Aaand we’re back to torture. Following up on your hero being a person who expresses pain when under duress, you probably ought to consider another aspect of toughing torture out.
I mean usually – or sometimes at least – when one person tortures another person, they want something out of it. Information, a Thing, a Deed, whatever. Yeah, especially in the world of writing, sometimes torture happens because the perpetrater is trying to get something that the victim can’t just give freely, like data for an evil experiment, and sometimes the villain is a sadist who enjoys cruelty.
But one of the primary points of torture is to force someone’s hand.
And this leads us to an important aspect of any character. What is their breaking point? Your hero can scream and writhe and cry and tremble and refuse, refuse to give up the location of his friends. He’s a tough guy. And loyal, too, really puts his friends before himself. Your heroine suffers and suffers, and refuses to deny Key Belief. What a stalwart, tough lady she is!
But of course, this requires care. Your character suffering and suffering but managing to tough out the pain enough that they don’t give in and give up The Thing can be just as bad as your character toughing out the torture with no reaction. Again, you have the problem of, “It can’t be that bad,” because if it was that bad, they’d do anything to stop it.
But then I think of my capacity to withstand pain and if I’d do anything to stop it. I personally believe that the great thing about humanity is conscious choice. We have the power to break destiny and make whatever choice we want (given that it’s actually possible) in any situation, although breaking destiny might be so hard that a human (or whatever) is not likely to do it. So I like to think that if someone was torturing me to get information out of me that would kill my husband or child (or anyone else I love), I would die first.
And this, funnily enough, makes me think of the time when my baby was a newborn. I had some killer postpartum, which given my normal depression, is no surprise. I’m not meaning to say that a newborn is torture, but it is particularly hard (and when discussing with another mom about this topic, and quickly saying, “Not to say having a new baby is torture!” they replied, “Okay, but it kinda is” so…) I mean, think about it – depriving someone of sleep can be and has been used as torture. Newborns totally do that. And that was one part. One! I was pushed to my limits – which is also the point of torture. And as a standard part of postpartum, I thought a lot about getting rid of my baby, including frenzied thoughts of throwing her down the appartment stairs. (Yeah that’s totally normal postpartum, you’re not a bad mom, but you should probably get help.) Did I do that? Heck no! There’s no way I’d ever, ever ever ever, hurt my baby! There was something more important to me than ending the duress, no matter how extreme. But the duress broke me in other ways. To make my post about it shorter, I cried a lot, and shouted a lot (not at the baby), and had my frenzied thoughts, and my demoralizing thoughts about how I apparently wasn’t cut for being a mom after all. And that didn’t end until the kid got to be about four months old and her behavior shifted.
There are things that are more precious than life and fates worse than death. When the two collide…well, it says a lot about your character how they manage. There are countless stories of Holocaust victims who either shone as brilliant beacons of gorgeous humanity, or broke into despots. Fathers who stole crusts from their sons. Jews becoming worse than Gestapo. Strangers giving away their last piece of bread. You can also consider the study done on soldiers about what happens when they’re deprived of food. Spoiler alert: all they think or talk about is food. Various types of torture consume.
I recommend becoming familiar with the psychology of duress, so you can tap into your victim character’s thoughts; if we see them breaking down into frenzies like mine did, consumed by the torture, or (or perhaps also) clinging desperately to what’s important, then I could believe they withstand torture to preserve their Thing.
This also becomes an intersting thought exercise for all characters, villains included. Is there anything they love more than themselves? How much does it take to break them? What does it take to make them cry, “I’ll do anything!” ?