Authorized Cruelty


There are some writers who really like putting their characters through hell.

I remember my first discovery back in the early seventies of the subset of fannish writing called “character torture” that spun off from the pon farr part of Trek. This “let’s really torture our cute heroes and have them suffer charmingly” had another parallel story type called “hurt comfort.”

And it’s not just fanfic. Some have said that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander partakes of this, perhaps echoing the beauteous sufferings of Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford in his eponymous six volume series.

Then there are the stories in which everybody gets sliced and diced, or worse. This seems to be a feature (“No, a bug!” “No, a feature!”) of GRRM’s Game of Thrones series, book and screen. I heard one reader say on a panel a couple months ago that it is getting more difficult to find adventurous novels that don’t feature rape as a convenient plot motivator.

I’ve seen discussions among writers about this stuff, asking why these stories are popular, and if so, what’s going on here? We don’t want to go out and do this stuff, or have it done to us. So what’s the fascination with following characters who undergo detailed mayhem? Is it catharsis? Do we shed our own bad instincts by following fictional consequences of violent actions? Is my book going to flop unless I pack in the whips and chains?

Some of these discussions offer psychological explanations—reiterating how pain and pleasure are closely aligned in the human psyche—and so, for example, we get these pretty but dangerous vampires.

A panel discussion a couple years ago equated hurt/comfort to the primal emotions of being cared for. The victim has all the focus and tenderness of the caretaker, something few of us get after infancy. Finding it in story form feeds the id.

So some writers want to dig into the dirty side of the human psyche, and as a result I think we’re seeing more stories that make heroes out of villains. I don’t mean redeemed villains, I mean villains as protagonists—or antagonists as protagonists.

Some have pointed out that getting into the villain’s POV improves the story. Irredeemably bad Dark Lords, especially seen from narrative distance, can be really, really boring. If a villain is always going to do the worst thing possible, you can pretty much skip ahead until the defeat at the end, unless of course you get into all those torture-and-kill-and-rape scenes.

The response that villains are the heroes of their own stories has become pretty standard; that that’s the point at which villains become antagonists. Everyone seems to agree that either way, villain or antagonist, they have motivations and justifications that seem reasonable and even right to them. Some writers extrapolate that out to equate morality with self-justification and ethics with convenience; others (like me) prefer to search for moral verities, even if they aren’t easy to define.

Then there are the villains who have built justifications that seem logical and convincing to them…but to everyone else look as mad as a bag of snakes. Getting into the mindset of such a person, and seeing the world through their eyes, can be really, really creepy. So creepy, in fact, a writer can look down at the words just written, appalled, and wonder where that came from, and does it mean I’m a rotten person? Are people going to read this and think I’m like that?

The answer is, yes, some readers can be counted on to put two and two together to make twenty-two, and go leaping and bounding to conclusions about your personal convictions. You will find yourself roundly condemned for your villain’s wickedness. But that’s later, when someone else reads it. Right now you’re facing that just-written page and thinking, should I water this down? Should I get rid of that scene? Why is it there, do I really need to have that in this story?

Inevitably some reader is going to slang you for ‘gratuitous’ X, but do you believe it’s gratuitous? You might wrestle mentally over that question for days—for months—and some will offer you comfort by saying, “If you’re struggling, that’s good! That’s what we need, more uncomfortable stuff out there, it makes people think!” And you’re nodding and smiling, but at midnight you sit there wide awake saying to yourself, “Makes them think about what? What am I really doing here? Am I just perpetrating more of the pain and evil that the world is already overflowing with?”

Sherwood Smith’s ebooks (one with villain as hero) at Book View Cafe



Authorized Cruelty — 54 Comments

  1. Okay, I’ll bite – do you see Senrid as a villain hero? 0.o
    I thought he was just doing what was necessary to get out of a hopeless situation, and considering what he does in Stranger To Command, I feel he has reached that goal for some time at least.

    Which is your villain hero book here?

  2. I know hurt/comfort has always been popular in any fandom of which I’ve been a part, and many people partake in the enjoyment of it.

    When I read, I can see that, in some settings a writer develops, violence is a necessary off-shoot. However, I have read books where I thought the violence was extreme, even in the setting the author provided, and grew disgusted. That was when I felt it was gratuitous.

