Torture 101: Peeling Back Your Character's Layers (and a little skin too).
As writers, we create our characters. We care for them. They’re a part of us. They’re bits and pieces of people we know, of people we pass on the street. We come to understand them as well as we know ourselves. Our characters carry our stories into the hearts and minds of our readers. Yet, if we don’t torture them, we aren’t doing our job.
There are many ways to cause distress in a character’s life. It isn’t all about bamboo under the fingernails (although it can be). It’s about knowing what your characters want more than anything and keeping it from them as long as possible. It’s understanding his/her deepest fears and regrets, dreams and wishes, nightmares, and toying with them. Obstacles, delays, separations, adversity, mistakes, emotional pain, physical suffering, loss, shame; the list goes on. What a writer uses to ruffle feathers, and keep their character(s) from their goals, will vary depending on outside influences, such as other characters, setting, and the storyline itself.
By pushing our characters to the edge it helps us discover who they are, what they’re made of, and what they can become. At that point, writing them becomes easier. We don’t have to ponder their reply in dialogue. It flows out because we already know how they’ll respond. But ease of writing isn’t the only reason to put stress on your characters.
We all want good days. We want to wake up with a smile and have it still be there when it’s time to go to bed. No surprise car repairs, no traffic jams, no spilled coffee, angry customers, or computer problems. Stress is unhealthy. We want our lives to be full of green lights and sunny weather. But if our characters had one good day after another, if they skipped blissfully along, happy as can be, their stories would soon get boring. Stress causes tension. Tension improves a plot and keeps a reader turning the pages. It helps readers identify with the situations and people they’re reading about, no matter how fantastical a world the author created
In my trilogy, The Crown of Stones, I drag my protagonist, Ian Troy, through the ringer, both emotionally and physically. In Magic-Price (book 1) Ian, already suffering from a good deal of self-inflicted inner turmoil, endures a nasty spell inflicted on him by an unknown enemy. This spell wreaks havoc on Ian emotionally and physically, meting out a psychological torture that leads him to some very dark places. But Ian isn’t the only character I pick on throughout the trilogy. I’m an equal opportunity torturer!
The following two excerpts from Magic-Price are brief windows into Ian’s slow downward spiral.
I could still the hammer smashing into my fingers. I could hear the solid snap of bones breaking. Fragments were ripping up through my skin and I wanted to knead at the pain. I wanted to rug at the chains; they’d been digging into my neck all day.
They weren’t, of course. But my mind said otherwise. My dream world was leaking into my waking one so drastically now. I could scarcely tell the difference. It was hard to accept that last night, when the Arullan girl was beneath me on the soft grass, she hadn’t been there at all. Not when I could feel her on my skin. Smell her on my clothes. Hear her screams.
The loss of her always felt moments old. It burrowed in, repeatedly, tightening my chest, sinking into my gut, forcing me to constantly remind myself that she wasn’t real.
None of it is. Why can’t I remember that?
I drew in a sharp breath. Surreal images and sounds assaulted me. Random illusions surfaced, piling in, one on top of the other.
Her cries, the beatings, Draken’s proud face; I recalled it all vividly.
How she felt under me, alive and warm—next to me, bloody and screaming.
Frantically, I whispered, “Not real, not real, not real,” struggling to convince myself that I hadn’t been at the mercy of Draken’s men. I hadn’t been in the girl’s arms.
Dreams. They’re just dreams.
But the conjured nightmares only pushed deeper, blending and overlapping. Repeating. Penetrating. Until pain and nausea doubled me over and whatever was in my stomach came violently up onto the ground. Thankfully, it wasn’t much.
Breathless, shivering despite the warm sun, I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. I looked down at my trembling hands and expected them to be red with blood. They were brown with dirt. Idiot, I scolded myself. It’s not real.
Putting your characters through hell peels back the layers. Conflict (whether internal or external) exposes their flaws and their limits, and makes them feel real. A character that has bad days, just like we do, is far easier for a reader to identify with and become emotionally invested in. Once they’ve come alive in someone’s imagination, then you can shove as much bamboo under their fingernails as you want.