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Writer’s Craft #113 Thinking about the topics of rape and sex in writing

March 4, 2013
Nikki Broadwell

Nikki Broadwell

Nikki Broadwell is the author of Wolfmoon Trilogy, a fantasy that takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ (somewhere in Scotland). Before the writing bug took her over, she was a silk-painting artist, showing her work in several galleries in Portland, Oregon. Now she allows her characters full-rein, obediently following them down the twisting paths of her imagination. Currently she is working on a sequel to Wolf Moon, finding herself unable to let go of the personalities who have circled her desk for the past six or seven years.

Nikki now lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, a standard poodle and a cat.

Her writing blog is: http://niksblog-authorinprogress.blogspot.com/

Her books, The Moonstone and Saille, the Willow are available on Amazon, Smashwords, and Kobo and The Wolf Moon will be out in mid to late March. For more information please visit her website: www.wolfmoontrilogy.com


I’ve been thinking recently about the topics of rape and sex in writing. Someone on Facebook made the comment that she would never read a book in which there was a rape, which started the wheels turning. Rape is included in one of my books and although it’s back-story it’s still powerful. To me its inclusion gives more fullness to the character and speaks to her future actions.  Any time a writer tackles these difficult subjects it can turn certain people off, but should you ignore this darker side of life?

I do not shy away from these topics, although where sex is concerned I try to tone it down since so far it has not been the main gist of my story. But instead of having my characters kiss and then head into the bedroom and close the door I try to use metaphor and a few understated clues as to what is going on. When I read a book I’m always annoyed when the author skips these details.

With the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, a badly written book based on Twilight fan fiction, it’s obvious that readers enjoy being titillated. In my opinion, if we are writing a serious story, too much detail in these areas could potentially take away from the narrative.

How do you tackle these subjects in your own work? Do you tend to close the door or do you bring your reader into the bedroom?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2013 6:47 am

    I’ve been embroiled in this debate many times, and it seems to shake down to audience expectations. If somebody picks up Fifty Shades of Gray they do so because they expect and want to be titillated. Someone picking up an SF or Fantasy book is doing so because they like the genre. It doesn’t necessarily mean they want titillation. Personally, I do not. I want good SF with intelligent writing. A hot sex scene thrown at me in the first couple chapters is a turn-off. I’ll likely dump the book. Same for a scene of violence, brutality or torture. Not interested. Not what I’m there for. If it is critical to the plot, then that’s a plot that likely won’t engage me. If the the justification is, “That’s real life, that’s what real people do,” maybe so. But real people also visit the bathroom several times a day, and I don’t need details of that included, either. And there’s enough horror in the nightly news. Don’t need it in my fiction.

    But that’s just my personal preference. Many readers love those gritty details, whether it be violence, sex, or violent sex. They will gravitate towards authors that provide them. So, write what you feel is appropriate, what you feel comfortable with or think is necessary, and don’t worry too much about the audience. Whatever choice you make, you lose some but gain others.

  2. March 4, 2013 7:19 am

    I’m a fan of smut-eating asterisks; I’d rather let the reader fill in the sexual details for themselves. I have to admit, this is because of my own reading experiences. I am not one of those people who can deal with an ‘adult’ mixture of erotica and literature. A titillating sex scene wakes up my unregenerate self, and it then spends the whole rest of the book complaining. ‘Hey! What’s all this plot-and-characterization junk? You promised me sex! Where’s the rest of the sex?’

    Therefore, when I imagine including a sexy scene in one of my own books, I imagine my readers being similarly distracted. And I don’t want to spend years writing a novel, only to end up with something that only interests its readers for those three paragraphs on page eighty-four.

    • March 5, 2013 4:21 am

      If you write the three paragraphs on page eighty-four that well, you should probably write a book full of them!

      I think you make the point about separation of erotica and ‘the rest of the story’ extremely well. It’s a gear shift onto another plane of experience. It works as long as the point of it is to reveal something essential but if it pulls reader interest too hard then it works against you, so either you have to rewrite it to be less of a jolt, or you accept that your books will all have their spines broken on p84, or you write that fabulous thing – an erotica novel with great characters and a killer plot.

