The Taboo as a plot device

I am not a squeamish person when it comes to the books I read. It sort of comes with the territory as an avid science fiction and fantasy fan. There’s quite a bit of blood, gore and general shock. Both sexual and cultural taboos are frequently used in these genres as plot devices or as ways to separate the good guys from the bad guys. Even the historical and realistic fiction I read sometimes presents terrible stuff.

Hell, sometimes the protagonist has to engage in a couple of these unsavory activities to save the universe.

I’ve seen beloved central characters torture and kill. I’ve read one story where one female protagonist allows herself to, essentially, be raped in order to save her compatriots. I’ve seen a couple of characters maroon people without any sort of help.

I have written a scene where one of my lovelies, one of my beautiful heroes, watches a former friend bleed out and orders his head cut off and brought home as a trophy.

Traditional Greek heroes, like Hercules, were assholes. They killed and maimed and fornicated and were hailed as the greatest people in mythology, because they did the impossible (retrieved golden fleece, killed Medusa, etc). What I’m saying, my doves, is that I understand the necessity of using taboo issue as plot devices. I get it. I really do.

However, there are some uses of the taboo in literature that stop me in my tracks.

I am just under 100 pages into reading “Thomas Convanent the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane.” I have not finished it yet. I’ve barely started. Let me repeat that.

I haven’t finished it.

I have NOT FINISHED it.

Now, that said, the reason why I haven’t finished this book is that the protagonist, Thomas, did something utterly shocking. I’m not going to issue a spoiler alert, because this is pretty earlier on in the story, but if you haven’t read the book and would like to, now is the time to turn away. Go. Come back on Friday, my feelings won’t be hurt.

The author spends 86 pages building sympathy for Thomas. He’s a leper, an outcast. His illness prevents him from feeling anything physical. He has this insatiable lust because his flag won’t rise, if you take my meaning. His wife took their baby and left him. He’s a little bitter, but generally you feel for the guy. Then, he is transported into a magical land and rescued by a pretty “fifteen or sixteen year old” girl. She takes him home to her family, feeds him, allows him to interact with her people.

During this time, his illness is healing. He’s getting sensation back, and it is very apparent that he’s attracted to this girl. At one point he gets angry with her, and in the space of a paragraph couched in cliché, he rapes her.

The PROTAGONIST straight up rapes this poor girl.

I put the book down and have not returned to it. Honestly, this is the first time I can remember actively hating someone I just spent 86 pages sympathizing with. Is this instance a plot device? Of course. But I’m pissed off because the author broke an unspoken treaty with me: that the protagonist will remain basically good.

Angry rape scene? That immediately puts him in antagonist mode.

If I was an agent, I wouldn’t have bought the book. The author lost me in that instance. I am trying extremely hard to convince myself to keep reading, to see if Thomas somehow redeems himself, because I hear this series is worth a read. But it’s hard.

Have you all ever encountered something in a book that shocked you enough you didn’t want to read it anymore? Were you able to get past that? How?

When have authors completely lost you? Tell me in the comments. Let me know I’m not alone.

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9 thoughts on “The Taboo as a plot device

  1. You’re definitely not alone – that would be a total deal-breaker for me in a protagonist, and I’d (fairly or unfairly – opinions will vary!) be seriously put off reading anything more from an author who considers gratuitous rape as a plot device.

    I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I just wanted to give you a thumbs up for this post and offer a bit of solidarity. If I were you, I’d put the book down and read something with a hero worth following 🙂

  2. Funny enough, I just started reading Lord Foul’s Bane myself recently. I’m almost at the place you mentioned, so I don’t know how I’ll feel when I get there. We’ll see.

    There were a lot of difficult moments when Brent Weeks had his bad guys doing their evil thing in “The Way of Shadows,” and I got very angry, mostly in scenes where romance is ended forever by someone’s death, or a couple’s wedding night is interrupted by a murderer and his thugs. Both situations are hair-triggers for me to get angry, not only at the villain but also the author, for some reason. I finished the book, but can’t say it was an entirely pleasant experience (not that “Way of Shadows” was meant to be pleasant, but even so…)

    Still kind of debating whether to finish Carol Berg’s “Song of the Beast,” because I found it similarly infuriating and unlikely for a king to have no idea his cousin was “silenced” because his cronies thought he meant to have him tortured for years. Really? You’re the king, and you never asked your minions how they interpreted that vague command, “I want him silenced”? Couldn’t you at least have been more specific? So, not sure if I’m going to finish Berg’s book.

    And of course, in George R.R. Martin’s “A Storm of Swords,” there is the favorite scene for people attached to certain characters entitled The Red Wedding. Holy crap.

    • I realize these don’t strictly fall under the category of “taboo,” but they disturbed or rankled me enough that I felt the author was just being sadistic, rather than giving their characters obstacles to overcome (especially with romance broken by cruelty). Patrick Rothfuss has gotten close with some of his scenes in “Name of the Wind,” which I have slowly been working through, but he keeps the story so compelling that I have to keep reading anyway.

    • Oddly, The Red Wedding scene didn’t disturb me as much as it could have–mostly because I assumed anyone not-a-Stark was bad, so I didn’t perceive it as the protagonists betraying me. My biggest problem with Lord Foul’s Bane was just that: the protagonist betrayed the reader with something that we as a culture already perceive as horrific. Maybe it’s amplified for me because I’m a woman and my immediate reaction is to want to protect my fellow women, but still.

      I haven’t read the other books you’ve mentioned, so I can’t speak to those issues. Except, it does seem really stupid of a king to not know what his cronies are doing, regardless of context. I mean, heelllooo. That just seems like common sense. If you have minions, you should know what they are up to at all times.

      Thanks for your insights!

  3. As for Lord Foul’s Bane, if it helps you any at all, Thomas Covenant spends the next six books trying to redeem that one act, which tumbled the girl’s entire society and world into chaos and destruction for cneturies. If anything, it’s a lesson how even an act we immediately repent of can have lasting repercussions for ourselves and for others, for generations afterwards, and that even though we can make reparations and be forgiven by others for our crimes, nothing we do is without consequence, nothing we do can ever be undone, and we must always strive to be in control of ourselves, no matter the provocation. It is definitely worth picking up again. I read it close to thirty years ago, and still remember that lesson.

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