Tag Archives: torture

Q&A: Extreme Medical Experimentation and Torture

A big part of my story idea involves my characters, who are vampire and werewolves, being put through extensive torture through experiments and dissection, over and over again, but not enough to kill them. (I know there is media that has covered this, but it never seems to get deep into the experimentation of it all) I was wondering what research I should read or look for, and also if you have an opinion on what is to much, or going to far with the torture?

I don’t usually say, “this is a bad idea,” as my lead in. I think this is doable, but it is going to require a very delicate balancing act. If the experiments aren’t severe enough, then the entire scenario loses plausibility. On the other hand, if you go too far, you can completely turn off your audience. Extreme violence will cause the reader to disconnect from the work, and you’ve lost them.

We don’t talk about audience disconnect often, but this is a real concern for writers. It is incredibly easy to go too far with violence. (Not just in this specific context.) There are a lot of potential causes, including trying to include extreme elements for shock value. However, whether you’re going for shock value or not, you’ll want to gradually build up intensity throughout your story. If you ramp up too fast, the audience disconnects. This becomes a balancing act, as you need to increase the intensity at a pace which keeps your readers engaged, without driving them off.

So, when you say, “torture,” this is going to be a very difficult mark to hit. Realistically, an organization engaging in extreme medical experimentation on non-human, “monsters,” is going to be pretty horrifying on its own. If you whiff that, the organization loses credibility as villains.

There’s already plenty of history with humans doing borderline unspeakable things to one another under the guise of medical experimentation. I’m not going to dig into the history of crimes against humanity today. We’ve talked about in the past, and I don’t think this week really needs delving into that rabbit hole.

What is important is that this kind of torture for medical information already has a template in the real world. If your werewolves revert to human form on death, any meaningful anatomical analysis would need to be done through vivisection. Similarly, your vampires would need to be autopsied while still un-living, because, once dead, they’re just another corpse (assuming they don’t rapidly decay on death, in which case, we’re back to the same fundamental issue as with werewolves.)

There are a few major considerations that can help you significantly.

First: Your characters escape (or are rescued) before things get out of hand. We’ve said it before, but torture is about the threat of what comes next, not the actual damage being done. In the same sense, you can threaten much worse things but then interrupt the process without paying off those threats. Important to remember, just as anticipation is part of torture, those threats can be enough to cause the audience to disconnect if they’re too explicit. However, it is much more manageable to have a villain threatening to carve up your protagonist’s best friend, than to actually deliver on it.

There are a few problems here, if you’re wanting to torture them repeatedly, that will turn off the audience. The repetition doesn’t build tension, and once you’ve brought a character out the other side, doing so again doesn’t contribute to the story. However, each new session is another opportunity for the audience to get sick of what’s happening and walk away. This doesn’t mean the event is one and done, but you probably don’t want to depict multiple sessions unless there’s something significant about them.

Also, torturing them repeatedly won’t generate useful information, unless the methods change dramatically. For example, burning this week, poisons next, surgical examinations on Tuesdays at 5pm. There is an element where simply having a mundane schedule for this can be very disturbing through minimal effort. If you’re wanting to work with this you need to ask yourself what they’re trying to learn from each test. If this is for the purpose of developing a greater understanding of how these creatures operate, then reverse engineering the scientific method will go a long way towards establishing the monster hunters as a real, plausible threat.

As a quick aside, the scientific method is: 1 Form a hypothesis, 2 test the hypothesis, 3 evaluate results, 4 if the results are not consistent with the hypothesis, go to 1 and refine it. If you want this to work for your story, you need your monster hunters to be actively learning about the creatures they’re hunting.

Second: You don’t need to see this. Finding a character who has been butchered is going to be less traumatic (and will have less risk of disconnect), than depicting the act directly. This can also sell the threat of the organization very effectively. Placing scenes like this needs to be carefully considered if the victim is an established character. If the victim is anonymous (no one your characters know), the impact on the audience will be diminished. As I said a moment ago, this needs to be managed carefully, but, it can be a relief. If a character has been captured, and the other characters find a corpse, learning that it isn’t their friend (and isn’t someone the audience knows) will be a temporary relief for the audience, (though not so much for the characters.)

