Monday, April 14, 2008


by Gina Sestak

The first time I killed a character, I felt terrible. He was a minor character I had created solely to die in battle. Since my protagonist would come through the fray unscathed, I thought this minor character's death would make the scene seem real. Still, my gut reaction was to try to save him. I wanted to destroy those foul attackers who had set upon this young man with their swords and short, sharp knives. I didn't. The story really needed him to die a horrible death.

Which brings me to my topic for today: where should we draw the line in our treatment of fictional characters?

The title of this piece is a quote from a 1991 film, Closet Land, written and directed by Rhada Bharadwaj. There are only two characters in Closet Land, a writer (Madeleine Stowe) who is suspected of planting subversive ideas in her children's books, and an interrogator (Alan Rickman) who, for 90 minutes, questions, manipulates, abuses, threatens, and tortures her in an effort to obtain a signed confession. It's a hard film to watch.

So why watch it? Amnesty International supported the film as a strong statement about the condition of political prisoners. One of the executive producers was Ron Howard -- that's right, Opie. And the two actors involved did such wonderful jobs of portraying the characters that it's difficult, even after the film ends, not to admire her and despise him. You want to run right out and put an end to all injustice in the world. The film made a point.

And maybe that's the key. It is often necessary to portray extremes of cruelty just to get a point across and, to advance the story, we sometimes do terrible things to our fictional characters -- or rather, we allow our fictional characters to do terrible things to one another.

Where do you draw the line? When does it stop being a compelling read and start becoming sado porn? That is the question for the day: how do you handle cruelty in your writing?

By the way, the complete quote is:

Victim: Your aim is to debase and humiliate a human being. There is no justification for cruelty.
Interrogator: Our aim is to rid society of negative influences. The end justifies the use of certain unorthodox means.

The Interrogator's line sounds like something out of a White House memo, doesn't it? Perhaps all world leaders should be required to write "There is no justification for cruelty" on the blackboard a few hundred thousand times, until the message sinks in.


Tory said...

Believe it or not, I'm usually most cruel to my protagonists. I've written several manuscripts about women who have become disabled in accidents. I had an MD friend read one of my novels for accuracy and he said, "I wouldn't want to become one of your heroines!" I felt guilty.

In theory, I'd say the line to draw is when people can't read my writing any more because they're too upset or grossed out. But where is that? And I bet it's different with every reader!

If anyone has any answers to this question, I'm listening!

Martha Reed said...

The only way I know I've crossed the line is when the little interior voice tells me: you can't write that, it's too hateful.

It happened recently when I wanted to use the German phrase "Arbeit macht frei" to illustrate a point but I couldn't; that phrase is so negative, so hateful, it would have hijacked my original intent. I went back and forth over using it for 2 days before editing it out, and I'm glad I did. It would have brought too much pain to too many people. That's when I take a step back.

I know I've seen the line crossed in some movies: I watched Eastern Promises on Saturday, and although brilliant, David Cronenberg doesn't hesitate to cross my line. He did the same think in History of Violence, which was a breathlessly amazing movie. Overall, I think my line is in a pretty good place, not too dark, not too light, but it does occasionally surprise me with some of its exceptions!

Annette said...

Interesting post, Gina. Especially since the scene I intend to write today involves killing a character. In this case, the violence is "off camera." Which, I guess, raises the question, does not seeing the brutality make it any easier to take from either a reader's or a writer's viewpoint?

nancy said...

I can't do torture, I really can't. It's why I write cozies. My characters are often in a predicament (a word I am borrowing from Stephen King) but not in Terrible Trouble (Dean Koontz's phrase) because the bad stuff is just too icky for me.

If you read my firstr mystery, How To Murder a Millionaire, my protagonist took a long tour of a house before she actually discovered the dead body. That tour was practically a whole chapter before I realized I was simply unwilling to kill off the victim. I shortened it, but it still amuses me that I was much happier looking at the house than the dead body!

Great blog, Gina.

JennieB said...

I'm with Nancy. I write cozies too, and thus I can avoid all the gory stuff. They're all nice, clean murders in my world. Pushing people down the stairs, conking them over the head, leaving them to starve to death...

