Friday, March 23, 2012

Why Do We Like Dark Stories?

Discussion Topic: Why Do We Like Dark Stories?

Back in October 2011, someone commented on my review of LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES with the question: "why do people like such dark stories?" That wasn’t the first time I've been asked this and it's a good question. I started to type a response to that comment, but I found that I kept deleting my response and typing something else, which led me to the realization that I don't have an easy answer. So here's my long, convoluted answer!

I want to specify that I don't seek out dark books. Some people do (and they would probably have a different answer to this question), but I don't. In fact, when someone describes a book as dark (violent, scary, gruesome, disturbing, etc.), I'm more likely to steer away from that book than snatch it up. These ominous adjectives definitely aren't sellers for me.

And yet, a lot of my favorite books are very, very dark. In my attempt at an easy answer, I say it all comes down to how the content’s handled. I'm not inclined toward dark books, but sometimes darkness in a story can be beautiful, illuminating, and even healing. Dark books in the hands of brilliant writers can shake my entire worldview and/or make me learn something new about myself.

Pulling from my own experience, I have a handful of theories on why people might be drawn to dark stories. Of course, it really comes down to specific books and it's not fair to say any person loves all dark tales. I love fantasy, but I don't love every fantasy book. When handled with insight and compassion, though, darkness can actually be a strength in a story.

Finally, I'm getting to the why! The first possibility that springs to most people's minds, especially those who dislike dark stories, is morbid fascination. I like to believe that it's more than that. I know I prefer the focus on psychological and emotional ramifications of violence or trauma than gruesome descriptions of said violence. Along those lines, something interesting that I’ve noticed about myself is that I can tolerate far more violence in books than I can in movies or television. Probably because I don't like being forced to see something. With a violent literary scene, I can paint an image in my head as vivid as I feel comfortable, though authors with extraordinary skill can certainly force images into your mind with less help from your imagination than usual. But with television or movies, there’s no choice about how much to see; you see what’s displayed in front of you. (Unless you’re one of those people who hides under your sweater at frightening scenes, which I confess I have done before.) The point is that when reading a violent scene in a book, I tend to be thinking more about the emotions of each character than about the gore.

Humanity has a dark side. Very rarely do I read about a violent action that I don't believe is realistic. I love my happily-ever-after, nothing-too-terrible-happens stories, too, but I consider them a retreat from reality. Of course, there's an in-between with books that don't easily fit the descriptions "light" or "dark," and I enjoy those as well. In the end, I read to understand, and I would only be doing myself a disservice in terms of understanding people if I refused to consider their darker inclinations and only read the happily-ever-after type books.

Dark stories draw attention to real issues. Even though the darkness in stories mirrors the darkness in reality, most people's lives aren't nearly as trauma-invested as the darkest tales. For those people in safe, sheltered, and content lives, terribly dark books can force them to consider issues they would prefer not to think about, issues that whether they’re exaggerated, fictional, and perhaps even portrayed with a fantastical twist still reflect real problems. Sometimes these books motivate people into action.

Through reading, we learn more about ourselves and about the world. (This ties into my point above that occasionally readers will become so invested in an issue in a book that they take up the cross in real life.) I recently read a psychology study that concluded that people who read a lot of fiction are more empathetic and better at interpreting social situations than people who don't read very much or any fiction. When we read about characters' experiences, we put ourselves in their place. Almost always when I'm reading something, I wonder what I would do if I found myself in the exact same situation as the protagonist (or sometimes side characters), regardless of how incredibly unlikely said situation might be. This is one of the reasons that reading dark stories can be difficult, especially for highly empathetic readers: because, emotionally, they’re too close to living the painful experience. I’m glad I've never experienced the violent, traumatic events that many of my favorite characters suffered through, but I feel reading their story and thinking about what I might do, how I would feel, what I might think, how I would recover from something like that, has helped form my identity.

Reading is safe. I can stop reading at any time. I can shut the book and never pick it up again. If a scene is too violent, I don’t have to keep reading; sadly the ability to cut off violence before the worst part in real life is rare to nonexistent. We choose what we want to read and I read to learn and to understand. I would rather learn some empathy for people with tragic experiences through reading vivid, sensitively painted stories by amazing authors than by experiencing the same darkness firsthand. We all meet people in real life with their own emotional scars. We shouldn’t have to go through the exact same trauma to connect, but devouring countless fiction stories and exposing ourselves to fictional characters of every mindset and background imaginable helps us to understand where someone might be coming from even if our life experience has been so different.