    I do think that rape and sexual torture has been quite over-used. I know some people have that kink, though. They like to read/write that type of thing.

    When I write, I believe in cause and effect. Some situations will create hurt for my characters. However, I try not to cross the line into unbelievable violence. I feel that it overshadows the plot and forward motion of the story.

  3. I think one reason for foregrounding villains is that the cultural idea of a hero is apt to be that a hero doesn’t want anything for themself, so a hero can only react to villains rather than initiating the action. (Sudden thought: Tolkien handles the problem by making his hobbits want to get out of being heroes and go home, so the heroes (while not initiating) have strong desires.)

    One other angle on character torture– one way to grab a reader’s attention is to start with a viewpoint character in great pain. I still get hooked by that one to some extent, but these days I’m apt to feel as though the author is trying to manipulate me in a way which isn’t very interesting.

    • What about the heroes who decide they need to right a great wrong, and so launch into action, leaving a wake of mangled redshirts in the Cause of Right?

      • One thing I’m thinking about now, in connection with what I’m working on, is /permitting/ people to become the unnumbered mangled redshirts. Nothing’s ever gained without /some/ sacrifice and struggle. If you are not willing, as the leader, to let people sacrifice themselves, then you can’t lead, I don’t think. (Speaking in terms of characters’ thoughts, and the moral anxieties a leader might have)

    • If you put the villains in charge at the beginning, or otherwise very powerful, the heroes can want stuff. Very much.

    • If a book starts with a red flag of ‘you’re supposed to support this character because I’m putting them through pain’ I yawn. Yet *another* unknown person in mortal peril. I don’t care about them (the dragon might have a perfectly good reason to want to eat them) and I don’t care about their predicament because after a while every mortal threat looks alike.

      I, too, have read the ‘how to retain the reader’s attention’ books, and predictable plot elements – even when they involve Very High Stakes are still predictable and thus not interesting.

      • The delightful art of trying to balance action and knowledge and sympathy in the opening paragraphs. . . .

  4. Maybe writers that do the icky torture stuff or linger in the villain’s pov aren’t good at conflict? Or maybe they think conflict has been done and is too tame? But I always come back to Miss Austen. Her characters suffered all right. I’m not saying social embarrassment is as painful as having a eye gouged out, but she got the job done of engaging the empathy of the reader.
    If I come across violence porn, I just go numb–and elsewhere.

    • I have this theory that the less actual violence people suffer in their lives, the more they seem drawn to in media. I could be dead wrong, though.

      • I call this the “suburbia syndrome”. When life is on the whole, clean, comfortable, and safe, there is a markedly greater craving for that which is not. So, it follows that what comes out of the subdivision is gothic, risqué, and disturbing. Much of it, I think, is acting out fantasy. But some of it is a real desire to live life to its full, which includes the dark and seedy, even when daily obligations (family, job, children) make those experiences impossible. Dr. Phil would be impossible if there wasn’t the need to explore “what could happen if I threw caution to the wind and indulged this fantasy….”; I’d call it normative, and it’s no different from the horrible nastiness that occurs in fairy tales to children that do bad things.

    • Of course, the degree to which they suffer varies greatly. Catherine’s sufferings in Northanger Abbey have more than a slight amount of comedy to them. Then, on the other, Anne Eliot and Marianne suffer enormously.

      And Austen’s particular genius was to create great classics with the most minimal uses of dramatic situations — a duel, offstage, a few elopments, all offstage. . . .

  5. For me it is about balance: I can handle a good bit of darkness in a story if there is a corresponding amount of light there. I find GoT far too unrelentingly grim, so I gave up reading the series. I’m really enjoying the Magicians/Magician King though, because although that has delved deep into inner darkness it has also given me plenty of light, in wit, in clever turns of phrase, and in insight.

    Getting into the mindset of such a person, and seeing the world through their eyes, can be really, really creepy. So creepy, in fact, a writer can look down at the words just written, appalled, and wonder where that came from, and does it mean I’m a rotten person? Are people going to read this and think I’m like that?

