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How Deep the Darkness?

Do you enjoy dark stories? Five years ago, I would’ve answered the question with an unreserved yes. Today… well, I’d have to have a bit of clarification first.

I mean, what does dark mean anymore? Stories that feature danger and violence? Battle and war? Gritty realism? Evil? Death?

I started thinking about it after reading our own Juliet Marillier’s excellent WU essay last week [1], in which she says: “Overall, it seems to me that fantasy is becoming darker all the time, with authors tackling more and more challenging themes. There’s a strong horror element in many works. Perhaps that is a reflection of the times we live in.”

I agree that fantasy seems to be growing darker. I’ve recently found I have my own limits of tolerance for darkness. And I’m not just talking about horror (which I don’t often read, and have never written).

Purveyor of Darkness…Who, me?

I mentioned my prior fondness of dark stories, though I don’t really think I ever actually sought out darkness in my reading life. But as an avid epic fantasy reader, boy, have I found it. I even became a fan of some dark storytellers. Glen Cook, George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etcetera—I’ve been reading grimdark for many years, and often enjoying it.

As for darkness in my work, how’s this for the shoe fitting? I started with the barbarians who famously first sacked Rome (the Goths), and made the Gothic characters my protagonists. When it comes to violence and war, theirs is a warrior society. They fight. A lot. As do the Romans they encounter. Both societies have brutal aspects; I’ve featured atrocities committed by both sides. I’ve never shied away from portraying the blood or the misery wrought by war. In other words, my stories are rife with humans doing horrible things to other humans.

As for death, well, let’s just say I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to writerly grim reaping. To give you an idea, I did a quick head count for my first trilogy. Out of twelve POV characters, six end up pushing daisies. Oh, and almost all of those are violent ends. If portraying death makes me a purveyor of darkness, most juries would name me guilty as charged.

But you know what? I never really considered my work dark.

A Matter of Tone

I used to be a diehard story finisher. But I’ve recently started some dark epic fantasies that I ended up setting aside. I also started a fantasy television series that I’ve given up on. The show in particular seemed to be trying to be dark for darkness’s sake—like an epic fantasy version of keeping up with the Westerosi. Prior to those I didn’t finish, I’d made my way through a few dark stories that left me feeling… hollow.

There are some things that will always start to turn me against a story or its characters. Such as protagonists who genuinely enjoy hurting or killing, portrayals of the misuse or abuse of children, even the hint of a positive spin on rape, to name a few. For me, life’s too short to invest in a story that dwells on the reprehensible. There are too many other books in the pile.

But for some of these that have recently left me cold, there’s no certain dark element, deed, or theme that I can blame. I guess it’s sort of like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Or perhaps with me, it’s, “I know it when I feel it.”

I think it’s often a matter of tone that puts me off. One that seems to pander to the worst in human nature. Or a snarkiness that preys on the misfortune of others, or on the futility of virtue.

And perhaps I’ve been wrong about the intention and outcome of some of the ones I haven’t finished (more on that in a minute). After all, many of these stories are popular, highly-praised, and even well-written. Perhaps I’m gun-shy. I’ve finished enough of the dark stories that left me feeling hollow to make me fear I’m heading there again.

I don’t need to spend another six or eight of my remaining hours on earth to merely find out that someone thinks that war is endless, suffering is inevitable, or life is meaningless. I’m not a nihilist, and I’m not looking to be convinced, thank you very much.

The Necessity of Darkness

“Maybe you have to know the darkness to truly appreciate the light.”—Madeline L’Engle

Maybe I’m gun-shy, but I still can’t imagine myself avoiding stories with elements of darkness. As I say above, I never really considered my own stories dark. Since reading Juliet’s post, I felt compelled to consider the dark aspects of my stories. I’m not merely talking about having characters suffer and/or die. For me, due to the subject matter and the setting, I feel that if my stories were stripped of suffering and death they’d be as hollow as those I describe above. But do I really need to portray murderous atrocities, even if they’re based on actual historical events? Do I need the deaths of innocents, including children and women? Do I really need to have so many characters witness–or even to have a role in–the deaths of loved ones?

I spent some time imagining the stories without these elements—about their effect on the stakes, on the characters’ motivations and goals; about the tension, pace, and resolutions without them. And I concluded that in order to stay true to the type of stories I want to (perhaps even need to) tell, I must go fairly deep into the darkness. As L’Engle so succinctly says in the quote above, delving into the dark adds an appreciation for the light. To an extent that I feel couldn’t otherwise be gained.

Which brought me to realize that, tone aside, it’s all about outcome and intention.

Outcome & Intention

“Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil. I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity; heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”—Barbara Tuchman

I’m definitely not the sort of storyteller to assert that good should always prevail over evil, or that it even tends to. I think there is good and bad in all of us, and I prefer characters that reflect that undeniable truth. They’re far more interesting. Like Tuchman, I’m a shades-of-gray sort of writer. That’s where the darkness starts to leak in.

For me, a character that is wise is all the more so for having learned from their foolishness. A character that’s benevolent is all the more admirable if their benevolence is born of recognizing the folly of their selfishness. The greater the fear, the more splendid the bravery it takes to overcome it. Heroism isn’t an innate attribute, it’s undertaken with risk and at a cost.

For me, it’s not about how dark a story gets, it’s about the light that is striven for and found, and what is revealed by that light. In other words, it’s about the outcome.

In Juliet’s aforementioned essay, she muses that perhaps our stories are growing darker due to the darkness of our times. Maybe so. I mean, it’s all but impossible to outdo the absurdity of today’s current events. Fiction can’t easily compete with the barrage of divisiveness, resentment, and cruelty we absorb almost daily in the news. Which might help to explain the helplessness and meaninglessness of some of the dark stories I describe above. It may also explain stories that are pure escapism, or diversionary entertainment, or mere titillation.

But I’m not so sure. Those types of stories have always existed. And who am I to pass judgement on those who create or consume them? Every type of story serves a purpose for a certain audience. And everyone needs a pure diversion now and then. If a story’s intention is to provide escape or to entertain, and succeeds, that’s admirable. I sincerely have not a quibble.

But knowing that I want more from my stories is what helps me to understand the need for darkness in them. It has to do with my intention.

As writers, we can choose to seek more. We can choose to challenge ourselves and our readers. We can choose to provoke contemplation. We can choose to seek meaning, and to inspire our readers to seek their own.

So yes, we can—and often should—explore the darkness. But we can also choose to seek the light beyond the darkness. And for me, that’s the best way to offer not just hopefulness, but an indelible experience.

How about you? Shed some light on your dark side in the comments. Do you enjoy reading dark stories? Do you utilize dark elements in your own work? Do you sense stories in your genre getting darker? Is your tolerance for it as a reader growing or shrinking?  

[Image is: Out of the Dark and Into the Light, by Eric Moreno @Flickr [2]]

About Vaughn Roycroft [3]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.