I decided, in honor of the season, to go with a dark speculation of story. As Brian Godawa’s series has suggested, the “dark genres” often play out by way of confronting human nature, good & evil, and basic human carnality and fears (which, btw, is an excellent series). That’s using darkness to underscore the light, a pitch black background to highlight the brilliance of a sun.
But, first, I want to use the idea of chiaroscuro, which is a sharp contrast between dark and light tones (in art). This can apply to visual light and shadows, mood, or character. What I’m suggesting today is that sometimes it’s light that underscores darkness: That brilliant sun becomes the background that unmasks the tiniest speck of black paint.
The idea actually hit me while I was watching the finale of season one of Merlin.
Here you have this teenage boy with powers no one really knows the scope of and a nature that’s generally amiable and mild-tempered. Yeah, he’s got the spine to tell off the crown prince, but he’s also got the wits to not push beyond what’s acceptable. Merlin’s version of malicious, for the most part, consists of a teenage prank at worst.
But the end of season one contains a showdown between a sorceress and Merlin. Merlin’s rushed off to save Arthur, and he fully intends to sacrifice himself. But what he didn’t anticipate was a friend’s interference and the sorceress agreeing to take the friend’s life instead. He arrives to find the sorceress standing over the fallen friend. The two fight, until finally she lands a blow that knocks him flat.
Merlin quietly stands up, much to Nimueh’s horror, with a strange look in his eyes. In an even tone, he says, “You shouldn’t have killed my friend.” Then he raises his hand and conjures a storm. Lightning strikes the sorceress dead and rain pours down. Then the look leaves Merlin’s face and he runs to his friend’s side.
The reason it hit me is this: For the first time, we get a real glimpse of what Merlin’s capable of, the warlock legend remembers. But had Merlin been a boy given to shows of strength or flashes of dark rage, this brief glimpse of who and what Merlin really is –what he’ll be–wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. In this instance, it’s the lightheartedness of Merlin that underscores his darker mood, however brief. His usual gentleness makes his revenge swift and terrible.
Another example came to me by way of my friend Jeremy, who mentioned a character from the Dresden Files named Ebenezer McCoy. He said, “Imagine Santa Claus–a genuinely jolly Santa Claus–who is a member of the White Council (the good guys), but who secretly serves as their “blackstaff,” a wizard who is not bound by wizarding rules or a concept of right and wrong. Though he is one of the most compassionate characters on the council, he is sometimes forced to commit atrocious acts against their enemies, because he’s the only one who can.”
Then there’s Dar, from Donita Paul’s books. If you’re familiar with the DragonKeeper books at all, you love Dar, the charming negotiator who does everything with a smile on his face . . . until you see him fight. The witty, entertaining servant of Paladin suddenly turns into a decorated war hero (who’d never admit that in public or private) who commands Paladin’s warriors.
Fourthly, I present Walter from Bryan Davis’ series. He plays comic relief more often than not, but if you back him into a corner, especially in Song of the Ovulum, he turns into a hardcore fighter no man in his right mind toys with.
Light reveals the dark.
Push Back the Darkness
I’ve heard a saying more than once in writing circles that evil must be painted with the blackest brush to make the light stand out — and I’m not saying that’s wrong. To be sure, we writers face darkness and evil and put them on open display so that our readers may view the spectacle from a safe distance.
But the draw of something like Merlin or DragonKeeper is that they don’t need intense violence, angsty teenagers, black moods, foul spirits, or an abundance of vice to make their good guys look good. Part of the Merlin draw is that the good guys are not a united force yet, so most of the time they’re getting in each other’s way unwittingly while trying to solve the same problem from the perspective that most makes sense to them. Instead of a dark, brooding story of the events leading to Merlin and Arthur’s reign or a whimsical, silly tale that spoofs the Arthur legends, the show rather takes an even-tempered approach: balancing an overall light tone with the sober reality of the dark forces of magic that continue to lay siege to Uther’s reign as payback for what he’s done to everyone who’s ever used the art.
“He reveals mysteries from the darkness and brings the deep darkness into light.”