    For me the really flesh crawling thing is the inevitability of someone out there reading it & agreeing with your villain, having that moment of seeing their own psychology played out in a fictional character. I don’t know what kind of villain you’ve been writing but your reaction to him/her reminds me of how I’ve felt every single time I’ve had (real-life) dealings with a psychopath: mind boggled, sickened, wondering if they have somehow rubbed off on me, polluted me. Their world view is so alien and their charm so very, very superficial. Always leaves me wondering if down is up.

    As for your question about what you are putting out there, whether you are adding to the sum total of human misery by writing in a villain’s POV, my question is: what are you doing with it? Like you said, “Make them think about what?”. Because you could use such a scene to power something genuinely good, some insight, some plot or character development that leads to a satisfying whole or you could just leave it dangling there to provoke random thoughts. I think its only gratuitous if it dangles.

    • I completely agree about balance. I was reluctant to read Dean Koontz until I picked up one of his books and realized that though he puts his characters through the ringer (emotionally more than physically), what emerges from the story is an unshakeable faith in the goodness and greatness of the human spirit. (The fact that he has only once come close to crossing my gross-out threshold is a bonus.)

      And that is what disturbs me about current trends in fiction, which I think are part of a dialogue that is going on in society about the nature of being human. There is an increasingly vocal group-voice that says that humans are, after all, just more complicated animals and other animals don’t bother themselves with baggage related to causing hurt to members of their or other species. I wonder if what we are seeing in the anti-hero and torture trends is a loss of faith in the human spirit and human virtues that writers like Koontz place at the center of their novels.

      Now, I’m sure that a certain amount of this stampede to the dark side is inspired by rank materialism. Torturing the characters ala GRR Martin sells. And I’ve even heard the opinion expressed by readers that if a writer stops short of killing off (or at least torturing their firstborn (characters) they are being unrealistic about the harsh realities of life. They are flinching in some literary game of Chicken.

      I wrote a story once that posited that there are fates worse than death (such as enlightenment) and that was, for me, quite dark. I had one editor after another turn it down for that very reason—too dark. One editor told me she prayed the universe really didn’t work the way I pictured in the story. When I finally sold it, I sold it twice—once to the English magazine Interzone and once to a Catholic anthology. These days, I’m convinced I would be told the story wasn’t gritty enough or “edgy” enough because I didn’t physically torture the anti-hero at it’s core.

      What I’m saying, in part, is that right now there is a materialistic trend in fiction. It concerns itself less with the deeper emotions and intellect of the human being as it does with physical and sexual torture. I don’t, won’t, and can’t read that sort of story simply because I find it tedious and depressing. Even balanced with a Koontzian sense of human virtue it can occasion a fit of eye-rolling. I love Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, but I almost put Book Three in the series down over a completely unnecessary scene in which poor Harry gets the stuffing kicked out of him without advancing the plot one inch.

      As a writer of proud Russian/Polish heritage 🙂 I have set my jaw, turned up my stubborn dial to 11, and made myself a pledge: I will not torture, maim, or kill any character whose torture or demise does not come as the organic result of the story and the characters’ inter-relationships.

      • While I totally agree about the trends now, I think it is more difficult to point to what is, or isn’t, organic to the story and the characters’ relationships. There are those who feel that Martin’s mayhem is totally organic and realistic and yadda yadda.

        How we look at literature–what we expect from it–is undergoing the usual seachange.

      • “I wrote a story once that posited that there are fates worse than death (such as enlightenment) and that was, for me, quite dark.”

        This subject reminds me of reading Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), which I had to study for AP English. That book was pretty ambivalent about Kurtz, who is the “big bad” and supposedly reaches enlightenment but really seems to have plunged so far into the light/truth that he came back around and flung himself into the black hole on the other side. (Weird metaphor, but he reversed his position.) There isn’t any time spent in his POV, only speculation about what his outlook actually is… but that’s quite far enough into his “snaky” psyche, thank you very much. It is a dark subject but it is also fascinating, and the way you phrase it opens a lot of questions for me.

      • “And I’ve even heard the opinion expressed by readers that if a writer stops short of killing off (or at least torturing their firstborn (characters) they are being unrealistic about the harsh realities of life. They are flinching in some literary game of Chicken. ”

        This is what I was told when I voiced my discomfort with GoT. I promptly swore never to stoop to such gratuitous violence in my own work.

