“I have a deep and abiding interest in pain.”
– Count Rugen, The Princess Bride
I’m going to start off by warning you – this post is a painful one. It will probably be fairly easy to read, of course, but it’s about pain, conflict, torture, death, and all those other lovely things necessary to epic writing. It was inspired by Nicole’s Post, so be sure and read hers as well.
When I was little, I wrote about unicorns and pegasi and fairies and little girls whose horsey dreams came true and they all lived happily ever after. I didn’t write about reality, I wrote about the things my little-girl mind thought were the most wonderful, amazing things on the planet.
Now, however, ahemcoughhackwheezehawhaw…
My writing style has matured a bit. Mmmhmmm. I’m now writing fantasies and thrillers and having the time of my life. But there’s one consistent thing, no matter what genre you’re writing be it Regency, Speculative, or Chick Lit, that is absolutely necessary for the sake of the plot.
Without conflict, you don’t have anything. Look –
• The Rebel Force must beat the Empire in order to restore democracy
• Elizabeth must overcome her resentment of Mr. Darcy
• The Pevensies must save Narnia from the clutches of the White Witch
Conflict. Pain. Torture. All these lovely things are necessary in order for a good, solid, exciting plot. If nothing bad ever happens to a character, then the reader doesn’t particularly care about them. We wouldn’t cry over the ending of Cinderella if her life had been flowers and sunshine and then she met the prince and lived happily ever after! It’s only because of her horrible situation and her desire to overcome her circumstances and torment that we root for her.
I love to write about assassins. I love to. It’s not necessarily because I justtotallylooooove writing about guys who kill people, nuh-uh. It’s that there is so much conflict and story within a person who kills for a living. You have guilt, sorrow, pride, and dark pasts to mess with and exploit and yes, it’s fun, but it’s also an excellent look at the human heart.
The heart is wicked and deceitful above all things – and that is the root of many, many characters and their conflict. I love creating troubled characters. They’re my favorite, in books, movies, tv shows, stories – any tale. It’s the antihero; the unlikely person who ends up doing the heroic thing, or that dark character who has so much potential to do good – but will he? A few examples would be: Murtagh, Sherlock, Rumplestiltskin, Dustfinger, Han Solo.
And what makes these characters so awesome? Murtagh is the illegitimate son of one of the worst men in history. Sherlock is a sociopathic genius who has no idea how to relate to people and thinks murders are stimulating. Rumplestiltskin… well, I put him in there because I love him and he has SO much potential, even if I don’t know how his story ends. He’s the most powerful man in the world, and has lost everything from his son to his soul. Dustfinger is a coward with powers of fire, so intent on getting what he wants that we’re jerked to tears when he exchanges his own life for Farid’s. Han Solo is a cocky hotshot pilot out for his own gain – until he flies back onto the scene and saves Luke’s life, becoming one of the most loved characters in cinematic history.
What is it about these characters we love so much? They’re flawed. Tortured. Conflicted. In short – we can relate to them. I’ve always disliked the Elsie Dinsmore books, because, though they teach great values, Elsie is a heroine we cannot relate to. She’s too good, and she used to tick me off royally. I’d stomp around muttering about the good-two-shoes snob. She was perfect, and nobody can relate to a perfect heroine.
But how do you throw a character into conflict and torture without overdoing it? Now, if we’re talking emotional torture, that’s easy. (Well, sort of. As long as you don’t mind tears, loss of hair, mutiny, and sleepless nights.) You have to have a starting point – WHY is your character conflicted? Does it have to do with a past deed, his lineage, a wrong done to him? Take this an exploit it. Have fun. Introduce another character who brings all this to light and makes it even worse than before (think of the itch you get when a cut is healing).
Example: I have a character who is an assassin for a North Korean black ops group called H.I.T. He has many reasons to hate himself, but one of the worst things that has happened to him is this: He was ordered to bring Shina, an American who works for enemy black ops group UNIT, to N.K. for interrogation. During the week he is with her, before his scheduled flight back to N.K., however, something about her touches his heart – a place that hasn’t been touched in a long time. And he delays taking her back. As a consequence, the only good thing in his life – his girlfriend Sun-hi, who knows nothing about who he really is – is shot while on the phone with him, as a warning.
Can you imagine the emotional repercussions of this? Yeah, just try. Moving on.
Physical torture is another way to add conflict, though it’s a more delicate subject. You don’t want your reader to come away from your book with nightmares or the thought “Ugh, that was just too violent and disturbing.” In my 2011 NaNo novel, ArchAngel, my villain Jasper tortures Reese trying to get information. However, I did my best do deal with this tactfully, which I did in several ways (or at least, so far nobody has mentioned nightmares. Haha. Ahem).
1. I did not actually describe the torture. Never do I say “He so-and-so’d and this-and-that-ed.” I allude to it. For instance, check out the excerpt below.
