Torture and its effects on character:

Total posts: [6]
I stumbled upon this essay on Anti-Shur'tugal. It was written with The Inheritance Cycle primarily in mind, but the points in it apply to anything, really. I think anyone planning on including torture (or other traumatizing violence) in their works should read it.

Here's the main points.

Torture is completely and utterly painless. And you're a complete wuss if you can't live through being whipped sixty odd times by a cat 'o nine tails, followed by a friendly rendez-vous with a hot poker.

Sarcasm mode aside, one of my pet peeves in fantasy is its almost flippant attitude towards torture. And of course, our beloved Inheritance Cycle is of course guilty of this. (Although keep in mind that it's not the only existing speculative fiction series out there with a closet sadist lurking inside - oh what's that Mr. Goodkind, I can't quite hear you there?)

Anywho, there are a few things I feel Mr. Paolini and his ilk often forget about Torture:

1. Torture is often scarring.
Torture is painful. Incredibly so. And therefore it has the tendency to completely alter someone's long-term health mentally, as well as physically. Not always - Torture isn't going to always turn someone into a sociopathic cut-throat maniac, I'll happily concede. But there's no denying that such a horrific experience, in the long term, won't have lead to some shift in perspective. Yet so many characters recover from it like *clicks fingers*... that.

2. Torture isn't always easy to resist
Somehow I seem to get the impression that characters in the IC think torture is as easy to resist as a chocolate bar is to an anorexic. That the idea that ideals are superior to all and should be able to resist all of evil's temptations if the 'your heart is true' is utter nonsense.

Let me introduce you to my friend Maslow. Morality is the first thing that tends to go when humans have to make a choice - we're programmed to save our own hides first, and care about others later. If your family is in debt, and you need to pay your bills, you cut out the luxuries - and usually, you will stop giving money to charity to put food on the table. This isn't true always to a strict degree, since many risk their lives for others frequently. But it is much more common that one will sacrifice themselves for another person than they would an idea. Ideas are two a penny. The model isn't perfect, far from it, but the point I'm trying to make is that the person who resists torture for the sake of an idea is more likely the exception, not the rule. Torture is painful, after all. Expecting everyone to resist it is silly - humans can be incredibly weak creatures.

3. Torture isn't actually that effective.
When it comes to gathering information, that is. Sure, it is possible to actually be trained against psychological torture such as water-boarding, but this does not apply to physical torture, which is what fantasy novels usually concern themselves with. When tortured, people are more likely going to spout out false information than do anything else. This makes it an inferior intelligence tool in comparison to espionage and mind-reading. (Torture is incredibly useful if you want to make scapegoats out of people, or use torture victim's claims as a legal basis to tyrannise other people).


The thing is, there's no real reason why torture has to be here... Like rape, torture is constantly mis-used in this way during fantasy to make one character inherently morally superior to the other. This completely trivialises the affair, completely ignores that torture is in fact, torturous, and simply makes a mockery of the victims of it. Because when being used against a righteous character, a righteous character will always resist torture because they're just that awesome.

4. Torture is painful
In the end, when these three elements are ignored - the reasons for torture, the psychological development during torture, and the consequences of it, all you're left with is a vague concept of something possibly painful called 'torture' which doesn't sound that arduous and really is a bit of a walk in the park. You take the torturing out of it. And in consequence, you end up with a torture which ironically, isn't painful at all, and does nothing except fails to cover up how absolutely baseless and silly your characters are.

Torture is painful, and that can make its reasons and its consequences fascinating to read about. Remove that, and it's just angsty noise.
2 PsychoFreaX18th Dec 2011 08:12:29 PM from Transcended Humanity
Pain can be very subjective. Maybe some people are trained to resist different forms of torture. Maybe, they had known pain much worse than just physical pain. Maybe it hurts much more for them to betray their friends. Which also makes it a good method for writers to show how deeply determined a character is to their cause. And if it's emotional, mental torture, then all the more subjective to what the victim actually cares about.

As for how effective torture is. Even though, torture might not be as effective on some people, you underestimate it on other areas. There are methods to make the victim spout out the truth during torture.

For example, showing them you know when they're lying. How do you achieve that? By having already investigated a part of the issue first and use those knowledge to form control questions that you ask without the victim knowing you had already known the answer. You torture them more if they give the wrong answer and say good and move on if they answer correctly. This way, you can condition the victim to not lie at all once you ask the questions you really need answers to. As it seems to them, you can tell when they lie or tell the truth.
Welcome, traveller, welcome to Omsk
I've written one novel where the main character is tortured for a prolonged period of time, and I took pains to show how it affects her mental health once she escapes: she becomes extremely jumpy and quite short-tempered. When she wakes up at night and her father has left her to go for a snack, she immediately assumes that he's been taken away. (Also, she's tortured to give information about something she doesn't know; in hindsight, she thinks that she would have told everything if she'd been able to.)

I'm not saying this to congratulate myself. In fact, looking back at that story, I'm worried that I made it far too gruesome. But I think I had the right idea. (Fortunately, I don't have any personal experience of torture, so I'll never know how correct I was about the effect of the trauma.)
It does not matter who I am. What matters is, who will you become? - motto of Omsk Bird
4 RalphCrown19th Dec 2011 08:13:18 AM from Next Door to Nowhere
Short Hair
Just to give an opposing viewpoint, military personnel these days are told to answer everything during interrogation. What they know (passwords, troop positions, etc.) is typically obsolete within hours or days, so there's no point in playing the badass. Governments that use torture use it to intimidate the opposition. Not that there aren't sadists out there who get into that line of work for the enjoyment.

As already noted, for intelligence gathering, torture is more trouble than it's worth. In fiction it's just another threat to a character to show how bad the bad guys are.
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5 USAF71319th Dec 2011 08:46:37 AM from the United States
I changed accounts.
Torture is bad and it fucks you up, mkay?
I am now known as Flyboy.
Thank you for this, I've been having problems on how to have a character react to torture due to the unique nature of the situation (basically, being able to die and come back to life completely healed as a well established super power).
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Total posts: 6