The Fine Art of Character Torture

by Kate Paulk

You’ve all heard it many times – if it’s to be meaningful, your characters have to suffer. I’ve seen any number of wrong ways to do this, and so far only really found one right way. The wrong… well, it’s worth going through some of them, simply because there are plenty of published, even well-known writers who get it wrong, and it leaves their fans vaguely unsatisfied. Or making nasty jokes. They’re still fans because everything else works well enough, but…

Character torture by dropping mountains is a favorite of many authors who are weak in the plotting department. Okay, they aren’t always literally mountains, but it gets to the point in books that do this that when things are quiet for a while you start looking for the next mountain. In essence, the author realizes their character has to suffer, so they throw every possible unpleasantness at the poor sod, random or otherwise, usually until he, she, or it buckles under the load. For the author wanting a tragic ending, the buckling is the ending. Otherwise there’s usually some kind of coincidence – or the character goes berserk after so much suffering and blasts seven kinds of hell out of everything in the vicinity (usually some kind of enemy).

Then there’s the author favorite. Here the author can’t bear to actually torment the character, so she (the culprit here is usually a ‘she’) simply tells everyone how much her darling suffers and everyone else agrees. Readers (or at least this one) often find themselves thinking “What a whiny brat” and wanting to smack some sense into the little toad. Yeah, I don’t like that kind of character.

The Tortured Soul is a variant on the author favorite: this is a character who actually does suffer, but in such a nauseatingly artistic way it makes me gag. If you’ve read The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, we’re talking the Sensitive Gay Mage here, whose archetype was one Vanyel the Wet (Yes, I know that isn’t his actual name, but it’s bloody accurate, so there. Medieval soap opera, hell yes.) This one suffers extravagantly and often, and might never have a single moment in the book where he/she/it /isn’t/ suffering in some way. Often this one finishes the book half-dead and in extreme cases missing bits (don’t worry. They usually grow back.) Usually the character in question is an author favorite, so even if dead will find ways to reappear. And suffer some more.

Another common one is what might be called low-impact suffering. This is where the author finds a way to torture the poor sod in every possible way, but it never actually changes anything. He (this one is usually a he) drags himself through the book in various stages of injury and incapacity, usually caused by mountain drops or semi-random fights, but never actually figures out anything or changes in any way. He just keeps slogging on killing ever-stronger enemies until he’s got to the Big Bad and killed it. Teenage males tend to enjoy these, because of the frequent and extravagant violence (and often frequent and extravagant weapons-porn as well).

The right way to do it – or the only right way I know of – isn’t anything like as easy as the assorted wrong ways. To start with, you need to know who your character is: what he/she/it would kill for, what they’d die for, what would hurt them most, and particularly what their weaknesses are. Those weaknesses shouldn’t be anything as obvious as a phobia, although phobias can be useful. You want things like “bad temper, triggered by this kind of thing”, “doesn’t realize he sounds like an arrogant ass when talking about spaceships”, “is cripplingly shy and hides it by looking as if someone stuck a steel rod up his ass”, “has a lot of ability but was trained by a total scam-artist so if it works it’s a miracle”. In short, the kind of thing that can backfire, and backfire badly. Then you throw the poor sod into situations where those flaws bite, and force him to struggle through the resulting mess – and learn from it. That’s character growth – and character torture in a nutshell. Physical damage can work, but hitting the poor sod where his emotions lie usually ends up more satisfying – so long as he does actually end up learning something.

Take a look at Pratchett – any recent Pratchett will do, although for my money Thud! is probably the clearest example. Vimes goes through all kinds of hell, and emerges more or less intact – but he’s a different Vimes, one who’s come to understand who and what he really is. It’s the culmination of a long journey that began with Guards! Guards! and continued through all the Watch books. Incidentally, this is an example of the best kind of character growth: Vimes grows by becoming more true to who he is. If you can manage that, you’re doing really well.

10 comments

  1. I’d say a better example than Pterry is a Miles Vorkosigan book. Probably the last few do it best (Memory onwards) but really any of them work. And yes like Vimes Miles doesn’t half mature during the whole series, I think one reason why I prefer the books from Memory onwards is that before Memory I don’t actually like the hero much.

    1. I’ve never been able to get into any Bujold. Something about them just sets off my “nope. Not happening” triggers and I don’t get interested.

      1. You might try Shards of Honor/Barrayar, her Chalion series, or The Sharing Knife four books. Frankly, I prefer those to the Miles ones, but ymmv. Although I consider The Mountains of Mourning to be an excellent, excellent short story, if you want a little character torture.

  2. I have trouble with writing down enough of the character’s reactions to be sure the reader gets what the character is feeling about it all. It’s so obvious to me how he must have felt . . .

    1. Try using Jack Bickham’s Scene-Sequel sequence as a discipline for a while. Scenes are the dramatic action, “out there” on stage. Sequel is the reaction, “inside” the character. And Jack recommends following the three steps of feeling, thought/planning, and decision. First you react emotionally, with fear, despair, all that. Then you remember things, figure out what happened, analyze it, figure out what you could do next — all the thinking. Finally, the character decides what to do next.

      Admittedly, sometimes you won’t want to slog through all that in between each scene, but thinking through those steps, and picking the key parts can help make sure that you’ve cued the reader into how the character reacted. Er… do I need to note that these do not all have to be inner monologues, that you can certainly portray the reaction through dialogue, a bar scene, etc.? Nah, you knew that, right?

      Sorry about the lengthy replay. I’ve just been rereading Scene & Structure. And it makes so much sense.

    2. Ah, yes. Sarah’s had quite a bit to say about that here and at her blog. And yes, she’s kicked me pretty solidly on that topic, too.

      I’ve found I need to have two focuses: one on what my character is feeling/doing, and the other on what readers need to get out of the scene. Often I’ll end up having to balance the two needs later, but if I’m keeping both of them in my mind when I’m writing I’m less likely to forget that some poor sod out there has no idea what I’m seeing inside my head.

    3. ‘nother Mike, that’s a good exercise to use.

      Another one to remember is that you can hit all three steps in a single paragraph – with a bit of practice.

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