Last week, I did a post on why it's important that the world has fiction stories with dark content. You can read that post here. Today I'm going to talk about how to handle dark content--without promoting it.
Long ago, in my first year of blogging, I did a series of posts about the value of shock in writing, explaining that not all shock is bad. Today's topic overlaps with some of those ideas and is yet different from them.
Handling Dark Content Correctly
Before I get into how to deal with evil behavior, I want to explain why it's important we handle dark content correctly. In the writing world, you may have heard of "gratuitous" content. Gratuitous content is graphic violent, sexual (or any other dark subject matter) content that is thrown into a story for little to no purpose other than to shock the audience. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators want to be taken more seriously, which is, ironically, the equivalent of a middle-schooler throwing out cuss words because he wants to sound "mature." It might be thrown in just to get a PG-13 or R rating. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators think that it's what their audience wants.
There is a poor way of handling graphic or dark content and there is a right way.
Now, I should note though that some stories use graphic content as form of exaggerated entertainment. You can find famous examples of this in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, such as the sword fight with the dark knight and the killer bunny. While some people may disagree with this sort of thing, the bloody content serves the story in that it uses exaggeration and extremes to intentionally create humor. In short, it has a purpose that fits the narrative and characters.
This is not the kind of use of graphic content I'll be talking about today.
The difficulty of working with shocking or evil content is that it can blow up in your face like the Holy Hand Grenade. You might accidentally end up sounding like that amateur middle-schooler, or worse, promoting bad behavior. Just because we have evil deeds happening in our story doesn't mean we want our readers to go out and commit them.
Here are some ideas on how to handle writing what's evil.
Antagonist or Protagonist or Other?
First, an important question to consider is, who is delving out the evil content? And this goes from being simplistic to deal with to complex (as outlined below). Here are some of the different options, and how they are commonly handled. (If you are in a hurry, feel free to skim this section, and get to the next which has additional, specific techniques to use.)
Antagonist as a PersonOne of the easiest and most-used techniques of dealing with the dark and heavies is to have a villain be the one dishing them out. Voldemort may murder people on his way to immortality, but Harry never would, and he sees such behavior as evil.
If you see most children's movies (the old Disney movies are often good examples), any villain that illustrates evil behavior gets some force of justice in the end, whether it's being eaten by his own henchmen in Lion King or accidentally hanged in Tarzan. Disney's protagonists are almost never the one to actually delve out the demise. Simba doesn't actually kill Scar, for example. He's above such behavior. The ending of Harry Potter works in a similar way.
But not all villains are killed or even properly defeated, especially in realistic stories. That doesn't mean,though, the protagonist can't win. The protagonist may win by overcoming evil, whether or not the villain actually sees justice. And if the protagonist doesn't win at all, he or she at least gains an insight that was worth the cost of the story. They may be "sadder but wiser." In a case like this, they can still be in great pain or struggling through the darkness of life, but they've learned a truth about the world--whether it's an Absolute Truth or a worldly truth (read about the difference here).
Antagonist as a SocietyMany people didn't like Mockingjay partly because like Katniss, they mistakenly began to believe that President Snow was the antagonist. But if you look at The Hunger Games, from the beginning, the enemy was actually a society, not a single person. There were presidents before president Snow. And there are people other than President Snow. The enemy is the natural evil appetites of human beings. The antagonist is the society.
A society that delves out evil behavior is a little more difficult to deal with. The protagonist either has to change the society, its structure or ideologies, or rise above and overcome the society on a personal level. These are good ways to illustrate the wrongness of the society. Again, you can have the same ending mentioned above. The protagonist is sadder but wiser.