Third: Flipping the script can make these behaviors uncomfortably palatable. Specifically, stories from the perspective of the monster hunters can get away with some really horrific behavior directed at the monsters because, “they’re monsters.” If the story is told from the perspective of the humans hunting vampires, and they’re engaging in horrific experimentation to probe vampire limitations the audience will be more sympathetic. If you start humanizing your monsters, audience support for this will quickly break down. This can (potentially) be used to move audience sympathies from the humans to the monsters, though doing so will still require a delicate touch.

One piece of fiction that plays with this very deftly is the British TV series Ultraviolet. The human vampire hunters are somewhat sympathetic because they’re human, but their methods are just uncomfortable enough to keep things on edge. At the same time, the vampires are just human enough to keep the overall tone surprisingly balanced, while being monstrous enough that trusting them is a mistake. It also has my favorite performance from Idris Elba. It’s an excellent series, and does get into medical experimentation in a way you don’t often see in vampire fiction.

In the end you to balance three things. The audience’s tolerance for what they monster hunters are doing. If you ramp up too fast, you risk alienating your readers. Your monster hunters’ goals and methods. If their actions are a major focus of the story, you need to structure what they’re trying to learn. (At a disturbing level, it’s possible they know more about your characters’ physiologies than the vampires or werewolves.) Finally, you need to remember you’re dealing with some very complex, and difficult subject matter. There are legitimate reasons to tell this story, and there is a lot of potential ways to present it. However, this will be difficult, so prepare yourself for that.


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: Effective Use of Torture

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it. You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true) and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true). You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology. You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

I don’t do this often, but this deserves to be broken down into individual pieces and examined in depth.

However, it’s been a little over a year, so I guess we were due to get another one of these tantrums from someone with poor reading comprehension. So, let’s take this shit show apart… again.

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it.

Even if we ignore the leading tone, we don’t talk about torture very often. From a writing perspective, it’s a somewhat dull subject, and there’s not really that much to say about it. I checked, the last post on torture was in 2019, and the one before that was in 2018. Yeah, I wasn’t joking about this gradually turning into an annual thing.

From an ethical perspective, it’s not much more nuanced. We could spend six paragraphs going over how it’s bad and wrong, but anyone with three functioning brain cells could have told you that, and dedicating 2k words to the subject would be a waste of everyone’s time.

Well, I thought it would be, but every year someone wanders through who doesn’t understand that, and throws a tantrum. So, here we are.

However, I do love this attack on experts. No, wait, that’s the wrong word, I actively hate this kind of willful ignorance. It’s the same thought process that fuels anti-vaxers and flat earthers. “I read it on the internet, I’m an expert now,” used to be a joke, however we live in a world where someone believes they are better suited to discuss torture than people who have actually studied the subject in a professional capacity.

Now, in fairness, I’m coming from reading primary and secondary sources, not from actually torturing people. But, I’ve also got an academic background in history and politics. Short version? This really is my field.

This kind of anti-intellectualism can be harmless in some situations, however when it comes to torture, this simple surface read allows people to sign off on torture. It’s not enough to understand that torture is a bad thing, it’s important to understand what it can and cannot do, because real people in the real world employ torture to further their goals. If you believe torture serves no purpose, you will poorly equipped to understand what they’re doing, and the results they achieve.

You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true)…

First, I don’t remember saying that. We’ve cited Tony Lagouranis in the past, including his his book Fear Up Harsh. So, if we didn’t talk about the psychological consequences to the torturer, that would be somewhat surprising.

Torturers do suffer some psychological damage. I’m sure we’ve mentioned that before. If it seems like I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, it’s because, frankly, I don’t really have much sympathy for them.

Second, it’s important to understand that concepts like morality and ethics are heavily based on our cultural backgrounds. The idea that these are universal is an excellent route into xenophobia. However, one thing, I hope most of us can get behind is the idea that torturing someone is evil.

So, the only reason you’d want to really dwell on the psychological damage is because you’re trying to woobify the torturer. Which is fucking repugnant.

You want us to feel sorry for them? You want us to empathize with them? Go fuck yourself.

And before you drag out the, “I was only following orders,” excuse, no. A soldier has a legal obligation to disobey any illegal orders they receive. If someone tells you to break the law and you do it, that was your decision as much as theirs. You are a part of that crime now. The argument wasn’t convincing at the Nuremberg trials, and it’s not convincing now.

…and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true).

This one is entirely true. Ultimately, it’s one of the two things that torture does very well. Obviously, if you’re getting tied down to a chair, and having your hands amputated a bone at a time, it’s not going to convince you that you made a mistake. However, it will convince others that, maybe getting involved is a bad idea.

