RSS Feed Print
The Rape Trope in Urban Fantasy (possible triggers)
Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 4:21 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 2

What do you think about the rape trope, where the heroine is raped sometimes as part of her transition from the human world to the paranormal world and sometimes not, and its role in the urban fantasy genre?

I have a hard time with it. On the surface, it feels like the tool the author uses to give the heroine permission to start kicking ass (ie only rape can take away weakness and delicate femininity), but after a discussion a few months ago, I came away with another thought. Is rape a sort of rite of passage for the UF heroine? Is it used as an important transition marking her move not into the paranormal realm but out of the "weaker" realm? This seems to make more sense since the trope doesn't necessarily mark the heroine's paranormal birth but might be part of her ancient history (that comes back to haunt) or a threat/violation she has to endure during the course of the story, whether she's the victim or not.

What do you think? And are you as tired of it as I am?

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 11:25 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

The rape trope. Yeesh. I wish there never was such a thing. I don't think writers do well to think of a rape scene as a means to an end. I can see where you're going with the idea of initiation. Back in ancient times , initiation often included either a full-on near death experience, or a highly ceremonial ritual meant to symbolize a NDE. And certainly, rape qualifies as a near death experience.

Honestly though, who are we kidding? Yes, the greatest alchemy in life is to take our suffering and spin it into gold; yes, it can be thrilling to see a heroine suffer terrible losses only to prevail in the end; but far too often I see writers putting a rape scene in their books because they wanted to put a freakin' rape scene in their books!

We writers tend to write about what we want to write about, no? And if there's a convention in UF of having the heroine get raped, then I'm sure a lot of writers will be more than happy to stick to that tradition!

Also it strikes me as unimaginative in the extreme: "I need to think of something terrible that can happen to my female MC, something we associate with a gritty, urban setting, something that doesn't kill her, but scars her in some way that doesn't really leave any external scars, I don't like scars, but it's bad, and you know, gritty...what could it be???"

I particularly can't abide books in which this rape scene happens in the first couple chapters. It took me years and constant nagging from friends for me to get past the miserable rape at the beginning of Lord Foul's Bane. I have a real hard time with book that has a rape scene, if the rest of that book isn't dealing directly with that rape in one or another. Donaldson did manage by book six to understand the horrid tragedy of that event, but man!

At this point, I really need to trust an author before I'll read his or her rape scene.

KD Sarge
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 4:37 AM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 16

I threw that book across the room, Kevin. About six months later I picked it up again and managed to stagger on a ways, but by then I really loathed everything about the series.

There isn't much that will make me stop reading a book I've been enjoying, but a misused rape scene will.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 7:19 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I was unaware this was a trope! That is just... Ugh.

Agreed on the rape scene in lord foul's bane. Its not just that it was horrid, its that... wait... so, you suddenly have feeling back in your body that you've lost, you've been cured of a horrible disease... so lets violently violate the woman who cured you! I mean... Yes, he thinks he's dreaming. I'm sorry, I'm a lucid dreamer. I've been in similar situations in dreams. I've been turned down by women in a lucid dream, and known I was dreaming. NEVER did I think, well, this is a dream, so, might as well RAPE her, that'll be fiiiinnnnee.
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 5:54 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 25

I don't think I've ever read an urban fantasy with rape in it. I guess that's a good thing. I agree with Kevin: it's unimaginative to say the least. There are plenty of ways to emotionally scar a character, if that's what you're going for. It seems to me that using rape is just taking the easy way out.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 11:19 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I've never thought of this as a trope, but the way you describe it I'm sure it's been used as such. I haven't seen the actual scene depicted, but any 'transformed' paranormal (werewolf / vampire) the act of unwilling conversion is often (not always) described much like a rape scene. The idea that trauma is transformative is a powerful one, but an author has to be careful to avoid trivializing the trauma. "You too can get superpowers, just go get traumatized!" Urgh.

My thought is that something like this *can* be used, but is equally likely to be overused. As for putting the actual scene in the book, I stand by the general rule: if the scene advances the plot or informs the characters, put it in. If it's gratuitous, leave it out. However, some types of scenes are emotional dynamite; far easier to misuse than to use properly.
Addie J King
Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 12:40 AM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 16

I hope it's not a trope. I've seen writers who have handled it tastefully and well (Patricia Briggs did so in the Mercy Thompson series), by bringing in the emotional upheaval, the emotional aftermath, and the recovery in a beloved character without making the scene itself titillating or gratuitous.

And it was not done as a "transition" between the normal and the paranormal. It made sense with the storyline, and the character development that followed made sense with what she had gone through.

I applaud her for that.

Jessie Kwak
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 5:32 AM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

I don't think that this trope is unique to urban fantasy--a quick googling will bring up dozens of essays about rape "creating" female super heroes in comic books.

If the kick-ass main character is male, then we don't need an explanation of why he's hard, strong, tough, etc. But if she's female, then we need some sort of justification for why she takes on a traditionally male role. And rape has become shorthand for "losing femininity," in a way.

