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Into The Shadows: Why We Should Explore The Dark Side Of Fiction

The presence of the darkness points us to the light and the hope we find outside our miserable, messed up lives.
| Mar 28, 2017 | 3 comments |

As Christians, we often find it too easy to avoid dark fiction.

Stories that are willing to examine the arc of a character who’s, say, a prostitute.

Stories that don’t send every swear word to the guillotine because perish the thought we read one of those.

Stories that don’t demand the use of demure princesses in modest dresses and charming heroes whose reputation is so flawless that personal struggles of the darkest variety stick to them as well as duct tape sticks to water.

The Dark Side of Fiction

Beyond the sunny meadows of chivalry, virtuous characters, and the triumph of the good side lurks a dark forest. A forest tangled with the thorns of evil, shrouded in shadow and creeping with dangerous, unsavory things.

Such is the ill repute of this forest that people avoid it like they avoid the stench of the trash heap. Why would we venture into this place when we could easily take the sunlit path of happy times? Through a safe land where characters impart just the right words at just the right time and we needn’t bother with the scumbags because they don’t belong to our moral-filled club?

I’d like to challenge that notion and suggest we can, and should, be willing to read stories that don’t fit the prescribed model of clean fiction. Not because we enjoy the guilty pleasure or want to vicariously participate in the immorality, but because it presents truth.

More importantly, the presence of the darkness points us to the light and the hope we find outside our miserable, messed up lives.

We Need the Darkness

Please don’t mistake me. I’m not advocating stories that glorify violence, sex, swearing, or anything else typically associated with immoral elements we need to lock away behind the bars of caution and discernment.

However, I am suggesting that we shouldn’t automatically bring out the AK-47s when we smell the odor that even hints at such questionable content. Why do we so readily reject the realities of our broken world when they slip into the pages of fiction?

The Lie of Clean Fiction

The biggest problem I see with so-called clean fiction is the subtle mistruth it presents by offering us artificial stories.

  • Prayers are answered the way the characters expect.
  • People repent too easily.
  • The swaggering gangster uses pseudo swear phrases that don’t fit his character because anything more colorful is too offensive.

In the end, though, when the darkness of our corrupt world forces its way into our lives, we realize that all the perfect families, role-model characters, and moralistic messages have no answer for the reality of life. Life isn’t filled with squeaky-clean relationships. It doesn’t fit into our box of piety and propriety.

It punches us in the teeth. It knocks us down and tramples us in the mud.

One prime example is warfare, common in science fiction and fantasy. It’s a brutal, ugly mess, not a heroic clash of good versus evil where the knights in shining armor always dispose of their enemies while suffering nary a scratch.

Violence is part of life, and a story that includes fighting shouldn’t shy away from the reality of battle. There is a limit to the amount of gore and detail needed, but glossing over a battle with passing remarks that don’t do justice can be detrimental, too. It paints an idealized picture in our heads and suddenly, without realizing it, we have a misconception of war that at best gives us a vague idea of what it’s like to be in battle and at worst trivializes its horrors.

The Purpose of Dark Fiction

What’s the point in all this? Why do topics that make us uncomfortable have a role in the stories we read?

Let me ask this.

What is the comfort of sunshine without the gloom of shadow?

What is the joy of love apart from the sting of betrayal?

What is the beauty of redemption if it’s detached from the corruption of a fallen world?

The powerful stories, the ones that haunt you long after the final page has been turned and give you the chills—those stories endure because they say something about how the world works. By exploring the dark caverns of broken lives, violent deeds, and scandalous endeavors, they can emerge into the grace-filled air with more vigor than a story that skims over the disagreeable parts.

We don’t appreciate our health until we’re struck by sickness. In the same way, we can’t value the threads of loyalty, love, sacrifice, mercy, and grace woven into stories without first seeing and understanding their shadowy opposites. Not in excessive ways, but by dealing honestly with them.

Every story should reflect the real world, not in exactly the same way we experience it, but so that when we read about a character’s problems or see the situation they’ve been dragged into, we glimpse a reflection of truth.

And ultimately, the dark side of fiction directs our attention toward the relief, hope, and joy found in the shining truths of mercy and redemption.

Do you see any benefits or concerns with looking into the dark side of fiction?

*This post appeared in original form in October, 2015, at zacharytotah.com

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KT Sweet
Guest

Agreed, especially in that when we write dark, we mine our own truths, from our imperfect lives. Authentic, flawed characters touch readers’ hearts because they can relate. Most of us fear revealing what isn’t shiny. Me, included. But the best stories resonate with our complicated brokenness that may be transformed or drown us in life’s swamp. Thank you for the reminder. I’m re-writing several characters right now, seeking to infuse them with believable, sometimes dark inner conflict.tha

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

You nailed it. I could not agree more. There is one book that contains every single thing the “clean fiction” folks decry: The Bible. The Scriptures. God’s Story that’s not fiction, told the way He told it, as messy and as dark as it gets. You can’t read the Bible and avoid a head-on collision here. As far as other works go, you are also absolutely right — it takes discernment and care, but not shunning. What you read or don’t read thereby is nobody’s business but the Holy Spirit’s and yours. Why should my liberty be determined by another man’s standards I mean scruples?Someone said something like that, once.

Great, great post. I’d love to see you expand on it!

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Love it, man. I agree on many levels. Although dark fiction is not always “unclean.” We need dark stories as long as there’s darkness in the world! Dark stories help me feel compassion for people who struggle with things I don’t, because it causes you to experience their perspective.