Now, it’s not 100% effective. Not much in life is. But arguing, “torture isn’t effective because it doesn’t convince everyone,” is a bit like arguing that “because seat belts don’t have a 100% survival rate, we shouldn’t wear them.”

The systematic use of torture has severe chilling effects on political activity in a nation. There are significant diminishing returns. As torture becomes more widespread the unrest it causes will eventually start to outweigh the chilling effects.

This dynamic isn’t unique to torture, and most forms of political suppression will foment varying degrees of unrest. This is a problem that most totalitarian regimes face. The more coercive force they exercise, the more the population will become restless. Also worth knowing that this does scale based on the population’s size, so, a massive nation can apply significantly more coercive influence to it’s population without things boiling over.

However, it does suppress politic activity. Which was the entire point of this exercise. Torture as a tool of political oppression is not about the torturer or the victim, it’s about how that threat affects the population’s activities at large. So, yes, being told that if you express your political beliefs you and your family will be disappeared by the state is a huge disincentive to political activity. It works.

In case this is somehow confusing to you, yes, suppressing political speech is a bad thing. It may shock you to realize, some people don’t give a shit. They really do not care about being seen as a good person, and are willing to do things you would find unpalatable. Explaining what they’re doing is not the same as endorsing their actions.

It may be comforting to shove your head in the sand, insist that none of this is real, and angrily lash out at anyone who threatens that fantasy; but this is real, and trying to ignore it empowers those who would use these methods.

You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology.

So, this might confuse you, but police brutality is torture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cop repeatedly tazing a victim, sodomizing them with a broom handle in a Manhattan precinct house, choking them, or just beating the ever living shit out of them. It’s torture.

But, according to you, we should feel sorry for the cops and the emotional trauma that they suffer, because they got to live out their deranged, fascist fantasies, and it wasn’t as much fun as they expected? No, fuck that.

Ironically, you can actually see the efficacy and limitations of torture as a political deterrent through police brutality. When you see people standing at the sidelines as the cops choke someone to death, that’s the deterrent in full swing. They won’t get involved, they won’t express their opposition, because they know that if they do, they’re next.

So, bystanders pull out their cameras, and the police threaten them with violence. Hell, in some cases, the police outright shoot them, claiming they mistook the camera was a weapon. Camera phones are the line they can’t fully cross. The political activity of witnessing the event and sharing it with the internet allows spreading the unrest generated in the moment to the population at large. It is the point where the use of torture is causing more unrest than the torture is suppressing. As torturers, the police understand that this undermines what they’re doing, but those videos escape beyond their grasp.

You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

Ironically, uncritically believing torture victims is one of the amateur mistakes that helps perpetuate the practice. The average person is far too willing to trust statements extracted under duress.

I’ve seen actual academics who willingly accepted confessions extracted under torture by the goddamn Spanish Inquisition at face value. Far too many people are willing to accept statements from torture victims without question.

So, what do you expect to learn from a torture victim? That torture is bad? No shit. You don’t need a living torture victim to realize the practice is vile.

Accepting the statements of a torture victim perpetuate one of the greatest lies about torture: That torture can be used to collect intelligence. It’s a lie told by regimes that that torture serves an intelligence gathering role. It cannot.

However, if you believe that torture serves no purpose, that it has no effect, and that you should accept the statements of torture victims at face value, you have primed yourself to accept false confessions. After all, if torture doesn’t work, “why would they lie about those things they did?”

Transparent lies, like, the ones associated with torture are truly insidious. If you accept the lie that you can collect accurate information from torture, then you will accept information collected via torture. If you believe that torture does nothing, then confessions extracted under torture are still accepted because the torture, “did nothing.”

When someone is torturing you, you will do anything in your power to get them to stop. Torturers, torture victims, and the experts all agree on this. When someone is torturing you, you will say what they tell you to in order to make it stop. This happens without regard for what will come next.

The real apologists here are the ones who say, “torture gets usable intelligence,” and (ironically), the ones who say, “torture does nothing.” The former perpetuate the lie, the latter legitimize the results.

Torture isn’t about getting information, it’s about using force to put words in the victim’s mouth. Saying that it doesn’t achieve that is denying those victims, and ignoring the real evil.


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: Practical Torture Goals

I would implore you to do actual research on torture and how torturers behave. A lot of the information you present as fact is dangerously misinformed. Torturers are not ‘professionals’ and does not yield accurate information. You shouldn’t be answering any questions on torture if you haven’t read O’Mara. This isn’t about torture being bad. It’s about torture not working at all. I apologize if I seem harsh, but this needs to be said.

