Why Writers Torture Characters

Everyone does it and everyone should do it. Writing like most things in the world involves patterns. People pick up those patterns and thus expect what is to come.

That’s tension people. Tension is what people love. They know what’s coming, but they don’t know when, how, and/or why. You might be thinking, “Oh! Like mystery novels.” No. Not quite. Oftentimes, mystery makes you guess what will happen or who will make it happen. If you have to guess that, and don’t know it already, then the story doesn’t make sense. Gasp! Andrew, are you dissing mystery? Yes, readers. Yes, I am. Well…only the bad mystery writers.

But I digress. Tension. Right. Well, torturing characters plays on that tension. A well-flushed out character has clear goals. You know what the character wants most and you know that they’re going to get what they want (at least, you think they’re going to get it). Now you’re just wondering when and how. Thus, by torturing a character, you’re delaying when they get it and now make you rethink how they’re going to get it…whatever “it” actually is. Like Kvothe in The Kingkiller Chronicle (SPOILERS INBOUND).

Kvothe and Denna are destined to be together. They both love each other, obviously, but author Patrick Rothfuss keeps pushing them apart whenever they get close. Damn you Patrick!

All this torturous tension sticks you to the pages, makes you beg for a final resolution. Then, you might get a little step closer to that goal. But then….you’re shoved back far far away from the goal. Dammit! Kiss her, Kvothe. Just kiss her already! She loves you.

Okay, no more spoilers.

Now, when you think of torturing characters, you might also think about killing characters, and if you think about killing characters, you definitely think about George R.R. Martin. So here’s why we love (to hate) George R.R. Martin:

You recognize the patterns. You see characters moving towards their goals. You don’t know when they’re going to reach their goals, but you’re saying, “Hey, it’s definitely going to happen soon.” And then…DEAD! He subverts your expectations. It’s like George R.R. Martin puts his characters on rollercoasters. There are ups and downs like any character might have. But then, halfway through, you realize that the coaster was never finished and the character crashes to his death. Sure. It’s not fun for the character, but come on…if you have ever played Rollercoaster Tycoon, you know it’s fun to watch that coaster crash.


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