Monday, July 21, 2008

Room 101

Torture is tricky to work with under any circumstances, but in fantasy novels it can be even more interesting. Firstly, many fantasies are set in the past, where life could be nasty, brutish and even shorter if someone powerful decided to make you suffer. Secondly, speculative fiction offers much potential in terms of what can be done to a person that simply can’t be done in real life. Finally, fantasy these days is more open to the dark and gritty aftereffects of these actions. Tortured characters have always had a certain appeal; now let’s focus on the torture rather than the characters.

1. Torture should not be easily shrugged off.

A great example of a book where this didn’t happen is Kara Dalkey’s Goa, where the Inquisition has the hero placed in a strappado and it takes him until the next book to recover the use of his arms. There are so very many fantasies out there where the hero recovers almost effortlessly from beatings, starvation, sexual abuse and mental abuse that I’m not going to name them.

Lorraine Heath has a nice moment at the start of Texas Splendor, where the hero has just been released from prison for a crime he did not commit, and he’s sitting down to dinner with his family for the first time in five years. He pulls his plate towards him, puts his arms on either side of it and bends his head over it. That said a lot for his prison experience. Likewise, I’d like to see characters changed by torture, especially the long prolonged mental kind.

2. Whoever’s doing the torturing needs a good motive.

It may done from sheer sadism, just to cause pain, though this has been overused to the point where it may turn off readers. It may be part of a scientific experiment carried out in a forced labor camp. It may be to produce a certain state of mind – either the victim repents and converts at the end, or they’re so broken in mind that someone else’s personality and thoughts can be downloaded into their still-functional body.

Or it may be because the person who’s being tortured committed a crime so vile that it deserves execution, except that the land does not support the death penalty. Very well; the next best thing is torture. At least it’s better than death, in that it doesn’t end anyone’s life if the torturer is very careful.

3. Torture can be mental as well.

I’d like to see more mental torture. Not just the “expose character to deepest fear” idea, but something creative. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the titular main character, placed in charge of her wheelchair-bound sister, roasts first the sister’s pet canary and then a rat, placing both under elegant silver dishcovers in the trays she takes up to her sister. Involuntary confinement, sensory deprivation and gaslighting techniques work as well.

But with magic, this could really take off. How about the implantation of addictions or false memories or sexual paraphilias? Imagine waking up tomorrow to find yourself physically attracted to children. Or permanently skewed perceptions – for instance, making the victim see himself as repulsively ugly, or anything he tries to eat as some disgusting substance (not going to give examples here). Magic which plays with people’s minds can make any such torture original and memorable. And the best part is that there’s no evidence that this character’s new phobia or weakness has been caused by torture – other characters may well conclude that the victim was really like this all along.

4. Sexual torture : handle with care.

If this actually happens (unless it’s a male victim and a female rapist, in which case it’s usually written for titillation), it can be ugly to read about and it should have serious consequences . It’s not something anyone can recover from quickly (unless the victim in question is an anguisette who actually enjoys it). I think that’s one reason the Bloody Mummers in A Song of Ice and Fire never actually succeed in raping Brienne, although it seems most if not all of them want to do so.

If the sexual torture doesn’t happen, well, coitus interruptus scenes between heroine and villain are a dime a dozen. It’s the one kind of torture that I couldn’t inflict on my main characters – not because I don’t want them to suffer, but because I don’t think I’m capable of dealing with the psychological fallout. I’ve done it to secondary characters, but not to the protagonists.

Painful and realistic doesn't necessarily equal gory, but it often means interesting. Especially when it comes to torture.


Luc2 said...

Hah, this is great. I'm just writing such a scene. Very tricky indeed. I'm trying to focus more on how the MC is handling the anticipation and trying to steel himself for it, instead of showing the actual torture. A bit more subtle, I hope.

kiwi said...

"I'm trying to focus more on how the MC is handling the anticipation and trying to steel himself for it, instead of showing the actual torture. A bit more subtle, I hope."

I like this approach, Luc.

A bit of a twist on the torture thematic: when your protagonist is the one who must PERFORM the torture (of course for a very good reason). Her psychological harm is quite profound.

Marian Perera said...

Oh, that's a neat twist! I like it.

There's a torture scene in Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File, where the protagonist has to torture a former Nazi for information, but it was crude, partly because the protag hadn't really prepared for it. Breaking fingers one by one, mostly. No significant ill-effects for the protag either, since the victim was was also instrumental in helping other ex-Nazis flee to South America. I can't think of any other torture scenes where the protag did the torturing, so let me know if you know of any.

Luc2 said...

Thanks Kiwi, and I like your twist as well.

I had a torture scene under the watchful eye of my protag, who ordered it. Many of my critters had problems with it, despite the fact that he had valid reasons to order it. It's a tricky balance, because although a protag should have flaws, you could lose the sympathy of the readers if you go a bit too far.

Anonymous said...

And now you've got me thinking about torture. It would serve no useful purpose in any of the stories I've currently going, but would fit perfectly with another one that's in development. Perfectly.

See? This is what happens when I read blogs. :)