Sunday, August 3, 2008

Room 102

On the post I’d written about torture, luc2 asked about torture inflicted by the protagonists, rather than on the protagonists. I hadn’t considered that aspect of the topic.

I tried to think of any books I had read where the protagonists tortured someone. Only three came to mind, and in two of them, the torture scenes didn’t work for me. They did help me come up with a few ideas for these kinds of scenes, though…

1. The protagonists need a very good reason to torture someone.

I’ll define torture as the deliberate infliction of pain (either physical punishment or deprivation such as starvation). Revenge stories where the protagonists trick, depose, shame, frighten or humiliate their enemies are common and popular. But I haven't come across many revenge stories where the protagonists physically hurt their enemies, perhaps because it’s difficult for normal people to coldly and deliberately inflict pain on someone (especially when it’s not in self-defence and the victim is begging them to stop). I haven't got too many qualms with the protagonists killing or executing someone who deserves it, but torture is different.

The only novel I can recall where the protagonist tortured someone and still remained sympathetic was Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, where the victim was a former Nazi who was instrumental in helping other ex-Nazis flee to South America. The protagonist, who was hunting down one of them, broke the ex-Nazi's fingers to obtain information on their whereabouts (in other words, he had a good reason to inflict pain on the man). It also helped that the ex-Nazi was the kind of person who wouldn’t have hesitated to return the favor or kill the protagonist if their positions had been reversed.

The only other situation where I can see torture being justified would be if the torture was evidently justice – for instance, the victim once scarred the protagonist's child for life, so the protagonist immobilizes him and does the same thing. But this has to be handled with care. If the protagonist plans to execute the victim afterwards, making them endure pain beforehand just comes off as sadism for the sake of sadism, rather than to right any kind of injustice. An anti-hero may get away with this; a hero can’t.

2. The protagonists cannot be unchanged by the experience.

"When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Moral compasses vary, but a protagonist must have at least a moral needle on a thread. I recently read a novel where a group of vigilantes kidnapped a man who had killed someone in a hit-and-run. They would taunt him with starvation, leaving food just beyond his reach, then go off and eat pancakes together. The contrast was jarring, especially since the protagonists weren’t affected by the torture to any significant degree. Apparently the dehumanization went both ways.

If a protagonist is to remain sympathetic, I want to see them affected by the experience. They don’t need to show it openly – they don’t need to run away, weep or throw up – but they can’t shrug it off or be indifferent to what they have done. They’ve walked a thin line that separates them from the people they hate or oppose – how do they feel about that? Did they enjoy it? Would they do it again? They have looked into the abyss; what do they plan to do when the abyss looks into them?

3. Let the reader justify what’s been done.

If the protagonist justifies it (or her friends do, reassuring her and us that what she has done has been justice rather than torture) I’m gone. If I can’t justify it myself, all the protestations in the world won’t make a difference. Either the author’s shown that the torture was necessary (not just something the protagonist did to make herself feel better, but required), or the author hasn’t done so.

4. Show that the victim deserved it.

Another reason the book I read recently didn’t work for me was because the victim had killed someone in a hit-and-run. That’s manslaughter. The legal system doesn’t execute people for manslaughter, let alone torture them for it, so it was cruel and unusual punishment for the protagonists to do so.

Even if the villain richly deserves to suffer, it’s often a good idea to have the punishment delivered by someone other than a protagonist who's supposed to be sympathetic. I think a few authors believe that heroines in particular can mete out stone-cold sadistic treatment while still remaining likable, and sometimes I imagine the hero of a novel doing to the villain whatever the heroine does. If the scene then comes off as grotesque or unbelievably cruel, why should the heroine get away with it?

Flawed characters are great and anti-heroes can work superbly. But torture needs to be handled carefully, no matter who's inflicting it.


Luc2 said...

Well, at least I'm a little bit inspirational.

Interesting post. I agree with your second and third point, and with the general rule that torture needs to be handled carefully.

But ... torture has a long, sordid history. If you take historical fiction or fantasy, especially medieval-based it's unrealistic to take torture completely out of the equation. As you wrote in a different post: "The heroine’s goals should be realistic for her society and time period." Something similar goes for torture. People in places of power would not balk at torture, or feel that they're doing something wrong. Capturing an enemy who may have information would be a good enough reason. In that same vein, it would be immaterial if the victim would deserve it or not.

Of course, the trick is to do it and not make your readers put away the book in disgust. I think that's what makes your second point so important. As long as the event brings depth to your character, readers may be forgiving (if there are enough redeeming qualities).

kiwi said...

... 'Into A dark Realm', by Rayond Feist. Yes, blushes red, I read Feist's novels!

He has a torture scene in this volume, where the protagonists are trying to exact information to save the world, Blah, blah, blah. I'm ambivalent about this scene. The protagonists employ an 'expert' to undertake the torture rather do it themselves--even though they're powerful magicians. I'm not sure whether to think of this as cowardly and yet another example of the modern infecting the fantastic, or actually quite clever/realistic.

Sorry about the belated response. Been hellishly busy of late.

kiwi said...

The Gods forbid, to talk about torture and not mention Goodkind?

Remember Cara?

Maybe someone familiar with the series could add more.

Marian Perera said...

Oh, the scene in Wizard's First Rule where Kahlan forces a man to eat his own testicles and then kills him is what inspired point #3. I thought that was utterly stomach-turning, but the crowning moment was when another character commented, "Good for her. A woman who knows the meaning of justice."

Different people may have different definitions of justice, but sinking to the same level as one's enemies doesn't qualify, for me.

Marian Perera said...

But ... torture has a long, sordid history. If you take historical fiction or fantasy, especially medieval-based it's unrealistic to take torture completely out of the equation.

True. The problem would be in straddling the line between making the protagonist realistic and making her likable. I once picked up an erotic historical romance where the hero was 30 and the heroine 14. That was realistic for the time period, but those were some of the most unarousing sex scenes that I've ever not been able to read.

Now that I come to think about it, though, there's a scene in A Storm of Swords where, after Dany conquers Meereen, she has over a hundred of the city masters nailed up on posts. She feels it's justified because the city masters did the same thing to over a hundred children.

I think this was easier for me to accept because Martin spent nearly three books building up a lot of sympathy and admiration for Dany, and the city masters were more of a number than a name. In the two novels where I disliked the protagonists for what they'd done, their victims were fleshed out, given names and personalities. That made a difference. Also, Dany was at least a little removed from it since she was giving the orders to other people who did the dirty work. In the other two novels, the protagonists did the deed themselves.

Thanks for making me think so much about this - it's a fascinating topic.