I have read Shane O’Mara’s work. Not all of it, and not recently. I skimmed through years ago. Though, judging by your question, I’m not entirely sure you are familiar with his work.

The irony is, there’s not a lot of difference between O’Mara’s position and ours, when it comes to torture. The biggest discrepancy is perspective. He’s a neurologist who had a focus on the specific effects of stress and pain on the brain. My background is political science, so my interest grew out of examining coercive methods used by nation states. As a result, my specialization is more focused on what it does at a policy level. And we both come to, nearly the same point:

People forget the reality of what torture was used for, and has been used for through the generations, a quite different purpose: To spread fear, extract confessions, all of those kinds of things. But, the royal road to gathering reliable information? No.

Shane O’Mara – “Your Welcome” (Podcast Interview)

This gets into a fundamental misunderstanding about what torture is, and why you use it. Many people who’ve never looked at torture in depth, including the interviewer in that podcast, and the person who sent this ask, believe it’s about extracting information.


The perception of torture as intelligence gathering is pervasive. It’s honestly difficult to point to uses of torture in popular media that get at the real point behind its use. The ur-example of this misconception would have to be 24, and it’s ends-justify-the-means embrace of torture.

The problem is, as the US Military’s Enhanced Interrogation Program learned in Iraq, torturing someone only makes them tell you what they think you want to hear. This was not new information. Nearly every organization in history that’s employed torture has understood this.

Most civilians do not. Many organizations have exploited this fact to further their agendas.

Torture excels at extracting false confessions. To make the suffering stop, you put a narrative in front of someone, and they will crack and sign off on it. This is the true power of torture. It doesn’t tell you what’s real, it coerces the victim to agree with your version of the truth.

Confessions are not reliable, in any sense. Someone may admit they committed an act for any number of reasons unrelated to the truth. Social norms put faith in the idea of a confession as, “the truth,” but that is just words; like everything else, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. As mentioned above, torture exploits this norm, and relies on that general acceptance of confessions to glaze over all the incongruities. Even when those confessions are patently absurd or downright impossible, people will still say, “but they confessed.”

I remember an example of this a couple years ago, from another person bringing their favorite academic into a discussion. In that case it was James Wasserman, an author who wrote a history of the Knights Templar. The end of that order came from confessions extracted under torture by one of the Inquisitions. (I don’t remember which one.) Even knowing that the confessions were coerced, Wasserman sees nothing wrong with taking them at face value. (Also the reason he comes to conclusions that radically differ from every rational academic that looks at the subject.)

That said, unlike Wasserman, O’Mara does something interesting. We’ve always known you can’t get good information from torture, and O’Mara decided to take neurology and look at why. The answer has to do with how memories work.

The brain stores memories as chemical chains. Under the best of circumstances, this is not a good, robust, long-term storage system. In some ways it’s surprising it works as well as it does. Stress and trauma both adversely affect your ability to form new memories and retain them. This has nothing to do with torture per se. If you’re put through six kinds of hell, you’re going to forget things.

Again, this isn’t exactly new information. It’s something that most therapists and investigators are well aware of. If you’ve been a victim of violence, even if it wasn’t perpetrated by a human, you may have experienced this. You might not realize it. I’m sitting here, thinking about my first dog attack and realizing, I don’t really remember that day. I remember that it happened, (and I can still find the scars on my left hand), but if I’m being completely honest with myself: a lot of the details are just gone. I do remember the sounds. Unfortunately, and if pressed, I could present a partial chronology of that day, but it would be reconstructed from information I have about when it was, what I was doing, things that happened before and after the attack.

Even without resorting to extreme events like that, your memory of traumatic or highly stressful experiences isn’t going to be completely clear. Ironically, this can also screw you over. If you get stressed out over a test in school, that will impair your ability to study, and even your ability to recover information during the exam.

Within this context, sleep deprivation has a significant effect on your cognitive abilities. This puts a fair amount of stress on your system for no real value. So, pulling an all-nighter before a test is not recommended.

Caffeine, and other stimulants don’t, really, help here. They’ll help you stay awake, they’ll help you feel more alert, but they won’t make up for the lost sleep, so the cognitive impairment will still be there, you’ll just look sober.

So, stating the obvious here but, having bunch of armed men attack and capture you, being dragged off to a dark room somewhere, isolated from any support network, being yelled at, and being threatened… That’s all kinda stressful.

