Tag Archives: Frames of Reference

Why Obsessing About Rape Only Muddies the Waters

That titles is absolutely intended to be click bait.  A completely honest description of the topic is going to sound very boring.  That I had to use the click-bait title only demonstrates my point, really.  So, what is this post really about?

I’m taking a quick break from my World-building seminars to address a topic that’s both in the news a lot lately, and is also a relevant example of how you can add depth to your world-building.  The issue is sexual consent, and the broader application is linguistics.  Using the word “rape” to talk about issues of sexual consent is a linguistic choice, a cultural choice, and a rhetorical choice.  But what a lot of people don’t understand is how those three types of choice interact, and it really makes it hard to have a useful discussion on the issue of sexual consent when we focus on rape and whether or not the definition of the word should be expanded.  I’m going to make a lingusitic, cultural, and rhetorical argument that it shouldn’t.  The interaction between those three frames of references is the world-building aspect of the post.

First, I’m going to give my short essay on why I am taking the position I am, and then I’m going to explore how the topic could be generalized to help with world-building.  Those of you who aren’t writers or don’t care about world-building can certainly skip the second part of this post.  I think you could benefit from it, but if the issue of rape and consent is why you came here, I’m not going to try to force you to look at the broader implications of my argument.  Here we go!

Rape is often defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a target.  From a linguistic standpoint, you could argue that rape is any form of sexual intercourse without consent.  That’s the linguistic frame of reference.  Now, consider the “prototype” of the word rape.  (I’ve talked about prototypes in linguistics before.  Essentially, it’s the first example you think of when you picture the word in your head.)  It’s a guy dragging someone kicking and screaming into an alley for a lot of pop culture.  So you’ve made a perfectly valid linguistic choice, especially if you explicitly state your definition of all forms of sexual intercourse without legal consent.  But you haven’t made a good rhetorical decision, because when you call someone a rapist, or say a crime is rape, your listeners/readers are going to compare it to their prototype, and it it doesn’t fall within that individuals personal tolerance zone for deviation from that prototype, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage in convincing them of your argument,

There’s also a cultural choice involved.  Each culture has its own prototype for a word, and the concept the word describes has its own connotations.  Rape culture is a common buzzword these days.  It’s not a “culture”, it’s a set of attitudes, beliefs, and connotations within our larger common culture or popular culture that arguably encourage, allow for, or cover up rape and sexual misconduct/lack of consent.  By calling something “rape”, within a culture with a strong rape culture component, and knowing the prototype for rape is different, perhaps significantly so, from the crime in question, you make a poor rhetorical decision.  It might even be argued to be a poor linguistic decision, because to an extent words are variable, and a word in one culture might have such a strongly differentiated prototype that you can’t really say your definition is correct or reasonable.

However, there’s also the rhetorical decision that “rape” gets people’s notice.  You might write a linguistically, culturally, and even otherwise rhetorically sound decision to use a different term, and then you won’t reach your target audience because that term isn’t on their radar.

Now, my argument is that we should not be focusing so much on the word “rape” in these discussions.  Not only is it rhetorically risky, it doesn’t acknowledge that so-called “rape” is only the tip of a massive iceberg called “non-consensual sex”, the prototype of which is just the tip of another massive iceberg of incidents which are non-consensual sex but not considered so by popular culture, even if they may be considered “skeevy” or sleazy, or ethically grey/black.  But to call them rape gives your rhetorical opponent a lot of wiggle room.  Here’s a technically “true” statement reworded in several different ways to give you an idea of how strong an influence these cultural and rhetorical choices exert on discourse:

  1. “Barney Stinson raped a dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  2. “Barney Stinson assaulted dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  3. “Barney Stinson had unconsensual sex dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  4. “Barney Stinson lied to dozens of women to get sex they would not otherwise have given within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  5. “Barney Stinson tricked dozens of women into having sex with him within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.

Now, given the popularity of the show, and the lack of outcry over Barney’s behavior, I’d argue that last version is the worst most people would say of the behavior of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in HIMYM.  Personally, I think #3 does the best job of balancing linguistic reality, rhetorical wisdom, and cultural perception.  The trick here is, I don’t think mainstream cultural perception would accept the label “unconsensual sex” for these incidents.  After all, the women said “yes”.  barney did not use force on any of them.  None of them were roofied, although depending on how you classify alcohol, you could argue many were drugged; but, most of them drugged themselves, so you probably won’t have an easy time making that argument, despite its truth or falsity.

