Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Only the Darkest Shades of Gray

By Sophie

How dark is too dark for you?

I used to think I didn't have an outer limit for dark. I mainline bleak like other people put away Ben 'n Jerry's or fresh air or right-wing talk radio - which is to say hungrily, immoderately, addictively.

I don't merely appreciate flawed characters, I crave them.

Part of my problem is that I'm a natural-born envelope-pusher. A rebel, a contrarian. I don't like being told what to do. Everyone knows, for instance, that good needs to prevail over evil; that altruistic impulses ought to be rewarded; that everything happens for a reason.

Only, what if it doesn't?

I mean, isn't it kind of interesting to set aside what we know about fictional humans, and reach into the grab-bag of our observation and imagination and work with whatever deeply flawed character we pull out? Do so and you get to work with questions like these:

  • Think of the most horrific crime you can imagine - is there ever a circumstance where it's justified?
  • Could you love a child who lacks a conscience?
  • Is there a man or woman alive who cannot be tempted to abandon everything s/he holds dear?
  • Is addiction a curse from the gods, or a necessary expression of a particular corner of the human soul?
  • Is true forgiveness possible?
  • Is it possible to determine the exact moment when a tortured soul crosses over into irredeemable? How close can you drive your narrative to that cliff's edge without going over?
  • How profoundly can you taint romantic love before you turn it into something else entirely?

Yikes, I tossed those off in mere moments. And I could keep going and going. Oh be still, my heart - I'm getting all excited just thinking about all of these possibilities...horror and perversity and violence get my blood pounding.

I am absolutely aware that a great many readers - a majority, in fact - prefer lighter reading. They want their heroes to be good and their villains to be bad, their justice served cold and their love stories to be firmly in the happy-ever-after camp.

But my own restless mind wanders when I try to write in that territory. A dear friend frequently insists that fiction ought to be pure entertainment. I don't disagree,'s just that I find the darkness way more entertaining than the alternative.

As it turns out, even I have my limits. A friend recently introduced me to a work that I wish I'd never seen, proving that I do have a bit of marshmallow left on the inside. Frankly I'm glad to know that's the case - I'd like to hang onto the possibility I might go soft someday.

Incidentally, I like other stuff too. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for soul-gouging, you know? I own books that make me laugh and romances that make me dab at my eyes with a hanky, and I'm quite fond of them. I own a Bible and, until recently, about two hundred books about quilting. I own cookbooks and trail books and guidebooks, and they all have their place.

But when I'm in the mood for dark, please don't drop me off in the suburbs - drive me straight to the seething heart of it.


Jen Forbus said...

Sophie - I LOVE those questions, too! I gravitate toward the characters that don't fit into the white hat/black hat mold. One of my all-time favs is Joe Pike. Now there's a psychological study for you! And of course one of the greats of crime fiction - Hannibal Lector!

I asked Gregg Hurwitz about his characters one time and he told me that the older he got the more he created antagonists over villains. And I think that Dennis Lehane has that character mastered as well. Those characters are truly the most fun.

Really, I don't feel entertained until I feel challenged as a reader. So bring on those questions!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Dennis Lehane is definitely one of the masters - especially in his series, which doesn't get the attention it deserves. Hurwitz, Crais et. al - good list!!!! Hurwitz is one of the only thriller writers IMHO that puts character first - right square where it ought to be.

Shane Gericke said...

Bravo, well said, Sophie. I disagree completely with your correspondent that fiction should be pure entertainment. The best fiction is driven by entertainment, but is about something deep and meaningful. Dark gets to those "heart" questions much more quickly than light n fluffy.

As for characters, they shouldn't be cartoon characters. They should be real, full-fleshed people with the dark streaks that infest all of us. If bishops and cardinals can cover for child molesters without breaking a sweat, yes, we ALL can have that streak of putridity within us. The best fiction explores that in our characters.