From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Taboos and Tropes: Part II “Rhetoric and Writing about Rape”

As discussed in “T&T: Part I,” taboo tropes are risky endeavors for any story; however, if a story does necessitate one, it must address, with added attention, balance and thematic sincerity. Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is the key to addressing these elements. In Part II, we’ll look at how rhetoric can improve readers’ reactions to the taboo trope, rape, and how research can improve the accuracy of the issue. Be aware that to write about such a graphic thing, I’m asking you to experience some graphic details and language first.

Rape Scenes in Literature
[Gender Disclaimer: The following gender attributions will follow the universal, default male, as it relates to statistical reports. Rape perpetrators are most often reported as males; however, females perpetrate rape, too.]

Taboo tropes — child abuse, rape, racism, etc. — have secondary associations and should be used carefully, if at all. Such secondary associations can often include readers’ personal experiences, and strong, sometimes unconscious, responses from readers can follow the involved characters throughout the length of the story.

If the story requires a taboo trope, these rhetorical tools may help shape the connection between a reader and the trope.

  • Link the taboo trope with an emotional viewpoint, using words and pacing reflective of the trauma;
  • Include the gritty details. Don’t overlook the possible emotional resonances for the reader and make a cartoon of something in a way that will offend;
  • Flesh out the protagonist and antagonist, the victim, and the perpetrator. This can be the toughest part for many readers and writers.

To create a rhetorical connection, know the response. Victim descriptions will stimulate sympathy. Most readers will detest rapists. Let them, but avoid creating the “evil perpetrator.” We’ll explore the perpetrator more below, but first, let’s look at the victim.

Creating the Taboo Trope, Rape Victim
In real life, rape victims are involved in the rape experience for years after the episode. Hospitalization, bruises, cuts, broken limbs, and therapy. Often the labia rips, rectum, and/or canal walls tear. The victim may suffer a communicable disease. Are you uncomfortable yet? Good. Rape is a traumatic incident for the victim and will be for your character; therefore, it should be traumatic for your reader.

Note: If you’re having difficulty with the reality of rape, think hard on whether you’re ready to research it. Yes, research. This means you, too, girls. Rape is not gender intuitive.

Writing Rape: Response Activity
Watch the following dramatization clip from Derailed then complete the writing prompt. (Warning: the dramatization is violent and graphic.)

In the above dramatization, what stands out? What is the overall tone? What are the woman’s emotions? Those of her partner on the floor? The rapist? Forget the bed, the walls, etc. Is the victim or the rapist concerned with the comforter’s pattern or color in this scene? No. The victim is on her back. The perp has thrown her to the bed, gun in her face.

Note: If you read any of the comments below the video clip on Metacafe, you’ll notice a wide range of reactions. It should be stated that if any element of the rape scene excites or stimulates, you’d better take a close look at your motivations for writing the rape scene. Rape scenes are NOT literary tools for arousal.

For all intensive purposes, the above dramatization is a real and emotional tension point. Writing it should communicate this tension through sentencing, pacing, description, scene arc, and remember, consider all sides of the experience. Yes, you must profile the rapist.

For the perpetrator, rape is power, anger, control, and weaponry. The perpetrator’s history and circumstances have somehow led to this event. The scene must go for the throat. Writing it lightly is not an option unless you are prepared to shock. Even a satirist, who might stylize such a scene with understatement, would seek a gut-blowing effect.

The “Light” Rape Scene and Stereotypes
Light rape scenes risk projecting sweep it under social dogmas — a habit of minimizing the unmentionables. Light rape scenes can also perpetuate victim and perpetrator stereotypes. To write a comic rape scene lacks rhetorical depth. It dismisses reader response and undermines the power of the scene.

Bill Kovach addressed rape and the media in his New York Times article, “Writing About Rape.” He quoted Helen Benedict’s Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, focusing on social myths surrounding rape victim appropriations.

“As a result of the rape myths,” Ms. Benedict writes, “a sex crime victim tends to be squeezed into one of two images — she is either pure and innocent, a true victim attacked by monsters — the ‘virgin’ of my title — or she is a wanton female who provoked the assailant with her sexuality — the ‘vamp.’ The result, [Benedict] writes, is coverage that falls in one of the two frameworks: “The woman, by her looks, behavior or generally loose morality, drove the man to such extremes of lust that he was compelled to commit the crime,” or “the man, a depraved and perverted monster, sullied the innocent victim, who is now a martyr to the flaws of society.” 

