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True to characters, or to ideals?

This is going to be a very personal post, and I apologize for that in advance.

I based my latest short story on the worst nightmare I've ever had, partially as a way of dealing with my residual fears. Zuri, the protagonist, suffers a horrible experience through no fault of her own (roughly analogous to being raped and tortured, although there's no direct physical contact with James, the person responsible.) At the story's halfway point, she gains the means and the opportunity to torture James to death, an act that she'd previously never have approved of. A great writer could have made it feel fitting that she'd turn back at the last possible moment, but I'm not a great writer.

Still, I had her turn back anyways. I set up foreshadowing from the beginning that she wouldn't go through with it, and I wrote out her conflict as her emotions swayed back and forth. I did the best I could, even though this "happy" ending still feels out of place with the rest of the story. But I can't help but feel that, had I taken the tragic route, the writing would have come so much easier, and I might have been able to give it the emotional pull it deserved.

To put it simply, I was not comfortable writing a story in which a likeable, sympathetic heroine died or suffered a total loss of identity for no greater crime than bad luck.* But should I have swallowed this discomfort for the sake of a better story? Or should I have just thrown out the story as unworkable rather than give it such a jarring tonal shift at the end?

* Some writers instead portray rape as a trial that causes positive growth for their characters, and vengeance upon rapists as the culmination of their development. Do I even need to explain why I couldn't write something like that?


This is a hard post to reply to. Being male, rape is the sort of thing that I have an incredibly hard time writing about. The most I've ever done is put a little twist on the rape and revenge story that is backstory in my WIP. I'm just going to answer your original question. Do your best to be true to your character's ideals, not yours. If your character would realistically not want to kill her rapist then it's fine. If she normally would and she doesn't go through with it, then you need an outside reason.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
Sometimes, viewing the fear in someone's eyes is enough. I had a character tortured and raped by a powerful man, and in the end, he died, but not at her hands. Could she have killed him? sure. But she instead laughed in his face as he wet his pants.

For me, personally, tragic things happen, and sometimes they are expected (someone is put into a bad situation and bad things happen) and sometimes, they come out of the blue (a betrayal by a friend of spouse or relative). I'm not talking specifically about sexual abuse here, but of many similar tragic things. Sometimes, good people do bad things, sometimes, bad people do bad things, sometimes crazy people do things that don't make sense.. that is life, and the world we live in.

As a writer, your job is to capture a reader, and let them into your world, and into your character. If your character doesn't want to kill this person, then she doesn't have to. For me, my character was stronger than needing to deal a death blow, you know? But other people would feel ripped off, maybe if she didn't get her revenge. I wasn't concerned with pleasing those people. I like mine as it is, it's more powerful.

If you are concerned with the overall concept, that is one thing. If you are concerned with the execution, consider having someone else read it. Maybe your worries are unfounded, or maybe they are completely valid and another set of eyes would help you in determining which details add/ detract from your concept.

I don't ever subscribe to a one-size-fits-all mentality about any form of art. If you want your MC to be a certain way, then do it, because it is her story.

I tend to think, from reading your post that your concern is more about the execution. I have those feelings all the time. Sometimes I sit on the scene for a few weeks and then give it a read with a fresh mind, sometimes I write alternative endings... there are many theories, but ultimately, you need to be happy with what you have.

Start with concept first, the foundation of your house. Once you're pleased with it, then move on to framing it. Choose a structure you love, and once that is built, start filling out the details the way you like. There's no sense picking out curtains before you have windows, you know? Every step of a story is important, and if you are struggling with the concept, worrying about the details of the execution is a bit irrelevant. You can fine-tune it later to make yourself happier, but sometimes, you just need to make a choice of a direction, (to kill or not to kill) and run with it. There's nothing stopping you writing a second ending where she does kill this person and seeing whether you like it at all.

HAHA in the same novel I mentioned above, I just unkilled a man, changing the end scene, and I love it so much more now that he lives (not the rapist, but one of his cohorts). So having done the work twice, I now have two valid paths I could take, and it makes the decision so much easier.

