More Truth & Honesty in Fiction: The Dark Matter

Yesterday, I began a discussion here that was part of an ongoing dialog between myself and many other bloggers – including, but not limited to Lua Fowles, J.P. Cabit, Janna T. and any others who may have commented on yesterday’s post (obviously, I’m writing this before yesterday’s post went live, i.e. from the Past! Via the magic of Science!) – about honesty in fiction.  Yesterday’s post focused specifically on language and how we use it and, more specifically than that, on profanity.

The question at hand is author-extraordinaire Stephen King’s assertion that we have what amounts to a sacred trust with the Reader to represent the world of our story, and its characters, honestly and truly.   But, even in accepting that sacred trust, the question remains as to what represents honesty and truth in the context of what is essentially a fabrication, and figment, a lie.

The question I’m trying to explore in this blog post is the dark matter of fiction.  Story requires plot, and plot requires characters and conflict.  These are the most basic of building blocks in what writers do.  And the heart of conflict is… well… conflict.  That’s a huge can of worms to open.  There are many layers and many depths that we can explore regarding the issue of conflict.  We can skim it lightly, reflecting the little surface conflicts of every-day life: whether to drive too fast or aggressively to get to work on time after sleeping in too late, whether to ask the pretty girl/handsome guy out, whether to ask the boss for a raise, whether to stay home and study for the test tomorrow or go out to hang with friends, whether to lace a little profanity into your speech to seem hip and cool… and so on.  Some readers eat this stuff up, and some writers love to write it.

Me, I’m a speculative fiction lover, writer and reader.  I deal with everyday life conflicts every day.  When I turn to story and fiction, I’m looking for something that plays out on a larger stage.  I’m looking for something that makes it a relief to return to my little, everyday troubles.  I’m looking for something that gives me perspective, and context, and meaning.  I’m looking for something with mythic scope.  I’m not that unusual, in that regard.  Even if that doesn’t float your boat, though, what I’m discussing here will still be relevant.

Because, yes, you can base the conflict of your story on those easily accessible, easily identifiable conflicts – things that your readers will identify with – or you can dig further to the types of conflict that are deeper and more frightening.  We’re talking “Good vs. Evil” stuff here.  (Ultimately, all conflicts are about good versus evil, for sufficiently malleable definitions of “good” and “evil”.)  Sure, that guy you thought was your best man who went and seduced your girlfriend and now she dumped you – he’s a jerk.  And that’s a good starting point for a conflict.  We can even call that “evil” (remember, malleable definitions).  Anyway, he’s the bad guy of your story. 

But what if he rapes her?  Now we’ve just gone from romantic comedy to a dark thriller of some kind.  We’ve inserted something terrible, and terrifying, in the story – the dark matter.  And rape is real.  It happens, and when it does it’s truly terrifying.  In fact, I don’t think I’m off-base in saying it’s an everyday terror, because it’s something that’s happening pretty much every day.  And rape is just one facet of the depths of human depravity.  A hundred, maybe a thousand, other terrors are happening every day.  Pushers on the street corner making a fast buck on a strung-out junkie.  Pimps backhanding the ladies they “manage”.  Corporate scheming to defraud investors and the public, or crass, gross negligence when dealing with hazardous and deadly chemicals.  Entire nations that deprive their citizens of basic human dignity and human rights.  Wars, genocides, racial, ethnic, or religious violence, extremism, torture.  The list goes on, and that’s just sticking to stuff we see in the real world.  When you move over into speculative fiction, there’s a whole new galaxy of depravities that open up that aren’t even possible in mainstream fiction.

But, however terrible these things are: these things are real.  They’re the dark matter of the human heart.  Some of us have never seen these things, but we cannot lie and say they do not exist.  Is it dishonest to gloss over these things?   Should your romantic comedy be obliged to mention the genocide in Darfur?  It’s a facetious question – perhaps – but in telling a story where these things aren’t mentioned, we’ve created a world where these terrors aren’t happening.  In many genres, that’s perfectly appropriate.  (Just as in many genres, it’s perfectly appropriate to eschew profanity.  In fact, I daresay that profanity itself is merely an interesting subset of the depravities and evils mentioned here, insofar as it’s one of the few depravities in which a writer can actively engage in the act of writing itself: by writing profanities we are in fact using profanities and in that way we have done the act the same as if we’d said the words out loud.)

