Tag Archives: torture

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

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Audience Disconnect

In general, is there anything writers should avoid when writing torture scenes?

You don’t want your audience disconnecting.

So, this is a term you’ll usually hear in marketing. Audience disconnect is when the reader tunes out. Not, literally changes the channel (it can be that too), but they’re no longer engaged with the material. At that point, as far as they’re concerned, your story’s over, they don’t care anymore.

This is a danger with any, significantly intense violence, but torture, particularly torture inflicted by characters the audience was previously sympathetic to, requires very careful management.

We’ve talked before about how the tension in torture is about the fear of what comes next. It’s not what the torturer has done to their victim, it’s about what they’re about to do. This is the fear that breaks the victim.

I don’t mean this as a pejorative statement, but most readers don’t have the stomach to read about your character inflicting pain on a defenseless victim for an extended period of time. The more detail you go into, the more discomfort you’ll inflict on your readers. Get them too uncomfortable, and they’re going to look for something they enjoy. Hint: it’s not going to be your story.

With that in mind, when one of your sympathetic characters is torturing someone, keep the sequences short. This doesn’t mean that the torture didn’t go on for longer, but you don’t need blow-by-blow documentation. Prose as a singular advantage of allowing you to cover events without having to go into detail. This is not fully possible in film or other media. If your character is working someone over for eight hours, you can do that in two one or paragraphs. Make sure you get the critical information in, but, after that, you can back off.

If your torturer is supposed to remain sympathetic you need the audience on board with their reasons and motivations to engage in torture. This is not easy to do well.

The kludgy solution is to make torture victim someone so repugnant that the audience won’t sympathize at all, or even cheer on your torturer. You’ve seen this. Rapists, pedophiles, human traffickers, lawyers. No, wait, that’s not right.

I don’t mean the lawyer joke, but that’s the problem. When you’re trying to implement this solution, it’s easy to lose track of your personal biases, and pick someone who your audience won’t completely, automatically, accept. This is especially true if you’re counting on elements of your world building to pick your victim.

You’ve probably run across this before with pieces from thirty or more years ago, where someone who’s mentally ill fell into that acceptable victim range. Read now, it’s horrifying, because the author expects you sign off on the torture and get on with your day.

Torture where your sympathetic character is the victim works a little differently. The same basic limitation applies, the more detail you go into, the more discomfort you inflict on your audience. Too much; they leave.

When your character is the victim, you need to be careful to track the consequences. This something that’s true of everything you write. Good stories come out of a flow from cause to effect, but when you’re selling a character who was tortured, the aftermath is at least as important as the event itself.

Torture changes everyone. This is as true in your writing as it is in the real world. Your audience will never look at your characters the same way again after a torture sequence. Plan accordingly.

Don’t use torture for simple shock value. It will do far too much to the way your audience perceives the work as a whole.

There are ways to use torture effectively in your writing, but, it needs to be managed carefully.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation

With torture, is it the pain or the expectation of the pain that makes people crack and give an answer (regardless of the answer’s truthfulness)?

It’s the anticipation of pain, which is like expectation but there’s suspense and uncertainty. The victim doesn’t know what’s coming. If they did, they could mentally prepare for it. That’s why unpredictability is important in a torturer’s repertoire. They are predictable and unpredictable, both at the same time. What they’re actually doing is using pain and other methods like starvation, deprivation, drugs, bright lights, and noises to break the brain’s internal rhythm. Your ability to recognize where you are and what’s happening to you. A torturer can actually torture a victim into submission entirely through the use of deprivation, without laying a finger on them (though they often do.)

What happens is the victim loses their sense of time, they’re disassociated from the world around them. They don’t know night or day, they don’t know how much time has passed. What torture is, rather literally, is the process of breaking a person down and retraining them into someone else so they’ll give the answers you want.

If you use torture in your fiction, it’s important to understand that it will effect your characters and it will change them. They will be different, and possibly never quite whole again. Withstanding torture is predominately a matter of mental strength and a willingness to continually say no, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The events the experience will take their toll on the character’s psyche, and may become a character defining moment or redefining moment for who they are. There’s also no shame if they do break under the strain. Torture is not (and should not be) a metric by which we measure a person’s courage or mental fortitude.