Best wishes.



Personally, I'd say yes. Obviously I didn't read your story but having her torture him and then grieve over her actions would be a powerful chain of events to me. This is just my personal taste, however. It seems I have a thing for human misery :S

However, you have to write what you're comfortable with. If you didn't write it that way then you shouldn't feel bad about it. It's just how it went. Not everyone is like me and I know, in particular, my writing teacher would have loved the way you went (he's a sucker for happy/good endings). So, yeah, do what you feel comfortable with. The worst thing you could probably do is force a theme or ideal you don't want to into a story, because it will show.
The thing I react to here is the part about torturing the villain to death. Most people enjoy a good revenge story, but torturing people to death is generally considered going too far - the point where you become what you hate. It's a very dark place to take your story.

But putting that aside, I think this comes down to the theme of the story - is this a story about retributive justice or restorative justice? Is this a story about a person going on a roaring rampage of revenge, or a story about a person overcoming a traumatic experience, struggling through hate and anguish with her soul and morals intact?

Both of these work, but you have to pick one. If you write your character as struggling not to lose herself to the darkness, then her still going through with the revenge is going to come across as a letdown because she will have essentially lost that struggle against herself.

On the other hand, if your MC's character arc is actually driven by a desire for revenge, it won't make sense for her to deny herself that revenge when finally given the opportunity. It might seem like the "morally correct" choice, but it's actually just the character losing her nerve at the last moment, which isn't very cathartic.

In both cases, you character would come across as weak-willed, but for different reasons.

I should mention that revenge stories don't have to be especially dark or depressing - Inigo Montoya is an entirely revenge driven character, and everyone loves that guy.
I guess I let myself be pulled in two different directions. As a Utilitarian, I'll never be able to comfortably and easily write about person A doing awful things to person B for no greater reason than that person B did awful things to person A, but at the same time, I feel awkward about specifically labeling as "bad" any action one of my readers might consider "good". My beta reader believed that James deserved to be tortured to death (and quoted A Song of Ice and Fire to explain why), so I didn't specifically say that it was the right choice for Zuri not to kill James, just that it was the choice she made. Maybe I should have written more and earlier conflict in Zuri's mind, even at the risk of some readers disliking it.

(By the way, the story's up on Literotica now, under the title of "Worms". It's getting the best scores I've had in some time, so I guess it turned out okay.)

Dan Latham

You write in your original post that the story was a means for you to work out your residual fears. Did the ending serve that purpose? Unless an editor is offering to pay you money to change the ending, I don't see the point.

If the story is a moral fable or a splatterfest, it would probably feel contrived to the reader. If you write the story that you need to write, chances are it will feel real. That's my opinion, at any rate.

Nothing wrong with writing an alternate ending and trying it on for size.


I don't quite understand what you are getting at. Personally I know individuals who have been raped who would have ABSOLUTELY no qualms about hurting their rapist. On the other hand I also know those who would have serious misgivings about such actions. Saying that I must also say that rape is, in reality, horrific and not something to be written poorly.

Do yo honestly find it that hard to believe that someone would "not" wish ill upon their rapist? It takes a very special person to not wish ill upon their rapist. Yes we can all aspire to such ideals but unless you are ignorant of such things, and I mean personally, then you cannot possibly comprehend such a dilemma. I can tell you this much, I feel that such people capable of such acts, especially that of children, deserving of nothing less then the most horrific torture. So long as I am 100% certain of their guilt I would willing see to it that they are suffer beyond imagining.