But, let’s say you want to tackle these heady, dark issues in your fiction.  How do you go about doing so?  Do you draw a clear and evident line between good and evil?  Rape/genocide/what-have-you is evil and those who engage in such acts are therefore, by definition, likewise evil.  No questions, full stop.  Or do you try to suggest nuance, and shades of gray?  (On the topic, there’s an interesting post on the supposed subject of “gray rape” on the site of Jim Hines that’s well worth the read.  Apparently besides being a fantasy fiction writer, Jim also has a background as a crisis counselor.)  Do you show these sorts of acts purely from the protagonist’s perspective – the perspective that agrees with the sensibilities of (we hope) the writer and reader that these acts are depraved?  Is that honest?  Or do you show these things from the point-of-view of the perpetrator? 

The point is that the human creature is capable of some very horrific acts.  How we portray these acts matters – to the writer, to the reader, to society at large, and to the integrity of our very own souls¹.  Some of us, though certainly not all of us, will have to engage these issues in our fiction.  But how do you do that in a way that stays “true” to the subject, “true” to yourself, and which fulfills your “sacred trust” to the reader?  Easier said than done, I say.  But we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t consider these questions carefully before diving in to these big, dark conflicts.

It’s a question I’ve really pondered, and grappled with.  That fantasy-novel-I’ve-been-working-on-since-forever… there are some really bad bad guys in it.  And some really good good guys.  And lots of gray area between the two.  Yeah, it’s a world of black-and-white, of good-and-evil, as is requisite in a big epic fantasy novel.  It’s also a world of shades-of-gray.  And I’ve struggled with how to portray that darkness, and that light, and everything in between.  Is it enough to say “Dark Lord X” is evil, and be done with it?  I’ve washed my hands, and there’s nothing more to say.  If the story takes place in a world where there will be shades of gray, the answer is “no”, it’s not enough.  That’s not honest, because it lacks context.  What is “evil”?  How do you define it?  (Remember those malleable definitions above?  Now it’s time to get specific.)  So… is Dark Lord X² evil because he wants to destroy the world?  Yawn.  Been there, done that, dropped the ring in the volcano, and got the tee-shirt, right?  (Hey, I loves me some epic good-vs-evil Tolkienian struggles as much as the next guy.)  So, I repeat: what makes Dark Lord X evil? What foul depravities will he get up to when left to his own devices?  From what dark place in your own heart does he spring?  Is that a place you’re willing to explore?  What are the boundaries, the limits?

There are places I will not go, not even for a good story.  There are dark matters that I cannot employ, depravities I cannot explore, villainies I cannot contemplate.  I can only go so far into the mind and heart of darkness before I must turn back.  When the bad guy gets up to something truly nefarious, truly sick, I have to cut scene, fade-to-black.  The evil exists, and it’s important that I acknowledge that.  But there’s no need for me to indulge it, to revel in it.  Even in fiction.  And, just as overuse of profanity in a story thrusts me out of the story, too much exposure to real dark deeds in a story will also thrust me out through the mechanism of moral and visceral repugnance.   I can’t relate to characters who are that far down the “shades-of-gray” scale that they’re nearly indistinguishable from purest evil – and I don’t want to relate to them.  I don’t want to understand them, not in that moment.  If there are shades of gray, nuances, and subtleties, I want to understand that and to explore that.  But when we get down to the business of what’s really horrific – I have to draw the line somewhere.

Where do you draw the line?³ 



¹For those who believe in “souls” of course.  YMMV.  Alternatively, insert “psyche” or “id” or a suitable psychological term.

²”Dark Lord X” is not really the bad guy’s name in that fantasy-novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever.

³There are other angles from which to explore this “truth and honesty in fiction” question than the issue of the dark matter.  For now, though, I’m going to stop here, on this topic.  I feel I’ve gone far enough.  There’s a fair chance I’ll re-examine “Truth in Fiction” from an entirely different, and less dark, perspective in the future.