Now we have to dig down a bit deeper.  Most people consider consent as a simple black and white “Did she say yes at some point?”  That certainly makes it easier for someone accused of misconduct to defend themselves.  Or to avoid a lot of thought on whether the person actually wanted to be part of an encounter with them.

A more sophisticated view is, “Did they say yes without external pressure such as alcohol, force, or threat of force?” Does a slightly better job of determining true consent by my definition, but still isn’t quite there.

Better yet, add “implied force, peer pressure, hierarchical pressure(boss, teacher, adult to kid), cultural pressure, or economic pressure”.

However, that can be very hard to test for, and our society’s focus on freedom and being able to go with the flow and not be too analytical can make it hard t determine consent to that level.  Explicitly asking those questions can get you a rejection you might not otherwise have gotten.  Again, this creates wiggle room for people who do know that they wouldn’t have gotten sex without external factors.  The vast majority of rape accusations are against people who knew they were applying outside pressure or that some other factor was.

However, the ethical standard I’m choosing to apply is, “Did the accused (or not, if you’re judging yourself) know that under normal circumstances, the other party would not have consented to sex with them?”  If so, and if they had sex with the person, they must have known that the person’s capacity to consent was compromised when they decided to pursue sex.  Legal issues aside, this is unethical.  It also often accounts for why people view some approaches to obtaining sex as sketchy or generally less than a stellar recommendation of someone’s character.

Now, is that rape?  No, I don’t believe so.  I would restrict rape to the person knowingly applying their own form of force through physical means: ie, physical force, threat of physical force, implied threat of force, them drugging the person, or them getting the person drunk.  However, I do think it should be considered immoral, unethical, and probably criminal.  The crime here is intentional denial or avoidance of consent for the purposes of obtaining intercourse with the person.  We don’t have a rape problem, we have a consent problem, and insisting on focusing on rape obscures that.  Certainly in our lifetime, it’s unlikely this sort of crime will ever be considered under the umbrella of rape from a legal or pop culture standpoint, and I think trying to shoehorn it into that category makes a difficult task even harder.

Now, onto the world-building section, it is a bit short, since this is an example-based article.  Using this as an example can you think of any other issues that suffer from similar complexity?  There are quite a few.  Drug crimes, religion, various areas of ethics.  The humanities, the sciences.  You can use the contrast between culture, rhetorical value, and linguistic meaning to add depth to any area of your world-building.  The spaces between these related meanings leave people room to rationalize, have different opinions or takes on a subject, and room for cultural change and/or growth.  This also applies to conflict between individual characters and groups of characters.

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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Con-worlding, Gender Issues


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Oh, My God, it’s a Flying Carpet! Or: Believable Relationships with Magic.

In the last post I talked about the relative frame of reference in regards to magic. Quick refresher: A relative frame of reference is the knowledge and experience of a single character. In this case, their knowledge of—and experience with—magic in the world of the story. Each character has a different one. And the reader has an absolute frame of reference (in most cases). And that’s where we run into trouble with character reactions.

A lot of you may be familiar with a joke whose punch-line goes: “Oh my god, a talking sausage!” The humor comes from the fact that this line is itself in fact uttered by a linguistically capable sausage.

A lot of readers and writers have this idea in their heads that characters in high magic worlds cannot be surprised or awed by magic. After all, it’s everywhere, even if they can’t use it themselves. Flying broomsticks, and fireballs, and talking flamingos… whatever. But just like our friend the talking sausage these characters are perfectly capable of being surprised by such things. In the real world, many people are still in awe of perfectly normal things: A quadruple axle in ice-skating, a launching rocket, stage magic, a particularly impressive floor routine at the Olympics, anyone who can play La Campanella. It’s not just about whether we are familiar with something. There’s also whether we are capable of it ourselves, and also the remove at which we experience it. We’ve all seen moon landings on television, but to be face-to-face with a person who has walked on the lunar surface is still somehow incredible.

Maybe the King does sponsor 13 mages of the “Adept” level, but so what? If all a little street rat has seen are hedge witches treating headaches, one of those adepts calling a thunderstorm to kill an orc raiding party is still going to be quite impressive. I can get quite a few bulls-eyes on the YMCA archery range, sure, but I certainly don’t have as many fan-girls as Legolas, an entirely fictional character. The point I’m trying to make here is be very careful how you judge a characters reaction to the fantastic. Just because you’ve seen 37 dragon-slaying elf-lords, that doesn’t mean our humble heroine has the same experience. Now, if she were married to a dragon-slaying elf-lord, that’s a different story.

