**warning, dark subject matter**
“…we cannot protect ourselves from monsters by calling them by another name.”–Andrew Vachss, The World & I, August 1993
I’ve been putting a great deal of thought into how we, as authors, treat certain crimes within fantasy. Not necessarily how we punish crimes, but how we create and build characters who commit these acts. I think it goes without saying, you can get away with being a psychopath, and be successful, in a lot of fantasy settings. (Generalizing here–I know there are exceptions to the rule in many wonderful, unique fantasy world-builds out there. Today, I am addressing where it is not the exception.) I believe this will become a blog series for me.
So, first up: Sex Offenders
In light of the Game of Thrones phenomena, (I must state before continuing, that I think the SoI&F series by George R.R. Martin is a richly, gorgeously built setting, with amazing characters.) I wanted to cover what has been on a lot of peoples’ minds. In many fantasy settings, not just George R.R.’s Westeros, rape, incest, pedophilia(and child-brides), sexual mutilation, sex-slavery, and sexual coercion, are sprinkled liberally. Many authors, and readers, feel it adds character depth, conflict, and true grit to stories. In many (not all) fantasy worlds, harsh acts of sexual aggression–even predatory sexual aggression–is used offhandedly to help define a character. It can be used to set up a divisive flaw in a protagonist, or to make you hate a side character. It is even used, in more recent tales, to add depth to a redemption story. And, very often (not always), these acts of sexual, criminal-aggression, go very unpunished by the particular fantasy world’s own justice system. (This is probably the subject for another blog, another day, by itself!)
I’ve heard the argument more than once that the fantasy worlds where sexual assault goes unpunished are just grittier than our own. It is war-time. People are living under constant threat. This is how it was in Earth’s dark history, too. While I do not argue with any of that, I would like to argue with the character development of these sexual predators. I’m not here to say we need to stop having sexual assault in fantasy. If it fits the story, write it, my brother! What I am saying is that we need to be mindful of how we treat our characters, specifically our sexual offenders in fantasy. We need to be mindful that we are being realistic, and setting the right character progressions for a person who is a sexual offender in fiction. What I’m calling into criticism is how I’ve seen some authors develop character arcs involving these characters.
(I will only use example, and not the names of any books or authors I’ve read, negatively, for the sake of propriety. It is rude to call other authors out publicly, in my opinion.)
So here is the thing:
I read a story, not so long ago, that involved a protagonist that got involved in the imprisonment, and brutal raping of a boy. He had also raped women in the field, sexually assaulted a female relative, and several servants. This was not a villain, it was a view-point character. The purpose was to add grit to the character, to add conflict to his internal struggles. Honorable hero, with internal, moral failings! And even, in a really messed up way, the authors wanted to add sympathy for him. You see his mind was sick–he was troubled. And he was struggling, through the ups and down of his book’s particular story conflicts, with his own brutal nature. He was just ill. You felt bad for him, because he was personified, unlike his victims. The character in the story arc eventually over-comes his failings, and is a hero!!! A redemption story.
Now, I’m all for redemption stories, but this is where I put on my psychiatry/sociology-hat. The character described above can not exist. Real life is not that neat. And, yes, I agree that fiction is NOT real life. But characters are people, so if they don’t behave psychologically as people do I find an immediate disconnect. As a reader, I need to identify, and relate to a character if I’m expected to enjoy a story–if I’m expected to care what happens to that character. If they start doing things NO ONE would ever do in a situation, I can’t get to understand them at all.
Going back to real, historic, stories of sexual fiends. Like I said, there is an argument that the world used to be gritty like these stories are. These types of things happened. I agree they happened. I don’t agree the people that committed these acts all had tidy stories like characters in a book. I don’t agree they all escaped the consequences of their actions, nor do I agree they all existed within society as cleanly as sexual predators do in fiction. Take Emperor Caligula, as one example. Sexual deviant, rapist, pedophile…study his life. He had a very interesting, dramatic life, but it wasn’t a story I feel any healthy person could sympathize with. It is hella’ fun to read about. He’d make a great character in a book, but I don’t know many who’d want to be him, or be friends with him, or depend on him for anything. This wasn’t just a really good guy, with a troubled soul. This wasn’t a hero at heart, struggling with the darkness of the war-torn world around him. He wasn’t sick. He was evil. Caligula was a bloody psychopath! And, a psychopathic character can be juicy, and wonderful to read about, but he’s not my knight in shining armor. Please take note that Ned Stark isn’t a pedophile…because that type of honorable, heroic character trope can not be reconciled with that type of mental/moral/personality disorder. (For the record, despite the levels of grit in George R.R.’s writing, I think he does this aspect right. Character arcs make sense. Characters with obvious disorders don’t just shrug them off to be the people’s hero, like I see in some of his contemporaries. I think, it is quite possible, that he has a very good grasp on human nature in that regard.)
I say all this to go back to my opinion that characters who repeatedly do acts of sexual aggression (Sexual Predators! Not talking about drunken tavern regrets.), can not be reconciled with the white knight, or even anti-hero, archetypes. No, I don’t find Ramsay Bolton redeemable (I do find him a compelling character, that is well written, that adds insanely fat conflict). I don’t think the Joker is sexy. (There is a blog post yet to be written on this subject, for all my girls who, like me, want to save Harley.)
Narcissists, psychopaths, pedophiles, schizoids, and sexually-aggressive Borderline Personality Disorder aren’t things you just get over, during the coarse of 150,000 or so words. These aren’t character flaws. These are character cornerstones, that define the type of person you are dealing with. It can’t be shut off for the sake of plot progression. And many people within the psychiatric field consider most, if not all, of these disorders incurable (though, sometime manageable with medications and therapy).
What I mean is, you can’t take a pedophile, call him an anti-hero and have it be true/believable. You are defying human psychology, and it stands out on paper to the reader when you do this. If you are going to write in a pedophile in a book, let him be what he is, and explore that character arc to its fullest. Don’t hammer him into a knight’s armor. That’s not what he is.
I think that’s all I have to say on this subject for now. Again I’m not saying characters that do these things shouldn’t exist. I’m saying we need to be mindful of how we treat their character progressions.
For anyone who might not be with me on this, I strongly urge you read Andrew Vachss’ work. Out of any fiction writer I know, he’s got the greatest expertise on this subject. An article he wrote in 1993 of particular interest, and inspiration for my feelings on this subject is here: How to Handle Sexual Predators
Excerpt from Andrew Vachss’ The World & I, August 1993:
“For those who would argue that sexual predators are sick, the response is simply: So where’s the cure? Unless and until rehabilitation of predators approaches the medical model it purports to imitate—that is, to rehabilitate a broken arm so it returns to its former state of functioning—why should all society be the butt of bizarre (and life–threatening) experiments?
For too long the headlines have haunted us with the specter of a parole board member expressing surprise and shock at the horrible deeds of an individual his agency released. Such agencies always justify their actions by saying that they could not predict future behavior. It is time to accept that statement as truth and to protect ourselves accordingly.
There are individuals who are so toxic that their presence threatens us all. They self–identify by their conduct. And we cannot protect ourselves from monsters by calling them by another name.
If prison cannot rehabilitate, it can at least incapacitate. If we cannot transform sexual predators, we certainly can contain them.”