Sunday, August 3, 2008
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.