Addie, I haven't read the Mercy Thompson series, but I'm putting it on my list. It sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.
Addie J King
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 2:40 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 16

Jessie, this issue shows up several books into the series...not in the first one. Just heads up. But very very well done. Recommend that series in general, not just on this issue.
Jessie Kwak
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 3:48 AM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

(Sorry, we're moving a bit off topic, but Addie, I picked up the first of the Mercy Thompson books and I'm really loving it. I started it yesterday morning and I'm almost done. OK. Off to read the ending. -J)
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 6:26 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 3

In some respects, I see where it's coming from. According to Vonnegut, drama (and the sense of satisfaction that comes from resolving tension) can only happen when you take your main character down to a place that is absolutely miserable. The rape trope seems to have become a short-hand way for too many writers to do that without actually doing much thinking.

You can see the Vonnegut thing here: http://sivers.org/drama

That doesn't really address the masculine/feminine aspects of the issue brought up by the OP though. I mean, can anyone think of a book (any genre) where a male main character who goes through the same thing? Would readers have a hard time identifying with him if he were raped?
Jessie Kwak
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 5:28 AM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

@Gregor, one of the male MCs is raped in Jay Lake's Trial of Flowers. The rape and its aftermath on the character was brutal to read, but I wouldn't say that Lake used it as a shorthand in any way.

As far as identification with the character.... I can't really speak to that, since I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters in that book. I love Lake's other work, but that one really wasn't my cup of tea.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2011 3:37 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Gregor - I can't think of a (published) book that does it offhand, but American History X had a rape scene in where the victim was male.

A friend of mine, TK Anthony, just published the first book of her Thrall Web series, and one of the male characters in that is raped in a later book. At least, in the first draft he did. I think if anything, the rape might get worse to underscore the horror of the situation.

@Johnny - *agree* on how hard they are to write. I've written one, and if it wasn't key to the plot of the book I'd have left it out. What was even worse was writing the rapist as more than an automaton. He's viscious, petty and cruel, but he's not stupid, and he is talkative, so I had to keep forcing myself to see the sick, twisted humor in the situation and putting those words in his mouth.

You know, now that I think on it, wasn't there a rape in one of Lackey's Vanyel books? It's near the end, iirc, when everything is going to hell in a handbasket for Vanyel. I'd have to reread them again to be sure, and I'm pretty sure my copies are all packed away.

When I pondered this, I realized I've actually written four sexually abused characters (three female, one male). Only one of those abuses is on the page, the others are either off-screen or character backstory. In the case of the one male character, he considers the encounter rape, the woman who did it doesn't, and that's one of the ongoing sore points between the two characters, who are forced together by circumsance.

My current WIP involves two female characters who have both been abused. In one case it's a woman who did things she later wished she hadn't at the instigation of a really slimy and manipulative boyfriend. He didn't *rape* her, but he emotionally abused her, badly, and a lot of the abuse had to do with manipulating their sex life. In the course of the story she meets another, younger woman who was serially abused and raped by a gang of shapeshifters. A big part of the story is how she comes to terms with her own past by helping someone else deal with theirs.

Y'know, I'm starting to look at *myself* with a hairy eyeball, 'cause I just realized that the same WIP has a character who is a stripper and former prostitute.

So... I've got around six hundred thousand words written, spread over around ten stories. In all that, the four characters listed are the only ones who are / were sexually abused. What do you guys think? Am I overdoing it? Am I using it as a crutch? Or is it a prevalent enough type of trauma in real life that, realistically, two of ten stories will touch on sexual trauma in some way?
Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2016 4:47 PM
Joined: 4/12/2016
Posts: 7

Kevin Haggerty wrote:

Also it strikes me as unimaginative in the extreme: "I need to think of something terrible that can happen to my female MC, something we associate with a gritty, urban setting, something that doesn't kill her, but scars her in some way that doesn't really leave any external scars, I don't like scars, but it's bad, and you know, gritty...what could it be???"


That's something that Linkara talks about in his epic takedown of Identity Crisis: too often Rape is used in a story not so much because they want to delve into the consequences it brings, but because it's seen as "Something bad that happens to women." So if you want your female character to go through something bad, you have her raped. Identity Crisis was particularly bad in that it talked very little about how it affected the victim, instead showing how it affected the people around her and very rarely allowing the victim to say anything.


I have to admit that in a novel I've written, I have a teenage girl who has been through a lot, even before the End of the World, and rape is one of them. Her mother was murdered when she was young, so she lived with her grandma for a while. Grandma died when she was ten and she was packed off to her mother's brother. At first, she's excited because her uncle is much better off financially, but basically winds up being the Cinderella of the family. If something's broken, it's generally assumed she's the one that broke it and her twin cousins quickly pick up on this. Her uncle molests her. She tries to tell her aunt, but her aunt doesn't believe her. At age thirteen, she runs away from home and winds up as a teen prostitute.


I realized I was delving into some pretty dark stuff and I like to think I avoided some of the traps other writers fell into. Initially, the character enjoyed being a prostitute because she felt like she was in control of things for a change, but it doesn't take long for it to turn ugly. To the extent I talk about what she's been through, it's mostly in broad strokes with a few details here and there, like have her think about all those nights she spent, looking up at the ceiling, praying for it to end. Figure that's the best approach, because you don't want to come across as too prurient (Don't want your readers getting off on a scene that's supposed to be one of horror) and it shows how it has really affected her in that she has a difficult time even talking about it.


Jump to different Forum...