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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Torture Whys and Wherefores

Valt writes me:

I saw you did a "Torture Panel" at WorldCon. What I would have given to have been present for that. I looked up Elaine Isaak since I am not familiar with her work and though I squirmed a little with the idea of a castrated main character, I cannot imagine anyone rivaling you for Most Torturous Authoress. There have been times where I've had to set your books down (for long periods) just because they hurt too much, yet I am always inexplicably drawn back into them. Masochism might be an explanation, but it's always so expertly handled. When do you decide that anything more would just desensitize your readers and no longer be as powerful?

Good question. I DO think torture and mayhem can overwhelm a story. And I never want to use it gratuitously.

First, why do I do it at all? Because my characters invariably are involved in terrible and world changing events. One of the things an author of heroic adventure has to do is present her characters with challenges, with opportunities to alter course, with the need to do things that are repugnant or life-changing in order to accomplish the deeds that solve the story’s problem. People don’t change themselves in fundamental ways as a result of small things. The stronger the character, the tougher the challenge must be.

How do I try to ensure I don't go too far?
  1. I make sure the violence is necessary for the story’s believability.
  2. I try to keep the worst parts “off screen” or at least at a distance. Readers may see only the results.
  3. I try never to sexualize it.
  4. I try to keep the events in proportion to the result I’m trying to accomplish.

REVELATION spoiler behind the Read More tag...

Some people have asked me why Seyonne’s terrible captivity lasted so long in Revelation. This is probably the longest and most difficult of all my “torture” scenarios. But here was a man whose entire life, entire being, entire training had been devoted to removing the rai-kirah from the souls of human beings or to getting himself back in the position where he could do so. And on the scant evidence of a few mosaics, his own instinct for truth, and his determination to set his child free, I wanted him to take one of those rai-kirah into his own soul. The meant I had to strip him down to his essence--his compassion and yearning for justice--in order to get him to do it. Otherwise I could not believe he would do it.


Anonymous said...

I had not really considered how frequently your characters are tortured. They do fit into the story pretty well, so they don't stand out as much. Also, I really appreciate the lack of sexualization. My sister in law often gives me romance novels where the violence is very sexualized and I am disgusted by it.

I will admit that the Revealations scene seemed a bit long to me- though actually the seduction following it seemed longer. Whenever I get the books back, I'll have to read it.

Technically I own all your books, but all but Flesh and Bones are loaned out (and that one will be loaned in 2 weeks). I think you are the only author I read where I have such a hard time keeping my copy. Even my mother in law (who kinda hates fantasy and is a stereotypical AP teacher who analyzes everything she read) likes your books. She was actually really excited about adding a fantasy author to her list of recommends for her students. They are always complaining that she has no fantasy on her lists. Of course, an author probably hates hearing that since more people borrowing means less sales.

Anonymous said...

I really think this forum is valuable to the aspiring writer - good stuff - keep it up!

carolwriter said...

Thanks, John. I like to think some "issues for the working writer" come up here. I hope everyone feels free to write me with questions!

Tami, yes, we would like every reader to buy every book (and buy it new!) but libraries - even private ones - are our friends. Not everyone can afford a new copy every time. But what I hope is that readers who enjoy one of the books will feel value in owning them. I want to write keepers, not just beach reads (though beach reads are fun, too). And word of mouth is my bread and butter. If you can't buy them, recommend them to someone who might!

Anonymous said...

I love the grit and realism in your worlds and in your characters. Valen was the perfect flawed protagonist...if there is such a thing. He was so deliciously frustrating, I think, because although his actions were decidedly unheroic at times, the reader could sense the hero potential lurking within.

As far as inflicting torture and hardship on your characters goes, I haven't noticed anything gratuitous. In fact, I admire the way you're able to let your characters go out into the world and get hurt or killed as necessary to forward the plot. I often have trouble showing the proper detachment in my own scribblings. Killing or hurting "my children", even bringing the dark or nasty bits of their personalities to light, can be downright painful.

Kitty said...

I can appreciate what Deb said. I've always had problems "hurting" my own characters and have worked on that a lot in the past year. I've found that giving them real physical difficulties helps me with character development, story development, etc. I understand Tami's comments as well and appreciate that violence should never be sexualized for no reason. But there is also the delicate area of sexual violence itself: rape and other forms of abuse. If this is central to the story, it may be necessary to go into some detail. I try to be very sensitive and never do this unless it is necessary to understand the situation and the effect on the character. Carol, your comment that people don't undergo fundamental transformation for small things is truly insightful and will give me a lot to think about in my writing. Thank you!

Valtinen said...

I just wrote a book review and mentioned your work as a model to which to aspire.

"If I wanted to read about torture, I'd pick up a book by Carol Berg who writes about it with such eloquence and precision, it becomes fine art."

You are indeed the master of it. Thank you so much for answering my inquiry!