Just because we’re reading about a high magic world doesn’t mean everyone has exactly the same exposure. We had silks for hundreds of years before your average housewife could afford to buy one at all, much less without bankrupting herself. Even in a world with magic refrigerators, the fantastic can still amaze.

All right, enough of my ranting and raving. How can we create believable relationships with magic for our characters?

Step 1:  Know what your character has seen or experienced.

Are they a total noob? Have they never even seen a sympathy lamp1, much less someone calling the wind? Even the tamest fire-calling will probably shock them. But perhaps they’ve talked with snakes and found themselves on roof-tops unknowing of how they arrived there. They might not be entirely shocked when an invitation to England’s magical boarding school arrives in the mail. Are they the arch-mage of Glockenspiel? Perhaps even a divine visitation is nothing more than another damn form to fill out and alphabetize.

There will be characters in your fantasy running from one end of this spectrum to the other, and you have to somehow make them all work. There’s a lot of guess and check here, no simple rules or formulas. A particularly imaginative child may not be at all shocked to find a faun and light-post in the back of the wardrobe, while her older siblings might be rather dismissive of the girl’s claims.

Step 2:  Decide what your character knows.

Even if your character can’t use magic themselves, they may be familiar with a great many of its principles. Lore-masters, priests, and worldly mercenaries all have the opportunity of falling into this category. If they do use magic, they could be at any step on the ladder of mastery: a lazy apprentice barely able to levitate an apple2, a jaded playboy known throughout his people as a flamboyant master3, or even a maxed-out journeyman resentful of his small ability. Wherever he is, how much he knows will inform his responses. He may be contemptuous of a clumsy apprentice’s first fireball, and wildly jealous of a child-prodigy’s Greater Demon Summoning. He may be surly and capricious towards others, or earnest and benevolent in pursuit of his lowly duties. Every character is different, but it’s important to consider how their personality affects relationships with other magic-users (or non-users) and with magic itself. Knowledge is one type of pecking order, and strength another, and you should know where the character stands in both.

Step 3: Know what your character feels.

Does your character see all healers as saints, or all mages as sinners? Do they have religious objections? Emotional ones? Did a mage murder their father? Are those who need magical assistance pathetic? Have they succeeded without magic in a field where mages pre-dominate? Have they ever felt in debt to a mage? Begged for help? Been spurned? These questions and many more affect how they relate to magic and those who use it. Attitude is a very important factor in how a character feels. Those who look on magic with contempt will not be impressed by displays of skill. Those who have been harmed with not admire it. Those who have been spurned or let down may hate it with all their soul. And those whose lives it has saved may view all mages (deservedly or not) as angels, saints, or heroes. But you’ll never know how your character feels or responds if you don’t know explore those feelings.

Step 4: Know how your character views magic.

This is the final and most complicated question to answer. Does your character see magic as a means to power? Does anything go? Do they have ethics or morals? Perhaps magic is the tool of demons… or a gift of the gods. Maybe there are no built-in penalties for “misusing” it. Or maybe the slightest deviation from protocol will bring divine retribution. What are the rights and wrongs of magic as far as your characters are concerned. Would they support bring back the dead? Stealing souls? Healing the sick? Fighting wars? All of these questions can help predict what sorts of conflicts will arise among your characters. (Emotion will, too, of course.)

Truthfully these steps can be done in any order, but I’ve lined them up in the way that seems most sensible to me. You can’t know what they know unless you know what they’ve experienced, and same goes for ethics and emotion (which I’ve put after knowledge/ability since that is often a major part of attitude.

So, those are the main four things that will determine how a character responds to magic. Whether creating your own character or reacting to another’s, it’s important to keep these things in mind. One’s own prejudices and experiences are irrelevant to whether a character has responded believably or not. All that matters is the character.

Since I spent half this post ranting about high-magic worlds, I suppose I’ll have to explain that term, and it’s opposite, “low-magic” worlds, next post. To avoid a dry and boring series of definitions, we’ll take a look at how to decide which is best for your story, and I’ll support the discussion with examples from various fantasy books I’ve read.

1 A reference to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, regarding the two forms of “magic”, one of which is common and well-known, and the other which is rare and mysterious to non-Arcanists.

