Trigger warning: this post will talk about violence and abuse which may be distressing for some readers, please continue with care.
So in this post I wanted to talk about why I write about characters experiencing trauma and what my thought processes have been around this. I want to talk about it because I think it’s important as an author to always be examining why we’re including specific material, and also how we’re including it.
So the story I’m working on is a speculative fiction piece based in a world that is not massively removed from our own and while it includes a society that I envision to follow ideas of Solarpunk it also includes a society that I wanted to be very similar to some of the worst urban sprawls we have in the west- rife with poverty, pollution and capitalist individualism. I wanted to write a story in which characters compare and contrast these conflicting societies with one another to in order to raise questions about the social norms that we the readers live in out in reality.
It is a story about conflict, therefore it is not by default a happy story but it is not my intention to make it grimdark and completely depressing. For me the best and most moving stories that I both enjoy and find useful for challenging my thinking are ones that use a mixture of comedy, tragedy, examples of how things might be better, and confronting the reader unflinchingly with how bad things already are for a great number of people here and now. If something’s completely depressing I feel nothing except depressed and I don’t want to keep reading. If something’s all positive, I don’t feel as interested in the story because I can’t relate to it as easily and I feel there’s nothing much at stake that I care about.
I’m not meaning to insult works that are intended to focus purely on the positive, there is absolutely a place for uplifting work and for work that is pure happy escapism. It’s just not what I personally like or find useful for myself.
So my intent when I write is to try and create the sort of thing I would want to read. I want to write stories in which characters face adversity and face it in different ways. I want to include injustice and inequality that echoes the real world around me, and I want to write characters who rage against it and work to make it better.
And this is where the trauma issue comes in, because while I do include a lot of positive stuff, from people in healthy long-term poly-relationships, to queer-platonic relationships, the concept of multiple genders being totally normal, to garden-cities and sustainable farming methods, I do also include negative things too and the story overall contains scenes of torture, rape and other physical violence.
It is important however to make sure that I am including this darker stuff not just for a decent recent but to make sure that I wrote about it in an appropriate and respectful way.
This has understandably led to a lot of introspection on my part as well as talking to other people about the what and the why.
One conversation I had on the topic of writing about violence and rape was with a friend who is a fan of both grimdark and social-realism stories. He was strongly of the opinion that if you’re going to include violence or rape it should be distressing, it should ‘not be comfortable watching/reading’ because the subject matter should never be something we feel comfortable with. His reasoning was that we need a level of brutal realism in media in order to show what not to do in real life. To confront people with topics in a way that leaves an emotional impact on them and that demands action in the real world. A sort of combination of a warning and a call-to-arms. He felt that if a creator wasn’t willing to give brutal subject matter the impact it deserved, why include it at all?
I had a good long think about that. And I went back and looked at the rape scene I’d written in the light of what he said and re-wrote it to be more graphic, more distressing and unpleasant reading.
But then I also read these two blog posts (here and here) by author Robert Jackson Bennett, and these articles from Mythcreants (here and here) and they made me reconsider and write another draft, and then another, and then another. And while doing that I did some very serious thinking about why I wanted to include this scene at all. And I came to the conclusion that the reasons were complicated.
So for context this scene comes from what I intend to be a spin-off book about my favourite side-character from the main storyline. This is a character I had always envisioned to be someone who’s had a very difficult life and has evolved a lot from the person they used to be to become the fiercely dedicated rebel activist they are in the present. On first consideration I worried that part of me had fallen into the trap of writing the ‘rape as back-story’ trope.
So, panicking, I considered taking it out completely. But this was a bit of a problem because plot-wise I did need something to happen at that point in the story that was both mentally and physically scarring in a way that had long-lasting impact on both the character it happened to, and to their friends in finding out about it.
I also realised that my motives for including it weren’t simply as tropey as I first thought they were. This is because the character I was writing about is very much a channel for my own journey as an activist and a person. My own experiences and the experiences of my friends are heavy influences for a lot of the content I wanted to include. Because the truth is that I have myself been raped and as part of working through the mental impact of that, reading stories about real people and fictional characters’ experiences of similar trauma and how they continue living afterwards, has been of massive help to me in my own journey forward.
For me it is important to see characters in fiction experiencing trauma because it is important to see them living through it. It was also important for me to be able to pour my own feelings into it. To get that out on a page, (even if the scene in question does not directly resemble what happened to me), the humiliation and the lasting impact of broken boundaries combined with a rejection of the character’s gender by their attackers (the character is non-binary like me) – to get that all out was therapeutic, immensely so. And in writing what happens after the attack, I poured into it all my feelings around how I might like to confront my own abuser, and how I would have liked my friends to support me at the time. I wrote the things I’d like to say to the berks who parrot ‘well why aren’t you going to report it’ the anger I wish I’d had the ability to express at the time.
All this of course did not automatically mean I had justification enough to include the scene in the book, the act of writing may have been important for me, but would it help or hurt my readers? That had to be a consideration if they, like me, were going to relate strongly to the main character. This led me to a compromise with myself in how I wrote the scene.
I decided to alter it so that the reader only sees the implied beginning of the scene and then they see the aftermath. It is uncomfortable and distressing but it is written in a way where it could be interpreted as physical violence only, or as sexual violence, but it is never out-rightly confirmed either way. We do not see gratuitous detail of a sexual assault happening, but we do see friends finding them afterwards and friends rallying round them trying to work out how best to support them and protect them going forward. In going at it from this angle, I was still able to include a sense of horror that something terrible had happened to the character, without it becoming the main focus of the whole sequence. Instead, by shortening the attack to only a few sentences and pushing the focus onto the much longer section about them and their friends afterwards I was able to change it from being a chapter ‘about rape’ to a chapter about ‘surviving trauma and being supported’ which still allowed me to include a lot of the content I’d wanted to about coming out the other side of horrible shit. I realised that the elements of the scene that were necessary were not the specifics of a sexual assault, they were the fact that a character as been victimised, hurt and humiliated in a way that is not the norm.
Whatever way the reader interprets the specifics of the scene, the essentials are still there meaning the long-lasting changes to the character (and to their friends) are also still there and I can write about the lasting impact of the event exactly the same as if I’d made it super-specific.
I don’t include lots of sexual violence (or implied sexual violence) in what I’m writing, but I do include some and I’m trying to subject them all to the same level of scrutiny as the one I’ve mentioned above. Because while I don’t want to quite take my friend’s advice of being ‘brutal’ with how I portray dark shit, (because I don’t want people to feel so traumatised they can’t keep reading or end up triggered to fuck,) I do think he has a point: that this stuff should always be uncomfortable reading, because the moment it becomes mundane, we’re hurting people in real life. But I think the points raised in the articles and blog posts I mentioned- about carefully considering what it is we want a trauma scene to do – are very important, because not only is subjecting our work to close scrutiny a way of ensuring it ends up good quality, it can push us to add subtlety that is actually more impactful and effective than what we might have done otherwise.
Writing this scene was tough, the whole chapter was tough and I know not everyone will be ok reading it, because a horrible thing still happens to a likeable character. But I feel a lot more confident in its presence in the story and I feel it does its job respectfully and well, and now that I have this process in my mind for approaching dark material, I’m making sure I subject all my traumatic content to the same treatment.