Monday, August 30, 2010

Embrace the Dark Side -- Gently

As a writer, I try to encourage and enjoy a person's more positive qualities: their creativity, their ability to reason, to problem-solve, and appreciate the contribution that these qualities they make our culture and society. These qualities allow us to maintain and develop our civilization. Conversely, I'm not a big fan of the darker side of human nature, the side that seeks to destroy and tear down things. It likes strife, and hatred, and war, and violence, and anger.

And yet, in one of those supreme twists of irony, without strife and conflict, my career path of choice -- writing fiction -- is not possible. I need people to have a dark side or I have nothing to write about. It reminds me of -- of all things -- a Star Trek episode, where Captain Kirk is split in two and learns that without his dark half he cannot command his starship. And to that point, I, as a writer, need my positive qualities and my darker side to create fiction, hone it, and temper it like a blacksmith making a fine sword.

That doesn't mean I'm a big fan of humanity's darker nature, just that I've learned to accept it and work with it. This was no always so. I spent many years hating my darker side or denying its existence. Doing so was pointless and self-inhibiting; I realize that now. But at the time I thought it was possible for people to rise above their more base and debauched nature. Silly me. If that were possible we'd have done it already.

Then I thought it serves no purpose in stories and wrote adolescent tripe about characters with lots of internal conflicts but not much plot or action. Very juvenile. Once I matured I realized just how bad those drafts were and never looked at them again.

About the same time I realized that good stories need conflict, they need a hero, and they need a villain. And if I was going to write good fiction I'd need to embrace humanity's darker side, my darker side. The problem I had with that was, as I've said, I really didn't care for the darker side of human nature. In a story, it's one thing; it helps more the story along, and if I'm lucky helps to reveal a hidden truth about people. But in the real world it means someone is suffering for whatever reason, whether through circumstance or not. 'Life is pain' says the Man in Black to Princess Buttercup. He's right, of course, and that's a sad thought.

Of course that's the way the world works. Someone is always suffering and my pragmatic side stepped in at that point and reminded me that unless I was God (which I'm not) someone in the world will probably be always be suffering. I can try to help and contribute and entertain folks with my stories but I can't end the suffering. I don't think any one person can.

Many publishers will accept some level of violence too but, according to the submission guidelines I've read, don't want it to be excessive or glorified. Enough for the story but not so much as to sicken the reader. I agree with that. But that raises the question how much is too much? When do you cross the line? More importantly will all my readers, especially the younger ones, the teen set, be able to distinguish between the violence I include in a story (or work of art) and the violence they see in the world around them? I've certainly read reports of psychological studies that point out children having difficulties distinguishing between real world violence (from the nightly news, let's say) and violence from a cartoon or movie.

This is where the ratings for movies and TV comes in and is partially the reason publisher want violence used more like a spice to the dish and not make it the whole entree. So I needn't describe the gruesome details of how the villain dies went his own magic dagger is turned against him and his withers away as his soul is eaten by said dagger. I envision it much the way the Nazi turn to dust at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But rather than give that much detail, which I think is excessive, I merely say, he aged quickly and turned to dust. I leave the rest for the imagination.

And I think that's the point. We, as writers, need to write with a bit of vagueness, I think, particularly when it comes to violence. Being a little vague or implicit is a spice and it leaves the reader room to use his or her imagination in a way that being explicit destroys.

So embrace your dark side but do it carefully, responsibly, and respectfully. Do it to become a better person and a better writer, not to go off half crazed and become the next mass-murderer or manipulative cult leader. Do it to lift up our culture and our society. That is our role as writers and artists. Any thing else is a disservice to our readers and, more importantly, ourselves.


Anonymous said...

I noticed you mentioned excessive violence. In some genres, like horror, this dark side, including graphic scenes of violence, are not discouraged. I tend to lean towards the darker side myself when I write. More so, I would say, than the average fantasy writer so I usually define what I write as dark fantasy.

There are some particularly gruesome scenes in some of my books, but they are specifically there to show the base nature of the villain involved. My heroes also tend to be at least somewhat flawed, which means to offset that, the villains have to be that much more heinous (like one of my favourite songs by Melanie Doane "without the ugly, there is no beautiful").

Not that I don't turn the tables a little the other way. Sometimes there are positive traits to my villains, but not positive enough to overcome the negative. Enough, I would like to think, that it spawns a little sympathy for them in the reader.

Anyway, I've learned to embrace my dark side, but only when it comes to my fiction.


Rich Feitelberg said...

Yes, that's the point. Embrace the dark side for your fiction and not much more.

As for excessive violence let me say that horror as a genre can probably tolerate more of it than fantasy can. I expect a bit more because it is horror and therefore my reaction is like to be 'that's horrible' refer to the events in the story, not the story itself or the writing. This begs the question again, 'what is excessive?' and that's ultimately subjective. My one guideline is: if the level of violence is required to tell the story probably, keep it; otherwise revise it. Remember, the point of a horror story is to scare you and to show you nasty and gross things.

In fantasy, (which more of my remarks were about) I don't expect or want lots of violence. Sure, heroes can be flawed and villain noble and opposing forces will fight and some will die but don't show me orcs eating and sucking the blood marrow because I don't want to see it any more than I want to see villain disenboweled.
To point in fantasy is to escape, get caught up in the struggle (the conflict), and feel the catharsis at the end when the world comes back into balance.