Why It’s Good to Torture Characters

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Authors seem to share many delights. The smell of new books, the smell of old books, the taste of coffee…but one practice in particular brings joy to many authors I know.

We love to torture characters.

As our protagonists venture on their journey, we hurl heartbreak and setbacks at them. We bring them close enough to touch victory and then tear it away again. Hope fades, and the protagonist wonders if they can ever dream of succeeding.

Why do we enjoy doing this? I’d argue that it’s the writing process at work. Not only is it fun to torture characters, it’s an important thing to do. It helps every aspect of your writing. How does this happen? Well, it boils down to three main categories.

Tormenting Characters Drives the Plot

Frodo and Samwise on the slopes of Mount Doom in the film, "The Return of the King"

Every plot relies on conflict. Protagonist wants something, but they can’t have it for some reason. Right there we have the germ of a conflict. The more the character struggles for their desire, the closer they get without victory, the more tension ends up building. When writers deal their characters bad hands, it helps to perpetuate the conflict. Every victory comes coupled with a loss, every plan goes awry. The tension grows and grows. And when the tension is high, the emotional payoff feels all the more powerful and satisfying.

Consider The Lord of the Rings. Putting aside character arcs, the story’s plot is simple: the One Ring must be thrown into Mount Doom to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron. In all honesty, it sounds like a straightforward and dull premis.

However, the tension arises from the many obstacles. Sheer distance itself is a struggle. Enemies lurk all around and have the hobbits in their sights. The land grows more treacherous with every step towards Sauron’s home in Mordor. Add onto it a gradual countdown, of the Ring’s toxic effect on people’s minds and hearts, slowly corrupting whoever wears it and anyone near them. It’s an impossible task for even the most experienced soldiers in their world – and the task falls on a poet who’s never seen combat and is only half the size of a human. How will he ever get there, we ask. And then we keep reading to find the answer.

It Can Help Develop Characters

A screenshot from the film "Jurassic Park".

Another important reason to torture characters is to see what they’re made of. Consider your characters like geodes: they have to break to see the beauty inside. What’s inside your protagonist, or your supporting characters, or even your villain? When their cards are on the table and they have a losing hand, what do they do? They might flee or hide. They may stand and fight back. If they do, why? They might be protecting someone they care about, or perhaps too proud to back away. Do they resort to physical strength, mental cunning, humor or a silver tongue? Every character will have a different answer. The best way to find out is to write them to the edge of a cliff, and then feel for their reactions. It’ll add another layer to them that you can then use to write with.

Several examples can be found in Jurassic Park. Each major character in some way or another comes face to face with a deadly dinosaur, and it seems death is all but certain. How they react ends up shaping their characters dramatically. For example, when Ed Regis finds himself cornered by a T. Rex, he flees and abandons his charge of protecting two kids. No amount of dialogue describing him as a coward could have matched the reader seeing that scene. When Ian Malcolm finds his hospital room surrounded by raptors, he simply resigns himself with a cynical “I told you so” to the others around him. Tim and Lex, when confronted by a velociraptor, use their wits to trap him in a freezer. With death—or more generally failure—staring them in the face, their next actions speak volumes and make for a very engaging read.

It Can Also Highlight Themes

The cover of the novel "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

Another benefit that can come from writers tormenting their characters is the reinforcement of theme. After so much has happened, how does the character crawl back from the brink of destruction? This offers a chance to highlight a certain value or concept. Does your character resort to teamwork to come back? Their strength, their wits? Maybe even a sense of humor? It’s an opportunity to emphasize a virtue.

Sometimes, your characters don’t overcome the situation though, meeting a bad end. This can also help to promote your themes. One of my favorite novels, The Grapes of Wrath, uses this technique. The Joad Family does everything within their power to get a new home in California, but at almost every turn they are turned away. The migrants take any work possible, but it’s not enough to feed themselves, much less their families.

It’s a dreary situation to be sure. But it’s not for the sake of being mopey — it’s a terrible fate that has no resolution because at the time Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, it was happening for real in California. By having the protagonists defeated, it creates a sense of tragedy, of betrayal, that ties into the overall message of the book. It is a tragedy, a betrayal that it happened in real life. The grim path of Steinbeck’s characters mirrors the path of real people, and he used that to send a powerful message.

Overdoing It

Now I’ve mentioned some benefits you can get when you torture characters, and it’s worth noting here that it can also just be plain old fun. However, it can be overplayed as well. This may result in the three benefits I described above ending up neutralized, and even reversed.

A figure leaning on a pair of scales.

Constant Defeat Kills Tension

For example, let’s say your character hits misfortune after misfortune, over and over again. Every encounter results in a loss. This can end up driving the plot to a halt, losing all tension. It’s not exciting if the protagonist is strong enough to defeat every obstacle; it’s also not exciting if the protagonist can’t defeat a single obstacle. My example there, The Lord of the Rings, does throw a lot of stiff obstacles in Frodo’s way, but he manages to overcome a good number of them. It keeps the reader guessing, “Will the character get out of this one?” Constant defeat instead leads to predictability.

Use It Wisely

With revealing characterization, throwing your protagonist into a seemingly hopeless mess can certainly expose something about them. Again, seeing how they address the situation tells us a lot. But if you throw constant bad luck at them without any reprieve, it begins to wear down. Once you expose a character’s true self, subsequent reveals don’t carry the same weight. In Jurassic Park, Ed Regis’ flight revealed him as a coward in a major character moment. He immediately felt bad about it, tries to rationalize it. His next dinosaur encounter ends in his death. That’s a plot point — Ed Regis dies — rather than a character moment. Having him revealed as a coward again would be redundant. So having a dramatic moment for characterization is mostly a one-time use trick, maybe twice to emphasize a change in character. It must be used sparingly though.

Tragedy Needs Hope to Counterbalance

Finally, a constant slew of bad luck can wear down the themes. There’s a fine line between a story being unpleasant, but still poignant and meaningful, and just plain unpleasant. Having a little bit of hope amid even the darkest story can work wonders. In The Grapes of Wrath, despite all that happens, the story offers a bit of hope. The Weedpatch camp is an island in the sea of nastiness. In the camp, the Joad family finds decent people, good facilities, and a sense of community. With so many bad things happening, the book provides a good alternative that ties into its theme of exploitation and human dignity.

Conclusion

A man grins evilly down.

So, to finish speaking to all my sadistic writer friends: yes, torment your characters! Send them through hell and back. It’s good for the plot, for their character, and for your themes. But it still needs to be done right, or else you can undermine your story on all three of those fronts. With that in mind, I will leave the blog here. I have a protagonist whose day I need to ruin now…

How do you torture characters? Or do you treat them nicely? Leave a comment below with your thoughts, and don’t forget to subscribe!


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