Commentary

Stories Need to Stop Promoting Torture

A lightning bolt crashing through the church window during the Salem Witch Trials.

Divine revelation: about as accurate as torture.

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

Crowley with a bloody face, restrained by chains in Supernatural. Mostly, they assume we watch Supernatural for the torture instead of the hot guys talking about their feelings.

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

Matt Murphy with bloody knuckles from Netflix's Daredevil. If noted cool guy and champion for justice Daredevil does torture, how bad can it be?

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

Cha Cha and Hazel from Netflix's Umbrella Academy. How would we know these cold-blooded assassins were evil if they didn’t torture a random trucker to death?

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

Michael having a conversation with someone in Burn Notice. Burn Notice explains that “torture just gets you the fastest lie to make the pain stop.”

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 the 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

Wesley hooked up to "the machine" in Princess Bride. Taking years off a prisoner’s life is a more realistic torture goal than getting information.

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 teaming 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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Comments

  1. Jenn H

    Members of the military and the FBI once met the producers of 24 and had to tell them to tone down the torture. New recruits were coming in with completely the wrong idea about how interrogation works and thinking that torture was acceptable. And there were concerns this kind of portrayal would encourage the view in other countries that America was torture-happy. (Yes, the terrorists watch these shows too).

  2. Cay Reet

    When I started writing my first series, I actually put in how useless torture is – and thus it isn’t used by members of my agency – exactly because people will tell you what they think it needs to stop the pain. I’m pretty surprised so many TV series, movies, books, etc still see torture a viable device to give the heroes (or villains) information. Having them really work for it is so much more interesting, for one thing. Gives you more scenes to write, gives you more ways to display the different skills of your characters, too. Much better for writing.

    I can see torture work for the villain trying to break a hero or just doing it for twisted pleasure, but that’s definitely going into ‘pure evil’ directions (which means an old-fashioned villain who has no deep motivation and will not have any redemption arc).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I really do think a lot of the reliance on torture in fiction is laziness. It’s just such an easy plot device for getting information across.

      • Cay Reet

        Well, I prefer for my characters to show their brains or deviousness instead – even the villains, because only a good villain makes for a good hero.

  3. Rakka

    We’ve included torture in the long-running text RPG campaign, but I think we’ve managed to avoid glorifying it or presenting it as anything approaching reasonable. The game started with the PCs mercenary company being wiped out by a pretty horrible spell, so it started out dark as fuck anyway, with built-in motive for revenge. (It got lighter with time. We got our what-if darkness kicks in the side chat and then went to write something that let the characters inch towards normal society.)

    My character was a cold-blooded bastard who’s been on both ends of torture. Every time there was magic involved it took a long time to confirm the truth and pain never ended at the truth – although his torturers were competent and made sure that cooperating meant less pain, but there was always more questions – and if there wasn’t any mind-poker around or other ways to confirm the story, well, yeah, no chance. (“Might be true, might be shit, can’t tell and we’re in a hurry because these fuckers just attacked my heart and tried to kidnap him and I’m going to cut this one up for that anyway and it’s just a pity we don’t have time to do it the long way because we need to get to a bolthole NOW.” *stab*)

    “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.”

    Resisting the ability to detect lies shouldn’t be about willpower, but about compartmentalizing, putting up fake memories or throwing enough chaff at the lie detector. Which, granted, are feats of mind that are more difficult to do in pain.
    The thing is, when you have setting which enables even mild degree of mind reading as routine magic, of course there will be counter-measures to that. You’ll be sending out scouts who might be captured – you make sure they know as little as possible, train them to compartmentalize like bureucracy, AND get someone to put a shield on their mind. Some of it is willpower, but there’s host of other variables as well, so yeah… The way I figured, by the time the shield in Spider’s mind was broken enough for the mind poker to get through to even clear and superficial things like “is this statement true or false”, they first needed a potion to clear his mind so there _was_ any such thing as true or false. Pain and sleep deprivation fucks the mind up. I love being awful to my characters. It’s all in backstory and snippets and boy it had effect all the way in the game.

    “Alternatively, you can show that the real use of torture is to break people.”

