Blast from the Past – The Fine Art of Character Torture

It’s been another insane week – which has, yet again vanished without trace (honestly, whoever is vacuuming the sands of time really needs to stop before I run out of them). And yet again I find myself with a thunderous lack of something to write about.

So instead, I’ll present a blast from the past that’s still pretty relevant: The Fine Art of Character Torture.

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.


  1. Argh.

    I don’t understand the main of my WIP this well.

    I’ve got one inner voice going ‘redesign, it is a mess anyway’, and another going ‘finish it, and don’t sweat getting suffering down until your skills are better’.

    1. Oh, that’s harsh. My advice, for what it’s worth, is that if you’re completely blocked, see if either a new project or a redesign breaks things loose. If not, try to push forward.

      1. Still don’t understand the main well enough to perfectly execute this.

        I’m using a fundamental misunderstanding or two to hang my plot on. The backstory has split the cast, they have all changed, are missing the information they would need to really know the other side of the split, and the action needs to be too intense and stressful to permit them to settle down and get to know each other. I also know my hero has some very specific goals.

        I know my start and my end, but my middle is vague and incoherent. I can better identify usable paths by asking how pursuit of those specific goals results in suffering. I don’t need to attempt perfect. I just need a question or two to keep myself oriented as I move further into the plot from the ends.

        So, this was a prompt I needed to figure out part of my problem.

        1. Good that it helped you figure things out.

          One thing I’ve found helpful when I’m stuck in a middle is to work backwards, as it were – ask myself what has to happen to get the characters to the end, and stick to the big points. They become the landmarks as it were.

          Each landmark should be difficult, and should cost if not your protagonist then one of the protagonist’s friends/companions something important.

          As an example, in Lord of the Rings, one of the landmarks is reaching Lothlorien. The cost is Gandalf’s life (or at least so the rest of the Fellowship believes) and his guidance.

          1. That helps also.

            Sorta like that thing in some of the Shonen Jump tournament type arcs. Where the band is together, with something they are helping the hero get done in a short period of time. They come to the area for the first match, and the opponent is serious enough that they can’t just defeat him and move on as group. One of the brother-in-arms volunteers to stay behind and fight that opponent, and the rest leave him behind without waiting to see the outcome. Eventually the band is whittled down to the hero, and there is the climatic fight with the big bad of the arc. Often he wins, and then we find out that the rest of the band are fine. (This can happen more than once in a series. A similar or the same structure is often used to assemble the core band. I know series where the hero was accreting comrades with each of these arcs, and things got fairly absurd by the end.)

            1. Sounds like The Wheel of Time – at least as far as I made it. Let’s split the band and follow one group for 300 pages, then switch.

  2. My principal objection to the random-disaster style of character torture is that it deprives me of the pleasures of anticipation. If the disaster is signaled ahead of time and the character has options, I’m okay with it.

    “Lookit that mountain, does it seem to be teetering to you?… Hey, isn’t it sitting on a major fault line?… You’re not going to take the windy path right around the base of the mountain, are you? Oh, no, that’s really not a good reason for taking that path…”

    1. Even more when you can see that the character has a miner’s pick and dynamite strapped to his mule. “You know, maybe you should have listened to the Old Sage back last chapter who warned you about thinking you know this region’s rocks just because you took nine hours of geology four semesters ago.” Then the rock-slide is a lot more satisfying, because the character gets a chance to learn some important lessons.

    2. Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot ‘episodic’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Aristotle

    3. Not to mention when you don’t foreshadow your mountains and tie them into the story, it gets to where any time the pace slows down, I start looking for the next mountain.

      Honestly. If you’re going to plot by dropping mountains on your protagonist, at least have the decency to put the poor SOB under a bad luck curse first.

      1. “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

        but, first, you have to figure out an appropriate “man with a gun in his hand” for the story.

        Sometimes it works. In The Firemaster and the Flames (just published!), I got myself out of a couple of stuck situations by setting something on fire. But I did warn the readers. 0:)

      2. Or have enough small ‘random disasters’ to establish that this character is the sort of person where that sort of thing happens. “Dang it, he’s at it again, could you go back to thinking SMALL.” “You act like I have any say in this.”

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