Writing 101: Who Are You to Dole Out Poetic Justic?

If you're going to torture a character, I want to enjoy it. I'm not a sadist, I'm referring to poetic justice. It's a pretty common literary technique, but it's also very tricky. Few authors get it right. The thing about poetic justice is this: a little goes a long way. 

The House That Martin Built

You'll see poetic justice a lot in storytelling. It's always satisfying when the villainous character meets his just desserts. We always root for the Road Runner to get away, and snicker when the coyote has the anvil dropped on his head. But if you drop too many literary anvils in your books, you're not longer a storyteller. You're a person who likes to dole out suffering. And of course, I've got an example. 

His name is Theon Greyjoy, and this is your only spoiler alert. If you're not caught up to at least Season 4/Book 3 of the Game of Thrones series, skip ahead to the next section. But if you are, then you've seen poetic justice in gruesome, exhausting detail. 

Theon Greyjoy betrayed Robb Stark, who was like a brother to him, early in the series. As if that wasn't bad enough, Theon then betrayed all of Winterfell. So there is some delight when Theon himself is captured by a man of the north. 

That delight soon turns to nausea, however, when Theon is then tortured in unspeakable ways. His is mentally and physically tortured quite brutally, and it doesn't even end there. Greyjoy is trained and re-conditioned -- brainwashed, if you will -- to become a truly pitiable creature. 

And frankly, it's just too much. I'll be honest. I wanted Theon's head chopped off. This was fitting punishment for a man who has betrayed the north. But Theon was flayed, and had his mind and his body destroyed in ways I can't even detail here. That's not poetic justice. That's literary torture from the author.

It is also torturous for me, the person who is supposed to be entertained by all this storytelling. That's what makes poetic justice so very tricky, so difficult to master. You see, everyone has their own limit. Everyone draws their own line in the sand of what they think is okay. And once you've crossed it, you've crossed it. 

Punishing Characters

It is much harder to successfully punish a character, without creating a gag reflex in the audience, than it is to redeem a character. A single heroic act can go a very long way toward erasing past misdeeds. But tormenting a character and making the reader watch that person suffer? Now you're playing with fire. 

But if you're going to do it anyway, and I know you will, at least do it in a way that's going to work. 

  • Despicable me: First and foremost, make me hate this character. I need to hate them. They ought to do awful things, say awful things, commit horrendous acts and above all else, they need to get in the protagonist's way. Why else do I hate this guy, unless he's an obstacle toward the happiness that I want the main character to have? 
  • Doled judiciously: When you go to punish the character, choose your weapon wisely. Maybe it's better to beat this character with a willow switch, rather than flog him with a ball flail. I mean that figuratively. What I'm saying is, maybe don't torture the character before killing them. Maybe don't kill them in a slow, agonizing drowning but in a quick car crash. Maybe instead of taking that next step, settle on taking that first step well and end it before it all gets ugly.
  • Beyond repair: If you are going to make a character suffer, and I mean really suffer, make sure it's a character who is beyond all redemption. Make them commit a truly unforgivable act. It will be much easier for readers to tolerate torture then. 

I've found that when it comes to poetic justice, the first taste is sweet. But the more of it you get, the more that taste turns bitter. Doling out poetic justice can be satisfying for the reader...but remember to pull back before it becomes torturous instead.

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