Why We Need Stories about Dark Things
One of the things I get tired of from time to time is the perspective that if something shows evil behavior then that means the story, song, game, whatever, is inherently bad. But there is a difference between illustrating evil behavior and promoting it.
Not all appearances of bad behavior invite bad behavior.
While one purpose of storytelling is to entertain, another purpose is to teach or educate–a purpose that in today’s world, most people seem to have forgotten.
A long time ago, there used to be all sorts of horrific stories told. Open Grimms’ fairy tales, and you’ll see that Cinderella really isn’t that Disney-friendly. But often some of those older stories were meant to teach a lesson or scare children into behaving (that latter point is one I personally don’t condone). Horrific things happen in the Bible (and the Book of Mormon). We can often learn from these accounts, but some of them are simply a record of what happened (if you believe in that), whether you like the content or not. It is what it is. Conspiring incest, rape, slaughter, and even cannibalism can be found in scripture stories. In today’s world, most people have been conditioned to believe that stories are only meant to entertain. Or entertain and uplift.
Those two things are valid. But what I get tired of, though, is the perspective that all stories should be full of puppies and rainbows (yeah, that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean), and that’s what we should be writing, and if a story is dark, it’s “bad” or lesser or … something.
The World Needs Stories about Dark Things
It’s important we write about what I call “the big and heavies”–rape, addiction, suicide, massacre, societal brainwashing, etc. And when I say “we,” I don’t mean specifically that you or I HAVE to; I mean “we” as in us, writers and creatives everywhere. The world needs creatives who delve into the big and heavies, and here’s why:
1. Stories provide a safe means to explore and discuss dark things
The big and heavies are vital to discuss for a healthy society. We shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to dark deeds. We should be turning the right eye to them. Literature offers a safe way to explore and discuss these issues. It offers some distance (because it’s usually a work of fiction) while simultaneously having the ability to offer closeness–empathy.
Also, fiction provides a type of lens to view these behaviors through. Speculative fiction might have a more exaggerated or symbolic lens, such as the fashion industry of Panem in The Hunger Games, or the discussion of pure bloods in Harry Potter. A lens lets us view the issues in a way that may emphasize certain points or give us a new perspective on them, and again, the distance can provide a bit of a “safe” buffer for readers. We aren’t talking about racism; we’re talking about magical blood–and we can have a whole discussion on it that correlates with issues seen in racism, and no one needs to feel uncomfortable because this is about wizarding blood. Even realistic fiction provides a perspective, though less exaggerated, to see these issues through.
2. Powerful, emotional ramification drives home a point or idea or lesson.
Unlike reading text books or the news, fiction writing often works off making the audience feel something. It appeals to emotional experience, even more than intellectual experience. It is one of the only mediums where we can put on the skin and thoughts of another person.
In parts of society, we try hard to divorce intellect and emotion, but powerful emotional experiences are often what cement ideas and lessons into our minds. Back in the day, fathers used to take their children out to their property line and beat them so that the child would never forget where the property line was. We’ve seen similar conditioning with training wild animals. Both are crude examples, of course, but the emotional experience drove home the lesson. While negative emotions are powerful, this same thing can happen with strong positive emotions. We remember powerful feelings of happiness and of love, and if there are any lessons or insights associated with those, we recall those too.
In fiction, emotional experiences can drive home powerful lessons. And they stick with the audience.
Strong emotional experiences in fiction amplify the conceptual ramifications of dark deeds, and cements into the reader the weight of such behavior, in a way that pure intellect cannot. Once we “experience” an issue, we care more about it. Fiction is a vehicle that allows us to develop and fine-tune our empathetic skills, so we can better understand and relate to those who’ve dealt with such issues.
3. Explore, cognitively, the causes, consequences, and facets of the big and heavies
In the real world, we live our own lives in our own perspectives, and that’s it. In literature, you can include several perspectives of those involved with an issue. You can often see the issue’s causes, consequences, and facets to a degree you may not in your own life. You can see far-reaching effects in a matter of hundreds of pages, rather than decades or hundreds of years. This opens up new ideas, new perspectives on the topic, which leads to more discussion.
4. To provide hope and uplift, in spite of darkness. To overcome.
I sometimes see this weird idea that an uplifting story needs to not cross some invisible line too far into the dark. In some ways, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a Harry Potter fan, I’ve had friends come up to me and talk about how they’re disappointed that the stories got darker and darker. Maybe I’m weird (okay, there’s no “maybe” about it), but I like that. I like stories getting dark. I like when they get darker and darker. I like my evil, evil. I want the Voldemort who tries to possess Harry to get Dumbledore to kill him. I want the Voldemort who tortured animals as a small child and who murdered others to split his soul into seven pieces. The world is often an evil place. And how much more powerful is it to overcome the bowels of the most wicked, than it is to overcome a guy who shoplifted? I like my evil, evil. Not because I want to be part of the dark, but because I like seeing people overcome it.
A story that includes dark materials can be just as uplifting, if not more uplifting (because of the contrast) than a story that doesn’t. The idea that a story can’t be dark and inspiring is just unfounded.
Every Christmas season, I become a fan of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra all over again. If you’ve never heard of them, you may still recognize some of their most iconic Christmas songs, some of which have gone viral on synchronized Christmas light videos.
What many people might not realize is that each of their Christmas albums actual tells, and comes with, a written story. If you see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra live, they will read the story to you bits at a time, interspersed with music. But not all their stories are about happy sleigh rides, warm fires, Christmas hams, and decorated trees. There are parents who abandoned their disabled children, babies born addicted to crack, love that has been lost. But the stories and albums are uplifting, not because the creators avoided dark subject matter, but because they illustrated the power of overcoming–overcoming difficult times and personal mistakes. It’s hard to make it through one of their performances with a dry eye through the whole thing.
5. To render reality–others’ reality or your own
But some stories aren’t necessarily meant to be about overcoming the dark or inspiring an audience. Some stories are just about reality. Human nature. The natural man. Experiences that people actually go through. Some stories are simply meant to render, often for reasons 1-3. It’s a statement. It’s meant to create social awareness, empathy. Maybe it’s meant to start a discussion. Those stories need to exist too.
Keep in mind that many audiences only see stories strictly as mediums for entertainment and, on a subconscious level, a reinforcement of a positive, maybe even sugary, feelings and ideas. Those audiences may (on a subconscious level) refuse anything that is otherwise, and consider any mention of the dark and heavies as something that shouldn’t be there. That is their right.
And in some cases, they are correct. Some stories do not need and should not have dark content. It doesn’t serve the purpose of the story, it messes up the tone of the story, and it can ruin what was already working. You wouldn’t, for example, put in a serious plot line in The Office about Pam being legitimately raped. It doesn’t fit.
And with all that said, you shouldn’t feel forced to write content you feel very uncomfortable writing. Your work should reflect the writerly you.
Next week, I’ll talk about how to write about dark things without promoting them.