Torture is an ugly stain on the soul of humanity, and I’ll be honest: I did not expect to be writing about it on a storytelling website in 2019. I just assumed everyone watched John Oliver’s segment on torture four years ago and got the memo, but apparently not, because I can’t seem to go more than a few days without running into yet another story spreading debunked myths that support torture. And this isn’t just in bad stories either. Progressive authors like John Scalzi and Tomi Adeyemi do it, too – exactly the sort of people I would expect to know better.
If even spec fic’s socially aware vanguard is glorifying torture, then it still needs to be talked about. Let’s see if I can explain why so many stories get it wrong and why we need to do better.
How Stories Get Torture Wrong
In most stories, torture is portrayed as a contest between the torturer’s skill and the victim’s willpower. The torturer inflicts enough pain, physical or psychological, and the victim eventually gives in, telling all they know. The scene ends, and the plot continues. The story may or may not address the trauma brought on by such an exchange.
In real life, torture is nothing like this because most people will say anything to make the pain stop. That might be the truth, a conscious lie, or just whatever the victim thinks their tormentors want to hear. And since the torturer has no way to know if the victim is telling the truth or not, they can never trust anything the victim says.
So instead of a cutoff point where the torturer magically knows their victim is telling the truth, the agony just keeps going until some arbitrary ending, usually when the torturer’s pre-existing biases are confirmed. “Oh, what a surprise, it turns out all the people I was suspicious of are in on the plot. How convenient!”
This is even more likely if the victim doesn’t actually know the answer to their tormentor’s questions, something that happens in fiction with bizarre frequency. In those stories, the victim will try to stay silent for a few moments, before eventually confessing that they don’t have the information. Somehow the torturer knows they’re telling the truth and stops torturing them, even though that’s exactly what someone who did have the info would say!
In reality, when torture-derived information is followed up on, it almost always leads to wasted resources, false leads, and the conviction of innocent people. Sure, it’s technically possible that the victim might divulge the truth and the torturer might believe them. It’s also technically possible to take out a hostage-taker by shooting wildly into a crowd of civilians, but any character doing that would be laughably incompetent.
All of this is incredibly well documented, most notably in a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. But you don’t even need modern sources to figure this out! Some casual googling turned up this account of a 17th-century duke who realized people will say anything under torture. If a 17th-century duke can figure it out, so can your characters.
How These Myths Promote Torture
First, let’s acknowledge that even if torture worked the way it does in fiction, it would still be wrong. Inflicting pain on a human being at your mercy is deplorable no matter what kind of benefit you get out of it.
However, even though torture doesn’t work that way, lots of people think it does, and that’s warping the argument. To many, the debate over torture isn’t whether we should be inflicting gruesome suffering on human beings for no reason. Instead, they see it as a debate over whether inflicting that suffering is worth the lives it saves in foiled terrorist attacks and the like.
Every story that portrays torture as a reliable means of extracting information is reinforcing this incorrect belief, which means they are promoting torture whether the author intends it or not. Every time a gritty anti-hero beats information out of a suspect or a mean villain cuts on a side character until they reveal what’s happening, it confirms the existing bias that torture works and should be considered in that light.
If you need further convincing, imagine there was a widespread belief that global warming was only going to happen in countries outside the United States.* Even if that were true, it would still be vital to stop climate change. But it’s not true, and if a bunch of people believed it, it would warp the entire argument. Any story that played into that belief would be contributing to the problem.
Beyond reinforcing harmful misinformation, stories where the good guys employ torture also normalize this inhumane practice. If the otherwise-likable protagonist thinks it’s no big deal to electrocute information out of a hostage, how bad can it really be? I’d like to say this is a rare phenomenon, but it’s not. TV shows like Supernatural and Daredevil are more than happy to show the hero beating up their captives, and damn the consequences.
Why Storytellers Use Torture
While every story is different, there are essentially two reasons most of them use torture: as a way to advance the plot and to establish how edgy or evil a character is. Plot-wise, torture is one of the most convenient devices out there. It allows characters to learn a bunch of information quickly, and it’s automatically full of drama from all the pain one character is inflicting on their helpless victim.
