While it is true that writers are, essentially, lying liars who lie (an article of great fun, by the way), another fact of life is that writers can be really quite cruel. Truly, we have a way of putting our characters through hell.
I should know. My name’s Chris, and I am a cruel little man. Minus the little.
I remember the first story I read where there is some true, authentic suffering going on. As a child, I had read Lord of the Rings and any number of other little fantasies and classy hist fics. of the day, but as much agony as that ring lays on Frodo’s head, it still doesn’t quite fit the bill of character torture. Change pace to something like Flowers for Algernon, where you get to see the height of a man’s bliss, only to watch the tortured, tragic fall, as his own mind degrades around him, and even memories begin to fail—and then, you shall truly know the horrors of what a writer can unleash.
In The Hollow March, my own first addition to the literary world, I have been told that I don’t just pick on my characters—but that I have a penchant for it. But between a raging war, a vengeful son, and a daughter that had her father burned alive, there’s never really a question of whether it’s going to be a dark world. It is at the core of my setting, my plot. The distance between people, and the horrors we unleash upon ourselves—it’s one of the core human elements I seek to explore in my writing. In reality, almost everyone has some burden they bear, some torture they must struggle with and to overcome—and I seek to bring that reality into my fantasy world.
In another fantasy work, the popular Game of Thrones series, pain likewise doesn’t seem to be the exception, but the rule. The whole nation seems a nest of vipers, all looking to kill one another from anything from familial to religious and the ever-so-key political woes. Everyone is a tortured character. Everyone has their burdens. It also makes for some of the most gripping cliffhangers you ever did see in literature…painful as some of these can be for some readers to stomach.
One of the big questions in the writing community is simply: why? Why are these sorts of “dark” and “gritty” tales gaining such popularity? What happened to the good old fluffy days? We certainly don’t want to go out on the streets and do this stuff ourselves—let alone have it happen to us—so why do we find it so enthralling?
Contrary to some’s belief (I’m looking at you Shades of…bleck), it doesn’t stem from the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.” Nor is it that we are globally, psychologically fubar’d.
Rather, I feel it’s more of a matter of realism—of balance. In the past, you’ve had your irredeemably evil. You’ve had your glittering good. Never shall the twain meet, save in a battle for the world’s souls. A lot of this pain and agony we see nowadays is due to us getting more into the villains’ POVs, and stripping our heroes of that purely heroic trait. We’re making humans, and humans are, at their heart, flawed creatures. We’ve seen it enough in reality to know that—in things like fantasy, we’re just now getting around to asking: what happens when you take an all too human character, and simply add all those other magical/mystical/etc traits to the world around them? How would that impact an individual’s mentality—a world’s, even?
We dig into the dark side of the human psyche because, at heart, we want to learn. Why, why, why we ask, would they want to do this? What drove them to it? It’s not the action the captivates, but that great, almighty why. Getting into villains’ POVs improves a story. That is my opinion. I will always hold to it. I don’t want to just see evil for the sake of evil—to see why the villain did it, well, frankly, this interests me as much as the struggle against.
Will the bad guy still sometimes be as crazy as a cat on the nip? Well, yes. But getting in their heads—especially hearing them justify their actions (yikes)—can make for some truly atmospheric, emotional, and downright creepy scenes. Furthermore, showing us those villains that aren’t straight up crazy, or straight-up wretched, but forced into the role, or doing the wicked because of what they think is the good—these are always characters that strike a chord. That engage.
A dark lord is great every now and again, but if he exists for nothing but the nasty, at all possible times, and the hero nothing but the good, what do I gain from the experience? There is no learning. There is only the “oh no, he’s bad,” followed by the inevitable defeat. A certain sense of repetition and dullness seeps into the cracks between.
What’s more, struggles like these modern shadows bring us an opportunity to question and engage morality. Will motivations, justifications, and ethics themselves be flawed? Of course. But we get to see how they play out, how they interact, and why exactly they are the way they are. We don’t simply split the world down the middle and say: “Black and White,” if you please. We are forced to confront the shades of grey.
Inevitably, some people will do a drive by of such a work though and label it the downfall of western civilization. Or a sign of your own inherent wickedness. Don’t scowl. Don’t sulk. At that, I say: laugh. It should be expected, but you shouldn’t take it to heart. It’s not wicked to think, and to ponder different natures. Nor are you promoting them. You’re simply delving into the world and stripping away the colored coating so often applied.
As ever, if a scene doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be—but you shouldn’t water down your work simply for a fear of potentially snarky reviews. Embrace your style, as it was meant to be embraced. All writers face critique. Don’t let it break you.
(And if you like what I’m preaching, I encourage you to indulge with my fantasy series, including The Hollow March and its sequel, At Faith’s End. Or if you’d like something a little more sci-fi for your afternoon sortie, have a look at short story “New Frontiers,” published in its entirety on this blog. Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed.)