Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing dark fiction

When I started this series, I posed two main questions. Why do I like to reach such depressing fiction? And why do I like to write it? I’ve chipped away at the first question a bit, but not yet touched the second. Originally, the only reason I could come up with was, “because that’s where my ideas come from.”

Seems sort of obvious, but there is a bit of depth to that. One possible explanation is that I hide a dark nature deep inside. I’d like to think that’s not quite it. Sure, I have my cranky moments – especially those torturous minutes between when my alarm goes off and when coffee is ready. But overall, my life is pretty good.

The second explanation is that I read a lot of dark fiction, and where I read, I get inspiration for ideas. And I do read a lot of dark fiction, but that can’t be all. Right?

As I often do when I’m having trouble explaining myself, I sought out why others like to write dark fiction.
I write horror because it’s horrible. I want to bring light to what has happened in the real world. I can’t do that by becoming a politician or a civil rights activist, because that’s not who I am. I am a writer. I write… There’s a lesson. Sometimes you have to dig for it, but it’s always there. I write to make you think. And if I can make you think, then maybe I can make you talk. And if I can make you talk, well…maybe then I can make a difference.
I like that thought, but it doesn't match my reasons. 

These next two are very far off:
Why is it so fun to write horrible/terrifying things into a book? I think the main reason (for me) is catharsis. There is something so cleansing about putting a character (even one you love) through the ringer. I find it easier to dump the stresses in my own life onto their fictional shoulders in the form of monsters in the darkness and painful injuries than it is to carry it around myself. They cannot suffer like a real person of flesh and blood, and for those moments as I write, I can forget my own suffering.
I think the first, and possibly most obvious reason, is people are consumed by death. The fact that we are mortal, that our time here is finite, haunts us daily. And perhaps the only thing more haunting than the idea that we will someday die is the fear that we may one day die a brutal, violent, tortuous death—or maybe that’s just me.The entertainment is the catharsis involved, the ability to give ourselves over to our greatest fears in a safe environment where we know we’re not going to die. This point, I believe, is also true for why I write dark fiction, as it gives me an active role in working out some of my own deepest, darkest fears, exorcising them on the page and leaving them to haunt the imaginations of my readers.

When I was first writing, I would indeed tell dark stories as a way to take these ugly emotions inside me and turn them into something whole, something beautiful. That’s not so much the case now. I will write about situations that I find scary, but I don’t really have the desire to “haunt” anyone either.

I certainly don’t exult in torturing my characters or in designing Bad Guys. On the contrary, I get a little bored of serial killer stories, particularly those short stories about serial killers and scenes from their POV. I get it. You’re crazy. You think Evil Thoughts in overly dramatic and excessively foreshadowed style.
One reason was a little closer: 
In real life, you would never want to endure watching people die around you, fight in a horrible battle, or crawl through a slimy hole in the ground filled with terrifying creatures, just to feel like you succeeded at something... In fiction, the characters can endure such things, and their success is almost as fulfilling to the writer as if they had done it themselves. Seeing your character grow, knowing that they are becoming more and more real is a point of great pride and pleasure to a writer. The same can apply to the reader.

This is close. I do like to write stories where characters overcome tough obstacles. But I wouldn't say I had pride in their achievements, being that they are created and controlled by me.

When I wasn't able to find anyone whose reasons perfectly matched mine, I stared at the ceiling for a while. I even had to turn off my music (sorry, Yo Yo Ma) to avoid any distraction. Finally, I wondered if I'd been thinking about the question in the wrong way. I started this out thinking about why my ideas for stories were always dark ones. But maybe that was the wrong way for me to look at it, because inspiration is a nebulous thing that occasionally defies description. But why do I keep working on those dark ideas I get? That's a little easier. Since I read a lot of dark fiction as a teenager, I was inspired by the stories of characters who overcome terrible situations. And that's my goal every time I sit down to write a dark fantasy story: someday I might inspire someone to overcome their problems the way I was inspired to overcome mine.

And okay, maybe I also like to come up with cool and original demons. I blame my biology background for that.


  1. I think it's so interesting to try to pry out why we do what we do. It took a ridiculously long time for me to realize the personal motivation for one of my stories - many I never do figure out.

    This has been a fascinating glimpse into dark fiction. Great post!

  2. Very interesting. I'm always fascinated with what inspires other writers. I find in my writing I tend to rehash certain themes in different ways. I haven't tried to psychoanalyze myself to figure out why, yet.

  3. The books I love most are either the ones that end happily, or the ones where the main character dies in some horrible way to teach the reader about life. (Think 1984.) The former is what I end up writing. My characters struggle, but ultimately I give them happy ends. I can't stand to kill them off, and I'm okay with sacrificing a little bit of depth for that. I don't usually look any further into it than that, but it's a great question. Why do I write what I write? It's not one I think I can answer right now. Great post!

  4. For myself, I write . . . grim fiction (somehow dark doesn't seem right), and I think that's because that's more like my life. No, I've never seen a good friend shot or really had to face my own death, but I wouldn't wish my life on anyone else. So I can't write a lot of "happy". But I wonder if the reason I DO write the grimness is because I have a need to tell, to connect with other people who have not had easy, to see I'm not alone.

    Also though, I find often times it is kind of a therapy where I look at what are the real reasons I do things. It's not just about telling, I'm searching for things. And sometimes I don't know what, usually I get closer when a character surprises me. Like once, I felt a little closer to God, when I wrote a villain. Not just any villain, a villain who started out as a friend to the "good guy" who was actually just coming out of a villanous period, and it occurred to me when I realized death was imminent for the villain . . . I really wanted to save him. For a moment I understood what it was like to want to save something simply because you created it and had poured love on it, even if it rejected you (the villain is rejecting the author). That may be over spiritual, but it's what occurred to me.


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