For characterization, some stories like to show an anti-hero torturing people to prove how edgy they are. This isn’t your grandparents’ protagonist, kid; they’re willing to do what it takes, and they sleep with a copy of The Prince under their pillow.
That’s what happens in Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, when part-time freighter captain and full-time edgelord Kiva Lagos exposes a captive to the vacuum of space to learn what his bosses are up to. There’s even a moment where the captive, after breaking down, insists he’s told Kiva all he knows, and somehow she can magically tell he’s speaking the truth.
In other stories, we learn how the villain is super bad because they torture info out of the hero. Adeyemi does this in Children of Blood and Bone, where we get page after page of the evil king inflicting gruesome injuries on the hero until she tells him what he wants to know. He, of course, immediately believes her and commits his entire military based on the information, because there’s no way she could be lying!
These reasons for using torture all fall apart the moment your audience knows anything about how torture actually works. They won’t take it seriously as a method for gaining information, the same way they won’t accept that a hero can get up and fight at full strength three days after breaking their femur.
Using torture is even worse for anti-heroes like Kiva, who in theory we’re supposed to like. Once they start torturing prisoners, a large percentage of the audience will just want them to die in a fire. And heaven help you if you want to do a redemption arc for a villain who tortures!
Fortunately, Adeyemi knew better than to try that, but the creators of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy didn’t. Just a few episodes after the time-traveling hitman Hazel torturers a random civilian to death,* the show expects us to cheer for him getting to live happily ever after with his girlfriend. I, for one, hope she finds out and smothers him in his sleep.
What Storytellers Can Do Instead
I’ve seen some storytellers try to address this problem by giving the torturer a supernatural ability to detect lies, with the logic being that then it really is a contest against the victim’s willpower. I don’t recommend this for two reasons. First, a lot of audiences will miss that little detail, and the story will still read as supporting torture.
Second, giving a major character magical lie detection is actually super inconvenient. You’d be surprised how often stories depend on characters not knowing if someone is lying or not. This is why characters like Deanna Troi have a reputation for being useless. Supposedly, they can detect falsehoods, but that would destroy most mystery plots, so instead their powers stop working for unexplained reasons.
Instead, you need to figure out what you want to accomplish with torture and bring it across some other way. If the goal is to get information, then the heroes can piece together clues from what their captive has in their pockets. “From the pictures on his phone, it looks like he probably planted the bomb down at the harbor. Good thing we didn’t try to beat it out of him!”
You could also have your characters employ interrogation techniques that are actually known to work, but those usually take time. They depend on building a rapport with the prisoner, then offering them things they want in exchange for information. If that works in your story, then great, go for it!
If you want to establish how gritty your protagonist is or how evil your villain is, the best option is to show them doing things that benefit themselves at the cost of others, with a difference in degree between an anti-hero and a villain. An anti-hero might start a bar fight to cover their escape or finish off an injured opponent to stop them from being a threat in the future. A villain might burn down a building to collect the insurance money or subjugate a conquered people for cheap labor. Torture as it’s usually portrayed isn’t a good option in either case, because it doesn’t provide any believable benefit to the torturer.
How Torture Should Be Portrayed
If you are going to have torture in your story, it needs to be portrayed accurately. One way to do this is showing how laughably inaccurate the information gained by torture is. It turns out that any time people are tortured for information about witches, the area is suddenly teeming with witches. Fascinating! This portrayal works best for dark comedies, as villains who believe information gained through torture are generally too incompetent to be taken seriously.
Alternatively, you can show that the real use of torture is to break people. Sometimes this is to a purpose, like drawing a confession regardless of guilt; other times, it might just be for the torturer’s twisted pleasure. If that sounds like an extremely dark premise for a story, it is. It will narrow your story’s appeal, so you’d better have a good reason for including it.
Most stories lack such a reason, so accurately depicted torture will be pointless unpleasantness. An easier way to avoid writing pro-torture propaganda is to skip torture altogether, and I’m really looking forward to the day when most storytellers realize that. It’ll make for better stories, and it’ll chip away at the support torture has in real life.
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