    Break people, send a message, or for pleasure/revenge. That’s pretty much it. If I ever was to take the campaign and re-write it for wider consumption I’d make pretty damn certain that some of the stuff Spider does is double underlined not cool.

    It was a fun, emotional campaign to play, even with the super dark start things developed in strong tones of trust, hope, courage to live and coping with enormous tragedy. For the other two main characters growth mostly happened during the revenge-rescue-revenge bits. One grew up after adopting a kid, one learned to allow himself emotions. Spider started out very… suited for the environment and not really feeling any need to be something else than what he was, and only when things calmed down and they got retired for real, and we wrote a good bit of those years too. He started out pretty damaged and having some normal human bits out of alignment. It was only after the pressure was off that the bits he’d intentionally shut down got to grow.

  4. Innocent Bystander

    The misinformation thing could work in a dramatic story if the villain is more interested in exploiting everyone’s paranoia than finding the root of the issue. People who were accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials had their property confiscated by the people leading the hunt. It’s why Giles Corey refused to plead; he knew that doing so would mean his kids would lose their land and belongings, so he let himself be tortured to death so that it wouldn’t happen.

  5. Matt

    I love the show burn notice and it’s portrayal of spy stuff. One of my favorite shows.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s a great show! One of my favorite lines from TV ever is “Torture is for sadists and thugs. It’s like getting groceries with a flamethrower. It doesn’t work, and it makes a mess.”

  6. Dvärghundspossen

    Thanks for writing this. I was in a very frustrating debate with other people online, in a spec-fic-group on Facebook, about this very topic… And some other people also insisted that beating someone up for information, or dangling them off a roof top threatening to drop them etc, ISN’T torture, because torture has to be, IDK, done in a proper torture dungeon with proper torture tools or something. This is JUST LIKE how people used to think that it can’t possibly be rape unless a stranger jumps out from behind a bush when you’re walking home alone and attacks you. Thankfully, fewer and fewer people believe the latter, but it still seems pretty common NOT to label anything our favourite TV heroes do as “torture”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s only torture if it comes from the Torture region of France. Otherwise you have to call it sparkling interrogation.

      I’m glad you liked the article though, perhaps it will be useful in future arguments!

  7. Paul C

    A thought provoking column again, Oren.

    I think your comment about reliance on torture in fiction as laziness is spot on, Oren. Among the (many) other problems in “The Collapsing Empire,” the use of torture to advance the plot and illuminate characters suggests the author gave up, ran out of energy, suffered a failure of imagination. (okay…and screwed up the story…)

    The use of torture in literature suggests there is a deeper problem, I think, especially in science fiction and fantasy: violence is nearly always the answer to a problem and itself is praised. (Especially the trope of the apparently weak protagonist who discovers/is given great strength and bashes their enemies/the city’s enemies/the world’s enemies. Bam! Pow!) Struggle and conflict do seem to veer that direction.

    It is not difficult to go from violence as normative virtuous behavior to using violence to extract truth.

    Of course, when one has the chief executive of a state suggesting that — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — if police accidentally bump suspects’ heads as they are pushed into a squad car, or that, yeah, of course torture works! and who cares? they are just bad guys, right? — violence as substrate to society is reinforced.

    Finally, Rakka has a good point (I’m distilling here): Some people like to cause pain. Probably connected with power over the powerless in some way. Check Amnesty International — how many countries torture for the heck of it?

    Sigh.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, in political ways, there are uses for torture (such as making the populace afraid of what might happen to them, if they don’t ‘behave’). But, yes, there’s been a lot of glorified violence, too. And while humans are violent beings by nature, we have spent a long time trying to codify violence and narrow down its use to certain situations (such as specific sports or war).

  8. Geordie Keefe

    A lot of good points! I would like to see a blog someday about killing prisoners too, because this is another one that sets my teeth on edge. We’re supposed to be rooting for a “hero” who bumps off a prisoner whenever it’s convenient. In real life this is a war crime and it should be treated as such!

  9. Sam Victors

    Can villains only use torture?