Benedict’s research indicates a social fallacy: victims are either heathens or martyrs. Is anyone this absolute? Is a flawed victim less a victim?

Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), lists the common “Rape Myths,”  warning readers that “Rape myths are widely held, inaccurate beliefs about rape. Myths of rape give people a false sense of security by legitimizing sexual assault or denying that it even occurs.” A victim is a victim no matter the demographic, and so is the perpetrator.

Benedict’s call for accurate portrayal of victims and perpetrators, emphasizes the importance of writing characters as real people, not convenient, categorized cutouts of what is stereotypical or most socially acceptable. Rape awareness groups, such as WAVAW, confirm the social responsibility inherent in writing real victims and perpetrators.

Are Taboo Tropes Worth the Effort?
When deciding whether or not to write about rape, first ask if the readers’ responses to the stimulus of the scene will mesh organically with the overall plot. A recent post at NaNoWriMo, explored the issue of rape, victim, perpetrator, and reader response to “social forgiveness.”

My [rapist] character [is] not really mentally ill beyond [the] point of severe depression and resentment, but he definitely wasn’t thinking straight.

The poster further described the rapist, within the confines of the manuscript, as feeling remorse. The character felt bad for what he’d done. Another commentator wisely suggested that, in the confines of the manuscript, it is dangerous to award the perpetrator “social forgiveness,” simply because the rapist felt “bad” about not “thinking straight.” Remember, in “Taboos and Tropes: Part I,” we discussed that it took Stephen Donaldson six books to bring closure to his rapist protagonist and even then, many readers question the effectiveness of this closure. Stephen Donaldson addresses this question of “Why rape?” in the following excerpt from

Wrathex: I would like to know why Covenant had to rape? . . . The rape scene has disturbed me continually on a very personal level. I don’t want to feel sorry for the rapist. I do not want to forgive a rapist . . . 

Donaldson: <sigh> [H]ow have I falied to demonstrate a) the thematic relevance (even the thematic necessity) of Covenant’s crime? and b) the enduring consequences of such violence? . . . think of rape as a metaphor for all forms of violations and betrayal, emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well as physical . . . Covenant starts out as a pure Victim. But I happen to think that being a Victim (or even thinking of oneself as a Victim) naturally inclines a person to become a Victimizer. Being cast in the role of Victim is morally damaging; and that damage tends to breed a desire to impose Victim-hood on someone else. Hence the rape of Lena. 

Donaldson’s response to the question of “Why rape?” reflects his personal belief that “Victim-hood” is a debilitating condition to one’s morals. He further describes in this response that “Victim-hood” is a common theme or motif used throughout many of his works. Whether Donaldson’s rapist protagonist sufficiently completes his character journey in the eyes of readers, it can be suggested that Donaldson actively chose this conflict and journey for his protagonist. Rape was not a secondary plot device, but a central theme.

Donaldson: Another way to look at this whole question is to think of “rape” as a metaphor for all forms of violation and betrayal, emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well as physical. And in those terms, I don’t know anyone who isn’t guilty of “rape.” Speaking purely for myself, I’ve been on the receiving end of metaphorical “rapes” many times. Sometimes I’ve engaged in such actions myself, with or without provocation. Sometimes I’ve responded to the “rape” by holding myself to a higher standard of conduct — but I’ve done so entirely without forgiving the “rapist.” And sometimes, just sometimes, I’ve both held myself to a higher standard of conduct *and* learned how to forgive my “rapist.” (Which is, of course, the only road that leads to the place where I might be able to forgive myself.) Considering my own actions, I can only hope that the people I’ve “raped” (deliberately or inadvertently) will find it in their hearts to forgive *me*.  

In asking the question — are taboo tropes worth the effort? — first address whether or not the taboo trope, such as rape, is the strongest conflict. Is the taboo trope the strongest characterization for the antagonist? If so, kudos. Issues, such as rape, deserve responsible media attention, both in fiction and nonfiction, but keep in mind that when taboo tropes are handled poorly, readers will be quick to respond, as in the following excerpt from Fantasy Magazine‘s column, “Opposing Viewpoints.” 