Your problem seems to me a matter of conscious, of what you would do. However there is a far cry from what one would "ideal" do and that of reality. Yes I would like to say that I am capable of acting within the letter of the law, yet I doubt when faced with such a dilemma capable of such forgiving. The world, sadly, is full of vice and horrors beyond imagining. I feel that to create trifle sums of such events is demeaning to those who have endured. Write the horrors of the world, even if only one is able to open their eyes and understand. For who does justice serve but those who are willing to keep true to the toils and horrors of life. I fore one understand the truth of our existence better than most and to adhere to the abhorrence of many is terrible. How many understand the true horrors of life, few. Is it not our duty to expand upon such verisimilitude's that we hold dear? Should we not hold beneath the microscope of mores and justice such acts detested by all? The day we choose to accept such things as common place is the day I refuse to call myself human, for no being save that of man is capable of such acts. Should we not aspire to be better? Such are the reasons that I for one hold that truth in evil exists no matter what hope in reason exists. Can you truthfully tell me such acts have reason, neigh justice. what of your daughters or friends? No, and it saddens me to give such ground, evil absolute exists regardless of our ideals or hopes. The most, we averring, can hope is to hold true to the toils and pains of those whom have endured such. terrible, yes, but is it not worse to diminish such trials? This choice is left to you alone regardless of my belief.
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Caged Maiden

Article Team
I too, ascanius understand and have witnessed and lived through life's horrors, and I put forth another side of the coin. Nature is cruel, and violence and torment are not strictly human weaknesses. Many other animals torture, and animals rape as well. Is it as commonplace as in our society? that I cannot answer, but perhaps it is our emotions and the feeling of being wronged which makes us so susceptible to the effects.

There are many people who survive maimings, violence and rape, and carry on.

What makes one women become bent on violent revenge, and another flee, glad to be alive? I've had some people do some pretty cruel things to me in my lifetime, and never in my wildest fantasies (well, okay maybe there, once or twice, but only there) would I have considered hunting them down, torturing them, and killing them. When I was fourteen, I was battered by my boyfriend, left unconscious, locked in a room, and have no memory of the rest of the day, or how I got home. Nothing in the world would have made me try to get revenge. Do I hope his life is a living hell? you betcha! Do I want to administer justice? No way. I wouldn't say I have any lingering feelings about the incident, it was something that happened. And there have been other similar things, but I don't feel comfortable mentioning them all here. (I didn't date that guy for much longer, BTW).

The only reason our scars are so deep, is because we feel owed an explanation for every pain we feel. When we accept that the world is a harsh place, and that survival is the goal, the wounds become superficial. We learn to fight or to run, often into the arms of the people we most trust. And time heals anything you want it to, but you have to be willing to let it work. Keeping mementos of traumatic things is a great way of keeping the pain fresh and the anger red-hot.

The point I really want to make here, is that what one person experiences, another does not, and while we can all imagine a woman who would like to gut her attacker, I think many more suffer in silence, or simply move on, their minds focused on the future. There is only pain in dwelling on the past.
I too, ascanius understand and have witnessed and lived through life's horrors, and I put forth another side of the coin. Nature is cruel, and violence and torment are not strictly human weaknesses. Many other animals torture, and animals rape as well. Is it as commonplace as in our society? that I cannot answer, but perhaps it is our emotions and the feeling of being wronged which makes us so susceptible to the effects.

I think the important thing to remember is that we humans are supposed to be better than animals. We're suppose to rise above our instincts and base emotions, to defy our nature rather than accept it. And if we do violence to one another, we're suppose to do it for the right reasons, because we alone can be something "between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable," to quote one of our predecessors.

That's the whole point of having a concept of good and evil. Without that we're just a bunch of unusually clever predators.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
yes, and this post is about how a person reacts. All I'm trying to say is that while one person who experiences violence, might choose to rise up and become violent, another might choose to cower under a piece of furniture. Both are viable responses to fear, torment, anguish, and pain.

The OP wants to know whether she HAS to write a person reacting in a particular way, and my point is "No, you don't."

Either reaction is plausible.

For example, a strong independent woman who gets date raped by her boyfriend might go out the next day and file a police report, have him arrested, stand up at his trial, and see him put behind bars.

While a young girl might allow abuse to happen for a long time, keeping a horrible secret, feel guilt, and eventually become a recluse. Who knows? There are dozens of possible outcomes. I mean, without getting into the nitty-gritty, there's a difference between a friend who gets you drunk, things go too far... etc. and say a war-time situation, where soldiers storm into your home, take what they want, rape the women and leave. And what about a woman walking to her car, who gets grabbed in a parking lot, raped beside her car and left to drive herself home? Or someone who experiences a random break-in? I mean, these are all different scenarios.

