Bad Things, Good Fiction

Posted: November 12th, 2009 under Background, Contents, Craft, Life beyond writing, the writing life.
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Writers are often asked (OK, I am often asked) why I put bad things in stories about good people.   What is the purpose, someone asks, of having war, terrible wounds, grisly deaths, and torture afflict characters?    Is it to teach the character a lesson?   Did the character deserve it?  Or was enduring such things the only way to create a paladin?

These are theological questions, at root.   Those who think (like Job’s “comforters” that bad things come from God to punish those who did wrong) will see the same events in a story differently than those who think bad things come from an evil power with specific aims and strategies–or those who think bad things come from human failings, and fall on individuals almost at random.  The drunk driver weaving across the road is going to crash into some car…but which?   And causing how much pain?

Writers use bad things for a variety of reasons, and in any particular story, the writer may have been influenced by any of them or a combination.  First is the obvious: bad things exist in the world.  Every day, around the world, hundreds (or more) people are being tortured by people who have power over them.  Today.  Right this minute.   Men, women, children.   Every day, around the world, thousands are at risk of political violence–invasions, insurrections, civil wars, international wars.   It is certainly possible to write stories that do not involve war and torture, but it’s hardly a stretch to include them.    And if one includes war, or torture, then it becomes important to show it in its complex reality.

Second, the classic Aristotelian story form holds a deep fascination for many people (readers, listeners, writers, storytellers)  and that form includes a conflict or struggle.    War offers the writer a conflict that allows the story to include both external and internal conflicts–lots of them, in many ways–and thus offers a fertile (but also challenging) setting for Story.   In a story with overt conflict, readers are willing to accept the existence of, and pay attention to, many associated conflicts on many levels of experience.

Third,  for the lesser writer,  a war setting will grab attention in the presence of  poorer writing.   If you’re not that skilled at the craft,  explosions and dramatic confrontations will attract at least some readers, and a veneer of technical expertise (not in writing but in weaponry or tactics) will attract more.

But what about torture?    The cheap-grace approach is to use torture to prove that a villain is really really bad (only really-really bad people torture) or that the hero is really-really brave, or both.   This is, in fact, as far as many readers go in understanding it…their reaction to a scene in which someone is tortured may be like mine to the extraneous courtesans in Scarpia’s apartment in the new production of Tosca at the Met.   I already knew Scarpia was a mean SOB; he’d just sung another aria about how happy being a mean SOB made him; we didn’t need the three slinky females doing poses out of Cats.

Some readers then tangle themselves up trying to figure out if the intent is to redeem the hero by torture…the Purgatory approach to pain: it’s going to purify the hero’s soul.    And some writers, if they’re of that theology, may in fact impose suffering on their heroes for that reason.

I’m not one of them.    My view is that as social animals, we humans do like to play dominance games–we like power, we like influence, we like the front seats, the red carpet, the head table, etc.   Research has shown that dominating–and receiving deference from others–raises the level of brain hormones that make us feel good.    In some individuals, the desire to dominate and control others overcomes the equally strong (in most of us) associative instincts that also give us pleasure.   Laughing with friends, hanging out with people who like us–those also raise the level of  pleasure hormones.    (One reason it’s important for kids to have happy experiences of social interaction is that this increases the likelihood they’ll seek out pleasant associations as adults.)

But there are the bad guys, and the bad guys get their kicks out of dominating, scaring, hurting others.   Whatever influences led them to that state of mind, once they’re there, they’re a menace to society, whether it emerges as kidnapping young people to control, or as persons who–gathering like-minded subordinates–gain political power and dominate and harm a whole country.

Given that bad guys exist,  anyone could run into one of them at any time.   One could live next door to you–might have a captive in his/her basement.  One could work in the same office and you’d never know unless you became a target of that rage to control.    Thus, in a story,  the protagonist may fall into cruel hands, either by pure chance, by carelessness, by deliberate self-sacrifice.   Malice is always involved: the torturer may have targeted that particular victim, or a class of victims (boys under 12,  wives of enemies), or any random person.

In the Paks books, the torture of  Cal Halveric was an attack aimed at him, as his father’s son; the purpose of the attack was to demoralize Aliam Halveric and get him to leave the alliance.    The attack was not Cal’s fault, and he did not deserve what happened to him.  His ability to heal from the psychological as well as physical injuries revealed his character but did not create it.

Paks’s torment in Kolobia again resulted from a directed attack on her–the desire of Evil to ruin a paladin.   Her carelessness with her helmet made the attack easier, but it would have come anyway.    The long suffering of her slow partial recovery resulted from the limitations of the Fellowship of Gird–limitations which she neither caused nor understood.  Her character was revealed all through books one and two of the Deed, both how she was developing into a possible paladin, and the distance left to go…and also revealed the flaws in the Girdish understanding of her and of good & evil in general.

