Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters?

I am a lover of Grimdark fiction. There is no event too awful, no betrayal too personal, and no petty stab too low for me to turn my face away. However, as someone who finds great catharsis in books where terrible things happen to people, I've begun to notice a trend. Too often authors will use a character's suffering as a substitute for giving that character a well-rounded personality, and actually developing that character throughout a story.

I have begun to refer to these characters as Tortured Souls, and much as I grew up loving them, I'm starting to get a little sick of them.

You know who you are.
Since I have this convenient image of the Dark Knight, I'll use him as an example. Now, I've given Batman a lot of shit before (particularly in my post Why I Hate Batman (And What Writers Can Learn From His Character Mistakes)), but he works as an ideal example for what I'm talking about.

So, who is Batman? He's someone who's dedicated his life, and a fortune, to building a private arsenal and cementing himself in the underworld scene in one of the most crime-ridden cities in his world in order to bring down the bad guys. That is compelling stuff, and it's no surprise that when he debuted as a character readers wanted to know more. What you might not know is that Batman didn't even have an origin story until he'd been around for a few issues, and started selling really well.

I cannot overstate this; Batman was so compelling as a character that we could have completely skipped the "my parents were murdered in front of me when I was nine" backstory, and fans would still have wanted more of him.

However, as most fans know, the dead parents are what we got. And since the character's descent into the realms of dark and gritty (courtesy of writers like Frank Miller), the dead parents are one of the most-often used shields to excuse Batman's behavior. Writers have, in essence, allowed something that happened to him when he was a child to completely determine the entire course of Bruce's life. The result is that sometimes the stories we get, and the methods we see, feel child-like.

How does a billionaire with one of the greatest intellects in the human population fight crime? Is it by funding social welfare programs to help give poor people the means to live happier, more productive lives? By dedicating some of his wealth and insight to the criminal justice system, and attempting to find the causes of crime in Gotham so he can pull them out by the roots? Perhaps running for public office so he can institute real change?

Nah, he's just going to dress up in a costume and punch street toughs until we run out of goons to throw his way.

Got Any Other Examples?

I do, in fact.

You see, the popularity of the Tortured Soul has led to a lot of different versions. Characters like The Punisher, Spawn, Sandor Clegane, Drax the Destroyer, Rorschach, and dozens of others from popular fiction fall into this unfortunate niche. These characters, despite their differences, are driven by a single event, and that event is intensely personal to them.

However, we also never see them do anything to get past that event, because that kind of growth would remove said event's ultimate power over them.

I really hope I don't have to add him to the list, too...
So what separates a Tortured Soul from a character who simply has a dark or troubled past? Well, there are a lot of items, so I'll throw a few bullet points at you.

- Tortured Souls are anchored to this one event. Practically, this means that you are not allowed to develop the character past the traumatic experience, and the trauma ends up dictating everything about them.
- Tortured Souls get a free pass on awful behavior. Not just gunning down Mafia members, or beating confessions out of street toughs, but simple acts of common social grace. It doesn't matter that the T.S.'s main form of communication is to threaten someone with violence, or that his or her favorite topic of conversation is how many men he's killed. We excuse it, because they've been damaged.
- Tortured Souls are shallow. This doesn't mean they aren't compelling, or that they won't command a huge fan base. However, because of their stunted growth as characters, they act better in supporting roles than they do in lead ones.

So what, you might be asking, separates characters like Jessica Jones or Spider-Man from the Tortured Soul label? After all, the former grew up in an abusive household before being raped by a mind-controlling villain, and the latter let the thief go who ended up killing his Uncle Ben. Why aren't they on the list?

In short, because these characters work to get past the events that happened to them. Jessica, despite her often abrasive nature, faces her fears and overcomes the things that were done to her. She also learns how to trust people, opening herself up to new relationships, and how to not take responsibility for things that aren't her fault. Mr. Parker, while he does feel incredible guilt for not stopping the street tough who ended up shooting his uncle, realizes that he cannot take responsibility for that man's actions. However, because he has powers, he believes that he is required to use them to help people, instead of for his own selfish or petty wants.

If you're worried that your character is walking into that morally grey, more-than-a-little fetid swamp of the Tortured Soul, ask what defines them aside from this incident. Once you've done that, ask what happens to the story when these characters learn how to deal with the things that have happened to them, and move on. If that's never going to happen, you might want to head back to the drawing board.

Awful Events Are No Substitute For Character

It's important to remember that someone surviving awful or traumatic events can be compelling, but it is by no means automatically so. However, a lot of lazy writing comes from trying to spice up a character by having them go through something terrible. Rather than work on creating complete personalities, or a compelling life goal, some writers will just throw in dead parents, a murdered sibling, child molestation, rape, or all of them in no particular order.

Author Seanan McGuire (her website is right here, if you haven't been there yet) in particular has had fans write in, asking when her female leads are going to get raped. As if it's some mark of character development to undergo this horrific experience.

There is no way to make that opinion less repugnant, so have a silly goat.
While it's true that it's your book, and you can have whatever events happen that you want to, it's important to step back and ask why things have to happen in a given way. Do these traumas and personal violations add to your story in some way? Or are you just trying to use a short-cut so you can fit in more gun fights and brooding?

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  1. Good points but bad examples. Neither Spiderman nor Batman develop past this defining life point. Batman broods and Spidey tells jokes, but both are driven by their tragic past. These characters do not develop because they are comic book heroes so old that their personalities define them. To change their personality is to change the recipe that have kept readers coming for decades. It worked, it was copied.
    Now, Jessica Jones is a story. And over that story we can see her change and grow. Because she hasn't been used and reused over and over again, her character has been allowed to grow. In fact, her popularity currently depends on her growth rather than an iconic facet of her character.
    Your mention of Rorchach would have been better as a primary example than Batman. As part of a fully realised story, the characters of Watchmen grow and develop in response to changing events... except Rorchach. Where other characters change, grow, adapt and move on, Rorschach refuses to do so and this is a deliberate and brilliant counterpoint effectively used by the storyteller.

    1. I do recall that the author intended for Rorschach to be the person who horrified the audience, but when Americans read it, we couldn't get enough of him. Which may say something about our culture.

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