Something a little different today.
Of course, a large part of bad fantasy is that the authors don’t have consequences for their heroes, and everyone always escapes not only unscathed but happily married and resurrected at the end of the story. But assuming you do intend to put consequences in the story, how far should they go?
1) Learn to judge the “sadist line.”
This is my highly informal term for the point at which the torture- whether literal torture, or mental and emotional wounds- becomes so prevalent in your story that the reader is left disgusted, nauseated, and unable to keep reading further. It’s different for almost every author, and almost every reader. I’ve had people tell me they couldn’t keep reading books I finished without trouble, while I have put down (for a few minutes or permanently) books that others gushed about. I think in my particular case the “sadist line” depends on self-flagellation by the main character. I have a low tolerance for that, while having a high tolerance for descriptions of physical torture, blood and gore. But it can certainly be the other way around.
This is where it’s a good idea, again, to run the story past several people and not just a few of your best friends. They may be too hesitant to tell you where you’ve crossed the sadist line, or they may be people who have an unusually high tolerance for whatever it is that you’re doing. Getting a range of opinions on particularly controversial scenes can help. And, of course, the more consequence-laden scenes you write, the better you’ll get at judging where you write an acceptable scene and where you go overboard.
2) Don’t automatically attack the characters at their weakest points.
I find myself extremely puzzled, sometimes, why the villains know that the hero is afraid of the dark, or how they got the information that they could best torture him with words. It seems as though even skilled torturers would have to search for a while before they found out the perfect torment for their latest victim.
Many people do try to hide what they’re afraid of, and don’t randomly confess their greatest fears to people they have no reason to trust. If a long-time friend betrayed the character to the enemy, then it’s reasonable the villains would know, and the hero would have the added anguish of knowing his friend betrayed him (though it’s possible to overuse this; see below). But if the hero had successfully hidden how much he feared the dark, possibly by making himself face it, the torturers should not know that just sticking him in a dark cell is enough. No convenient mind-reading for the sake of making your hero suffer.
3) Not everyone in the world should be divided into dastardly traitors and absolutely trustworthy people.
I can’t tell you how many fantasy books I’ve read where the main character was once betrayed- by a friend, by a spouse, by a sibling- and has vowed never to trust anybody again, except of course the perky love interest/friend just introduced by the author. The perky love interest/friend will never betray the hero, of course, whatever the motivation, unless the author means the hero to suffer yet another betrayal and more ANGST.
All of these are highly melodramatic reactions. Most normal people would be hurt by such a betrayal, and probably cautious before committing to another friendship or romantic relationship, but I have yet to encounter anyone in real life who has sworn off all friendships and love because of the actions of a single asshole. And to have someone who betrays every confidence and someone who would never betray a confidence are both equally unrealistic.
Much better to put the characters in deeply compromised situations. Say the hero has told the friend a secret that he wants kept, but this secret could involve harm to him (that he’s going off to fight the Dark Lord alone, maybe, when the Prophecy of Evendra clearly states he must have at least one friend with him). The friend has a hard choice: keep the secret mindlessly, tell someone else and risk the hero’s anger, or go with him to fulfill the Prophecy of Evendra? Or perhaps a character is offered the chance to become a traitor, and doesn’t take it- only to find the hero isn’t the perfect shining paragon she always thought he was? These, and comparable examples, are much more interesting than the people who betray everyone and everything around them, or keep it all secret, for no reason.
4) Make sure your heroes suffer minor consequences, too.
I’ve read books where heroes were tortured, enslaved, maybe raped, and survived to tell the tale. Throughout the book, though, they were never, ever:
There’s something wrong with this picture: The hero gets betrayed by his best friend and clapped in irons and whipped. In that state, when he’s barely able to walk, he’s rescued by his wife. And in that state, when he should be semi-conscious at best, he somehow chooses the right route out of the castle, even though he was unconscious altogether when he was brought in.
If you can stand the thought of your hero half-dead of his wounds but can’t stand the thought of him making a mistake that could get another character to glare at him, it is time to admit you have a problem and head down to Consequences Anonymous. Head there even faster if the hero does make a mistake, but all the characters, including the snappish or arrogant ones, forgive him without a glare.
5) Don’t overdo the stereotypical torture implements.
Or: villains should get to have imagination, too.
Most fantasy tortures fall into the whipping or beating category, with the imaginative going for cutting with blades, putting out the eyes or tongue, or using a medieval instrument such as the rack or Iron Maiden (even if the society is not otherwise medievally-based). All of this in a world that usually has magic.
Why not use magic in torture? That might convince the readers that your hero is really in danger, whereas quite often the stereotypical ones don’t do it anymore. I’ve read one fantasy book to date where the main character, as opposed to a minor one, gets his eyes put out with red-hot irons (Corwin, in Nine Princes in Amber), and thanks to his powers, it really doesn’t matter in the end. Magic that strikes through dreams, or through the walls of the cell, or functions when the torturers aren’t there, would introduce a new element. It doesn’t even have to leave particularly nasty marks if you don’t want it to. But the absence of it from inquisitions and the “justice” system puzzles me mightily.
On another note, study historical torture techniques. They were quite often more varied and nasty than the common ones fantasy authors use.
6) Don’t speed the recovery process.
Oftentimes, fantasy heroes get rescued from their enemies- not always from torture, either; they can also be rescued from slavery or simple captivity- only to come out absolutely scatheless, or with just that fantasy author staple for showing angst, nightmares. The character wakes from nightmares screaming, but never has trouble walking, never flinches from the people around her, never has flashbacks to the captivity, never displays fear of being bound or locked in small spaces.
Don’t do this. If you have your heroine go through a harrowing time, then have the harrowing time leave its marks, for Eru’s sake. You can study PTSD cases for ideas if you really don’t know some of the consequences of trauma. You can also try to reason out what might flow from what happened to your character in particular (such as a fear of fire if the hero was tortured with it). But don’t leave them unmarked.
This is especially important when you have the character suffering as a result of something she did to save the world. If she lost an eye where the villain’s sword stabbed her and an arm was burned away when she put her hand on the fiery gate to hold it shut, then don’tdownplay that. Don’t make her function just as well as ever. And don’t give her a new eye and arm back by magic. It makes her sacrifice seem cheap, and not a sacrifice at all.
For examples of books that torture their heroes and have good consequences to it, read Kay, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chailion, and Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah trilogy (one of the few fantasy series that came close to crossing my personal sadist line, since the torture is extremely detailed and happening to the hero- who tells the story in first-person. But at least he doesn’t whine about it).
It irritates me when the heroes just go merrily marching off as though nothing ever happened.