The Right Way to Torture Your Characters

The Right Way to Torture Your Characters

posted in: Storytelling | 40

As writers, we often joke about how much we enjoy “torturing” our characters. Of course, this doesn’t just mean literal, physical torture, but any of the numerous ways we make our poor characters suffer, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological. This can include the loss of loved ones, actual injuries, or extreme levels of anxiety or angst.

In short, writers are the masters of imagined suffering.

But, there is a right and a wrong way to torture characters. And I’m not exactly speaking ethics. Character suffering can add to, or take away from, the effectiveness of your story.

Today, I’m going to lay out the differences.

Man and dog

The wrong way

First, let’s talk about the wrong way to torture your characters. Imagine with me that you’re reading a really good book, and you’re considerably attached to the main character. We’re going to call this character Matt.

Matt is a sweet, lovable guy who lives with his hound named Tessie. He’s a bit lonely, and has had a slew of failed relationships due to his terrible social skills and chronic inability to relate to people. But he loves that dog. He loves that dog as if she were the love of his life.

One day, Tessie dies.

She gets hit by a car. Matt accidentally lets go of the leash as she dashes out into the street, chasing a squirrel… and he notices the car too late.

Matt is devastated.

But… Tessie’s death contributes nothing to the story or plot. And in the midst of Matt’s terrible grief, he slips on the ice in front of his house and cuts open his chin on a rock. He ends up needing seven stitches.

This injury is about as random and pointless as the death of his dog.

Now, if you were reading this book, I think you’d be screaming one word: “WHY?” Why do these terrible things have to happen to poor Matt? What’s the point?

The problem here is that there is no point. That’s just it. Suffering that seems to have no purpose will accomplish nothing except frustrate the reader.

The right way

You can torture your characters as much as you like, but it’s important that you do it intentionally. Your readers will eventually feel numb and disconnected if characters suffer just to suffer. Their pain has to mean something. It has to have a purpose.

“But, how do I add purpose to my sadistic torment?” you ask, setting aside your scalpels and hot irons.

I’m glad you asked. Here are six possible purposes for character suffering:

1. To increase feelings of danger.

If your character is running from a monster and trips and scrapes his knee, or if she’s fighting in battle and gets stabbed in the shoulder, it reminds readers that your characters are not invincible. It makes the danger feel more real, and readers will be more at the edge of their seats, hoping the characters get out of their situations alive.

2. To create empathy.

When we read about characters who experience loss or pain – especially if that pain is familiar to us – our hearts naturally go out to them. We feel sorry for hurting characters, and we become more attached to them. As a result, we become more engaged in the story.

3. To add realism.

Returning to the example of the character in battle: Imagine if she fought throughout the entire battle… and never received one injury. Not even a nick or scratch. Well, we would find that hard to believe. The battle itself would feel less real. A little bit of character pain can ground readers in the scene, making it more believable, and making it feel like they’re there.

4. To add to the plot.

Sometimes your character needs a nudge – or a violent shove – to get them to move, to change their minds, to motivate them to pursue a goal. A common way to accomplish this is through the death of a loved one. Be careful with this technique, though, because it’s easy for it to become cliché if handled too casually. It helps if the readers also care about the character who dies. Additionally, this character should have more purpose in the story than simply becoming a martyr to the protagonist’s cause.

5. To frustrate the character’s goals.

The essence of plot is this: A character pursues a goal, but obstacles stand in his way. These obstacles are the various challenges and setbacks that make a story interesting. Sometimes these obstacles are incredibly painful for your protagonist. This is probably the most forgivable cause of character suffering, because readers will basically expect it.

6. To cause character growth.

We all grow from pain, and characters are no different. A character who doesn’t grow at all during the course of a story is a boring character to read about. Like heated metal in a forge, your character becomes pliable during torment, ripe for reshaping and improvement. Allow her pain to make her stronger… or maybe, if the book is a tragedy or if she’s an antihero, that pain can make her more bitter, angry, and cruel. Either way, suffering brings ample opportunity for change.

For discussion…

What are some purposes you use when torturing your characters? Can you think of any more? Or, here’s a fun question: What’s the worst thing you’ve done to any of your characters? *winking evil grin*

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40 Responses

  1. Tom da Silva
    | Reply

    Absolutely correct Brianna! Have you read The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand?