Stories can, and do, help us make sense of reality. The dark side of humanity is a painful truth, a truth many prefer not to think about, to tuck away. Well-told stories have a poignancy and sense of overarching meaning that can help us make sense of our demons. Heroes, villains, plots, and themes can all organize something that is hard to understand.

For some of us, we’re trying to understand something we’ve never been through, simply to help with our lifelong goal of understanding the world and each other. For others, who have actually been through something traumatic and perhaps similar to what they’re reading, they can relate. Sometimes they’re relating more metaphorically. Take, for example, the children’s book SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE. That book scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid! For anyone not familiar with the story, Sylvestor is a donkey who collects pebbles. One day he finds a very special pebble that grants wishes. Then a lion approaches, and, scared and not thinking straight, Sylvester wishes he was a rock. The lion sniffs him and moves on, so he’s safe from that threat, but then he’s trapped as a rock until years later when his parents happen to picnic on him (as a rock), find the magic pebble lying nearby, and wish Sylvester was there with them. Now in the most shallow interpretation of that story, there’s nothing overtly terrifying about it. As a kid I couldn’t even name why I found it so frightening, but as I grew older I realized it was the utter lack of control, the complete and thorough helplessness. There are situations from which heroes and heroines can escape if they’re competent enough, but then there are ones in which they have no choice but to pray for luck or help from someone else. I highly doubt anyone can directly relate to being turned into a rock, but that book resonates strongly with people, adults and children alike, who have felt powerless. Reading well-handled stories that relate to one’s own trauma can be healing even if they have plenty of external support, but especially in cases where the individual hasn’t shared what haunts them with anyone stories can reach out and call to them. In fact, I have both met and read about many authors who wrote books on dark topics, say suicide, eating disorders, rape, abuse to name a few, and were contacted by readers who felt reading the book saved them. Either quite literally from killing themselves, or perhaps saved them from retreating inside themselves and letting the trauma take over the rest of their lives.

Sometimes villains get their punishment in the end. I think of these books as "dark happily-ever-afters." Ones where terrible, disturbing things might happen, but the bad guy never slips away and the victims find comfort in healing relationships with good people. While it can be hard acknowledging the realistic violence, it's comforting to read about worlds where justice seems to be its own force. These are my favorite dark stories.

As I've reiterated, I don't seek out dark books nor do I like them all. Far from it. For every book I read that does an incredible job at tackling a painful topic, I read one where the same topic seems tossed in there for shock factor without any effort to address the real emotional repercussions of such trauma. I touched on this a little in my review of WHO FEARS DEATH. There's a rape scene in there, among other awful, terrible events, that made me squirm in my seat and, no exaggeration, repeatedly look away from the page. I love that book and I’m glad the author made the rape so hard to read. On the reverse, I read another book (that shall not be named) where there's a "big revel" that the protagonist was raped, which seemed more designed to shock the reader. That rape scene was described fairly in depth, too, but what troubled me the most was that this character felt like a disservice to all women in real life who have been raped. She had no emotional scars whatsoever - the rape was just something that had happened to her - and even entered into a romantic, sexual, healthy relationship without a single speedbump along the way. The rape was clearly meant to give her character more depth, but because the author didn't follow through on the emotional repercussions, it did the reverse. Those are the dark stories I cannot stand.

Last, I wanted to mention some of the books I’ve already reviewed and why I think the darkness works well in that story. It makes sense to start with the collection of stories LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by LAINI TAYLOR since that’s what set this whole blog post into motion. The last story in particular spearheaded this discussion. Skipping over a lot of details and plot points, the story plays with the longstanding myths that fairies are fascinated by mortal children and like to keep them as pets. The queen in this story does exactly that, but she grows bored with the children as they grow older. This is where it becomes dark and disturbing. The fairies in this tale are capable of looking into a human’s eyes and then taking over control of their body. So when the queen’s pet children reach about pre-teen age, she and a male fairy each take over a female and male pre-teen human respectively and, controlling their bodies like puppets, force them to have sex. Then the female becomes pregnant, the queen can have a new mortal baby for a pet, and she can dispose of the annoying pre-teen humans however she wishes. Yes, very dark and unsettling, but I see it as yet another twist on the exact same subject matter handled in SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE: complete helplessness. This isn’t just any rape, but it’s a rape in which the humans’ own bodies are being controlled by someone else.

Then there’s WITHER by LAUREN DESTEFANO. In this series, humans discover a cure for cancer and eagerly spread it to everyone only to realize too late that there was a flaw: women now die at twenty and men at twenty-five, cancer-free, of course. This dystopia has led to an increase in human trafficking. With so little time to spare, love and romance are luxuries. Now men, barely adults really, buy teenage girls for wives so they can try to reproduce in the few short years they have remaining. A critical examination can brush this premise off as twisted and morbid, but the author handles the content well. First of all, human trafficking is hardly a fictional construct, so it draws attention to real issues. Second, it raises questions about how we might actually live life if we really had so little time. Despite her intentions, the protagonist Rhine can’t help liking her captor as she realizes he is just another breed of victim.