Antagonist as SelfYour main character may have done or is doing evil deeds, and he is in conflict with that. Mistakes of dark deeds he did may haunt him. Or maybe he has a natural tendency toward an evil behavior, a temptation. He seems to be constantly struggling to remain loyal to his wife, for example. Maybe he's had a few affairs. He doesn't like it or agree with it, but he is weak, and he is giving into that weakness, while hoping to be able to be better, to be stronger in the future. Or maybe he struggles with a temper. He doesn't want to admit it, and wouldn't tell it to anyone because no one could possibly understand, but he gets an innate thrill over being violent toward others. He knows this is psychotic and wrong, but the reality is, he struggles with it. In I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, the protagonist struggles with psychotic desires to kill others, but lays down personal rules and guidelines to keep from doing it.
Again, the protagonist may "win" by overcoming. He learns to resist temptation. He conquers his temper. Or at the very least, he learns how to cope and deal with it, so it never rules over him. If he doesn't win a profound lesson is learned either by him or the audience.
ProtagonistThis one can get complicated. The protagonist is doing the evil deeds, but she's not in conflict with them, so they aren't antagonistic. She does dark deeds, but she's okay with that, or has at least mostly reconciled any internal conflict about it. In some cases, there may be some conflict, but not enough to be a noteworthy arc, not enough to be a true antagonist. The protagonist doesn't plan to change. For example, you may have a protagonist who is murdering people. He might not like the fact he is murdering people necessarily, so there is conflict, somewhat, but things aren't going to change. It's part of the story, but it's not the main antagonist. The real conflict comes from trying not to get caught.
OtherSome dark deeds aren't done by a protagonist or an antagonist necessarily, they are just something that happens. A character got raped by a stranger and has to deal with that. In cases like this, it's more like "life happens." It may not be a main arc, it just is. Dark things happen in the world of your story.
Take Note ofMost popular stories have the evil deeds done by the antagonist as a person, and usually that person is defeated. In cases like this, the story portrays evil behavior as "other"--something we see apart from ourselves and point our fingers at.
There is a whole spectrum of bad behaviors. Stealing candy is a lot different than forcing children to compete to the death on reality t.v. for entertainment. If you want to go dark and deal with some heavy things, or you feel that it serves the story to go dark, there are some ways to do that without promoting it.
Actions and ConsequencesA story is more than just content. It's more than just things happening. You may have heard of this famous example to illustrate that point: "'The king died and then the queen died' is not a story. 'The king died and then queen died of a broken heart' is."
Good stories deal with cause and effect.
When delving into dark material, how you handle the consequences of such behavior is a huge factor. I know I refer to The Hunger Games a lot, but it's one of my favorite darker stories and one most people are familiar with.
Some people dismissed The Hunger Games as evil simply because of the content. True, evil things happen in it, but the story itself doesn't promote that behavior. It doesn't glorify it or portray it as good. President Snow might, but the story itself does not.
One of the ways Suzanne Collins handles this evil society without encouraging it, is by illustrating the horrible ramifications and consequences of such behavior. There is a lesson to be learned from Panem. Even when the Capitol tries to make the victors into celebrities and bathe them in riches, we see the tragic effects--the cost of being a victor. (As Peeta says, "It takes everything you are.") None of the victors the readers identify with like their life. In fact, they are all still slaves. Even Cato who yearned to be in the Hunger Games ends up realizing he is a slave to his country.
We also see that this behavior is actually bad for the society. When President Snow warns Katniss himself that the country was unstable, Katniss points out it must be a weak society then.
Now, if the story itself instead portrayed the Hunger Games to be a good thing, with the ultimate goal being to win and live a celebrity lifestyle--and it was amazing and glamorous and everything was cool, then the story might be glorifying that behavior, and therefore promoting it.
One way of dealing with evil behavior is by showing significant, negative consequences.
Handling ToneYou could almost say The Hunger Games would have been promoting evil behavior if it was written with someone in the Capitol as the protagonist, or as President Snow as the protagonist. But that's not 100% right either. It's actually entirely possible to write a story with an evil person as the protagonist and not promote evil behavior. You can still show powerful, negative consequences for one, but it can also be handled through tone.