  2. Hannah Heath
    | Reply

    Great post! You have me up in arms. Save the Matt’s of the writing world! 🙂 I agree that pain should be inflicted on a character for a reason. #6 is probably my favorite way to use suffering in my stories. It’s also my favorite kind to read about, because it’s easy to identify with and always makes me happy when the character comes out the other side as a better person. Anyway, thanks for writing this post! It’s very helpful and I really enjoyed it.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Hannah! #6 might be my favorite to use and read about, too. It feels realistic AND it’s relatable! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! ^_^

  3. Jeneca
    | Reply

    I’d have to say I’ve used reason number six the most. In a book that is currently abandoned, I killed off the only one of my protagonist’s advocates/friends, which left her to carry on the plan without much help. For a little while.
    I guess I’m guilty of #4 as well, when one of my side character was attacked, and that prompted things to go down a different plot.
    Great post to think about!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I do think #6 can be the most useful one. And it can be powerful when a character gets angry, or the plot becomes personal for them. I love how this was done in Braveheart, for example, when the William Wallace’s wife is murdered at the beginning, and he just rides into that village like, “Okay, OKAY, now you are going to pay for this!!” *commence bloodshed*

  4. Olivia C.
    | Reply

    I think #4 happens in my current novel. It seems to happen most to my assassin, though. o.O But he’s often saucy and not helpful to the others so he kind of deserves it. 😉

    Worst thing… I break my assassin’s ribs. B) Ooh no, I sent my assassin to stay with creatures who feed on fear. He has several years’ worth of that behind him. o.o

    Great post, Brianna. 😀

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Ow!! What a terrible thing to do to your character! xD Of course I’m not any better to mine. 😉 I can imagine an assassin would have a lot of fear behind them – yikes!

      Thanks, Olivia! ^_^

  5. saraletourneau
    | Reply

    Another awesome post, Brianna. 😀 It’s really important to send our characters – especially the protagonist – through emotional rollercoasters during the story. But that suffering needs to make sense as well. It can’t simply be thrown in for a writer’s sick sense of enjoyment. *ahem*

    In terms of purposes for using that suffering… um…. well… if I really think about, I could give examples of all 6 from TKC. 😮 I don’t want to give away too many, since some examples are very spoilerish, but my protagonist does get hurt during a couple crucial scenes. Her backstory is also rife with suffering (her parents were murdered when she was 5 years old), and her inability to let go of that pain helps fuel the plot for TKC.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Gah, thank you, Sara! 😀 And you are RIGHT. I mean, we can throw in suffering for our own amusement, but not JUST for our own amusement. ;’D

      I’m glad to hear you use all six!! (Wait, I am? Is that something I’m supposed to be glad about?) I guess I like reading about tortured characters as much as I like writing about them, and I’ll admit my heart is already starting to go out to your MC even though I know pretty much nothing about her. I look forward to getting to know her better in the future. ^_^

      • saraletourneau
        | Reply

        Hee hee, exactly. 😉

        Yeah, Eva had a rough childhood, and the lingering (and suppressed) anger and vindictiveness comes out during the story. It’s weird, because even though certain characters serve as antagonists, Eva is still her own worst enemy. So, it’s different from a lot of YA fantasy in that if Eva makes the wrong choices, she could ruin everything – not just the external plot, but her own life as well. 😮

        I think I should stop there. XD

  6. Cait @ Paper Fury
    | Reply

    DUDE YES TO ALL OF THESE. I really hate it when characters are tortured pointlessly…this is why I struggled so much with An Ember in the Ashes. It was just all this brutality and rape-threats 1000% of the time and, gah, it didn’t mean anything to the plot. It was just there to scare the reader, I guess?
    ALTHOUGH…that all saying…George RR Martin definitely does NOT follow these rules. *howls* His violence to his characters sometimes (is over the top too btw) is really random, but that’s almost the point? Like you never know what bad thing is going to hit because EVERYONE is at risk? So I think it can work, but mostly it doesn’t and everyone should follow your golden advice. #legit
    I definitely torture my characters a lot…MY BAD.😂 It usually is for reason #5 or #4? I like to give them violent shoves and also put massive obstacles in their way. OH WE WRITERS ARE SAD LITTLE GRAPES.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      YESSS. Pointless suffering can be so annoying. I haven’t read any George RR Martin, but I think he is – in general – a case of someone who breaks all the rules with style! ;D It works for him, but yeah we have to be so careful with that, because it’s more likely to NOT work than to work. O.O Part of the “brand” or expectation for his stories, as I understand it, is the fact that no one is safe… so actually, in a way, the suffering of his characters *kind of* has a purpose? *ponders this*

