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?”