I have in fact written some pretty disturbing stuff, some of it quite recently. Alara’s Call has two attempted rapes in it, thwarted in different ways for different reasons. Book Two, because of its setting, has none. Book Three is a nightmare.

The story is set in a war zone, and part of the backstory is that the members of the villains’ religion have a Viking-like history of raping and pillaging. Their religion places little value on life and debases women. Part of the purpose of my story is to examine how good people respond in the face of atrocity. None of my viewpoint characters are rape victims. I didn’t feel I could go there because, thanks be to God, I don’t have the experience to write that story. My viewpoint characters are the ones who rescue and treat the rape victims.

I don’t tackle this subject lightly. But if I take it out, I feel I run the risk of whitewashing warfare. Of making it less horrible than it really is. The circumstances of the backstory are based in reality—on the rape of Nanking and the way Russian soldiers treated German women at the end of World War II, on the Viking raiders in Britain in the Middle Ages and on what Boko Haram and ISIS are doing right now.

These atrocities happen, and I don’t think we as artists do anyone any favors if we pretend they don’t. But if I include these things in my story, am I ignoring Pantozzi and Scalzi’s advice against using rape as a plot device? Does it matter that the rapes are not shown, only the effects?

And what about other violent crimes? It’s often noted that even in Christian fiction we have a high tolerance for violence, more so than for foul language or sex crimes. Is there a different standard for rape because, as Skiriki said, there are survivors? What about torture? There are torture survivors too.

Are we to take all story elements off the table if they risk offending a reader who’s been in that situation?

Let me get vulnerable for a minute. I hate—hate with a passion—stories in which people commit adultery. Doubly so if they do so without consequence. These stories enrage me because my first husband committed adultery.

But I would never, ever, tell a writer not to use adultery as a plot device. It’s a terrible thing. It changes people and relationships. And isn’t change what storytelling is about? I don’t want to read those stories. But I won’t stop another writer from writing them.

As novelists, we have the ability to look at horrific topics and shine light on them. Robert Jackson Bennett, in his excellent albeit foul-mouthed post “Why are you writing a rape scene?” asks us to consider whether such a scene would be as integral to the plot if it featured a child instead of a buxom woman.

And you know what? In the case of my nightmarish Book Three—a book I almost don’t want to write—I’d have to say yes.

Because my bad guys are modeled after monsters like Boko Haram and ISIS, who are doing exactly that sort of thing.

Which brings me to the last article that strikes this topic. It’s from Ann Voskamp, writing about a trip to Iraq where she met with victims of ISIS.

You can walk into any mall and buy a pair of Nike running shoes for what they are buying a Christian or Yezidi girl from 1–9 years of age—$172 dollars. And she’s yours. For whatever you want, for as long as you want, to make do whatever you want. Sit with that. Yeah, we’re all done living in a world where a pair of shoes can last longer, have more worth, be treated with more value, than a fondled, raped and discarded 9-year-old-girl.—Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience

What our proper response should be to ISIS, either as individuals or as a nation, I don’t know. I’m still wrestling with that problem. And even what my response as an artist should be—I’m ambivalent.

Part of me wants to whitewash my story so I don’t have to look at this filth anymore.

And part of me wants to shine a light on this filth and show what we might be able to do about it.



About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

15 comments on “Are Some Plot Devices Off Limits?

  1. There is a huge difference between including rape as part of your backstory and using it as a plot device.

    • Yes, and I think the thing that upsets people is when the rape is shown, especially from the victim’s viewpoint. Because then the reader is forced to live it. If it happens in the past, “offstage,” then it’s less traumatic for the reader.

  2. Maggie Steifvater linked to her blogpost on rape here: http://t.co/sKP533kNhp

    It’s not wartime atrocities that are so bad. It’s the character who has rape in her backstory just because. I know that I’m very tired of it. There’s this one Christian indie author I’ve stopped reading, because his kid-level books are full of girls being threatened with sexual assault by every male passerby.

    • Great link, Kessie, thank you.

      Steifvater makes a great point about the problem being gratuitous assaults, but then the question is — what’s gratuitous and what’s not?

      • Here’s the litmus test: is the rape just because it’s a female character? If they were male, would it be some other kind of violence, like a stabbing? If the answer to either of these is yes, it’s gratuitous.

  3. I think everyone is only angry NOW because they’ve grown to like and appreciate Sansa Stark, but in a liberal universe (the creators of this show are not conservative), a strong woman who actually triumphs over adversity is an anachronism who must be made to suffer and pay, because how dare she be that way! Women only exist to be victims and be victimized.

    So–we have a head-on collision of liberal chauvinist directors with the expectations of far less liberal fans who wanted to love and admire this character, and wanted see her show her strength in respected and respectable ways, which of course didn’t include more rape.