In fact, many interrogators will seek to prolong the stress of capture as long as possible. They’ll use loud music, bright lights, keep the room cold, prevent them from sleeping (with all of the associated sleep deprivation considerations coming into effect) in an attempt to keep their captive off balance, to prevent them from settling into a new norm. While they’re in this state, they’re more susceptible to suggestion.

There is a continuum to all of this. It’s part of why studying for tests in an academic situation is such a good example: In the entirety of your life, it’s a pretty minor stress, but it is stressful, and the details you’re being asked to retrieve are trivial. So that’s some of the first information your brain will dump when things start fraying. When you put someone in real danger, the stress will start dumping much more important things. It’s not like you’ll forget your name, or where you were born, but it could easily dump information an interrogator would be interested in; like the names of people you met at a party last week.

All of this information also applies to witness testimony. Even when the investigators aren’t leaning on you, the stress from the original event can easily play havoc with your memory. This is one of the reasons why investigators need to be careful when they’re interviewing victims, because they can easily corrupt the victim’s memories simply by asking the wrong questions, and getting the victim to reconstruct their memory on the spot, which won’t necessarily match what happened. Of course, an unscrupulous investigator can push a victim to remember things that didn’t happen, simply by asking leading questions. If you’re suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea eyewitness testimony right now, good. You should. As with confessions, as a culture, we put way too much faith in them.

When you put this together, it explains why torture doesn’t yield accurate information. Again, this was known, but the neurology wasn’t. So, in this sense, O’Mara does make an interesting and useful contribution to the lit. He’s connecting stuff we already knew in different fields and saying, “this is how it works together.” He’s also getting into the neurochemistry, which is interesting to a degree, but not particularly accessible. The exact reasons that your brain has issues with sleep deprivation make for a fascinating discussion, but if I start talking about neurotransmitter reuptake again, people are going to glaze over.

You should start to see why torture excels at getting people to confess to things they didn’t do. Even confessing to things that aren’t possible or are patently absurd.

In most cases, someone will do anything they can just to end the suffering. Being tortured sucks, and if you just need to sign on the line to make it stop, a surprising number of people will do so. Even if it’s not the truth. Even if they’re signing their lives away.

On the other end of the spectrum, torture someone for long enough, and the lines between the real world and fantasy start to blur, or come apart entirely. You’ll get confessions about how they summoned up The Devil for an orgy and bake-off, or how they were plotting to mount laser cannons on frogs to assault New York. It sounds bonkers, but the victim may be so broken, they can’t tell the difference anymore.

I’m honestly unsure where this line about, “no professional torturers,” comes from. Especially given O’Mara has talked about the NKVD, CIA, Enhanced Interrogation Program, and many other intelligence agencies. That is to say, groups that do employ professional interrogators. I’ve seen this line come up several times, and the only way I could possibly attribute it to O’Mara is by deliberately misreading his methodology. The idea that no one gets paid to lean on others is patently absurd. Even the Mafia and Cartels have professional torturers. How well they do their job is a different question, but I’ve seen some genuinely disconnected comments about torturers being nothing but unhinged psychopaths, and that’s not supported by any reputable source.

I get the appeal of being able to say that, “a rational person couldn’t do this,” because it makes the world feel safer, but the truth is, there are people out there who come across as normal and are paid to do horrific things to other human beings.

The other side of this is that some of the EIP interrogators did end up with PTSD. It takes a pretty specific mindset to be able to do this to someone without suffering psychological harm in the process. That said, it’s not that different from other careers where you deal with horrific experiences on a regular basis, such as EMS, LEOs or soldiers.

The horrible thing about the real world is, torture works. It doesn’t gather usable intelligence, and if you thought that was the point, you fell for the big lie. Torture is about making someone confess to things they never did. It’s about making them agree with your version of the world, irrespective of the truth. It’s about scaring people. Convincing them to never oppose your organization. It does all of those things, and if you’re stepping back and saying, “no, it can’t possibly be that bad,” it worked on you.

Torture is scary; it shows how horrible the world, and the people in it, can be. There’s no shame in looking away and saying, “I can’t deal with this.” I don’t blame you. But there’s no virtue in lying to yourself and saying, “no, it doesn’t do anything. It can’t. I need the people who do this to be cartoonish super-villains.” I don’t blame you for the instinct, that’s better world, but not the one we live in.


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: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.