Jeanne: Torturing Your Characters

Depositphotos_11087992_s-2019Lately 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?

6 thoughts on “Jeanne: Torturing Your Characters

  1. That is the best news I’ve gotten in ages!

    I’ve been reading Jeaniene Frost and she’s brilliant at this. Verity/Ariel’s difficulty with trusting/sharing info bites her in the butt over and over but her backstory makes it so hard for her to do those things. It’s so satisfying watching her struggle (and knowing, because it’s a romance, she’ll succeed). Ahhh.

  2. Are you talking fighting (like what I think is in my book) or torture (which I hope isn’t in my book)? I’m all for making the character choose between a rock and a hard place, but I also don’t have a problem with my character making a point physically. Particularly given the time period I write.

    I think I’m trying to understand whether you think ALL violence is bad (i.e., my character escaping being locked up and having to fight his way out), or just violence for the sake of beating down the character? Not that I necessarily think my stories will change. You may not be my target audience. But I will admit you definitely have me thinking about my future books.

    And I do like “suck and suckier.” I’m going to remember that one.

    • I’m talking about torture, where the character is bound and physically abused.

      I’m willing to admit that even that has its place as long as it in some way taps into something in the character’s psyche. In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother finally gets Winston to betray his lover when they put his face in a cage with a rat–because he has a known phobia about rats. Without that psychological component, he’s just a guy who’s so terrified of physical pain he “rats out” his girlfriend. With that component,he’s a guy who is pushed over the brink till he betrays not only her but his own core beliefs.

      I think fighting or a character having to take physical action to free herself is not only okay, it’s great!

  3. I like murder mysteries. Someone dies, someone figures out who did it. And the kind of violence associated with that kind of story, even if the violence is shown on the page—somebody has a grudge, or is jealous, greedy, whatever—and kills the victim is fine with me. It doesn’t go on and on. There’s a reason for it.

    But my least favorite kind of plot line is when the villain is a serial killer who tortures women. There is something about the hurting, abusing, raping—whatever—of women in novels or film that I find particularly distasteful, and for me, it’s because this kind of violence is used as entertainment. It has a prurient aspect. I don’t want to read about assault and abuse of women in the newspaper, either, but at least there’s no notion that anyone should “enjoy” the read or the viewing.

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