14 thoughts on “More Truth & Honesty in Fiction: The Dark Matter

  1. Blog serendipity: Justin is exploring when gore and horror are too much (he also has something similar about sex):
    Months ago Little Scribbler (who is 17) mentioned he was uncomfortable with the use of the f-word
    I used the f-word twice in dialogue in Air for one particular character who meant to be offensive (s twice too much in a 95,000words novel?). I’ve “censored” it since, but still wonder if I could have let it in.
    About Justin’s post, I wanted to comment but didn’t – I don’t do gore, but happen to have rapes every now and then (usually M/M, btw) – I usually fade to black and try not to get too graphic, and I do the same with the sex scenes if present. I believe in the power of imagination when the explanation is cryptic.
    Personally, even if I’m a lady (am I? ;-)), I try not to use foul language, but sometimes… you know how it is… *blush*
    Great twin posts! 🙂

    • Understanding your audience is a big part of this process, I think, as well. Honesty is all well and good – but if the audience you write for isn’t acclimated to or mature enough for your version of the “honest truth”, then it may be more appropriate to scale back. YA is an excellent example. Frankly, I believe that if you’re too loose with profanity and the dark matter in a YA book, chances are very good you won’t make it past “first base” so to speak (i.e. I suspect the Agents representing this market will happily reject a manuscript that’s too dark or contains too much profanity). Books marketed to adults, on the other hand, have a lot more wiggle room – and I think that’s where some hard choices come in for us as writers with respect to our own personal comfort levels.

      I’ll have to check out Justin’s post on gore. The question of gore is probably a specific subset of the dark matter I’m talking about here, although what I’m really looking at here more than anything else is exploring the mental space of that dark material – or not exploring it, as the case may be.

      Corollary to this, again, is audience analysis. Is the audience I’m writing for expecting me to write something that’s dark or disturbing? Is that what they’re looking for in my book? Stephen King might say “yes” – but Stephen King writes horror. I write epic fantasy (and other fantasy sub-genres), science fiction, and sci-fantasy, primarily. What does my audience look for? Is that something I can give them? Questions worth pondering.

  2. I guess everyone has their own answer for this. For me, it must fit into the context of the story I’m trying to tell. I won’t add in any excess gore/evilness unless it’s necessary to advance the plot (so nothing gratuitous, or simply depicting evil for the sake of showing someone as evil). I know there are evil people in the world, but I like to focus on the why. The bad guys usually don’t think they are bad, but feel they are justified in their own warped way.

    • I agree that everyone has to find their own way through this. While I discuss my way and my reasoning, my larger point here is that I think it’s important for us as writers to ponder it before just doing it. I’m interested in a lot of the same things you are, with regard to how I portray “evil” in my stories.

  3. Your post is very thought-provoking. It’s hard to describe where my line is, but I’ll know it if I start to cross it! If movie ratings were assigned to novels, I’d say I tend to write PG to PG-13. I like the ‘shades of gray’ because I think a majority of people have more good than evil in them. I wouldn’t write about rape, anything bad happening to children (molestation, rape, abuse, murder, etc.) because even in our depraved world, I still believe in a child’s innocence. I lean toward mystery/suspense, so someone usually ends up dead, but I don’t do graphic descriptions. I want my writing to convey hope; although life isn’t a happily ever after, there’s still a reason to keep going. I write for me, but I keep in mind my writing is representation of me (would I feel uncomfortable if my Grandma read it? What about my pastor? My kids?)

    • You beat me to the punch on the movie-rating analogy! It’s a great analogy, I think. I aim for the same mark: PG-13. Enough to be serious and mature, but not so dark it’s smothering. Going back to yesterday’s topic: You get one “f-bomb” and it’s PG-13. Two, and it’s R. Books are longer than movies, though… so do we get an extra “f-bomb”? (In part, this is directed back at Barb’s comment as well.) As for the rest: mature themes and a serious treatment, that’s PG-13. Explicit gore and lingering on the sick actions of a depraved villain… probably an R.

  4. Great post Stephen! This is a difficult subject, but a vital one for a writer; the dark matter…
    For me, when it comes down to it, ‘I’ choose the story that I’m going to tell. It’s my decision, I decide to sit down and write it. So right at that ‘deciding moment’- that is the moment I try to be really honest with myself, “Can I tell this story the way it’s meant to be told? Am I comfortable with telling this kind of story or am I going to try and gloss over it, just to make it easy for ‘me’?”
    Rape is a difficult subject to write. But if I choose to write it, then I made a commitment to my story and to my readers (I am also writing for them, aren’t I?) that I’d do my best to tell this story as honestly as possible. If I can’t however, if I’m not comfortable with my story, then I don’t write it…

    • I chose a particularly difficult example in in the topic of “rape”. Honestly, that’s a serious and dark enough topic that I’m not sure I have what it takes to write about that in an honest fashion. If it ever came up in a story I wrote, it would probably be distantly.