        Then, plotting out one of my books, I discovered that I was going to have to write about children as human sacrifices. In a YA novel. Yikes. So much for my oath, right? Flummoxed, I decided to read one last book before I went back to my own writing, and, evidently, I picked just the right book. Inda has reminded me that violence (even against children) can be handled with respect.

        So *my question now becomes, what is the difference between the effective depiction of violence and the gratuitously disturbing?

        • Whoa. Thanks!

          Unfortunately, that’s going to be impossible to identify–because while one reader will put the book down as too violent, another will turn away in disgust, saying “Too wussy.”

          I think the only thing one can do is write the scene true to the pov, or narrative voice: what about the scene would that character notice, what about it matters to them?

  6. I’ve heard that people who have covered the truly most awful things in human history, the mass killings and genocides, have been so appalled by what they found that they themselves became suicidal. But those biggest evils seem to require mainly a mob mentality and an ability on the part of the hundreds of perpetrators to shrug off responsibility. Examining that I find truly grim, though I think it bears doing, for sure.

    What you’re talking about , though, the powerful antagonist–that character can be very appealing indeed. Vigor, ambition, strength, energy–lots of antagonists have these things, and they can definitely be attractive, I think. In real life? In real life people’s mundane attributes color how you see their totality. People are rarely as larger-than-life appealing close up as they are on the wide screen of a story or film.

    As for hurt/comfort motifs and torture/rape motifs and so on, I think their appeal must be on a spectrum analogous to interest in sex. Or maybe it’s my personal kink that links those things in my mind. Anyway: clearly what we enjoy in our imagination has nothing to do with what we want to have actually happen, and if we remember that, then we can relax a little and think of it as like flavors of food.

  7. Hmm.

    You know, many of the great works of fantasy have not gotten into the villain’s POV and have in fact strongly implied that it wasn’t even human. The Lord of the Rings. The Last Unicorn — he appears on stage, but we don’t get much into King Haggard’s motives. Poul Anderson’s Three Heart and Three Lions with its inhuman Fair Folk. And his Operation Chaos — the little villains have motives, but the big guy is definitely inhuman. His A Midsummer’s Tempest has human villains, but then, they are off-stage more than the first two. . . .

  8. A lot of the things you mentioned are exactly what has made much of the Fantasy genre unreadable for me over that last several years. I read for escapism. I want to be taken away from the grim realities and the boringly mundane parts of life. I can’t enjoy ‘unrelentingly grim’ stories or ones that are unrelentingly angsty, I need a break from reality and something a little lighter or a better balance.
    The other elements in the Fantasy genre I would like to see go away or dialed back are the over-use of rape, the abundance of graphic sex and the Pain is Pleasure kink.
    I’m older and remember the days when the genre was fun. There were wonderful adventures in the pages, some even light hearted and funny, and where the sex, rape, and kink were rare and easily avoided rather than the norm and in your face. Those older books were and are still great reads and do not suck due to a lack of grimness, rape or graphic sex scenes.
    I don’t need every book to be full of grim, icky reality, I get and have had plenty of that in real life, what I lack is more fun, adventure and wonder and that is what I like to see return to the Fantasy genre.

    • Those can still be found, but a lot of them under the guise of middle grade or young adult fantasy. (And some of those old classics are being repackaged for younger readers, though they were published for adults back in the day.)

  9. “… villain or antagonist, they have motivations and justifications that seem reasonable and even right to them.”

    Which is why you see such howling on the part of — yes, mostly male readers and writers — when women object now to the proliferation of rape and other sexual violations, degradations and humiliations of naked women as motivators and action. They think it is edgy and cool — and lordessa SAVE US — historically and socially and biologically correct!

    We are living in a rape porn culture, it seems. It never felt more so than the opening of Richard Morgan’s Cold Commands with the extended graphic torture and gang-raped to death of a lesbian slave caravan leader. There was NO reason for any of that for plot, for narrative for character, except the author believed this showed him as the master of grimdark, he MOSST cool and edgy and hip and tough and above all, realistic in a way all those other effete fantasy writers out there are not.

    It’s even worse in many video games, or so I hear. I don’t play those things, but I do read an enormous amount of fantasy.