Even the dead bodies are neat. I made sure, when my protagonist discovered a smelly 2-week-old corpse, to make it pitch black so she wouldn't have to look at it. That way I wouldn't have to think about what it looked like, either. I'm a wuss. I don't write it, don't read it, don't watch in on TV.

That's what I like about books, actually. Instead of having it in your face - any of it, be it sex, violence, or something else - so much can be hinted at and not described outright, leaving it up to the imagination. Which can sometimes be worse, can't it?

Annette said...

JennieB said: "so much can be hinted at and not described outright, leaving it up to the imagination. Which can sometimes be worse, can't it?"

It sure can, Jennie. I may have mentioned it before, but when I read THE HORSE WHISPERER, the scene with the tractor trailer completely freaked me out. So much so that when the movie came out, I refused to go see it (even though Robert Redford was in it!) because I didn't think I could handle it. Later I realized that NOTHING they put on film could compare to what I saw in my head when I read those pages. So I rented the movie. And I was right. It was still horrible, but not even close to what my imagination had stirred up.

JennieB said...

Right. And for those of us who prefer not to dwell on unpleasant subjects, we can just reroute our mind into different territory. (Fingers in ears singing la-la-la-la-la-la!)

Gina said...

Looks like I'm the only one here who would watch a film like Closet Land. For me, I draw the line between fiction and real life. I can read and write sadistic scenes. I can watch some horrendous thing in a film -- remember, I was a zombie extra in Dawn of the Dead -- and think of it in terms of acting skill and creative effects. All that spurting blood in Sweeney Todd washed right by me. And yet, I can't stand to be anywhere near the supermarket meat counter, where the racks of ribs look like skinned children and the smell of blood is in the air. And I stayed away from Bodies. Human corpses on display is way too gross for me. I've done horrific things to fictional characters but, in real life, I really wouldn't hurt a fly.

lisa curry said...

Gina, I'm with you. While I don't want to see or be involved with violence in realf life, I like my fiction bloody. I typically read historical novels that involve some form of battle/combat, so blood and violence is a given.

In the book I'm reading right now (Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough), one of the things that fascinated me most was that they had a military unit of these guys who used slings to hurl rocks at the enemy. The general decided to see what would happen if they used lead balls instead of rocks in their slings. What happened was that they wiped out a whole unit of enemy cataphracts, which were men in chain-mail on horses in chain-mail, because the lead balls tore right through the chain-mail in pretty much the same way as a bullet coming out of a gun would, regardless of whether it hit the men or the horses. Who would have thought it?

I have to say, though, that while I enjoy that sort of military violence, I am not as keen on reading about torture of the helpless. I prefer when both sides have a fighting chance.

Wilfred the Author said...

This is a great question and one that is really difficult to answer. I think it has to be decided on a case by case basis.

I think I'm more tolerant to extreme violence if it fits the story and isn't gratuitus.

I came close to the line when I wrote a scene where one of my terrorist gets almost sensual pleasure from close killing. That's killing his victim with a knife while he holds her close. He dislike guns because they are too impersonal.

I thought about toning down the scene more than once. But each time I read it, I felt it just fit the circumstances. It's in my editor's hands now.

Martha Reed said...

Another movie that took me into a dark place, but it was just right - was Pan's Labyrinth. Wartime evil from a child's viewpoint. Life is Wonderful did it too.

JennieB said...

Hiya, Will! Nice to see you here.

Wilfred the Author said...

Ahhh, JennieB

This isn't Will. This is Sven the Swedish Stripper.

JennieB said...

My bad. And that's not what you told me your name was. You said your name was Freddy. Right before you offered to father my child. Get your aliases straight, Sven.

Wilfred the Author said...

It's hard when you're as full of it as I am. Remember I write fiction. Sometimes I live it. :)

JennieB said...

'It' being that famous Swedish sex-appeal, right?

Yeah, I can relate to living fiction. At least you get to use your own name, when you're not Sven or Freddy.

kathie said...

Hey Gina,
great post. I guess when writing certain categories of mystery/thriller, etc. you can go pretty far with cruelty to people. The cringe factor may make some readers put it down, but most who are interested in this type of story and human nature see the usefulness of literary cruelty. Or maybe not, but if not in fiction, where?