    Not just any villain or all villains, just villains of the brutish type, as in they think brute force and torture will will out information from their victims. Other villains, at least the ones in my mind, will either use supernatural abilities (like you suggested) or rely on cunning tactics.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It depends on how they use it. If villains use torture as a means of getting information, it will probably hurt the story because either the torture works and then the story is reinforcing misconceptions, or it doesn’t and the villains look incompetent.

      If they’re using torture because they are especially cruel, or to extract false confessions, or other actual uses of torture, that can work, but it’s very dark.

      • Liam Mansbridge

        If the goal is to show the torturers as incompetent or as people who believe in the effectiveness of torture (as many have in history) then the use of torture is justified.

        In real life various organisations have used torture, fully believing in its effectiveness. Those aren’t necessarily comically incompetent organisations, they are groups with some terrifying incompetent streaks. Writers need to show the uselessness of torture, not skip it entirely.

        • Cay Reet

          I agree that showing how torture doesn’t have the expected or desired effect is also a way of using it in the torture … just don’t glorify or promote it as a great way for the hero to act.

          • Cay Reet

            ‘using it in the story’ … geez, I should look at what I write two seconds longer, seriously.

  10. Adam Reynolds

    One interesting story about torture is that it was the thing that caused one of the only Arab-American(born in Lebanon) FBI agents to quit the FBI. Ali Soufan was one of the greatest interrogators around, as he would engage in extremely long dialogs with terror detainees in Arabic. As he argued with suspects about religion and politics in the Middle East, they would eventually reveal something of value.

    He also noted that in several cases, detainees would stop talking to him after they were tortured, and the flow of information would stop. Ultimately the nature of the CIA and their use of torture caused him to quit. The fact that the CIA also withheld information that would have allowed him to have potentially stopped 9/11 made this worse. Gathering information wasn’t the problem, it was about the fact that it was not shared widely enough and was not analyzed properly by those that could have done something.

  11. Anna Darksbane

    Great article! I didn’t know people were still relying on “torture as a means to find accurate info” in high profile shows like the ones you mentioned.
    I also enjoyed your breakdown of how to use it properly, it’s spot on. :]

  12. Juliette

    Thanks for the amazing article! This is why Mythcreants is the best writing advice blog – you’re not afraid to challenge cultural narratives that many people insist on defending. Great breakdown on why torture doesn’t work, and excellent advice on what to do instead.

  13. Julia

    ‘Taxi to the Darkside,’ while a grim documentary about real world torture and how ineffective it is, has some interesting commentary from people about what kind of interrogation actually works. It’s much more about sitting down and listening to the person and finding out what kind of carrot will work to get their cooperation.

  14. Jenn H

    Thinking about this more, an interrogation scene has the potential to reveal a lot about both the character being interrogated and the interrogators. Going straight to torture just means the character says “I use violence to solve all my problems.” While the victim is usually either “no, please stop, I’ll do anything” or “I EAT PAIN FOR BREAKFAST”.

    Once the torture starts, there is no possibility for the interrogator to show any positive virtues. They can’t be cleaver, sneaky, empathetic or merciful. There is no creative solution to the problem left.

    Torture can still be used in scenes that reveal deeper character, like the example with Picard, or when Mal and Wash were tortured in Firefly. But it really has to be about the impact the trauma has on the characters, rather than just furthering the plot.

    My favourite interrogation scene was with Black Widow in the 2012 Avengers movie. It just subverts everything about how these torture scenes usually go.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, Black Widow played Loki like a harp in that one, it was glorious. By pretending that his mind games worked on her, she made him reveal his plan, because of his arrogance. She was playing with his character flaw, which is a legit way of interrogation.

      I’m all for clever, sneaky, empathetic, and merciful solutions to finding information. They’re more effective, they’re more inventive, and they’re also less damaging for the hero character who uses them. Outsmarting the captured enemy like Black Widow does in “The Avengers” is a lot more interesting and makes her character look good. Just torturing the enemy until they give information which is true (something I wouldn’t believe for a second with a character like Loki who is, when all’s said and done, the God of LIES) is not half as interesting and makes the hero look bad, after all.