  10. Bingo. And yes, this has been an escalating issue for the past generation. There is a point that hurt-comfort becomes torture porn. And I’m not sure just when it’s deliberate as opposed to having simply overbalanced.

    Hurt-comfort has been around a long time, and it is extremely popular. I think the issue of being cared for probably is a large part of it. Also, I suspect, there is an element of wanting to bypass the adventure and cut straight to the rescue, and what follows. Which, if one is being at all realistic, isn’t an immediate demonstration of “happily ever after”. But in any case the reader gets to try on being both sufferer and rescuer, and all the rest of that. I’ve limited tolerance for hurt-comfort myself, but I can see the appeal.

    However, wallowing in the vileness of the villain is something else, and it can be a bit much. I first slammed into this issue with Mercedes Lackey some 20 years ago with the Mage Winds trilogy. Also the Diana Tregarde stories. And by today’s standards those were pretty mild stuff.

    And it might not have been deliberate, either. One really does need to see something of where the villain is coming from or you’ve got a cartoon. At root level, the villain is the story. It’s really not the story of The Hero: Joe Blow it’s the story of how Joe Blow and his supporters took down the Designated Evil. And if Designated Evil is the core of your story, you really have to give the reader some idea of what it IS. Otherwise you’ve got a botch job of the caliber of J.K. Rowling, who seems convinced that the story is the hero, and consequently, at the end, her story appears to have a hollow core which reflects upon everything in it.

    At the other end, you’ve got the George R.R. Martins who blatantly pander to the very worst impulses of their audience, where torture porn is the whole point, and proud of it. (And any claims of “realism” are worthy of all the contempt one can pile on them. That’s not realism. That’s porn.)

    Cruelty in life is to be avoided where one can. It improves nothing. In fiction, it is a seasoning, not the main dish. Properly balanced, it really can enhance the telling of a story. There is a broad seam of cruelty that runs through the substructure of just about everything Reginald Hill ever wrote, and it’s never far from the surface. But it isn’t necessarily *human* cruelty. But building a story around cruelty, and making it the point seems a mistake.

  11. My web browser is set on the local NWS, and a section of the National Weather Service in Alaska is responsible for alerting the west coast of possible tsunamis. When I logged on today, I found out that a 6.6 earthquake hit Panama at 17:45 PST. I logged on at 17:54. The tsunami warning system had been up for 2 minutes (the warning said that there was no significant warning or watch for the west coast). The earthquake had occurred 11 minutes before.
    My point? Disasters – whether personal, national or worldwide – are instantly broadcast. We are constantly bombarded with the knowledge of horrible things.
    So yesterday in the news I read about a woman in Afghanistan who was raped. She decided to break cultural silence and reported it. Now that she’s spoken out, her family may decide to quietly kill her rather than deal with the shame their culture now says is theirs.
    Three days before that, our local paper carried an article about a woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by one man, raped as a young adult by another man, then raped by a burglar. After the last rape she finally went to the police. All three men have been arrested. If this had happened to her 50 years ago, would she have come forward?
    When I read a novel with undue violence, sexual abuse or plain kinkiness, it bothers me, but at the same time I realize these things happen on a daily basis around the world. It just that nobody used to speak about them. Now it’s spoken and the victims have more courage to stand up to the shame and tell the truth to what happened to them.

  12. Another thing occurred to me as I was reading the above comments. Fantasy isn’t the only genre that transgresses in this. Last fall I read a book from mainstream fiction called Sarah’s Key. Let me back up. I read 2/3 of it. Then I stopped. Because something happened that was truly horrifying and I’d had enough. I very rarely stop reading a book 2/3 the way through. It was over the top with horribleness.

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  14. In the… Um… Thing I am writing, my protagonist does get raped. Twice, though the first happened years before the beginning, and much of the story involves the effects and his struggle to overcome them. At one point, I wrote a scene where a boy was being raped from the point of view of the rapist, and it is to date the scariest and most disturbing thing. Because to him, he reads everything as invitation and when he is interrupted and punished, he cannot understand what he did wrong.

    And yeah, you end up going, what the heck is in my head that this came out of it?

    • The Zeitgeist seems to be dealing with this issue these days. It could be a good thing, overall, when yo consider the centuries of silence, and the shame borne by the victim.

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