10 Can't Miss, Surefire Secrets Of Torturing Fictional PeopleCharlie Jane Anders4/03/14 1:13pmFiled to: superlistfree advicewriting7317EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkEverybody loves a sadist. At least, when it comes to storytelling. The more pain and misery a writer puts her or his characters through, the more we adore it. But how can you torment your characters without going too far, or falling flat? Here are 10 killer rules for how to bring the pain.AdvertisementImages by Donato GiancolaTo be honest, this is something I've struggled with a lot as an author, and I still have a hard time with it — which is why I've tried to come up with a few rules of thumb about how best to inflict misery. And maybe you can all gain something from the torment that I, personally, have gone through.AdvertisementOh, and it should go without saying that this is about psychological torture, at least as much as physical torture — unless you're writing a Saw tie-in novelization, in which case go nuts and good luck finding synonyms for "tendon." So here are some rules that I've come up with:1. Resist your natural urge to go easy on the characters you loveThis is sort of the most obvious one — but if you're at all good at this, you're going to be invested in your characters and you'll want them, deep down, to be happy. They may feel like aspects of your own personality, and thus causing them misery is like wishing misery on yourself. But you have to get past that, and push yourself to make things worse for these people who live inside you. It's not even as if you'll think of something horrible that could happen to your beloved characters, and then balk — it's that you won't think of the terrible things that could happen, because you'll be sliding into wish-fulfillment mode, and imagining things going smoothly for these folks.2. Turn that empathy into masochism.Because these characters live in your head and you understand them better than anyone, you also have a unique understanding of how to make them extra-miserable. In fact, when you're sitting there imagining everything going smoothly for your characters and them reaching their goals without too much hassle, try to see what your mind is sliding away from. The blind spot you're slinking past on the way to the easy path you're dreaming up. Whatever it is you're not even letting yourself look at, is probably what you ought to be doing with these characters. Probably. But at the same time, don't go to the opposite extreme and get stuck torturing your characters over and over — there probably ought to be a point to all this. For more on that...3. People should suffer for their mistakes, but also their good deedsA lot of the secret of artful misery involves making it feel as though things are happening for some reason — although a certain amount of randomness is important too, as we discuss below. Suffering that happens because of your characters' decisions is way more interesting — and often more painful, because of remorse. A lot of the most powerful fictional torment comes as a result of people's terrible decisions, but it's also really poignant to see someone stick his or her neck out for justice, and get dinged. One trick that I've found interesting sometimes is to show a character who appears to be suffering for no reason at all — and you don't realize for a while that he or she actually did something to deserve this, but is unaware of it. Don't be afraid to highlight your characters' flaws — especially the ones that they're not personally aware of. 4. Pause and really make us feel the impactThe worst thing I've noticed, in my writing and in other people's, is when people suffer and just shrug it off. That's when the misery really feels pointless — when it makes almost no impression that the reader is aware of. I see this in a lot of young-adult novels, curiously — despite their reputation for being "dark" and for wallowing in misery, a lot of YA books feature characters who suffer horrible misfortunes but still keep moving forward, with a plucky, upbeat voice. The worst is when the characters are too busy dealing with the next thing, and the next thing after that, to process what's already happened to them. You need to let us feel that these events are having an emotional impact, or they really are pointless. Speaking of which...5. Don't be too keen to move to the next plot point.A lot of the time, when you're going too easy on your characters, it's because you have an outline and the next thing that happens is they get the magic coin or find the android's severed head. The point is for them to pass the points on their journey and then reach the finish line, right? Not exactly. The point, if anything, is for them to get lost and derailed and to run into complications. If your characters are having too easy a time — or not really experiencing the awfulness you're exposing them to — it could well be because you're trying to move them forward. Your characters want to move forward, but it's part of your job to hinder them.6. Nastiness is a function of world-building. And ideology.People don't behave in an unconscionable manner just because they were dropped on their heads as children — there's usually a social context in which it makes sense for them to behave that way. Even if not everybody agrees with their behavior. If you're having a hard time making some of your characters mean enough, or making their unpleasantness feel properly unpleasant and real, then this is probably a function of bad worldbuilding. Maybe you need to think more about why some people in your fictional world would think it was okay to be prejudiced against your main character — because of ethnic, sexual, religious or other differences, maybe — and maybe you need to construct more of an ideology that supports being somewhat abusive, in some circumstances. In the same way that hardly anybody ever thinks they're the villain of their own story, people usually don't act like monsters without some social context that explains or justifies it.