Boy, do I have fun with this concept. Some might consider it a “problem”, but we’re not listening to my mother right now. Personally, throwing crap sandwiches at my characters is my favorite part of the writing process. Think about it: you’re basically a god in your literary universe. You can create this wide and wonderful world, fill it with diverse people and cultures and ecosystems, and then you can SMASH CRASH BASH. You can call down lightning, unleash floods, slam people with disease and heartache and lost opportunities and bees. You can bring nations to their knees, and all from behind the screen of your computer, and without legal persecution! After all, there is no story without conflict, and conflict is WONDERFUL to inflict!
But it’s also possible to go too far with the agony and head into torture porn land, and that is not somewhere you want to steer your work. Not sure what constitutes torture porn? It’s a term coined by various Hollywood movie critics to describe the current trend of horror movies where gratuitous violence and gore overrides the central story. Think of the Saw movies. Any semblance of story or character development is shot and left for dead in favor of severed body parts and spurting blood everywhere for the sole purpose of shock value.
So, how do you straddle that line between coddling your characters and going too far in hurting them? Here are a couple things to keep in mind:
1. Does the negative event encourage character development?
All of the angry god tantrums should push your character into changing somehow. It should teach them something about themselves, and present an opportunity for them to take action of some kind. It doesn’t mean they should always be right in their actions or motivations, but that they should have forward momentum in some direction.
2. Does the negative event pass the test of believability?
This is where a dual sword of psychology and common sense comes in handy. Once I wrote a scene where my protagonist captured the man that both experimented on and conditioned him into a highly skilled tactician and killer. I wrote the protagonist beating the man up and then leaving him down in the basement to stew while he figured out what to do with him. This, logically, did not fit in with the headspace or psychology my protagonist had. His inherent motivation and training was to get what he needed and then kill the man who tormented him, but I tripped up on my sense of morality and intervened. It resulted in a lackluster scene and I robbed my protagonist of whole host of rich development. By contrast, if you have a scene of nothing but horrible acts of inhumanity without real reason or purpose, you also rob your characters of development relevant to the overall story. You reduce them to screaming, dying heads, and that’s really boring.
3. Is your antagonist fully realized?
Basically, is the opposition a layered, fully realized antagonist and not just a semi-visible, mustache twirling madman? It doesn’t matter what kind of antagonist you have for your story, you need to know them in and out just like you do your protagonist. It doesn’t even matter if your antagonist isn’t human. They could be alien, a virus, mother nature, whatever. You still need to know how they work, what makes them tick, how they function. When you do, STICK with those parameters and make sure they evolve just as the protagonist does if they are capable of doing so, and that they do so in accordance to their nature. After all, a hurricane isn’t going to do a reverse cowgirl and blow back through town unless there are specific conditions to make it possible, and a human isn’t going to suddenly gain a new motivation, skill, or power out of nowhere without some kind of precedence or desire.
4. Ask yourself: What does this add to the narrative?
Think back on all the action movies you’ve ever seen. Think of every car chase, explosion, and all out gunfight. You could probably cut half of them and still have the same story. In fact, you could cut half of them out and brainstorm for something a little more creative and end up with something that really wows your audience. Every significant event should serve a purpose. Whether it’s showing your characters a new side of humanity, teaching them what they themselves are capable of when pushed, that they are not immortal, that they cannot control nature, etc., that event or situation must have a reason for existing, and not just for a coolness effect.
5. Think outside the box and get CREATIVE.
I’m not saying completely abandon tropes that work well, but really question their place in your story and see if you can come up with something different, or an unexpected twist on them, to add intrigue. Sometimes the most effective torture is one that doesn’t go the way you expect it to. Example: Ned Stark from A Song of Fire and Ice. Did not see his ending coming and there’s still a book shaped dent in my wall and awe in my heart for how it unfolded. He’s also an example of how a main character isn’t required to actually succeed or live to the end of the story for his story to be good and memorable.
6. Extra point: Stop Using Rape As The Go To Torture For Female Characters.
Unless you are prepared to handle the subject of rape with honesty, integrity, and with the sensitivity that subject deserves, and unless it is absolutely essential to the overall conversation of the story, find another event to pit against your character. I can’t begin to count how many books I put down in disgust because they added rape to a female character by default, as if that’s the only thing they could think of to make their character go through hell, or to develop her. Rape is hell on it’s victims, but all too often it’s the first thing an author reaches for when writing women and girl characters. What that does is reduce your character down to her vagina and it’s a damn lazy and insulting tactic for reader sympathy, not to mention it’s treated as some kind of a shortcut to get out of real character development. So stop it. Treat your female characters the same as your male characters: as people deserving of your time to make them well rounded, layered, and deep individuals.
And, if all else fails and you’re not sure if you’ve gone too far or not far enough, get a second opinion. Send that story off to someone whose opinion you trust and see what they say. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see the forest for the trees, and a second set of eyes can help you head off a problem before you get too far along to do anything about it.
Happy writing and angry god tantrums, ya’ll!