I’ve continued to watch Dollhouse because writers and actors that I enjoy work on it. But week to week I am increasingly dissapointed in the shallow conceit of passing rape, submission and torture off as escapist fun because it’s housed in a hermetically sealed designer showcase. (Chapman)

If a taboo trope is necessary, balanced, and thematically sincere, it can engage, inform, and motivate readers, but it is a big risk in both crafting and marketing. The taboo trope takes center stage, and too often pigeonholes the antagonist. When used irresponsibly, the taboo trope will, at best, present as gratuitous and poorly crafted, at its worst, it will perpetuate negative myths. For all these reasons, writers and readers alike should approach taboo tropes with critical eyes.

References (Parts I and II)
Benedict, Helen. Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

Bradford, Tempest K. “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t.” Ecstatic Days. Jeff Vandermeer: December 10, 2008.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society: Fourth Edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 2007.

Chandler, Daniel. “Rhetorical Tropes.” Semiotics for Beginners. Aberystwyth University: November 5, 2001.

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane. Ballantine Books: New York, 1977.

Chapman, Samantha and Genevieve Valentine. “Opposing Viewpoints: Dollhouse.” Fantasy Magazine. February 14, 2009.

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature: Ninth Edition. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 2003.

Kovach, Bill. “Writing About Rape.” The New York Times. New York: November 22, 1992. “Jennifer Aniston Hard Rape Scene.” May 19, 2008.

National Novel Writing Month. “Is Rape [Too] Heavy a Topic to Deal With?” December 1, 2008.

Swift, Jonathan, Dr. “A Modest Proposal.” 1729. Project Gutenberg: July 27, 2008.

Wikipedia. “Stephen R. Donaldson.”

Women Against Violence Against Women.

Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, Assistant Editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is the July 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Weird Tales, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness, among others. Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. She’s also writing a novel and lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at or visit her at

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29 Responses »

  1. Thank you Rae, for making me think differently about tropes. As a first time novelist it certainly gives me a lot to think about.

    Hellen O

  2. Hellen, while I can hardly take credit for the secondary resources or even the theses of these two articles, I’m so glad that this topic has been helpful to you.

  3. This is some great work, Rae. I have particularly enjoyed the approach you have towards discussing these taboos and hope to read more like this in the future. These tropes are indeed the 800 lb gorilla in the room that no one likes to talk about.

    A few of the doorstop series I have read approach the subject of rape differently. Rape is almost completely absent in the Robert Jordan books, while the George R.R. Martin Ice and Fire series it is commonplace. Some would say cliched.

    But I wonder if it’s because the subject is uncomfortable. More “adult.” The Robert Jordan world is a little safer. After all, the characters travel to the far corners of the earth and have only worry about the bad guys, rather than bandits, the errant knight, a group of soldiers, or people closer to the more innocuous end of the spectrum. In that world, only maniacal characters would do such a thing. In the George R.R. Martin books, with the war going on, people are being raped all the time. As is likely more accurate, given what happened often during wars in the Middle Ages. So, does that mean it is fine to have the swords and pretty dresses and such, but not the ickiness such as public executions, rape, incest, physical abuse, etc?

    To me, one reads more like young adult fic, and the other reads more like grittier adult fare. Would I want my kids to read Martin? Probably not so much. But I appreciate the tension and removal of safety for these characters.

    If I were somehow transported into a novel-verse, I’d probably rather be in Jordan’s world, however, because at least I wouldn’t get raped or disemboweled or something even worse. I would just have to deal with “woolheaded” men and really grouchy women.

  4. “To me, one reads more like young adult fic, and the other reads more like grittier adult fare. Would I want my kids to read Martin? Probably not so much.”

    So true. I wouldn’t want my children exposed to such violence at their ages either; however, it does propose a fierce thesis.

    In guarding our children from such dangers — in reading, film, etc. — are we dove tailing reality? Fitting, otherwise disjointed and misformed corners into a more harmonious version of the issues?

    I would certainly want my daughter to read of a realistic or even documentary “rape” before she goes to college if not before hand. No matter how many times a child hears parental warnings, a parent’s voice is background noise to the well-rendered story, film, or even peer discussion.

    I don’t know the answer to what is most appropriate. These are tough calls to make as parents. As a reader, though, I’m definitely more inclined toward the Martin style rendering. I’m not appreciative of gratuitous description, but certainly the gritty grabs.

    Great thoughts for discussion, Clint. Thank you.

  5. One of the most shocking rape scenes I’ve read in fantasy was in Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Lord Foul’s Bane”, the first in the Thomas Covenant trilogy. Covenant’s rape of Lena was made all the more surprising because of its juxtaposition to a very picturesque and rustic world as Donaldson constructed The Land. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, sets up Ice and Fire as a seedy cutthroat universe from the get-go.