The premise of LOST VOICES by SARAH PORTER is also rooted in the sinister. Her story follows a tribe of mermaids, but in her take on these creatures mermaids are human girls who were so poorly treated, often abused, that they melted into water, found the sea, and turned to mermaids. One point in Porter’s favor is that she doesn’t dwell on the negative. Occasionally a sign of a story that is utilizing dark themes more for spice is when the author almost seems to take pleasure in constantly reminding the reader of the horrors their character has been through, especially when the reminders aren’t necessary. We know by Porter’s construction that mermaids must have been through something traumatic to be a mermaid, but she lets that thought linger in the background rather than constantly reminding us the specifics of each mermaid’s depressing past. Also I adore this story because Porter employs the darkness to give more depth to a demonized myth. Mermaids are often portrayed as beautiful, wicked creatures that lure humans to their deaths for no particular reason other than the simple excuse: it’s their nature. Porter gave them a reason. Metaphorically this addresses how often we might wish to think someone who has done something horrible is simply a horrible person, but perhaps they were also a victim at one point, too.

Last, I have to talk about THE BLACK JEWELS by ANNE BISHOP. Not only is it one of my favorite series, but it’s one of the darkest series I have ever read and it surprised me to find how much I could love something so packed with violence. Rather than one traumatic rape, this entire world has an epidemic of sexual abuse. I would call it shameless spice if it weren’t for the way it’s handled. There’s so much depth to the story that I struggle to summarize it without leaving important bits out, but I’ll do my best. Bishop’s society brings discussions about gender to the forefront. In this world, it’s often women who rape men. Then there are also questions similar to those that Porter raises: is there such thing as a villain or are villains simply victims hardened towards cruelty? Most of the men who do the raping in this book were at one time abused themselves, implying that violence only creates more violence. Also Bishop has tied sexuality, power, and magic all together so they’re near impossible to separate from each other. Sex is described in a somewhat spiritual way, touching not only on a person’s soul and mind but on their magic. The connection during sex is so personal that if it’s abused it’s easy to “break” someone’s magic so they no longer have any. This explains why rape might become a tool to “break” potential rivals. It also creates discussions about with whom we choose to have sex. In this world, sex becomes much more about trust than about passion. A lusty, impulsive night with a stranger is a dangerous thing in a world where misplaced trust could lead to the loss of magic and, hence, any standing in a world where people are ranked by magical power. Therefore, most of the characters are highly selective about who they choose to sleep with, knowing it must be someone they would trust with their life, because that’s what they’re doing. I can think of more discussions, but I believe those above should serve as evidence that the darkness in THE BLACK JEWELS series forces its readers towards difficult but important questions.

Remember the last sentence of my first paragraph? Yes, that’s a long scroll up on this post, so I’ll remind you: long and convoluted, I warned my answer would be. Humans are not simple creatures and dark stories help to emphasize that. There’s no one clean reason why we read dark stories and why some of us connect with them. Whether or not the darkness adds to the story is up to the individual writer, but when handled with responsibility and care dark stories can force us to ask some very complex questions not only about ourselves but about the world. These discussions, whether they’re with another person, multiple people, or even internal, help us to better understand ourselves, perhaps even learn something about our own beliefs that we never realized before. I read to enjoy, but I also read to think, and sometimes dark stories ask the hard questions.


  1. Hi. I am just a rookie writer who has a set of few characters and "unclear" stories (aka just merely ideas). Yesterday, an idea popped up in my head. I liked it. But that's also why I found your topic today.

    The idea... as I said, I liked it, but it makes my stories become dark, darker than I had seen it before. So... one question suddenly appeared. You know, sometimes I think of my characters as my children as how I love them and so protective to them. And yet, I put them into dark places and... kill them all.

    Why? Why did I decide to let my characters die? How could I put them to live miserable lives instead of happy? I gave two of them the ultimate power to control, like, everything, which people sometimes say "Mary-Sue", and yet, I didn't let them live normal lives they really deserve.Some others, they lived through hell, wished to see peace finally, but died before could do it.

    Through this topic, I may have understood why people, including me, like to read dark stories. But it's still not enough to answer why I do the same thing to my characters?

    1. Because if we said that life was fair we would be lying to ourselves.

  2. I can relate to so much of what you say here. Thank you for sharing.