Reese screamed, but it did not register with her conscious self. She felt as if she were floating in and out of her own body.
Jasper had arranged it that Simon had to look directly at Reese while he ‘operated’ on her. Reese knew that her tormentor thought this would break Simon down so he would tell the pass codes. The pass codes he didn’t know.
But Jasper had no idea that the one thing he thought would snap her was the one thing she was holding on to. Being able to look at Simon was a blessing. Her mind scrambled frantically between panicked bursts of prayer, screams, and Simon.
She could see tears in his eyes, and she could hear him screaming at Jasper to stop.
Reese only wanted it to end.
You’ll notice I didn’t include physical details except screaming. It can be distasteful to actually describe torture; the imagination is a much more powerful tool.
2. Jasper, though completely evil, is hilarious. He’s a sunshine-cotton candy-and-butterflies kind of villain, who bounces around causing as much pain and chaos as possible and enjoying every minute of it. I’ve often found that humor really helps the darker scenes; it lightens them and gives the reader something to focus on other than pain.
Sometimes, however, physical description is necessary. For example, take this scene from The Shadows Fall.
“And you expect me to believe you?” Caranthir’s eyes were smoldering now; as if trying to match his own son’s red-hot ones.
“No,” Eristor replied with a shaky, breathless laugh. “I doubt you would know the truth if it hit you in the face. You shun it because you don’t like the fact that you’re wrong.”
Caranthir motioned to the heavily muscled man who stood nearby, his hands protected by thick leather gloves. He picked up a barbed, snakelike chain and whipped it through the air. It hissed like a silver, bloodstained snake, and bit into Eristor’s flesh before it ripped away.
Eristor jerked but made no noise. His head hung low. Blood and sweat dripped off his body onto the stone floor. His eyes flamed so intensely that they almost seemed to spark.
“It may interest you to know,” said Caranthir as he walked leisurely toward his stepson, “that Sienna has almost completely succumbed my methods. Another day or two, and she will be one of the best tools Oscariath has ever wielded.”
Eristor’s guarded expression melted. He’d made no secret, even to his father, of his dislike for Sienna. His muscles tightened.
“Your temper is as quick as it was before,” Caranthir remarked as he took in Eristor’s wrathful face. “What is it about the race of men that you hate so?”
Eristor coughed a deep, hollow-chested cough that made him shudder. “You gave me the best example of human weakness I could have had,” he without looking up. His deep voice was raw and hoarse.
Caranthir’s face darkened once more. He reached out and snatched the chain-whip from the torture master’s hands, coiling it in his own. “Your previous father should have taught you more respect for authority,” he snarled, lashing the whip out and tearing at his prisoner’s shoulder.
Eristor’s eyes flashed as blood ran in rivulets down his arm. “He taught me to respect authority only when the authority deserved it.” He laughed once; a short, bitter laugh. “You don’t.”
“That remark will cause you more pain than you would probably have experienced, had you held your tongue,” Caranthir growled, breathing hard. The fingers on his left hand curled; he could hardly keep them under control.
Eristor snarled, his eyes almost seeming to leap with tangible flames. “You can’t break me,” he said in a voice that was defiant, but soft. “You’ll try. But you can’t.”
Caranthir’s muscles clenched like his fists. “You think the last time was anything, princeling?” he asked, sneering at his prisoner.
He saw his stepson close his eyes, and laughed. It felt good, so good; to be drunk on power. It made everything else look colorless. Even the thought that this elf – older than him by more than a century – was his stepson seemed almost hysterical. He raised his whip.
He was still laughing.
Now, I did my best to be tasteful. I didn’t go all ‘blood-and-guts’ – I described it, but not to the extent that your stomach turned. Personally, I take the Bible as a good example of what to show and what not to show. Yeah, there are torture scenes in the Bible – but they mostly focus on the person’s reaction or what they say more than the torture itself.
Torture can be an extremely useful tool in a book. After people have read The Shadows Fall and Arch Angel, I have received some interesting feedback.
1. After Eristor is tortured in The Shadows Fall, readers felt more respect and sympathy for him. I’ve often found that readers who totally hate Eristor in the beginning choose him as their favorite in the end (next to Salebeth. Everyone likes mentor types).
2. After the torture scene in Arch Angel, readers hated Jasper more while thinking he was funnier than ever, and they liked Reese and Simon even more. Reese, because they felt sorry for her, and Simon because they loved him and felt his pain.
NOTE: You don’t want torture in every book genre. For instance, try to avoid graphic scenes of pain in a book titled “Little Lulu’s Trip to Lollypop Land.”
I hope this was helpful to you and that you didn’t mind its length. =) It’s to placate you for the weekend while I’m gone, donned in pretty dresses and sipping tea. *grin*
Questions? Comments? Skits?