by Gina Sestak
The first time I killed a character, I felt terrible. He was a minor character I had created solely to die in battle. Since my protagonist would come through the fray unscathed, I thought this minor character's death would make the scene seem real. Still, my gut reaction was to try to save him. I wanted to destroy those foul attackers who had set upon this young man with their swords and short, sharp knives. I didn't. The story really needed him to die a horrible death.
Which brings me to my topic for today: where should we draw the line in our treatment of fictional characters?
The title of this piece is a quote from a 1991 film, Closet Land, written and directed by Rhada Bharadwaj. There are only two characters in Closet Land, a writer (Madeleine Stowe) who is suspected of planting subversive ideas in her children's books, and an interrogator (Alan Rickman) who, for 90 minutes, questions, manipulates, abuses, threatens, and tortures her in an effort to obtain a signed confession. It's a hard film to watch.
So why watch it? Amnesty International supported the film as a strong statement about the condition of political prisoners. One of the executive producers was Ron Howard -- that's right, Opie. And the two actors involved did such wonderful jobs of portraying the characters that it's difficult, even after the film ends, not to admire her and despise him. You want to run right out and put an end to all injustice in the world. The film made a point.
And maybe that's the key. It is often necessary to portray extremes of cruelty just to get a point across and, to advance the story, we sometimes do terrible things to our fictional characters -- or rather, we allow our fictional characters to do terrible things to one another.
Where do you draw the line? When does it stop being a compelling read and start becoming sado porn? That is the question for the day: how do you handle cruelty in your writing?
By the way, the complete quote is:
Victim: Your aim is to debase and humiliate a human being. There is no justification for cruelty.
Interrogator: Our aim is to rid society of negative influences. The end justifies the use of certain unorthodox means.
The Interrogator's line sounds like something out of a White House memo, doesn't it? Perhaps all world leaders should be required to write "There is no justification for cruelty" on the blackboard a few hundred thousand times, until the message sinks in.