Stop Torturing Your Characters
I use Tweetdeck. For the unfamiliar, it is a desktop application that allows you to view your Twitter feed in a live stream. It also gives you the option of setting up specific columns which will feed to you in real time Tweets from anyone that contain certain keywords or hashtags of your choosing. One of my Tweedeck columns is the “#amwriting” tag.
As you might expect certain phrases, questions, worries and observations tend to come up on a regular basis in such a feed. One of them is about writers “torturing” their characters. Throughout the course of a day, the #amwriting column reveals people who both enjoy torturing their characters, and those who force themselves to do so, despite it being quite unpleasant. Those that are in between the two extremes also speak of this torture. Reminders and advice to torture my own characters is also common.
So much is said about this that yesterday I tweeted that for my current work in progress I had no desire to torture any of my characters, and that I was in fact not in the process of doing so. In fact, I’m opposed to this advice on the whole.
To begin with, I don’t usually feel I am doing anything to my characters when I write. Rather I feel I am revealing something that heretofore was unknown. In that sense I can no more torture the characters in my fiction than I can make love to them or have lunch with them.
Yet the bigger objection I have to this “torture your characters” routine is on practical terms. This advice, like so much other advice about writing, becomes detrimental when taken too far, and I believe many have reached that extreme with this.
Here’s a writing heresy for you, free of charge. This one’s on me:
Your protagonist does not have to suffer.
The literary torture cult arose from a need to implore writers to make sure there is conflict within their story. And conflict you indeed must have. In order to function, most stories require characters that are trying to accomplish things. Characters cannot accomplish things if there is no friction of any kind. Yet that friction does not have to be a heart-wrenching, life-threatening, soul-sucking cataclysm. It does not, in short, have to be “torture”.
Now it certainly can be tortuous. It depends on the story. Sometimes a story does call for a character to be beaten by fate into pervasive despair. Writing that sort of story isn’t really my thing, but it is for many people, and more power to them. Yet losing a hat can also drive a story forward and motivate a protagonist, and I’d hardly call that torture.
The entire point of writing is to explore new ideas and engage in creativity. Surely writers have deep enough imaginations to come up with plots and conflicts that don’t require suffering characters. And while some may accuse me of being obtuse in my response to the “torture” advice, citing that it is a mere metaphor for conflict, I stand by my criticism of its usage as a writing commandment.
Because whether metaphor or not, the connotations inherent in “You must torture your characters,” is setting a standard that’s harmful to our writing. It elevates one level of literary intensity for one specific type of fiction into a requirement for all fiction, and it doesn’t deserve that elevation. The pressure to conform to the “torture” standard is enough to keep some writers from exploring new type of stories, as well as preventing some would-be new writers from creating at all. Neither is acceptable. It’s time we stop using the term “torture” as we do in the writing world.