      Torture does have its place in storytelling (well, clearly not in light-hearted stories, but that goes without saying), but using it to gain information just doesn’t make sense, not knowing how inefficient it is. In cases where a confession (even a false one) is needed (beside the witch hunts, I could also think of political reasons to have someone confess to a crime they didn’t do). In cases where the villain wants to break someone’s will. In cases where the villain is just into that and bored (if they’re pure evil).

  15. Nerf Herder

    Some good points.
    I do want to slightly disagree about something. You say:
    “stories where the good guys employ torture also normalize this inhumane practice”. I say not necessarily. Good guys sometimes do shitty things. Flaws make characters intetesting. One can have the good guys do something horrible (like torture) and they have to live with the consequences. Stories where the good guys are only good, and always do the right thing can be a bit boring.

    Also “teeming with witches”, not “teaming”

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with ‘good guys using torture’ in a lot of stories is that they don’t have to live with the consequences. The torture works, they get the information, there’s no punishment for using such means to gain it. That is the problem.

      You can very well show a good guy lose it and take his fists or a weapon to a prisoner to force them to give up information – if you also show that the information is false, just thought up to end the pain, and the good guy gets into trouble for using violence on the prisoner.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Exactly. Or the hero has to live with pseudo-consequences, like he goes around brooding about how dark and monstrous he’s become, but there’s no REAL consequence to it beyond the brooding and furrowed brow.

  16. Dvärghundspossen

    One other thing: You can’t really make a big deal about a character’s no-kill-rule (if the character does have such a rule, of course), if they freely torture people and behave in abominable ways otherwise. If you show over and over again that the character has NO respect or consideration for others, at least not for villains, not KILLING villians becomes completely arbitrary.

    I talked this over with a fellow geek the other day: Think about when Jason Todd was killed by the Joker, something that wouldn’t have happened if Batman had killed the Joker first. For a decent-person-version of Batman, this is seriously agonizing. He can stick to his guns and say that he doesn’t regret anything after all, because we gotta stick with our moral principles even when the price is terribly high, otherwise the bad guys have essentially won already. OR he might actually regret letting the Joker live – in either case, it makes for a compelling story.

    For an already evil version of Batman (like Frank Miller’s horrible version in AllStar, for instance), letting the Joker live was simply idiotic. His only reason for doing so was a completely RANDOM no-kill-rule. Like, too bad for Jason that Batman got all hung up on not killing rather than, say, wearing his lucky socks every time he goes out to fight crime.

    Some writers think that you can turn a hero SO grimdark that they’re really just evil, and still let them have a no-killing-villains rule, but it just doesn’t make sense!

    • Cay Reet

      In Batman’s case, one could also argue whether letting beaten-up henchmen lying around isn’t going to lead to some of them dying, which would break the no-kill rule.

      The real reason why the Joker still lives is, of course, the fact that he’s Batman’s nemesis and they’ll never scrap a villain as renown as him. Keeping him in the running doesn’t get easier, though, especially with the invasion of the grimdark.

    • Bubbles

      Hmm… What if someone’s personal (or cultural) moral code specifically prohibited killing but allowed, say, torture or other things that we would find horrible? Even if they were wrong, there could still be an in-story reason for it. It could be an example of https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BlueAndOrangeMorality .

  17. Luke Slater

    A thought regarding Batman, and in particular The Dark Knight and the Arkham games.

    In The Dark Knight, the police let Batman into the Joker’s cell to beat information out of him. As a result, the Joker tells Batman *exactly what he wanted him to know, at the time he wanted the information released.*

    In the Arkham games, when you have to shake down the Riddler’s informants, Batman grabs them, threatens them, and then they immediately promise to tell you all they know. I realise this is actually because they don’t have specific animations and dialogue for extended individual roughings up, but I kind of like the unplanned implication that what gets results for Batman is the fear of what he might do – the whole ‘superstitious and cowardly’ thing – and that it doesn’t work on his rogue’s gallery because they understand him well enough to know that he has a line he won’t cross.

    And yes, it’s the Arkham games, so even then that line is somewhere south of brutal, repeated blunt-force trauma, electrocution and high calibre rubber bullets, but I think I had a point in there somewhere.

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