  5. Hmmmm…very very interesting…

    Perhaps it just boils down to what we will allow to entertain us. What will we dwell on? Obviously, un-sick people (there’s some Orwellian for ya) sit around talking about what terrible things are happening in deepest darkest downtown darkville, I think not. (For those who didn’t follow, normal people don’t talk about what’s happening in deepest darkest downtown darkville.) When we read a book, we’re letting something into our minds. Do we want to dwell on these things, or not?

    A swear word is a little different than a bad-guy, I think. This is a sort of soul-searching question, one which perhaps as sincere writers we must ask ourselves: Is writing bad guys just as bad as writing swear words? Should we just stop novel-writing altogether, and just sit down and write poetry? I would sorta die if I stopped noveling. The point is…where is the line?

    • Yes, where is the line: that’s my point as well. Not that we shouldn’t have bad-guys. That’s kind of silly – it’s neither true to the real world nor really true to ourselves (each of us, as we are, being capable of some pretty rotten things when we let our guards down). But I’m asking how far into that dark area we will personally allow ourselves to explore, versus glossing over it and simply saying “yeah, there’s bad guys, and they’re mean to the protagonist”. I feel, for myself, both extremes are unacceptable, as far as my own work is concerned. I’m interested in understanding the bad guys – to an extent. At the point where they start justifying the terrible deeds they commit while they are committing them I have passed the point at which I’m willing to explore that further. I guess… I’m more interested in what makes a proto bad guy than what makes a bad guy. What starts him down the path of atrocities? But now what’s it like now that he’s committing atrocities…

  6. Coming late to the party, I know but I wanted to participate, anyways.

    I was listening to University of Virginia’s Falkner tapes a while back (or, like, two of them) and a couple of things he said struck me (overly) profoundly: one was that the writer that focuses intently on style probably does so because they have nothing to say, really, and that the primary goal of the writer is to tell a story so he’ll use all the tools necessary to tell that story. As someone who has concerned myself with style in the past, I found the words sobering and, for me, true.

    I think coarse language, violence, and sexual content are all tools of the writer the same as tone, genre, etc. It all depends on what story you are trying to tell. If you are writing a romantic comedy where “girl meets boy, girl loses boy, and girl gets boy in the end,” does the writer have to acknowledge the horrible things happening around them? Not really, that’s not the story being told. But if the story is “girl meets boy, girl gets raped and the emotional fallout causes girl to lose boy, but they work through it and girl gets boy in the end,” then the writer should be willing to go to the places the story goes in order to effectively tell it. Does it mean that we have to get into the head of the rapist. No, not if the story isn’t about him. But if we want to tell the story of the woman who is raped, then we must be willing to explore her situation. If the writer doesn’t want to go there, no problem, but maybe they shouldn’t try to tell that story and since there are plenty of stories to tell, that’s okay.

    As a side note: I don’t even believe that the above rape story has to be precluded from still being a romantic comedy if handled appropriately. Genre is yet another tool of the writer. If we want to tell the above story and convey the message that, “yes, horrible things do happen, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world and our lives can continue onwards with the help of those we love,” comedy is a wonderful tool for that, but in order to accomplish that, we still have to be able to look at the true face of that horribleness in order to derive the humor from it, which can take going to some pretty messed-up places.

    Whatever story we tell is up to us, but we have to go there in order to tell it effectively.

    • I think you make a valid point about the link between what things we’re themes and issues we’re willing to explore and what stories we want to tell: that if we want to tell a story that touches on certain themes, we better be willing to address and fully engage those themes. Likewise, if we’re not in a place where we feel comfortable dwelling on those themes, then we should probably avoid such stories. For me, I don’t mind so much exploring the reactions and emotional journeys of “protagonists” who have been affected by the wrongful actions of an antagonist so much as I might mind going into the mind of the antagonist in the very act of doing something that wrong (for certain values of “wrongful actions” that are outliers, in a manner of speaking – I can deal with the mind of a thief, for instance, but not of a rapist). The threat of not exploring the villain more fully is getting labeled with using stock, cardboard villains – which is a particular danger in the fantasy/sci-fi genres, as so many writers in these areas actually do use cardboard villains with little thought to their motivations. (I’m as guilty as the next guy, in that regard.) Certainly, not all stories need a villain, per se, but it’s such a common trope in fantasy/sci-fi that not having one might make your manuscript unsalable. Howbeit, I may not be the best judge of what is or isn’t salable, being as I’ve yet to sell anything…

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