Q&A: Professional Interrogators

In media, torturers tend to be portrayed as a extremely competent and have complete control over themselves. In real life, they tend to be the opposite. I have a group of soldiers who torture a prisoner of war (it isn’t meant to be a good thing even if they try to justify it to others later). I showed the scene and aftermath to betas and a lot of them say my torturers are hard to take seriously because they’re competitive and incompetent. Is this fixable if I want it to stay realistic?

And, you’re basing this knowledge on your decades of experience dealing with police, military, and intelligence interrogators?

Your readers are right; The idea that there’s no such thing as a professional interrogator is absurd, and I’m almost curious where you got that idea. Almost. So, let’s step back and reevaluate. What you’ve created is neither realistic, nor true to reality. (These are not the same thing.)

Amateur interrogators are, absolutely a thing. Anyone with access to a tool shed, a captive, no experience, and a misguided belief in the value of torture as an interrogation technique can become an amateur interrogator, making a horrific mess out of the situation.

Professional interrogators also exist. You’ll find them in the police, and nearly any investigative service. Any half-competent private investigator is going to learn the basics. By necessity, intelligence organizations require professional interrogators. Of course, many other groups may also have a staff of professionals on hand.

Of course, it’s also possible to find amateurs mixed in with the professionals. A guard who thinks that the professional isn’t getting the desired response could choose to intervene, making a mess out of a controlled situation.

Now, I’ve been talking about interrogation, you’re talking about torture. This is the same thing, basically. Torture is one tool that an interrogator has access to. Their options range from simple Q&A sessions, through psychological manipulation, to torture. As a general rule, torture is not the most flexible option.

For gathering information, physical torture is not a good option. It’s useful when you want to demoralize, or break a captive, but when the goal is to get someone to confess, and you don’t care how much blood you get on the paperwork, torture is a valid option. That said, some people confuse coerced confessions for the truth, and will gleefully recommend the use of torture. Some professionals may not care. They’re here to do their job, the rest doesn’t matter.

There are very few constants about interrogation, everyone’s unique, however: An interrogator needs to maintain control of the interrogation. Nothing will disrupt that control faster than getting a bunch of different people competing with and trying to one up one another. Interrogation is about creating an asymmetric relationship with the victim, where they give you what you want. You cannot do this as an open mic night event, competing with your buddies to see who they like the best. You certainly can’t do this if you don’t know what you’re doing.

On that topic, let’s talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect for a moment, and how it affects you, and your characters: Dunning-Kruger is a cognitive processing quirk, the more know about something (a skill, a field of research, whatever), the better you’re able to accurately self-assess your performance. Put another way, the more you know, the more you understand what you don’t know.

The danger with Dunning-Kruger as a writer (beyond the obvious), is that when you try to create unskilled characters in a field you’re unfamiliar with, you can make them, “non-functional.” If you’re not familiar with the basics of running an interrogation (regardless whether the method is torture), then you’re at the skill point for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Problem is: You need to be able to realistically portray the consequences of that lack of knowledge. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what the consequences will be. That’s fine for your characters, but when the person calling the shots for the universe doesn’t know, it’s easy to lose track of reality, or some vague approximation thereof, and lose your readers.

Write what you know. If you don’t know, study. In this case, you may need to study a bit further.

Now, without reading your work, I kinda suspect you’re dealing with something else, and it’s not related to the question you asked. You’re talking about torture as sadism. There’s no goal for information, just retribution. That’s a thing. People do that. Ordinarily, I’d say it’s not exactly a group activity, though the  example of a military unit it’s possible, when discipline breaks down. Though, in a situation like that it wouldn’t be competitive, it would communal.

Military units create a kind of familial comradery. If they were driven to torture a PoW as retribution for some previous act, it’s not going to be guys trying to prove who’s the best, it would be them working together. The important thing to understand about squads is the sharp us/them divide. When it’s just internal, they may compete with one another, but when it’s someone outside the team, they will have each other’s back (under almost all circumstances.)

Insubordination or criminal actions are one of the things that can start to break up a military unit. If you’ve got one or two characters that went psycho on a PoW, that’s going to create a fracture in your squad. It’s entirely realistic to have this as the start to a schism, if that’s your story. Just, remember, this stuff needs to be handled carefully. You also need to carefully track the various relationships in a situation like this. Knowing who’s on the fence or taking a side is vital to managing and writing a story like this.

The second thing about torture is it’s difficult to write. Much like in actual torture, it’s very easy for the interrogator, particularly an inexperienced one, to lose control. Go too far, too fast, as a writer, your readers will disconnect, and you’re done. The real world comparison is a victim who shuts down, and becomes completely unusable. Same problem. Fortunately, your audience is a little more resilient than your characters.

This isn’t about your characters being good or evil. Yes, torture is evil. I think we can all understand that point. Maybe you buy an ends-justify-the-means argument that sometimes it’s defensible; I don’t, but, it doesn’t affect me if you do.

I. Do. Not. Care. If. Your. Characters. Are. Good. People.

And neither will your readers.

I care if your characters are interesting. I care if they’re engaging. I care if you tell a story that gets me to invest in your characters and makes me want to see them to the conclusion of their stories. Torture makes this difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Protagonists engaging in torture will quickly burn through audience good will.

Assuring me that this is a bad thing, and you want to show it as a bad thing, isn’t necessary.

I realize I’m getting off track here a bit, but let me step back and address morality for a moment.

As I said, it doesn’t bother me if you write evil characters who do evil things. There’s a lot of interesting material that can come out of people who are, “the bad guy,” or would be in another story. There’s a cliche of someone with an inner darkness struggling to be a good person that resonates for a lot of people, myself included.

You don’t need a morality tale style structure. In the real world, sometimes, good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. And those are not punished or rewarded in superficial ways. There are personal reasons and consequences. Things your characters will carry with them. Remember, this is about your characters and story being interesting, not about trying to say, “torture is bad.” It is, most people already understood that.

-Starke

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