Yesterday, I started a discussion on the subject of shock writing. This is my opinion and only my opinion, whether or not I state things as fact.
Let’s look a little deeper at the two most common shocks given to protagonists.
A major part of my problem with shock writing is that it turns women into objects on both sides of the spectrum. If you want to show the situation is serious and the woman is the protagonist, you have her raped, thus ripping her power away from her and turning her into an object. It is disgusting. If you want to show that the situation is serious if a man is the protagonist, you kill their girlfriend, wife or lover. She becomes and object and plot point for the story. It perpetuates/reinforces the idea that women need to live in fear of being raped because men just can’t control themselves. In these stories, men don’t get raped. It also shows that men can’t have emotions unless a traumatic act happens to someone they care about. Women are just plot devices for men to hang their emotions on. Otherwise, emotions are the bastion of females and the stoic character (or mouthy character depending) is how a ‘real man’ ought to be. It normalizes these stereotypes. Neither of these things are true and both views hurt our society. Men continue to drive the story with either trope. This is bad. Very bad.
Rape is rarely ever handled delicately or decently and only enforces to the female mind that the world is a scary place. The aftermath is rarely, if ever, handled very well. There is usually some reference to the female going into therapy and that’s about it. Any sort of psychological trauma or rational fears created by the incident are brushed over. It doesn’t make a female character a stronger character by default. If your character has to be raped to be a “strong” character, I would argue that she wasn’t a good character to begin with. (A good character being a character with relatable strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, talents and flaws.) A person who hasn’t suffered some sort of trauma in their lives doesn’t make them weak people, it makes them lucky. If you can’t find some sort of trouble to put the character through to make the story interesting that isn’t rape, then you’re just not thinking hard enough.
Rape is not a plot device. Rape is a huge problem for men and women in our society. To treat it as a plot point to make your character stronger is disgusting and disrespectful to all victims of rape, male and female and to females in general.
Yes. Different rape survivors handle rape in different ways. There is no one ‘right’ way to react to being raped. (There is also no one ‘right’ way to react to a loved one dying and handling grief.) Each person is going to handle it according to their natures. It would behoove writers not to treat rape like it is a fact of life. There are rape survivors that write fiction about rape as a method of coping. There are rape survivors who go on as if nothing had happened. And there are rape survivors who live in fear for the rest of their lives. These are real people in the real world that this horror has happened to and it shouldn’t be treated as it is like buying a loaf of bread at the supermarket.
On the flip side, killing the nearest and dearest to a male character is a common male empowerment fantasy, which totally disregards the fact that to make them a ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’ character, that their lover, wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, child, best friend of whoever it is gets the terrible and horrible and unfortunately terminal end of dying. There is no coming back from the grave folks. And if they don’t die, they do a Die Hard or Taken plot point and have said, usually female, character be kidnapped. Captain America took it a step further, not only was Bucky Barnes thought to be dead, when in fact he was kidnapped and then brutally brainwashed and mind raped into a super soldier killer for the very people he was trying to defeat when he supposedly died!
Both of these are amateur devices to give the male character an excuse to be ‘strong’ and often go ape shit on everyone, beating up the bad guys and defeating evil to avenge or rescue their loved one. Whereas if they were a strong character to begin with they wouldn’t need the excuse and maybe the loved one would end up being around later to build more stories off of. So, despite the fact that the male character goes on some sort of rampage to avenge his family, this plot device still treats the life of the woman as trivial and not at all important to the man until she’s taken away from him. Then he can indulge in his emotions and actually show them.
Men have emotions too. You’d think that particularly the men who are writing this would eventually get that they are insulting themselves when they use this trope on top of insulting women everywhere. Women are usually shown to be helpless victims that can’t do anything until their men save them. And the male’s emotions are only given primary importance when they are in the middle of a life or death situation and suddenly it is acceptable to have them and have a break down. Often, the female characters emotions are ignored in favor of the male’s on top of it to boot.
And by now, it’s a cliché. Boring! There is one story there and we know what’s going to happen at the end of it!
These ‘shock’ type of topics can be handled successfully, if they are treated with respect and not as a plot point to be glossed over later. The success of the Young Adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a good example.
An author who is one of my favorites is Anne Bishop. Anne Bishop is one of the rare writers who uses shock value to prove a point. She has a system and rules in place and uses situations that are disturbing and downright horrifying to show what happens when the system and rules are twisted or broken. Then, she shows the consequences of what happens afterwards. This is the ‘scare fiction’ of fantasy and addresses issues in society that are happening right now. Her message feels to me to be that yes, trauma leaves scars and it is the way you deal with this trauma that proves to be the type of person you are. Do you become like the people who have hurt you? Or do you break the cycle and become a better person and try to create a better world? There is hope in her world that despite bad things happening to the characters, despite trauma and pain, they can still find love and happiness. There might be sharp edges and tender places, and those that love you will understand and lift you up to help deal with it rather than tear you down.
So, while I despise shock writing for it’s lazy and trivializing nature of societies problems. I do believe that the circumstances used in shock writing can be used in stories as long as they are set up well and the consequences of such actions are handled realistically afterwards. Otherwise, I will continue to exercise my right to choose with my dollars and not buy books of writers who want to hit me over the head with an emotional baseball bat to keep me reading.