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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Torture 101

Today’s assessment comes from Matt. He’s writing about Molly,* whose mother disappeared when she was younger with no explanation, who was then sent away to school a year later where she was betrayed heavily by her ex-boyfriend. When she returned from school, she found her father bleeding to death in the entrance hall. So Molly’s background is pretty traumatic, and gets even more so when she and two companions are captured by the “bad guys” and are being transported to be tortured.

What Matt wants to know is this: With Molly’s latent anger issues from her mom’s disappearance and her ex-bf’s betrayal, and her inherent internal strength from not degrading into a depressive spiral from both, what level of physical/psychological torture could she be expected to endure and recover reasonably well from?

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Which leads us to Torture 101. Thanks, Matt.

As Matt indicated, a person can be tortured physically or psychologically. Both can leave lasting mental afflictions on those tortured. But torture is far more than acts committed against a person or group of people by others. It’s more complex. To quote Wikipedia: “Torture…depends on complicated interpersonal relationships between those who torture, those tortured, bystanders and others. Torture also involves deeply personal processes in those tortured, in those who torture and in others.”

So the first thing I’d ask you is what is Molly’s relationship to these “bad guys?” Are they related to the person who killed her father? To her ex? Her mom? The more relation she has to the torturers, I’d hazard a guess to say the less torture she’d be able to endure from them. (But this is just an educated guess based on what I’ve read and know about human behavior. There is no formula to give you to determine how much she could endure, but we can create one of sorts with simple deductions.)

Then I’d ask what her relationship to her companions is. Are these random people she is forced to be with (a good example would be Shia LeBeouf and Michele Monaghan in Eagle Eye--an excellent use of mind games and psychological torture, actually)? Or does she have some former relationship with them? Are the torturers mostly interested in Molly—and are using the companions to get more info out of her? Or are the bad guys interested in all three of them equally? Based on your answer to these questions, then Molly may or may not be able to endure more or less. (Helpful, huh?) Let’s break it down: If she has a solid relationship with these companions, and the bad guys are using them as leverage to get info out of her, I’d say she’s be able to endure more torture out of her love and relationship for the companions. If not, I’d say the reverse.

I’d think Molly could endure more psychological torture than physical, but you may disagree, depending on what kind of physical condition she is in. The reason behind my opinion is that she has already endured so much psychological trauma…and you’re right. She didn’t spiral into a depression. So Molly is strong mentally. The flip side of this is that maybe she has already endured so much, that the torture could start to crack her.

Here’s a plot twist to consider to make the book riveting and realistic as far as how much torture she’d endure. If you’ve set Molly up to have had a great love relationship with her mother, and somehow during the torture, Molly realizes she could get some sort of information about her mother’s disappearance…I’d say Molly would be able to endure immense torture to gather this info. Make sense? It’s just something to think about, but the relationship between a parent and child is powerful—one of the most powerful out there. Even parents who are awful parents still have unconditional love from their children, even if we don’t understand why. The children still want to be with these parents who treat them terribly. Ask any foster child taken away for abuse or neglect. So even though Molly might have latent anger issues directed toward her mother for leaving, psychologically, the need to know WHY would be so great if Molly thought she could find out. So consider this during your torture scenes. How could you connect the torturers to the mother?

So here is a “formula” for writers to consider when dealing with torture:*

Increased relationship with torturer

Increased relationship with companions


Increased connection with past


Increased amounts of torture endured

* Note: This is strictly in my therapeutic opinion.

Hopes this gives you something to think about, Matt. Thanks for writing in!

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

Q4U: Have any of you written some torture scenes in WIP? Is so, how did you decide when enough was enough?

Wordle: signature


Eileen Astels Watson said...

Your pics are grossing me out, Jeannie!! I don't watch horrors for this very reason, I can't stand thinking of torture.

But I forced myself to skim this post, anyway because you always offer such great insight into human nature. I want you as my therapist, Jeannie!

Anyway, two thoughts, after all she's experienced already and seems to have survived too, I'd say the plausibility factor on her handling a lot of torture is bang on. And if Molly thinks she can get info about her mother's disappearance from these no-goods, then I bet she could be smart enough to manipulate the torture to her advantage too, just to get the info. Of course, if she finds out her mother's dead, then she'll likely go downhill fast if they had a good relationship. If she discovers her mom's alive, behind all this, she'd gain strength, or alive and still held captive, she'd also gain strength, I bet. Man, one can get really into plotting others stories in this therapy session, can't they?

Great post as always. If I ever want to torture someone I'll come back to read more thoroughly.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks, eileen. if i didn't have a thing about giving therapy to people i have prior friendships with, i would be honored. :)

Nighfala said...

I shy away from torture, too. There is so much physical torture in movies that I don't want it in my fiction. I don't think I could ever watch "Braveheart" again, even though it was an incredible movie. The first viewing many years ago haunted me for days afterwards. I couldn't stop thinking about it.

And I keep thinking about how real torture is used around the world today, usually against helpless people, particularly by the Taliban and by muslim extremists in Africa.

I found one quote from a refugee from Sudan:
"The torture was administered by neighbors and colleagues, people I knew. It was aimed at teaching me a lesson, to develop shame and fear within me. And it worked. I can still hear their voices."

Another good example of torture is in George Orwell's "1984" (which we had to read in eighth grade, for crying out loud). The torturer forces the main character to say that 2+2=5, in order to force him to agree that this dictator controls everything and has absolute power.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

wow, Christine. great examples and quotes. torture is a very real thing, of course, and your examples bring that home to us. i had forgotten about 1984. Geez. i was in middle school, too, when i read that.

Jen said...

Torture, when done well, can magnify your connection with a character and help you better understand a villian. I don't particularly like graphic displays of it, but I believe when it is artfully done, it can be a very powerful communicator in writing. So far, I've never used torture in a book but if I ever do, I'll return to this post!


Tana said...

No torture scenes for me thanx, but I have to laugh at the girl with a vice on her head. Mine feels like that today ;)

Jill Kemerer said...

I love how you gave us valid reasons why someone would be able to endure torture. Nice post! And no, I don't write torture scenes. I write romance!!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.