The short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a pretty good example of this. None of the characters we see are really against the evil behavior (until they actually have the chance to become victim to it.) No one in the village is trying to change tradition. But the tone of the story, the contrast in it, is cutting. The tone of the story tells us there is a lesson to be learned, and what is happening is not a good thing. We don't feel happy and accomplished after reading this story, we feel uncomfortable, which is exactly how we are supposed to feel.
Not all stories are meant to make us feel good. The tone can clue us into how we should view and approach this story. A story where every character is doing evil deeds is not necessarily a story that is promoting those evil deeds.
Learn more about creating and controlling tone here.
Deviating the Reader's Experience from the Character'sIf your viewpoint character is doing dark deeds and doesn't regret it, or even feels happy about it, that doesn't automatically promote evil behavior either. In situations like this, often the best thing to do is to deviate the reader's emotional experience from the character's, so that they aren't actually experiencing the same emotions even if they are witnessing the same event.
If your content is very dark or raw, this might be a good approach too. I have a whole post on deviating the reader's experience from the character's, so I'm not going to rewrite all of it, but you can learn about it here. This also relates to tone.
Empathy and UnderstandingIn some cases, you may need to have the opposite approach. This often works well for the antagonist-as-self situations, where the character doesn't necessarily like what she is doing, but is doing it anyway, either out of weakness or a belief that it is the best or only option.
When we empathize or understand the character's feelings and thought-process, we understand why dark things are happening or why they have this particular perspective, even if we don't agree with them (heck, in some cases the character may not agree with or like it herself.)
In cases like this, we recognize that the darkness isn't palatable, even though it's taking place. We sympathize not because we agree, but because we recognize what the character is experiencing.
ThemeThe theme of the story is the statement or argument it's making about the world (and perhaps the most important element of today's topic). Your story says something about the world, even if you don't want it to. In Harry Potter, one of the most prevalent themes is that loves conquers all. Theme does not necessarily dictate how dark or light your story should be. With that theme, you could go as dark as you wanted; you could have rape, murder, brainwashing, drugs, abuse, but if the story ultimately teaches and portrays that love conquers all that, and utilizes that theme powerfully and well, then your story is promoting that teaching, rather than the evil deeds.
Les Miserables is a perfect example of this sort of thing in action. One of the loudest themes of the story that we see over and over again is that mercy is more powerful than justice. It's illustrated in everything from the Bishop showing Valjean mercy after he's been dealt justice, to Javert committing suicide because he couldn't live with himself after Valjean showed him mercy (note how that is shown in actions and consequences). Les Miserables may deal with convicts, thieves, illness, prostitutes, unsuccessful revolutions, and various forms of suffering, but the themes ring loud and clear. While no characters escape the torment of life, the full journey of Valjean illustrates the profound effects of mercy and truly that "When you love another person, you see the face of God." In fact, it is the contrast of the darkness and enlightenment in Les Miserables that makes it such a powerful story. No one can end it with a dry eye.
But here's the thing. This is where I see writers mess this up: the theme should always be bigger, more powerful than the dark content.
Theme > Darkness
This means that the darker your story goes, and the longer your story is dark, the stronger the theme needs to be. This doesn't mean it needs to be preachy, loud, or rampant on every page. It means it needs to be present, powerful, and significant.
Gratuitous content almost always happens when the darkness is bigger than the theme or need:
Darkness > Theme
It's unbalanced. The darkness doesn't serve the message of the story.
The theme does not need to be a "feel-good" idea. It can be a wise one. The theme in The Hunger Games that "no one decent ever wins the games" (which is fully illustrated when Coin succeeds as acting President), is not a feel-good theme. But it's a wise and realistic one.
You can have more than one theme in a story. In fact, I don't think it's possible to write a story that only has one. But whatever your story is saying about life, the world, and human experience, it should be more significant than the graphic content. The dark content, as mentioned last time, is a way to drive home a point. The message is that point. And it can be an Absolute message or a worldly message.
So hopefully that gives you some tools to deal with dark content. Next week I'll be putting up a post on specific traits you can give your characters to hike up tension in your story. Not all character traits are created equal in that regard.