    They wanted to see just one person overcoming and having a somewhat normal life in the midst of all the dysfunction and chaos, and now they know they’re not getting that, and not only that, but EWWWW. One more rape scene too many.

    I applaud their revulsion and realization that this show only exists to wallow in the mire of human misery! But why couldn’t they have all been revolted enough to have that realization back at the beginning?

    The whole rape debate has been around for quite a while. I remember when the secular publishing companies quietly made it clear that they weren’t going to be accepting any more romances where the bodice-ripping involved rape. (a while before I started writing)

    I thought, when I found out about that, that the publishing world was beginning to be a better place.

    Now, I think George R. R. Martin has made it a much worse place, and so has HBO.

    I don’t know what advice to give you about your book. It isn’t that the subject of what happens to rape victims shouldn’t be tackled seriously. Especially in light of the horrible, awful things happening in our world right now, I think it should be. I hope your book is well-received, but I don’t know if right now I can stand to read anything like it.

    And I haven’t even been watching Game of Thrones or reading the books.

  4. Really thought provoking piece, thank you. Me personally, I don’t have a problem crossing that line. I was recently told by a beta reader (now my proofreader) that a scene that I wrote several years ago has remained with him as my protagonist was nearly date raped. It was a difficult scene to write, and when I revisit that scene soon (as it’s once again my current project–don’t ask), I hope it will remain there because it shows her strength of character in the face of something horrific. I didn’t do it lightly. But it’s there. Writing these types of scenes, ones where the characters either have their back against a wall and do something horrific, or are faced with something horrific, to me they help strengthen my writing as a whole. And even if I write scenes I never will publish, I will still write them because they’re great ways to learn and explore your writing skills.

    • Thanks, Liberty. Good to know I’m not the only one wrestling with this. And I can totally relate to the thing written years ago still being the current WIP. Alara has been with me for a very, very long time! 😀

  5. If one’s goal in showing a scene like this is to provide an opportunity for empathy and a connection to that character in hope that he or she will find a way to overcome and find joy in spite of their horrendous trial, then that could be a good and inspirational piece of art. I say that having not seen the game of thrones scene. That show proved in the first season to be too graphic for me, sexually. So I’m not justifying the scene in question, only that I believe there is a way to include rape in a positive way. How much is shown would be decided on an individual scene by scene basis. I have included sexual elements in my story, Scavenger: Evolution. My intent wasn’t to glorify the acts, but even so, some were offended. As readers, we have the right to say that author is not for me.

  6. Rape scene in my recently finished novel involves a secondary character–the mother of my heroine–so the rape is not making her “impure” (as if rape actually does that). It is not a gratuitous rape (I don’t think) and the reader does not actually see it, but I’ve still made it plain what has happened. I’ve also dealt with some of the emotional results in that the mother becomes more abusive and bitter towards the daughter. Except for the opening scenes Mom is only mentioned a few times (never seen again) so the reader does not experience the long term effects. I included the scene because my protag’s village is often attacked by “warriors” who enslave, kill, degrade, and of course steal from their victims (sort of like the Vikings). It is not integral to the plot but it is a part of my heroine’s “normal”.

    I have also considered what emotional effect it might have on my readers and don’t want them to relive the nightmare so…I’m wondering what you think.

    • Eileen, Lausanne Davis Carpenter was discussing a similar situation over on my Facebook post. She’s writing historical fiction set in a time when it simply wouldn’t be realistic to pretend female slaves didn’t get raped.

      When rape is part of a culture, I think it needs to be part of the story. As Tim pointed out, as long as it’s not glorified, but shown as the horror it is, we can use it for redemptive storytelling purposes. At least, that’s my goal.

  7. People can’t be afraid to approach the subject of rape, but having it be part of a story or backstory is different from it being a plot device. My main character is the product of a rape, but didn’t find it necessary to depict his mother’s rape in second by second graphic detail and then make her out be some impure insignificant person afterwards. The motive, the setting, and overall message should make any use of rape validated, otherwise, but would someone bother with it. Rape is not something people should be writing about casually. There should be a meaning and point to something like that. It shouldn’t be monotonous, gratuitous, or glorified.

  8. A long time ago, I read Don Coldsmith’s Spanish Bit series, as many as written by 1990. (Yeah, not spec fiction but what can I say? I read widely.)
    In Pale Star (I think), the rape scene is neither glossed over nor graphically glorified, but it served as a defining feature about her character and courage as well as a glimpse into a different culture’s way of viewing such violation. There was no stigma of being damaged goods or of somehow inviting the attack. She resisted just as she would any other kind of attack by an enemy, so even though she was taken captive and overpowered, she felt no guilt or shame about the outcome, nor did it shatter or scar her for life. Who she was– her soul, her “power”, her core being–remained intact.

    I thought it a valuable example of handling a difficult subject so that it served many purposes.

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