This originally appeared this summer as my monthly writing-related essay for Patrons of Snark. With the very public reckoning currently taking place against men who have sexually assaulted/harassed people (primarily women), and the rather relevant subplot in Odin’s Spear, it seemed relevant to post now. It’s edited slightly from the original version. For exclusive monthly writing essays, check out Patreon!
If you’re stressed/triggered by the discussions lately, skip this one if needed.
This post also contains spoilers for the Livi Talbot books, specifically Odin’s Spear. That book came out in February, however, which means plenty of time to have read it. Read on if you’d like background on why I made certain story decisions.
“Why is there so much rape in fiction?” It’s the common refrain among readers and writers alike, and I’ve asked the same question. The three most common irritating places it’s seen: to give a tough heroine a tragic backstory, to give male characters motivation (when their wife/sister/daughter is raped), and to to add “realism” since the world is a terrible place.
A whole lot of it is bullshit, tbh. A whole lot of writers misuse this terrible thing that happens to real people because they’re lazy storytellers, ignorant, or just don’t give a shit. And fiction as a whole could use a lot less rape.
But knowing all that, I still include characters who are survivors of rape, molestation, and intimate partner violence in my books–it’s a deliberate, conscious choice, and one I stand behind. I’ve blogged before about Why I Write the Terrible Things I Write. That post was written partly referencing Livi’s books, but they hadn’t been published so I didn’t go into detail.
While it’s more alluded to in Solomon’s Seal and not outright said (that I can recall?), I will explicitly say it: Livi Talbot is a rape survivor.
That was a deliberate choice on my part: much like I wanted to write a single mom who was a badass adventurer, I also wanted a book about a rape survivor that is also fun.
Because whatever has happened to her, Livi is not broken.
This thing–this terrible, unspeakable thing she has gone through–is a facet of her character, but doesn’t define her. It changed her, but so did the other major experiences in her life. I don’t say this to minimize the experience or deny how that trauma stays with her–because it has, it’s very much apart of her, even if she doesn’t focus on it in her narrative.
Stories where trauma clings to survivors are necessary. Ana Fidatov was deeply damaged by the intimate partner violence and horror she experienced, so much so that she had to reinvent herself as a new person for the next three hundred years in Zara Lain; Dessa and Vaughn, neither of whom you’ve met yet, have been through horror in their young lives and both struggle to navigate the world carrying the weight of it for the duration of that (unpublished, five-book) series.
Just as necessary, IMO, are the stories where survivors reach a point of being happy. Where they can have relationships, where they can thrive. Where they can jump in a dragon’s mouth to defeat it and kick a yeti in the balls. Being raped by an intimate partner did not change the fact that Livi is a badass adventurer at heart, nor did it cause her to become a badass adventurer.
Similarly, it was a deliberate choice to introduce someone in Livi’s life in the form of Richard Moss.
He tramples all over her boundaries and gives off red flags she ignores, because all of us have those blindspots. No matter what we’ve been through, no matter how far we think we’ve come, the rape culture we live in–that women are raised in–is something that has to be constantly pushed back against. And Richard was part of that, particularly in Odin’s Spear. Over and over she doubts her gut feeling about him, over and over she feels confident she can handle him. Livi grew up around men like him, who feel entitled to whatever they want–when she was raped as a teenager, it was very similar to the situation she finds herself in with him–and when that’s so heavily ingrained in you, it’s a pattern that’s easy to fall back into.
Fighting back has consequences that reverberate throughout the next couple of books because rejecting an intimate partner isn’t a triumphant moment that saves the day–he doesn’t crawl back under his rock, never to be heard from again. That sting to Richard’s ego, his inability to have power over her, doesn’t go away. He still slut-shames her at every chance; he uses every opportunity to drag her through the mud, to affect her reputation and career. (If I can promise you anything, however, it’s that he will fucking get his eventually.)
I don’t write stories about survivors to add a level of realism, but to add a level of transformation–to show consequences to rape, to combat rape culture by placing the culpability on the perpetrator.
It allows me to have a moment where Pru can simply say to Livi in Zheng’s Tomb “It’s not your fault” and have every woman who sees herself in Livi hear it too.
It allows me to contrast Richard’s inability to say no with another (future) romantic partner of Livi’s immediately backing off the moment he senses she’s physically uncertain.
It allows me to revisit a moment for all women who wanted to fight back and couldn’t, and have Livi beat the hell out of her attacker and get away.
It allows me to show everyone on the ship–even people Livi doesn’t know–demonstrate that they have her back, guns ready, to run Richard off.
Not everyone has a supportive friend, or the ability to fight back, or a network with rifles telling an entitled man to fuck off, but if I can find a way to share that in fiction, maybe I can give someone a little hope.
So as a writer, if you’re tackling rape in fiction, I say nothing should ever be off the table, but you have to question your motivations for writing it.
- Is it to put the heroine in danger so the hero can save her? Nope, not a good enough reason.
- Is it to motivate the hero when a woman in his life is raped? Yeah, don’t do that either.
- How about making the story seem more “real” because women always get raped, right? Uh, do better, motherfucker.
- To give your heroine a traumatic backstory? There are so. many. better. ways. Seriously.
But exploring the aftermath, having your characters push back against rape culture and victim-blaming, and/or exploring what happened to you in a safe setting where you can maybe change the outcome? All valid choices.
At its core, Livi’s story is about a woman who has not had an easy life but isn’t broken by it. A survivor who keeps rising and surviving, finding love and laughter and comfort with her found family. Someone who can say to others, “This thing happened to me but I’ve reached a point of being okay, and you can have hope that you will be okay too.”
And that’s something I hope readers, whatever they’ve survived in life, can identify with.