Please, don’t apply morals to abuse victims.

When torture is treated this way by an author as some sort of badge of honor, most of the characters they imagine surviving without any problems are the ones who’d break. Remember, snarky characters are characters with a fragile sense of self. They’ll break first. The damaged, the broken, the insecure, and the uncertain will go down. A torturer’s job is to assess a person for their weaknesses and attack those weaknesses. Everything your character is frightened of, nervous about, cares for will come roaring to the surface. This is the battering of the self. The resilient are those who know who they are. They’re certain in certainty, resolute. This isn’t everyone, this isn’t even most people. It is a tiny sliver of the population.

Fictional torture is the equivalent of throwing your character into the oven, dialing the heat up past eleven, and opening it up later to see how charred they got or if they crumbled into ash. You’ve got to know them and be willing to attack who they are down to the very core of their being or it’s pointless. The sequence becomes gratuitous angst that serves no real purpose and becomes grossly disingenuous in regards to the real thing.

Like when writing any other sort of fight scene, the author plays both sides against the middle. They are both torture victim and torturer. Don’t treat torture as a test to be beaten. Be honest with yourself and your characters. When we create these scenarios, our role is to play the scene out. The story is in the character’s experiences and how they deal with what they’re presented with, not in what comes after. To be honest with those experiences and introspective in regards to their effects. Strength is found in figuring out how to come to terms with what happened and what they do after, not whether it affected them. They were tortured, the torture did affect them. This is the reality. The question is where they and their story go from here.

Babylon 5, Season 4 episode, Intersections in Real Time (also this clip) is probably one of the best torture episodes I’ve ever seen. The full episode is brilliant, and if you truly want to understand the methodology you should watch it in its entirety. Almost nothing the torturer says in the room is true. Take this piece from the scene.

“Your father is being held in another facility. His case is being handled by an associate of mine. I passed him in the hall.”

If Sheridan’s father is being held and interrogated in another facility then it’s unlikely the torturer passed his associate or Sheridan’s father in the hall. However, that’s not what we hear first.

“Your father is being held in another facility.”

Personal information meant to instill fear. Someone Sheridan cares for deeply is being held and tortured in similar circumstances. There’s the threat.

“His case is being handled by an associate of mine.”

This translates to: “I have a personal connection with the person who is interrogating your father, if you cooperate with me I can help him.” This instills trust in the victim.

“I passed him in the hall.”

Sense of immediacy. “If you give me what I want, I could go out right now and stop all this.” Here’s the hope. The desire to save someone we care about from experiencing pain by making the sacrifice.

This is how the torturer gets you. It is not the pain, the pain is the layup.  It’s there to confuse you, distract you, get you desperate so you don’t hear their lies. You don’t hear what they’re saying, you start hearing what you want to hear. They overload you with information. They use you against you.

The people you care about, your past history, what you take pride in, your morals, your failures, and your insecurities. A torturer is similar in some ways to a psychologist or a con artist, they can read people. Their special skill is in making assessments of an individual’s psyche based on the information available to them and the victim’s own behavior.  They profile, much like a police officer or an FBI agent. The torturers ability to see through their victim, to know when they’re lying, to know what they can’t know, and to make educated guesses that are spot on is part of why they’re so frightening.

“I don’t care about you. I don’t have a personal stake in this. It’s only a job. If you give me what I want this could all stop.”

It’s all on the victim, no pleas will reach the torturers ears. They are sympathetic to the victim’s circumstances, but implacable. They want to help the victim escape their current predicament, but the only way to do that is for the victim to give them what they want.

The art of torture is the art of slow burn escalation. It starts with a conversation in a room between two people, sometimes after a sleepless night in an uncomfortable chair. The victim must wait for the torturer to come to them. They have no control over their circumstances, all information comes through the torturer and they have no interaction with anyone else. We have an image in our minds of the cackling madman in the black mask who takes psychotic glee in pulling off nails. That is one version, but it is not the successful one. The scary torturers are mild, well-mannered bureaucrats. Everything they do disrupts the victim’s expectations so they cannot anticipate what will come next.