      My take on it – if you love p84 that much you forget the rest of the book, then the rest of the book was…forgettable…not necessarily because it was bad or anything, but because the rest of the book did not generate the level of experience you generated in them right there. You gave them a peak and visceral experience that grabbed their whole attention. Everything else looks dull in comparison, of course, and the more intellect based it is the duller it seems.

      Also, if people get the vapours at p84 because they’re one of those odd types who read intellectually but not in an engaged way or because they have squee issues, then they’ll also dislike you for startling them.

      You can’t win them all. But the really interesting information is in that broken spine. It took me decades to realise I was bored of reading acres of middling book stuff in the hopes of finding erotica. I should just buy erotica books. (And then find most of them didn’t have enough character and story, but SOME do. Without the character and the story I’m not really gripped no matter how much sex gets wheeled onstage – psychodrama is where it’s at and that takes craft and effort). People want to have visceral peak experiences – that’s what they pay for. Peak spiritual epiphanies also good. Peak anything good.

  3. March 4, 2013 8:07 am

    I got very uncomfortable with some scenes in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, especially the S-M sex. But it was necessary to the story, and didn’t detract from the greatness of the novels.
    In my novel Quantum Cannibals, the MC is raped (not graphically) right at the outset. It shapes her character and her relations with others. It’s necessary for the book.

    • March 4, 2013 9:18 am

      Is it just me, or are an awful lot of female characters in novels nowadays shaped by rape? I seem to be seeing this–“It’s necessary to understand her character”–remarkably often. Am I the only one bothered by this?

      • Sue Burke permalink
        March 5, 2013 1:25 am

        I think sometimes rape might be used as lazy characterization. On the other hand, if you look at real life, a whole lot of women are raped. Still, for how many of us has it shaped our character?

        In my novel coming out this fall, there is a rape, but I included it because the main character needed a very good reason to kill someone — this was almost the last straw pushed her over the edge. But her response was anger and resolution, not “It’s so horrible, I’m unclean, I’m ruined” etc., which is the cliche response. In real life, rape invokes a variety of responses, and I think non-lazy characterization needs to take that into account. Everyone is different. In fact, rape might not be life-altering at all.

        There is some sex in my novel, too, but I didn’t detail it much simply because the novel isn’t about sex. Now that I think about it, I devoted more words to chemistry — hard science fiction will do that to you.

  4. March 4, 2013 9:38 am

    I haven’t read that many rape novels to answer that question. But I did consider the issue of how easy it is to trivialize rape in a story.

  5. March 4, 2013 10:46 am

    Right now I’m working on a chapter that ends in a sex scene. I had many doubts whether to include it in the novel, to be exact, whether to let the characters cross that line or to keep their relationship “platonic”. I wrote the scene itself as an experiment, long before I wrote the preceding chapters, and by the time I’ve got to this point in the story, somehow it seemed to me that it truly ‘belongs’ there, and without it there will be something essential missing from the plot. Yet there’s some controversy in it: the characters are 16-year-olds. So I tried to keep the scene as innocent as possible, and focus on their feelings, on spiritual intimacy of the moment rather then it’s eroticism. What I wanted the reader to get from it is that it’s not about sex, it’s about a bond between two young people which means that from this point on they are responsible for each other, even if it means facing a mortal danger. I think the story overall would lose if I’ve chosen to take this scene out.

    • March 4, 2013 9:03 pm

      I like what you said about the bond…and being responsible for each other. Sometimes these scenes are necessary. I have to say I enjoy writing them since it takes metaphor and finesse to do it well…not saying I do it well, but I like trying!