      I haven’t read An Ember in the Ashes yet, although that one is one my list! And wow, not sure I’m looking forward to that aspect of it now. O.O

      I torture my characters a lot, too. x’D It’s okay. I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading about your poor afflicted characters maybe as much as you enjoy afflicting them yourself. ;’D

  7. Ella Knighton
    | Reply

    This post has some really great advice! I can’t stand it when writers hurt characters for the sake of hurting them. Also, I think its ridiculous just how much I connected with “Matt” after only a couple sentences of description; nice writing! I gasped out loud when you wrote that his dog was hit by a car 🙂

    I torture my characters… a lot. The worst I’ve done is had a character thrown down from the second story onto a bunch of iron rods poking out from a concrete slab. He was impaled in three places, and he died. Or did he…? *ominous music*

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Ella! And yay, I’m so glad my evil powers of empathy worked. x’D I spent more time on that section of this blog post than any other section, because I really wanted to create that connection! ^_^

      OH MY GOSH. THAT’S… :O Okay, I feel like you should get some sort of medal for writerly brutality. That’s some of the worst (or best?) character suffering I’ve ever heard. xD

  8. Shannon Lewinski
    | Reply

    Oh, goodness.. I’m not sure which one I use most. I’m still a novice writer, but I like to pride myself in thinking I handle character torture well xD

    I think the worst thing I’ve done to a character is have her literally tortured for information from the friends she’d considered brothers whom she’d lived her whole life with.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      That’s a good thing to pride yourself in. 😎 (I mean… I think it is?? *nervously ponders*)

      :O :O :O UM YEAH that’s pretty terrible! Poor character! But in a creepy authorly way, that sounds delicious. xD

  9. Zoey M.
    | Reply

    I just found this blog, and I’m young writer. This is really useful! Probably the worst thing that I’ve ever done to a character was when I had a character spend half of the book searching for a brother that they’d never met, just to have it turn out that one of their travelling companions was the brother. Then the traveling companion was killed. Luckily, it was not for nothing! That was the nudge the character needed to face the villain. I felt bad about it for a long time, though.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey, Zoey! Welcome to my blog! ^_^

      I’m so glad the post was useful. And, wow, that’s an interesting and unfortunate twist. :O Poor character! But I’m glad it was not for nothing. 😉

  10. Luna
    | Reply

    Wow! This is amazing! I really liked that first point–I’d never really consciously thought about how a small injury can very real sense of danger to a tense scene, though I MUST have recognized that unconsciously at some level. I’d like to add a note that a character showing a PSYCHOLOGICAL moment of weakness can be just as effective as the physical injuries the author mentioned. I read a story once where the main character was known for having an unshakable, calm exterior–they were a superb actor and a better liar, and they always were able to look at situations with a clear head. Partway through the plot, however, when they were trying to track down a group of kidnappers that had captured his friend, he had a brief scene where he was by himself. No other characters were watching. And for that brief moment, the character broke down. All of the anxiety they’d been facing came crashing down on him, and he let himself feel it for the first time. It was masterfully done, and really let the readers know that the stakes were very, very high. It was entirely possible that this time, he might not win. That this time, it might not turn out okay. To me, it was the best scene in the story!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      WOW! That’s such a great point; thank you for bringing it up, and that example sounds amazing. What a highly impactful scene. Hmm… I’m definitely keeping this in mind, now. “Psychological moments of weakness”… they are great for creating empathy, too!