They may feed you, but the food will be poisoned. A poison designed to remove whatever remaining liquids were in your system via a night of uncontrollable vomiting. Then, they come back the next day and ask the same questions. Repetition. Do you trust them this next time, when they offer you water? You’re so thirsty. You see a light in the hall when the door opens, you think its sunlight. Its not. Is it night or day? How many days have passed? You don’t know.

This is a game of trust and betrayal on the part of the torturer. They control everything about your life, everything about you. They tell you what to think, how to behave, and what to do. You must trust their version of events because there is no way to know otherwise. You are tired and hungry and thirsty. You haven’t slept, and what sleep you did get what interrupted. They return at odd intervals, and you have no idea when they’ll come. You’re too frightened to fall asleep. What will happen if you do? Always, they ask the same questions. Again, and again, and again. Did they come on the same day? Or on different ones? Was it fifteen minutes or thirty? How long did they stay? You don’t know. Panic sets in. Its driving you mad, you want it to stop.

One day, if you hold out long enough, they introduce another prisoner to your cell. Someone from your side, someone held here just like you. You’re starved for companionship, you don’t question it. The prisoner befriends you, they give you hope and together you plan to escape. You try and are caught, you see the other prisoner killed. You grieve and blame yourself. After all, it was your idea wasn’t it? Again, you’re left alone in the dark. Later, the torturer returns with the same prisoner you saw die. Perhaps the torturer apologizes for tricking you, or maybe they just act like the event you lived through didn’t happen. They take the prisoner away again. Time passes and you’re alone. Did it happen? You wonder. You’ve begun to distrust your own memory.

Then, the torturer returns and the cycle begins all over again. The previous events never occurred and nothing has changed. There’s only one way for this to stop. You know that now.

Give them what they want.

It is far more useful as a tool used against say political opponents and dissidents than it is as a means of intelligence gathering. You get your opponents to say what you want in order to break opposition to your rule. This includes journalists, professors, philosophers, rebel leaders, entertainers, business owners, community leaders, and politicians. Break them so those who follow and believe in them will also be broken. Torture has been best used in the past to force confessions of guilt (regardless of truth), so the victims say what their captors want.

Capture Shock is one method that’s been employed by the CIA in the past. (I would not look if you are squeamish.) Fear Up Harsh is an enlightening book on the torture methods used in Iraq.

The use of drugs is very common in association with the pain because, again, the goal is to break the captive from their ability to recognize what’s happening to them.

There’s no one size fits all method for torture, and if you over focus on the pain then you’ll have missed the point. You’ll miss the person in the chair. There is purpose to the pain. It is relentless, controlled, and decisive. The pain is used to make you afraid, so you feel powerless. Confuse you, so you lose track of yourself. Break you apart, so you can be rebuilt.

This is why torture is frightening and so difficult to overcome. Survival is by itself success. Without these components in your fiction then it is just gratuitous violence and, essentially, torture porn.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

where’s your torture tag? I don’t see it

It’s here, though there’s only one post in the tag, along with a Burn Notice quote that sums torture up rather succinctly. For rather obvious reasons, it’s not a topic we’re particularly eager to deal with.

The two good contemporary resources on the subject I can point to are Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), and Fear up Harsh by Tony Lagouranis.

On a lighter note, there’s also an Interrogation tag, though, I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for.

-Starke

could you write something on kidnapping for information?

If you haven’t yet, I’d start here, and follow with this.

We never got into actually talking about grabbing someone for information, but the basic idea is still the same. Your kidnappers need to go through all the steps necessary to grab someone, but they don’t need to worry about ever releasing or ransoming the victim. The other difference is the victim is the most important part of the equation (for the kidnappers), unlike in a conventional kidnapping for money, where they’re just a bargaining chip.

They’ll also need a way to break the victim. The simplest answer, “grab a crowbar and go to town” doesn’t actually work. Torture isn’t a means to obtain information. So, as I said in the interrogation answer, this is going to be about talking the character around.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that Sodium Pentothol does exist. But, it’s just a barbiturate, not truth serum. So while it will sedate someone, and make them easier to hold and transport, it won’t actually make them spill their guts. Also, in larger doses, it’s used in lethal injections. So, that fine line between stoned off their ass and dead, is an issue.

-Starke