On Problematic Plot Devices

I don’t often respond to the prompts on The Daily Post, but I couldn’t let today’s pass without comment because it’s such a doozy (emphasis added):

You’ve come into possession of one vial of truth serum. Who would you give it to (with the person’s consent, of course) — and what questions would you ask?

Truth serum. Sodium pentothal or the like. Developed and used for interrogations to force people to tell truths they want to keep hidden. And in this hypothetical scenario one is supposed to get consent to use the stuff? Consent? THAT TOTALLY DEFEATS THE PURPOSE OF USING TRUTH SERUM!

It’s like the love potion trope, which many people nowadays find problematic, and for good reason. One of the best treatments of it that I’ve read, honestly, is Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan und Isolde, where Isolde gets a potion to use on herself to help her forget Tristan and accept her arranged marriage to King Mark; purely by accident, Isolde’s lady-in-waiting mistakes the potion for a flask of wine and serves it to Isolde and Tristan instead, which only cements their existing ill-fated love. (I generally don’t like Tristan und Isolde because of its romanticization of infidelity, but at least Gottfried’s use of the love potion plot is decent.) By and large, though, the whole point of the potion is its coercive power, its elimination of consent. Ditto Cupid’s arrow–Chaucer makes the trope all the more disturbing in Troilus and Criseyde with his portrayal of Pandarus, who all but physically throws his ward Criseyde into Troilus’ bed for the sake of his own political ambitions, but Troilus is just one of many figures in classical literature whom Cupid forces to fall into unrequited love as a punishment.

If a story isn’t going to deal with the nasty implications of magic forcing attraction from one or more unwilling parties, the author shouldn’t bring in Cupid or a love potion. Likewise, if the story doesn’t involve an interrogator forcing truth from an unwilling witness or captive (with the potential exception, as occasionally on Mission: Impossible, of helping an amnesiac or traumatized individual recover memories they couldn’t otherwise reveal), the author shouldn’t bring in techniques like truth serum or hypnosis. Now, that’s not to say these plot devices don’t have their place; they definitely do, and truth serum especially has a place in spy thrillers and war stories, even in the hands of the heroes who are in a ticking-time-bomb type of scenario. But getting past the subject’s will is both the point and the problem, and it needs to be treated as such for the story to work.


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