  11. Erika Jones
    | Reply

    To answer your question about the worst I’ve done to torture my character… recently he was kidnapped by his psycho mother who escaped from prison and got tortured for 9 days, when he was ordered to kill his best and only friend he snapped and butchered his mom before eating her heart because he was starved for 9 days… even though he had food about half way into his torture but was forced to up chuck it before he could really digest anything…

    The whole torture thing, both psychologically and physically, took a toll on me to write… could not stop crying so I’m hoping it goes that way for anyone who reads it.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Oh. my. gosh. (!!!!!!!)

      You win the award for worst character torture described in this comment chain. *claps slowly* I… um… wow. Poor guy.

      I recently wrote a novella where the main character is tortured for three days, and that took a terrible toll on me, too. Psychologically, physically, emotionally, I was a wreck. I was not sufficiently prepared for that at all. You’re kind of making me feel better, because this shows that my reaction was quite normal. O.o I mean, I was scaring myself. I totally didn’t handle it well at all.

      But… it seems like you tortured your character even worse than I did. I feel for you. O.O

      • erikaoutcast1
        | Reply

        I don’t know if I should be… glad for that reward though. Lol. I even brutally tortured him enough to be sick with infection for over a month after he’s saved.

  12. Taika
    | Reply

    Lovely article ^.^ pretty helpful too.
    The worst thing I’ve done to a character… Bit of a background story first: I’m writing my first series; it has multiple protagonists and there is a special group among them that represents the elements. They can’t really die in the traditional sense. It would cause imbalance, so they’re immediately incarnated with all the memories of past lives, but at the same time with a clean slate. They also can only die under certain circumstances. Okay, now the story; they all experience a lot of things during their long lives and, since they’re all individuals, experience everything differently. One of them becomes too bitter, too angry, corrupted. Something has to be done and only one other realizes this, who happens to be his best friend. They are both being tortured; one by emotions and memories, the other by seeing his friend suffering. After a particularly violent outburst, this friend realizes he has no other options and kills him, giving him a chance to start anew and without these torturous feelings, but deeply hurting himself by murdering and losing his best friend… I’m a bad person XD

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks, Taika! I’m glad it was helpful! ^_^

      Oh my gosh, that is so terribly sad. :OOOO When characters are being LITERALLY tortured it always shatters my heart but that… ack! That is just terrible! >_< xD I hope the surviving character finds a way to live with himself. 🙁 P.S. Sorry for my late reply... I've taken a two-month break from blogging. But I'm back now! 😉

  13. dana
    | Reply

    Worst thing i have done to a character?
    IDK if it would be being electrocuted repeatedly, mauled by a wolf, or nearly dying from hypothermia then losing an arm due to frostbite.

  14. Meaghan McCleary
    | Reply

    I think the worst thing I’ve ever done to a character would be having her accidently kill her parents and boyfriend due to powers she had no control over. Although, the physical torture was pretty rough, too.

  15. Gina Scott Roberts
    | Reply

    I think I’ve got a tie for the ‘worst’.

    First is a female character forced to watch a girl gang raped then five of her men skinned alive before being tortured herself. This sounds a bit extreme, but as she and her men are mercs and this takes place in a Colombian prison, I felt it was justified to bring a feeling of realism similar to what you refer to in #3.

    The other is also a female character, a secret agent, who is abducted, beaten and tortured for weeks for seemingly no reason. There IS a reason and rather crucial not only to her story but to several others as well…but it’s complicated. Drives everyone crazy till it comes out.

  16. Bethany Goodwill
    | Reply

    Some times I wonder if I am a bad person… XP.

    I would have to say the worst thing I have ever done to a character was have her brother abandon her when she needed him most, her father brutally murdered, and her mother commit suicide (to avoid capture) by burning herself alive, all while she was forced to watch. Then she had to watch as her entire city was sacked and put to the sword, all with the knowledge that something she had done (not intentionally) had made it possible. After that she was taken back to the capital city of the ones that had done this to her where she was made a slave. She looked very different from the people there and didn’t speak their language very well. Her people and their people had been at war with each other for centuries so she also faced a lot of venomous hatred, physical abuse, verbal abuse, psychological manipulation and even some sexual abuse. To escape this she swore loyalty to the second in command of the leader of the country. Who brainwashed her through a series of “exercises” which put her through physical and physiological torture.