She did not “need” that–she could have become a paladin in other ways–but in the long run she made out of that experience an unusually solid grasp of what she was and who she served.  The final molding of her character came with healing, not punishment–the Kuakgan’s ability to draw out the last poison from her wounds and replace her simplistic understanding of courage and love with more nuanced and complex ones (I would never say complete…)  and then that summer with the rangers in Lyonya, where her full paladin talents finally unfolded.

And that is what she took with her when she walked into that dirty little courtyard to exchange herself for the Duke and the others.    What followed was not a “test” for her–not the gods saying “Well, let’s see if she can take this, and then she’ll be a true paladin.”    She already was a paladin.    And what do paladins do?   Reveal the real nature of good and evil.    Protect the weak.   Banish fear.    What fear most controlled those dominated by Liartian priests?  The fear of pain, for them and for their families.  The fear of those barbed whips, those public displays of cruel power.

Her willing endurance of torture mocked the whole power structure of evil in that place:    it said “You don’t have to be afraid of the pain–you don’t have to give in because of its threat.   There is another way.   Good can endure.”    It was the revelation of what had already been created out of her whole life–not just the bad things, but also the good things.    It was a gift to those who had not believed that good could survive–who had been taught and believed that the bad guys always won and that’s why you had to submit and follow their orders.

Suffering, by itself, is not a tool for creating good character (Luap, after all, reacted to his hands being burned with resentment and never did get over himself.)     It reveals existing character and may (by strong characters) be used, as such characters use every experience, to approach some goal of selfhood.   It can create empathy (but doesn’t always) and teach strategies for dealing with future struggles (but doesn’t always.)    The same act of cruelty is received differently by different characters–leads them to different attitudes, different future actions.  That’s observable in real life, and is thus a truth available for fiction.

Similarly, healing does not negate suffering.    Like most people, I’ve broken a few bones,  had innumerable minor injuries,  had some surgery.    There’ve been psychological injuries as well.    Having healed from them, being once more healthy and hale, the scars not visible, the damage overcome…does not mean the damage never happened.   Does not mean the memory of it goes away.   Or that later, some other injury might not re-activate the one that “healed.”     So the healing that lets Paks go on and continue to be a paladin does not mean “Oh, nothing ever happened.”   It did happen.  It affected other people than her.  The ripples from that particular rock in the water continue to shiver in the reflections of those who were there, and those who heard about it.  Paks herself refused the Lady’s offer of forgetfulness….she understands that this, along with her earlier suffering, gives her both the empathy and the authority to say “I know how you feel” to someone who’s frightened of that bully down the road.    (Just as flunking calculus–not a pleasant experience at all!–made me a better math tutor.)

My personal take on the whole question of bad things in fiction is that evil exists–there are bad people–and bad things happen to the human population without regard to whether they “deserved” it.     What matters is not whether it’s  deserved, but what the person does with it after it happens–what lessons that person chooses to take from it.   I believe with Solzenitsyn that “the line between good and evil runs right down the middle of every human heart.”    That we do have choices, and that our choices matter.    That our choices lead to consequences, and affect more than ourselves.  That mistakes can be redeemed, though not undone–the word spoken, the act committed, exist in reality.   But we can change, and by changing we can mitigate the damage we’ve done and keep from doing more.

Here endeth the overlong exposition of part of E’s theology underlying what she writes.


  • Comment by Rolv — October 11, 2010 @ 4:01 am


    Being a theologian, I’d like to say that i very much appreciate your views on why bad things happen, that there is no causative relation between sin and suffering or between goodness and success, as well as your insistence that the torture Paks suffered was no “test”.

    Also, I applaud your realistic yet delicate way of dscribing punishment and torture. As far as I can see, you never indulge in the description of cruelty. You don’t dwell on suffering and pain, as is so common nowadays. Nor do you avoid describing it, like those imagining that evil will vanish if we pretend it doesn’t exist. Again, your realism is one of your main strengths.

  • Comment by Rick Schwarrz — June 18, 2012 @ 3:06 pm


    I believe that many people have problems with the torture scenes in the Paks series because we have been largely sheltered from the brutality of the real world growing up here in America.

    In many countries what Paks and others went through is not all that different from what happens in their (political) cultures on a regular basis. This makes the concept of “evil” less understandable to Americans.

    It is something that really doesn’t exist outside their thinking, therefore when confronted with it they reject it as a matter of “good people don’t discuss this (or write about it.)”

    What I took away from it is not the remembrance of the evilness of the badguys… but the graciousness of God. As someone once said who thought he had it all, but then lost health, wealth, and his whole family in 30 seconds in a car wreck, “Life is unfair but God is good.”

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