I don't understand why rape keeps coming up on this site, honestly.

Black Dragon

I don't understand why rape keeps coming up on this site, honestly.

Neither do I. On several occasions this topic has resulted in hostilities. If that happens again, I may just ban the topic outright.

While I can see the value of being able to discuss any topic freely, some topics have proven to be so volatile that they damage our sense of community. I think that this may be one of those topics.


Hero Breaker
Caged Maiden makes a good point about this. If you build your character properly, you should know how that character reacts to such a traumatic event. I think the best thing to do is list what are the possible outcomes. From the top of my head, you have:

  1. Complete shut down.
  2. A need for blood (vengeance).
  3. A loss of trust.
  4. A sense of being tainted, untouchable.
  5. Understanding and healing.

I know that's not a complete list, so if you have more to add please do so. The point is, develop your character and you'll know which one of these possible outcomes she'll take.

Another thing to consider is how the outside influences change a character. If you've taken the steps to develop your world, you should have a sense of the culture the character lives in. If your character initially acts one way (as determined by her character), she may gradually change because of external factors.

As a note to everyone. I know we are touching a sensitive subject here, but approach it with the professionalism of your craft. It's hard to take the emotion out of such things, but you have tread upon a calling that often forces you to face the inner demons of human psyche. The only way be can become better at our trade is to accept that all things are possible and discuss those possibilities and how best they serve your story. Right or wrong does not belong here.


Unfortunately, this is one of those topics which are on the one hand a fact of life, while on the other are rarely the sort of thing people are comfortable discussing in public… sometimes even seeing discussed, especially if someone comes up with views utterly at odds with one's own. It's difficult even to say "if you don't want to see it, don't read the thread"—because it isn't always apparent what the thread is about, and even where it is, we all know discussions wander.

This is all the more regrettable because, as writers, we generally want to have well-defined ideas about anything we are including in our work—and I'm not referring to graphic physical descriptions here: while they too have their places, MS is not one of them. But there's a lot more to any topic, especially the most negative ones, than that. Passing over the act itself by simply mentioning—or not mentioning, merely hinting—that it happened is easy enough. Dealing with its consequences and ramifications is a different matter, and here the author cheapens it if not sufficiently informed. Saying "Well, just don't write about it, then" is not an adequate approach: often it's the most distasteful topics that result in the best, or at least most important, literature. Even when this is not the case, pretending something isn't there doesn't make it go away. In many cases, bringing the topic into public discourse is the best way to "do something about it"—to help end misunderstanding, misrepresentation or outright demonization. I'm hardly advocating that rape should not be demonized… but it's only recently that rape victims have been less than demonized; even there attitudes remain far from where they ought to be. As the evening news occasionally reminds us.

To take a considerably less loaded example, which may come as a surprise to many: it is within my adult lifetime that menstruation became something which could be brought up as an "acceptable" part of public discourse. Go ahead: try to find television commercials for "feminine hygiene products" that date back more than three decades—and then read the scripts to see what sort of vapid terms and secret codes were used to reference the few that were permitted. Carrie would likely have been all but ignored had it come out after that time rather than before it; for all I know, the movie may have prompted a nudge toward dealing with it in a more open, less negative fashion. One thing I do know is that this remains a taboo topic in much of the rest of the world.

In terms of maintaining an overall tenor to a discussion like this, the best advice I could offer would be to sit down for an hour or so and make a list of all the topics you wouldn't want to discuss—then pick the one you're least comfortable with, and try to figure out in what ways you would be comfortable seeing it discussed. Whatever ways those may be should probably guide your responses to any similarly emotionally-loaded issue… and if your answer is there isn't a way you can imagine, then you may wish to avoid responding to discussion of topics such as this altogether.

I'd love to be able to say there has to be a happy medium somewhere (or even an unhappy one). Professional detachment—and having the maturity to bow out of discussions for which you can't maintain that—seems to be about as close as one is likely to get.
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