    And the purpose of all this is to turn a sweet innocent girl who tries to see the best in people, into someone who believes that everyone is only out for themselves. Someone who is willing to kill to survive.

    And that is only the tip of the iceberg. She is not the main character but she is one of my favorite characters because she is so dynamic.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      :O :O :O

      Dear me! How much worse can it get! It’s no wonder your poor character no longer trusts anyone. SHE HAS A PSYCHOPATH AS AN AUTHOR! 😛

      No, of course I’m entirely kidding. I do pretty horrible things to my protagonists, too. ;D

  17. wysteriacampion
    | Reply

    The worst things I’ve done to my character are just too much to tell. But the latest is her car getting blown up with her inside of it…..She was working as a spy…..This article helped A LOT. Thank you very much.

  18. Kristin
    | Reply

    In one of my stories a powerful group took on an army. They won, but two major (and very awesome) characters were killed. This form of torturing my other characters followed several of your rules. Firstly it was a war, and it’s unrealistic to have no casualties. Secondly, one character was the peacemaker between two extremely powerful alpha males. Without the peacemaker character the two alpha male characters were forced to grow and find their own balance. Torturing characters always has to further the plot in some way.

    • Ash
      | Reply

      that sounds like an amazing story! I had one loosely similar to that in the idea that people die a lot in war- but everyone around me is like, “you have to have a reason for their death,” but I’m thinking, isn’t that what makes it sad? That there was no reason? That nothing was gained, and so much was lost? And still, it does further the plot through character arch and the maturing of a character, and also in other ways depending on the story.
      Good luck on your story!

  19. Alex
    | Reply

    I’ve tormented my characters soooo much…. branded them, made them be manipulated into trying to kill loved ones, let their own family throw them into a dark alternate universe to be eaten alive, given them progressively horrifying nightmares for 6 years straight, and turned them into a ghost no one can see after they committed suicide. Not all in the same story, though.

  20. Domi
    | Reply

    I’ve done some pretty horrible things to my characters, but by far the worst is what happened to the detective. All his life, the detective was suppressed and bullied. Long story short, the detective plummets to insanity from a traumatic case. All his life he wanted respect, so he develops a split personality of a serial killer. The detective solves the traumatic case, but it turns out hes the one killing people, so he’s solving his own kills. In the end he embraces the split and becomes the sophisticated psychopath, then sets up the captain, frames him to solve the case. This earns him all the publicity and respect he ever wanted.

  21. Ash
    | Reply

    Awesome post!
    The worst thing I’ve ever done to torture a character…. that’s a tough one. Right now I have a character who has “taken a fever” as the other characters call it, and is still forced to work in a quarry, in 100+ degree weather. I haven’t written it all yet, but that’s my worst thing for that character. I’ve done much worse, though! I’ve impaled a lot of characters…. ahh, but it’s all for a reason, so that is a pretty amazing excuse, am I right?

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks, Ash! Yeah, “it’s all for a reason”… that’s just what we tell ourselves, right? 😛

  22. J.I. O'Neal
    | Reply

    I’m often told that I’m really mean to my characters, especially the main character of my police procedural series (The Riverdale PD Series), almost to the point of being called sadistic. My main character, Noah, was orphaned in one instant at the age of 16 and raised by his aunt and uncle; once he became a cop, his mentor died suddenly, leaving him in the middle of a case that subsequently goes cold; then he is deafened and blinded and scarred on one side and forced to retire at the height of his detective career; he suffers from PTSD from the injury and has long battled bouts of depression and insomnia; he long ago stopped talking to God, in whom he does still believe, holding on to anger and bitterness instead; in the latest book, not yet published, he gets framed for murder. But it all does serve a purpose and he is a much different person by the end of this latest book than he was before the series began.

    In that same series, I have also physically scarred two other characters – one from being stabbed in the throat, the other from being trapped under some burning debris. Another character witnessed his best friend being abducted as children.

  23. ATesia
    | Reply

    Thank you for this post it helps a lot. I have several stories where the MC is just tortured for the sake of torture, though it is major to the plots. My latest has the MC being the whipping boy of the family whom no one knows about and thus they scorn him for his indifference and perceived arrogance. This causes a lot of emotional torture because he can’t say anything because he believes he is saving them.

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