  6. Hi Seth. Yes, Lord Foul’s Bane is the subject of discussion in “Taboos and Tropes: Part I,” and the particular scene to which you are referring nearly stopped my reading. I can’t say that Donaldson’s choice of language is my preferred, but he certainly gives us a case study for works dealing with rape.

    I, too, like juxtapositions or what I affectionately refer to as the chiarascuro effect. It seems to render metaphor more quickly than some vehicles and often with more resonance. Dark on dark canvas is good, too, but in this case, the dark must go many shades black in order to grab me. Then you spend so much time trying to figure out if it’s black or just a really dark navy blue…

  7. I thought this was a really terrific piece.

  8. I must give thanks to my editor :).

  9. My problem with Donaldson’s rape was much less the rape itself than the reaction of the victim which was, in my view, an obscenity. Yes, women follow their rapists around just loving and adoring them. SURE they do. And I don’t forgive rapists so his expectation that I was going to forgive his character just added to the slap in the face.

    And NO, damn it, Donaldson has NOT suffered rape. Not unless someone held him down and stuck a broomstick up his *ss.

    Rape is no fricking metaphor. I refuse to read anything the man writes. I

    This is a “trope” (and I object to calling something as horrendous and real as rape a trope) that one does well to tread very, very carefully with.

    1. I don’t forgive rapists. Don’t expect me to. Don’t EVEN think it.

    2. You had better thoroughly justify forgiveness on the part of the victim if you’re going to put that in. REALLY justify it.

    Sorry. this is a harsh response, but there is nothing like a “trope” about rape and there is nothing nice or polite or excusable about it.

  10. Great article! I seem to end up writing a lot about rape. This’ll help me wade through the shoals carefully. -C

  11. Thank you, Carole, and yes, it is murky water. I’m glad this article can provide some sort of resource to you.


  12. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post. (I like the original Tempest Bradford post that started it, and this chain reaction.) I think an overabundance of rape was one of the factors that led me to abandon the sci-fi, fantasy and historical fiction I read in quantity as a teen and not re-discover these genres for years.

    I do question whether a rape scene needs to be graphic–because I think reading a lot of graphic rape scenes was really not good for me as an adolescent girl. It was traumatizing, and it denied me an escape I really needed from a reality where my high school friends were being raped, and I was sometimes threatened. It also kept me from being able to think about these experiences in the ways I needed by keeping me in the super-charged horror of the moment. Which is a horrible way to live.

    I frankly think, as with much literary violence, rape can be just as or more effective when it happens offstage, or with restrained language. The rape stories I have found powerful in a positive way have had great emphasis on the aftermath, with victims that are fully-formed characters and much more than victims. (Robin McKinley’s _Deerskin_ and Mary Doria Russell’s _The Sparrow_ are two examples from my personal list.)

    Showing a victim’s life after the fact–a life with a lot of range and possibility and potential, not simply defined by the violence they’ve experienced–can be quite powerful. But so can dramatizing other types of resilience. Looking back on my teen reading years, I think I could and sometimes did gain a lot more from books that showed other types of trauma, hardship, dearly-won victories, and ongoing complications–precisely because they weren’t tackling rape head-on.

  13. “Showing a victim’s life after the fact–a life with a lot of range and possibility and potential, not simply defined by the violence they’ve experienced–can be quite powerful.”

    Well put. Trauma and violence can certainly define a person’s strength, fears, and much more, while in the moment, and it will certainly impact the development of a person in many ways, but it does not need to define the person as a whole. Characterization can certainly follow this example, as long as it makes a conscious study of the trauma’s full range. As with all characterizations, we only write a small percentage of the character’s background, right, but we should consider the full scope while writing the character.

    My biggest concern with Donaldson’s notion — a “Victim” who suffers “Victim-Hood” turns to victimizing — is that it stereotypes the “Victim.” This “victim becomes victimizer” doesn’t ring true to me. I’m sure that scenario occurs, but must it be the basis for all “Victims” and therefore, characters? I would think not.

  14. Hi, Jeanne. Yes, the sentiment of rape as taboo trope is hard to swallow, as is…

    …Lena’s reaction to the rape then to further complicate things, their daughter, Elena, and her attraction to Covenant. All difficult to stomach.

    I can understand how someone might term rape as a metaphor for violation, but it doesn’t make it any easier to digest. Donaldson certainly didn’t do himself any favors in the tone of his response.

