Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Darkness in Fiction: How Dark is Too Dark?

Evil exists.

We might want to ignore it. We might want to hide from it. We even might want to deny its power completely. But open a newspaper, flip on the television or click onto the internet, and we are reminded once again how very real evil is.

No, the problem is not whether evil exists. The problem is what to do with it, both in life and in fiction.

Is Evil Permissible?

God is holy. He cannot stand any sin or any evil, from the tiniest lie to the worst mass murder. Anything that carries even a smudge of such darkness is, under normal circumstances (see Job 1 and 2 for an exception), banished from His presence.

Therefore, shouldn’t Christian fiction reflect this?

Of course. But that doesn’t mean we should banish the evil from our stories. Putting aside the fact that such a void would cause the story to ring untrue, we rather must consider how we incorporate and portray the darkness. For even God didn’t fail to include the stories of the Fall, Abraham’s lies, David’s adultery, or Judas’s betrayal in Scripture.

But just because evil or sin is acknowledged, a novel isn’t necessarily dark. So what about dark fiction makes it dark?

When Evil Takes Over

God is light (1 John 1:5). Therefore, the darkness must be the antithesis of Him. So a “dark” book would be a novel where there is more darkness—those things opposite of God—than the light, the attributes of God. So in the simplest terms, a dark story is where evil or the attributes of Satan (e.g. despair, deception, death) dominates the story.

Again, a question arises: does that make it wrong?

Not necessarily. For evil is strong—often more than we want to admit—and sometimes (dare I say often?) it appears to be the ruling force. Since fiction is to mimic reality, such a world must be portrayed occasionally.

Moreover, how can we show the power of God and hope in Him, one of Christian fiction’s primary goals, if we don’t show the darkness? For no one hopes for what he already has (Romans 8:24). Accordingly, God provided us Judges and Revelation, two very dark books filled with hope and the comfort of His Sovereignty.

So How Dark is Too Dark?

Ah, we’ve reached the core of this issue. It’s a hard question, one I’ve wrestled with many months as my writing has taken me to a level of darkness I did not want to go.

On one hand, it is an individual matter, based on personality, experience, maturity, and amount of immersion.

Because I am an introspective person with an overactive imagination, my tolerances for darkness are very low. I cannot read Peretti or Dekker, even though I know they’re both good authors with much of value to say. But my personality makes them wrong for me.

Likewise, the age will make a difference. For an extreme example, it isn’t wrong to write or read about rape—unless the intended reader is eight years old. That level of evil is inappropriate for that age. And this is one reason I struggle with the darkness level in The Book of Names. The level felt too strong for the majority of the intended readership.

The other factors, experiences and immersion, also affect this. If you read only dark fiction, you’ve probably become desensitized on a level that requires withdrawal from such books, making them wrong for you. And if you are in the midst of difficult times, especially those evoking emotional distress, such fiction could prey on you, causing more damage than healing.

That all said, there must be a concrete line, for some books irrevocably cross it, no matter the personality, maturity, immersion level, or experiences of the reader.

Where’s the Line?

Like so much in life, it all comes down to balance. If the darkness is strong, the light ultimately must be shown as stronger. To do otherwise is to break moral law (those spiritual truths written into the universe much like the law of gravity—if what goes up must come down, so the one who sins must die). For God is always the strongest, and in the end, He always wins. Books that even imply differently lie and therefore cross the line.

But a direct lie is not the only way to cross the line. There are several other things that create a gray zone around the line. Walk too near the edge with too many factors, and they will push you over the edge, just like too much weight and erosion on a cliff causes it to crumble. So these things must be considered:

Does the evil appear most powerful? For in reality, light is always stronger: no amount of darkness can extinguish a flame, no matter how small.

Is there a reasonable hope? Evil always has chinks in its armor, and if we can see these, hope and light are ignited. But if they remain hidden, a lie of evil’s strength is told.

Is the evil internal or external? External evil is easier to cope with (and therefore does not seem as dark) because it is based on experiences which few of us have experienced. But internal or psychological evil—now that is a reality we all deal with daily, making the evil and its power more real and personal. However, the darkest place is a combo of the two, for it gives evil the advantage, again promoting the idea that it is strongest.

Are good and evil confused? I’m speaking of the values here, not a good side vs. a evil side. For heroes can have flaws and villains virtues if they are presented as what they are. It is when flaws are called virtues and virtues flaws or that heroes have more flaws than virtues that trouble comes.

Is evil portrayed as an only option, whether for hero or villain? This is a common lie in our culture, but all of us always have a choice.

Are there shafts of light? Small victories go a long way in breaking up the darkness; it reveals the chinks in evil’s armor. Humor also helps, for it defies the hopelessness that darkness has won.

So while Dekker and Peretti are dark, they have counterbalanced it (I have heard) with humor, externalizing most of the evil, and an ending so filled with light and hope that the darkness of the previous pages recede. And yes, Two Towers and Return of the King are dark, but humor, small victories, a clear line of good and evil, the chink of Mt. Doom and the resulting reasonable hope, and the offers of redemption for even the villains (only possible if light is stronger) reminds us of the power of the light.

And this is where I felt The Book of Names failed. The intent was good without a doubt. Mr. Briggs never intended to cross a line, I feel. But the execution of the story was faulty: it walks too close to the edge on too many issues without the proper counterbalance.

The line between good and evil magic is too blurry. Victories are small and shallow; even the climax victory is defused with the body’s disappearance and the following murders of Chapter 47. Darkness dominates both externally and internally (both heroes and villains), making the already powerful evil more potent. And most of all, not enough hope is provided, even knowing there is more books coming. Not enough chinks are known to the reader, few to none to the heroes, and even the mention of Tal Yssen at the end is insufficient from lack of set up and information.

No one of these would have sunk the book. But all together they create an evil too powerful, whose armor chinks are too few, and a solid, reasonable hope that's too weak. This, combined with the target readership and the fact that series tend to get darker before lighter, causes me grave concern.

Of course, there’s always the hope I’ll be proven wrong. :o)

1 comment:

KM Wilsher said...

Hey Chawna,
I followed the link to your blog from Brandon Barr's ChristianScienceFiction.blogspot

I did not read The Book of Names or Dekker, but have read Peretti.

What I liked about this post was that it made me think about my incorporation of evil. Your post gave me specifics I can use to guide my writing.

Good post, thanks!