Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in romance–the physical torturing of characters–the heroines, in particular.
This may have always been the case and I just hadn’t noticed, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it because:
a) my imagination is vivid enough that it’s very unpleasant to read
b) Much like our bodies are constructed from what we eat, I think our psyches are constructed from what we ingest in the form of entertainment and
c) It’s lazy writing.
In my books, my characters undergo a fair amount of psychological torture (and some random, cartoonish physical torture if Satan’s feeling especially cranky) but I draw the line at detailed depictions of physical torture.
As I said, I just don’t like to read this kind of stuff. I also don’t watch movies with graphic violence. I saw the move Seven years ago and it took me weeks to stop flashing on the various gory scenes.
I’m a big fan of Dick Francis’s novels, especially the ones set in the world of horse racing, but one almost universal component of his books is that at some point the hero gets tortured. I always skipped those parts.
Where the lazy writing comes in is that physical torture is a one-size-fits-all device. Unless your character has some kind of neurological impairment, bamboo under her fingernails will affect her in pretty much the same way it affects anyone. There’s no individualization there.
Psychological torture, on the other hand, requires knowing your character’s worst fear and then putting them into situations that force them to confront that fear until they eventually grow beyond it and become a stronger, better person.
No matter how many times you take a baseball bat to someone’s kneecap, they’re not going to grow into someone who can just walk that off. There’s no growth potential there.
There are also a “damsel in distress” feeling to plots that are constructed strictly around the heroine’s physical fears. I want to see her grow as a human being, not turn into some impervious superwoman.
What’s a lot more fun, to me, is to put them in situations where they have to make a choice between what legendary writing teacher Mary Buckham calls “suck and suckier.” Where they are forced to confront their inner demons to triumph.
What about you? What’s your poison?