Sunday, February 13, 2011

What you can get away with

I've written a couple things with Tiger Gray in the past couple of weeks that made me feel like I was personally responsible for the deaths of at least a million kittens, and another scene yesterday that made me feel like I had spent the night curb-stomping puppies. I made Tiger uncomfortable with it. I consider this a weird kind of success, because it's meant to be uncomfortable.

The scenes in question involve a character who is absolutely, positively and in all other ways repugnant to me. I've written some twisted, nasty bastards in my time, but this one gets to me. You can read more about him in this post. He isn't the protagonist, however, so he can get away with being an unbelievably evil doucheface.

Switching gears slightly (I swear this is going somewhere), I read a post by Tiger the other day about rape in fiction. And it reminded me of an experience I had betaing for someone who decided to use rape as a major plot point in a (romance) book. More specifically, this person's protagonist date-raped his love interest.

Now, to me, this is not okay on a number of levels. 1) in the romance genre, 1a) it's really, really hard to get away with rape as a major plot point, period. 1b) especially when it's one of the romantic pair. 1c) especially when it's both of them. 2) The rape was portrayed as a stepping-stone for the characters' relationship. WAT. Yes, I said that, and I'm not exaggerating. 3) It's really hard to get away with your protagonist doing shitty things in any genre. Much less rape.

Sympathy Through Consistency

Why is it so hard to get away with this? Because readers still expect protagonists to be "heroes" in some way. Even anti-heroes may not have a lot of heroic qualities, but when it comes down to it, they always do the "right thing," even if it's for the wrong reasons. You may not like them, but they are sympathetic because they adhere to our built-in sense of moral rightness in some form or fashion.

Inevitably, someone will argue with me about this until the cows come home. But why shouldn't protagonists be able to do shitty things? Look at Dexter! Yes, well, I will point out that in order to be consumable by the public, Dexter still has to have human qualities like a code. He doesn't rape anyone. He doesn't kill children or anyone who doesn't "deserve" it (though there's plenty of moral gray area there). And Dexter is also up front about the fact that he's a serial killer.

This novel character, however, was a squeaky-clean romance hero before he up and date-raped somebody. I mean, from a solely logical standpoint, rape isn't about sex--it's about power. If you (and I'm using "you" as the hypothetical author here) set up a character who had issues with power, I might believe he could rape somebody. I mean, seriously, it takes a seriously fucked-up person to think rape is an acceptable course of action. But if your character is seriously fucked up and you make me believe it, I might be able to sympathize with him.

My point here is that you cannot let your otherwise agreeable protagonist do shitty things and still expect him/her to be sympathetic. If you want a character to be sympathetic, don't then shatter the reader's connection with the character by showing them shocking behavior that doesn't really match up with the reader's previous impressions. Be up front.

Sympathy Through Justifiability

Going back to Dexter again, viewers can, at some level, justify Dexter's actions. Yes, he's a sociopath who kills people and then cuts them up into pieces  Yes, he really is monstrous. But we're able to justify murder of "bad people." We can understand how that might be acceptable. When heroes in classical tales or modern books kill people/beings, it's perfectly acceptable of those people/beings oppose the hero. Anti-heroes, especially, can get away with a lot. They can torture, maim, imprison, beat, maroon, abandon, neglect, whoever, as long as whoever they're torturing/maiming/whatever is playing for the opposing team. We might be aware that doing these shitty things isn't something a really nice person would do, but because the actions are established as justifiable, we can think, well, that's okay.

Rape, however, is never justifiable. I feel safe in assuming everyone who isn't a psychopath agrees with me.

It doesn't really matter if rape can be justified using your internal story logic. Okay, so the rape has to happen in order for one character to realize his feelings for another. In a romance plot, that's pretty important. But here's where real life intrudes upon fiction.

Your protagonist is a rapist. He does not get to exist as a romantic character anymore. End of transmission.

Sympathy and Respect

I sympathize with someone (real or fictional) when I can respect them and their motives. If a protagonist does something truly awful, but s/he has other respectable qualities, I might still be able to respect him/her. It depends a great deal on what that is. It has a lot to do with understanding, too. If I can grasp, at least on an intellectual level, why a character does something, and that understanding doesn't involve the phrase "the author is an asshole," I can respect him/her.

Now, this understanding doesn't come from the character him/herself. Note I said "the author is an asshole" not "the character is an asshole." Your character can be so full of shit s/he's choking on it. My characters are regularly chock full. But you have to help me understand what's going on that makes your character(s) that way. If you pull shit out of thin air and stuff it down their throats, I'ma be unhappy.

If I can't understand your character or think your reasoning is full of shit, I won't respect him/her. If I don't respect him/her, I don't sympathize with him/her. And then you've lost me.

To sum up:

  • Your protagonist can't rape somebody in romance.
  • Your protagonist can't do something "bad" that's wildly out of character and expect to remain sympathetic.
  • Your protagonist can do shitty things if you can make them justifiable.
  • Rape isn't justifiable.
  • Sympathy comes from respect, which comes from understanding, which comes from the author.
I think you can get away with a lot in fiction and people will still read. But you, as the author, have to prove to the reader that there's a reason they should let you get away with it.


  1. I am sick to death of rape elements being used in romance. When I say that I mean rape culture is present even when the story is meant to be feel good fluff, and those elements are conflated with true love.