  15. I didn’t want to say anything before, but I have to agree with Jeanne’s comment on Donaldson. Especially when he gets to talking about people he has raped, etc. I had flashbacks for a moment of my Modern Lit class when some guy with a ponytail would say something incredibly stupid and pseudo-intelectual like this. Then I was fine again. I probably won’t ever read Donaldson because he comes off as an asshat in this interview. Plus he contributes widely to the cliche of a rape victim falling in love with their attacker. Very soap operatic, very Victorian.

    Rape in the case of Fantasy storytelling is used as a plot device. And yes, I agree that it is something horrible and unforgivable in real life. But story telling isn’t real life, it’s a pale imitation or reflection at best. In real life, people are attacked, people are brutalized, people are emotionally crippled for life through such trauma. Using rape in a story allows a writer to do damage to their character and see how they will overcome/be undone by such a thing.

    As a plot device, how is this any different than using a nuclear holocaust, ethnic cleansing, murder, or striking a character down with a disability to motivate your story? In Rae’s text, “trope” evokes two meanings. Either a cliche, or overly used theme or device. From the Greek, Tropos, meaning “to turn.” So yes, if a writer sets up a character to be raped, this if influencing the turn of events. So, yes, it’s a “trope.” A horrible, awful trope, but still a trope.

    Just like murder, incest, or a wave of superheated gas and ash spilling out of a volcano, if the character survives it, their world will be changed forever. That is why we read/tell stories. The conflict. Conflict is usually unkind to its characters.

  16. I’m having a Vonnegut moment. I’m imagining that all my characters have come back to haunt me via the horrible conflicts I’ve placed them in… *shutter*

  17. Heh! *shudder*

    Yes, how Freudian of me — my “shutters” are shaking me…

  18. Thanks for the article, Rae.

    Well done.

    Watch out for those *shutter*’s :}

  19. Solid article, Rae. I tried reading beyond the rape scene in Lord Foul’s Bane, but I simply couldn’t let it go. That one act rendered the character irredeemable in my eyes.

  20. Now I need to go back and examine my work for these tropes. I find these articles helpful and enlightening. Thanks, Rae.

  21. Thanks, TJ and Rochita! I’m glad the article is helpful. I thought the Benedict excerpt was particularly telling.

    Hah, those darn shutters, always banging at me…

  22. Hi, Kurt. Yes, I had the same issue. I nearly chucked the book to the side. It’s a chronic symptom. Reviewers build a habit of finishing a work regardless…

    Or maybe I just wanted to see Covenant get his comeuppance.

  23. For anyone who is looking for additional critical resources on Rhetoric and Tropes, a reader, Kay, had suggested this in a comment on “Taboos and Tropes: Part I.”

  24. Mystic River (I saw the film) deals with the theme of the victimized becomes the victimizer in a murder mystery. Again something very taboo occurs, but the entire mystery hinges on whether someone who was victimized is the obvious killer or not.
    The Kite Runner also comes to mind as a tale that has a horrible taboo in it that is central to the theme and internal struggle of the main character and motivates the action.

  25. Good book for study, Jonathan. Thank you.

    Yes, I thought Kite Runner was an excellent book. The handling of the taboo trope was done very well in my opinion, horror without gratuity, and it even used understatement in character responses. I’ll not add the spoiler here, as it is a book worth reading, but I will say that the taboo trope in this book is arguably the worst, and the protagonist considers this taboo trope the entire length of the plot, but still, the book ends with hope.

  26. I think this subject is one that should be handled carefully – and after much research and not just into the worst cases.

    As good as this article is, I worry about its effect. The emphasis seems to be on a raped woman being “hospitalized, cut, bruised, broken limbs, therapy.” If that becomes the new standard of description, what about the victim whose rape was not worst case? Will she/he or other people think she/he deserved it or wasn’t truly a rape victim?

    I know that’s not the intent of this article.

    I just remember (when I was a young teen) hearing how child abuse (sexual) was described. I carefully compared those descriptions to what I was going through at the time and decided that what was happening to me must not be bad enough to be considered abuse. Later I learned that it was abuse. It’s just that only the very worst cases were described.

    This article is well done and has made me think.

  27. Hi, Kathy. Excellent comment and point well taken. Yes, all forms of abuse are exactly that, abuse, and sometimes it is the more easily hidden cases that have the longer lasting cycles. Tough stuff. Thank you for your comment.

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