Lately I think we all have felt confronted (if not bludgeoned) by humanity’s darker nature. Between what we hear in the news to what we read online to the inexplicable horror of mass murder to the cruel taunting and trolling that pervades social media it’s hard to believe in pure human goodness.
As an author who writes for young readers I feel compelled to bring goodness into my stories. But in order to shed that light in dark corners, I have to portray the darkness, too. So, how does an author find balance? How do we write about hopelessness and evil without leaving our readers feeling hopeless and lost?
A couple of recent essays have spoken eloquently to these questions. First, in this analysis of what it means to read and write dark stories, Vaughn Roycroft says that his attraction to dark material has a limit, and that limit is drawn by whether the story is gratuitous in its treatment of dark behavior, or whether, as he puts it, “We can choose to provoke contemplation. We can choose to seek meaning, and to inspire our readers to seek their own.”
And in this post from Diane Magras, she explores what it means to write an antagonist who is nuanced enough to become good and a protagonist willing to accept that change. As she puts it, “growth comes from understanding, from exploring that which is different, and includes a willingness to change perspectives, to learn.”
Both of these authors have hit upon a central point in telling tales of darkness. As authors we must help readers seek meaning and understanding, and we should work to portray evil as not inevitable but mutable and subject to our willingness to reach across boundaries.
The old tales of the Brothers Grimm are truly dark, and evil behavior is usually rewarded by severe (often bloody) punishment. Good and evil are clearly distinguished. While I love those old tales, that strive to teach the benefits of humility and generosity, we live in an age of greater complexity. Both in literature and in life today the roles played by protagonists and antagonists are more fluid. Most readers would identify with the protagonist – the “good” guy – in a tale. But if we portray our antagonists as purely “bad” we miss the opportunity to, as it were, teach the benefits of understanding the other.
Understanding the other is, I believe, the way out of darkness. This is why movements like We Need Diverse Books are so important, and why addressing mental health issues with compassion is essential. Shedding light in dark corners is a matter of seeing clearly what we might otherwise wish to ignore or pass off as “bad”.
How should this impact our writing? I think we need to be aware of the limits of our personal perspectives and find beta readers who can help us expand those perspectives. But we also need to stretch to express those things that make us as humans fundamentally the same. We must confront the darkness by stepping inside it with open hearts.
And finally, and personally, no matter how dark my stories, I strive to leave my readers with a sense of hope and purpose, to give those readers a lamp to illuminate dark corners.
What about you? Do you read and/or write “dark” stories? How do you shed the light?