I'm writing what might be described as a gas-lamp fantasy novel set in a realm similar to the Durrani Empire. Part of the main character's backstory is his experience growing up the son of a prostitute in a not!British military encampment, and living through what is essentially the in-universe equivalent of the 1842 Retreat from Kabul.

My question is: how far should I go to portray Victorian-era warfare as a horrific, traumatizing experience? Should I touch on the aftermath of the battle, and the mass murder, rape, and enslavement of the army's 12,000 camp followers?

I want to avoid using the women in the protagonist's life as mere motivation, and I likewise want to avoid using the rape of women to discuss the protagonist's feelings. I also don't want the victorious tribesmen to come across as roving barbarian bands who do nothing but rape and slaughter, considering that the protagonist will be adopted by those tribesmen in the aftermath. Nonetheless, I want to realistically depict the extent and impact of wartime sexual violence and the cruelties inflicted upon prisoners of war in this era.

3 Answers 3


Portray what needs to be portrayed. What people take issue with is using rape gratuitously; if there's no purpose, why drop such a heavy subject on the reader? Instead, if you use such a subject for a worthy purpose, then it's generally fair game.

The brutality and horrors of war is a perfectly valid time to show it, along with the looting, the mutilation and the torture/taking of POWs. They're all horrific aspects of war worthy of discussing if you want to portray the horrors of war.

Just remember not to downplay the suffering of the victim while you're showing the effects the brutality has on its witnesses. Or if you do downplay it, have it as a case of unreliable narration; have it that his numbness to the women's suffering as being a side-effect, a coping mechanism to prevent the poor man's mind snapping.


Should I touch on the aftermath of the battle, and the mass murder, rape, and enslavement of the army's 12,000 camp followers?

Yes, you should. If this is something that happened in your world, you cannot just ignore it or gloss over it. This event is too big to be swept under the carpet. Considering your setting, it would have some impact on the characters. If something has impact on your characters, you cannot just erase it - that would change the characters.

You are saying that you do not want this event to overshadow the rest of your story. In that case, don't give it a lot of space - give it some. Don't give a first-hand account of a woman being raped, but put some distance between the protagonist and the events.

Here's an example of how such a situation can be treated, from The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, the protagonist conquering a city:

It was whispered among the surrendered Imperial troops that they would be allowed to loot Pan as a reward for their submission to Duke Garu - as long as they did not kill anyone A few bold soldiers went into the streets to test out the rumour. Kuni's men watched them but did nothing. By afternoon, the former Imperial barracks were empty.
The soldiers had free rein of the entire city. Pan was treated as though it had been conquered, except that the conquering army was composed of the men who had sworn to defend it. They broke into the wealthy mansions lining the streets, took whatever they fancied, and did as they liked to the men and women they found inside them - the soldiers did take care not to kill anyone, but there were many forms of suffering short of death.
For ten days the streets of Pan became a living hell, and families huddled in basements and shuddered while they listened to the cries and screams of the less fortunate. The Immaculate City became stained with terror, blood, avarice and cravenness.
(Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings, chapter 30 - Master of Pan)

In this example, the protagonist is sufficiently far from the action, we do not observe the horrors first-hand. But the horrors do happen, and have consequences. The protagonist is of course not a barbarian who "does nothing but rape and slaughter", he's a relatively good guy, but his hands are not clean either.


Events will have less emotional impact on the reader if you write them in the background and not for specific characters, especially not your main characters.

For example, compare a scene describing a violent rape to one of your characters vs a scene where a character is in police station or a military command office and an unnamed person comes in trying to report a rape. The officer dismisses her with a "what can I do? besides, you're the 50th report I've gotten this week."

In the latter example, you set the stage. The reader understands that rape has become common and the men in charge don't even care. But you do it without sensationalizing it.

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