Daily Archives: September 8, 2011

Character Torture

To branch off from the topic of the Big Bads that infest our stories, “character torture” is a phrase I’ve heard many times to describe the misfortunes that befall our characters. Writing them feels like torture sometimes. It’s a fine line to walk — while conflict is central to a good story, if you over do it, readers will detach from the story and refuse to connect with the characters. You have to make the conflict painful enough to evoke a reaction both in your characters and in readers without crossing that line of the suspension of disbelief or alienating readers to the point that they can no longer trust you as a narrator.

I stopped reading a prominent series of historical fiction for that very reason. The main character went through so much in the six books — torture, rape, broken bones, sheer terror over and over again — that finally after one more capture, I snapped. I couldn’t do it anymore. I loved that character and her husband, and it was just too much for me to keep seeing her get beaten into a pulp. I was invested in the character and the series, but I put it down four years ago and haven’t picked it up again. The same thing happened with a fantasy series I was reading — after they killed off half the point of view characters in by the third book, I couldn’t make myself keep reading because I couldn’t let myself get attached to characters I thought were going to arbitrarily get the axe within a few chapters.

If you write fiction that involves bloodsucking vampires (as opposed to the fluffy kitten sort of vampires), or shapeshifters that have to eat internal organs to survive, or witches who can’t be killed except for burning, beheading or dismembering — there’s going to be some violence. Your main character will probably not escape that violence, and mine certainly doesn’t. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to have her captured, hog tied, and tortured every chapter. I try not to make my character torture gratuitous; it has to serve a purpose for her development and the furthering of the plot. Not one or the other. Both. I think the pitfall the aforementioned historical fiction series fell into was that the series had gotten so long (each book is around a thousand pages, and at the time there were six of them) that the author ran out of other ways to steer the plot. And after six thousand pages, her character had been to hell, chopped into handbasket sized chunks, and sent back in the basket. If you have to torture your character to squeeze another book out of a series that could be wrapped up, you should probably find a new idea to write a book about. A new character to torture who isn’t already covered in scars from your writing.

Like I said, it’s a fine line to walk. Especially in the supernatural genres where the bad guys want your characters dead. But it can be done masterfully so that you love the characters and know they’ll pick themselves back up and come back with more fortitude the next time they’re tested. That’s the tightrope I’m walking with this second draft. Let’s see if I make it to the other side.

Less than 100 pages left to polish up. I also fixed my prologue issue and closed a couple plot holes. Not a bad week’s work so far. Bring it on, gorse bush.

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