  6. March 4, 2013 11:32 am

    On the other hand, I’ve made a conscious decision not to include any rape incidents into this story, even implied ones. I must say, I’ve considered this possibility, mostly because given the heroine’s penchant for ending up in the hands of her adversaries, it seemed almost inevitable. So I had to think hard about the plot, and why she won’t end up being raped even if the odds are against her. And when I finally resolved this problem, the pieces of the plot puzzle fell into place and I ended up with an outline of the story I was happy to write. If I wanted to write a story about how brutal humans can be to each other, I’d write mainstream fiction. The reason I write SF is to thrill, to entertain, to make readers see something in a different light, and leave them with the feeling of hope at the end of the book. It doesn’t mean that there is no place for a rape scene in my writing, but it does mean that there needs to be a very good reason for including it. So unless I’m sure I’m writing the next “Friday” or “The Lovely Bones”, I would try other means of making the novel unputdownable.
    I do make the life pretty tough for my characters, but sometimes I feel the need to turn down the level of violence in certain scenes, because I felt it obscured their real intent and message. I want it to be a story of the characters’ struggle, development and growth, not a pain-fest. I think, the writer’s intuition is the best judge of when enough is enough.

  7. March 4, 2013 11:43 am

    I agree with Nikki, rape and sex are a part of life and to ignore it is not being honest in your writing. And I might add, leaving women and men vulnerable. Can rape be done tastefully? If it furthers the story. I have a rape scene right off in one of my novels. It prepares the reader for the premises of the story and paints a picture of its effects on both characters. For years women did not report rape because they didn’t want their reputation viewed wrongly. (You must have done something to cause it are the words many women have heard, often. It makes me cringe!) There is a fine line between consent and rape and I worked hard to define it in my use of the word. That is beginning to change; however, but we are still fighting for recognition of our cry for help.

    As to writing sex into a story, it can be done tastefully. I dislike vulgar sex scenes. Here’s where metaphor works well. There are authors who “teach” sexology in their story.” Get to know them so you can decide if you really need to be taught how to have sex. Ha!
    No I have not read Fifty Shades of Gray. To each his own, however.

  8. March 4, 2013 12:40 pm

    My novel is predicated on the impact of traumatic events including rape. The rest of the story is how the protagonist deals with post traumatic stress syndrome, begins to heal and learns to live through and beyond the deep alterations of her psyche. I recall a writer friend a year ago being horrified and angered by the paragraph describing the rape. She thought I should leave it out, not reveal the reality. She has been a victim and it had triggered her. That was tough but I have not removed those paragraphs. They are real and essential to the unfolding of the novel. Sex in general is not often a part of my writing, but I agree with Nikki–vivid and tasteful intimations seem to work and can be very provocative, as well.

  9. March 4, 2013 5:48 pm

    I don’t think sex and “serious” fiction are mutually exclusive. Sex is a part of life and reveals a lot about character–what’s more vulnerable than a nude person with their heart on their (metaphorical) sleeve? Keeping everyone away from the bedroom can be a missed opportunity to show a unique side of your character[s] even, or maybe especially, if the writer is using a rape backstory (which in my experience often feels forced for titillation).

    That said, to each their own.

  10. David Casperson permalink
    March 28, 2013 10:28 pm

    About the rape part …

    I certainly used to wonder about Stephen R Donaldson … I felt like I kept coming on rapes more frequently than I needed to.

    Many of the novels of his that I first read contained sexual violence of one form or another. For those who have read Mordant’s Need (The Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through), comment on whether the nastiness experienced by Terisa Morgan is necessary to the story.

    … on the other hand, the Gap into Reality series of his is darkly violent, and has a lot of bad things happening to good people. But it works here. He couldn’t tell this story without the violence being there.

    I think that the question of when to include rape or other violence is subtle.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      April 21, 2013 5:10 pm

      Agree with the statement “when to include rape or other violence is subtle”. I didn’t find the Stephen R Donaldson examples I got through very subtle, either. Stopped reading them. On the other hand, I can generally stomach the worst Amnesty International can throw at me when it’s real. I think what irked me about the Donaldson was an underlying sense that rape wasn’t a big deal or that it even aggrandized the guilty protagonist in some not-really-all-that-interesting way.

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