2 Darian, from Lackey’s Owl trilogy is a village boy who begins with very weak magic. Levitating fruit is one of the exercises set him by his master.

3 Firesong from Lackey’s Mage Winds and Mage Storms series is a powerful and learned mage of the Tayledras, with a reputation for romantic flings and a childish attitude.


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Magicology: Frames of Reference, Part 2

Last post (which was posted far too long ago) I rambled on about “frames of reference” and POV and how fantasy writers need to get with the program and come up with some useful jargon, and…  Well, you read the post, right?  Right?

Remember how I divided things into relative and absolute frames of reference?  The absolute frame is a simple concept; relative frames are not.  So today, I’m going to delve into just what I mean about multiple frames of reference and how they are useful. 

But first, I want to make an important distinction:  A “perspective” is a narrative device, a frame of reference is a world-building one.  A perspective in fiction is how a character relates to the story.  A frame of reference is how they relate to the world in which the story takes place.   There’s a difference.

(As far as I am concerned, a “point of view (POV)” is a structural device and refers to either first, second, or third person past, present or future.  A perspective is strictly which character (or the narrator) we are following at any given time.  Other writers may have different ideas.  That’s okay—whatever works for them.  In posts here, we will be using my definitions.)

Now, what makes relative frames of reference complicated is that each character has one—just like each person in the real world has their own ideas and opinions.  It’s not hard to get lost among all of these frames, and a common critique of bad characterization is that all the characters “felt/sounded the same”.  This is a very common criticism in regards to dialogue.  And there I am drifting off-topic.  Back to magic.

There are two main ways that the relative frames of reference can affect a character in regards to magic:

  1.  Their reaction to it-  Are they amazed, indifferent, or possibly contemptuous.  They could also be prejudiced or hostile or fawning or respectful.  The greater the difference in their knowledge of magic—whether theoretical, ethical, or emotional—the more likely their reaction is to be strong or intense.  If there’s less difference, they’ll have less of a response.  Pretty basic, right?  It’s actually more complicated than that, and in my next post, (which is already written this time, so no long wait), I’ll discuss character reaction to magic, and why many people have mistaken impressions as to what is and is not a realistic response.
  2. What they can do with it-  Are they good, gifted, hopeless, or helpless?  I know, this is fantasy.  There’s a lot of emotional symbolism involved in the narrative representation of magic.  But from a purely theoretical standpoint, knowledge is power.  No matter how strong you are (if this is aa consideration at all), you can’t win if you can’t do anything.  I’d like to leave the issue of “power vs. part of me” that often springs up here out of the discussion.  For now, “magic” isn’t “as natural as breathing (in the literal sense)”, but rather “something learned and perfected through study and training”… even if there are natural “gifts” involved.  The point here is that the more you know, the more you can do.  And knowing means learning, and learning means studying.  Hogwarts here we come! (Okay, not so much.)

You may have noticed from reading the above that knowledge is a very important part of the frame of reference.  The more you know, the more you can innovate.  (You can innovate knowing nothing as well, but you’re more likely to fry your brain—or at least fry something).

So, knowledge is power.  Right there you’ve discovered a way to make your fantasy magic system different from around 99% of the magic systems out there.  A great deal of fantasy (most bad, but some good) focuses on gaining “power” in the physical sense.  Increasing the characters’ “strength”.   It’s what a lot of fantasy writers and readers refer to as “RPG” fantasy.  And that paradigm makes sense for an RPG,  where learning new spells, and fighting, and acquiring new and better gear,  and grinding… er, “increasing your stats” (yeah, whatever) is all part of the fun.  But the fun in fantasy is the story, the conflict.  Eighteen swordfights in a row would be boring.

Now, magical conflict relies on a power differential.  But by the principle above, it’s perfectly acceptable to convert this to a knowledge differential.  You can’t hurl fireballs and call lightning if you don’t know the spell.  Lackey’s Herald Mage trilogy makes good use of this concept when one character is defeated (okay, killed) by a “mage-storm” which wears away at his magical shield.  But in a later book, we learn such an attack can be rendered ineffective if you leave the shield “un-grounded” and thus free to spin right along with the attack in question.

So, that explains how you can use the second effect of frames of reference.  The first is a bit tougher, and requires more subtlety and finesse.  I think it might be best to leave until the next post.


Posted by on November 24, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Magic, Magicology, World-building, Writing


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