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The Writer’s Dark Side

A Writer's Dark SideHave you ever read a book that explored a disturbing event or followed a character doing unexpected and dark things? Did you stop to wonder how the author did it and why?

Good writers allow the darkest elements of humanity to rise and be explored. Does that mean we are all dark or secretly psychopaths? Not at all. Everyone has an element of darkness. Most of us bury it, ignore it. A good writer will dig it up, examine it, and then wonder how it could be made worse. Using your own fears and dark bits is hard. It makes us vulnerable. Exposed. But it is powerful in storytelling.

Horror writers generally do this well, but all writers can and should tap into this resource. What scares us will scare our characters and thus the reader. Every story has a monster. You just need to broaden the definition of monster to include natural disasters, cancer or disease, betrayal, loss of control, political upheaval, and the other things that make us fearful. These are the hurdles and events we impose upon our characters.

I’ve wondered if this acknowledgement of the darker side of a personality or society doesn’t contribute to the stereotype of the depressed, hard-drinking author. Every writer I know personally does not fit the stereotype, but we do sometimes talk about truly dark things, which may give the impression we are very disturbed individuals.

Actors who play villains must also tap into their own darkness the same way writers do. Are they as concerned about what people will think? Think about Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, or Heath Ledger as the Joker or Stanley Tucci in his role in The Lovely Bones. These are good men. Good people. But they did an incredible job becoming the villain they portrayed.

As a reader, I’ve been interested in where authors got their stories’ dark bits from and especially how they overcame the inhibition and self-censoring that holds a writer back.

For example, Joanna Penn has been honest about her own inhibitions to writing dark things, but she worked through them and delivers disturbing elements in Desecration that were very effective. Dave Wright has natural fears as a parent, but he explores them and then incorporates them into chilling stories such as Crash.  One of my dark places involves vulnerability to others and abandonment. Lillian, the main character in Shadows Wake, experiences them.

Makes you wonder if all writers went through psychoanalysis if we could still write those deep disturbing things, doesn’t it? Then again, our stories serve, in some ways, as therapy for our own fears, anger, and black spots.

Most of us are happy, smiling people. What makes us different is that, behind our cheerful normalality, lurks a willing fascination with the collective darkness of the human experience. It’s the stuff good stories are made from.


What are some of the darkest elements in books you’ve read that made you wonder?

9 thoughts on “The Writer’s Dark Side

    • Oddly enough, on occasion, a minor character will pop up with the proper response. Weird, but would love to explore that in a lab one day lol.

  1. Ironically enough, I experienced this phenomenon myself just yesterday. I had a nightmare about a week ago, and ever since, I have been playing with ways to describe that feeling you get when you wake from a nightmare.

    I wrote a poem on my blog off the back of my ponderings and then did something I hadn’t done before. I shared it with colleagues from my day job.

    One of the first pieces of feedback I received was a flippant remark about how it made me sound like I had depression.

    I will be honest, the feedback knocked me for six because I had never once imagined that my ability to take apart and replicate thoughts, feelings and emotions, would be seen as a negative. I see it as a strength; something I am immensely proud of. To find out that others may see it as a weakness, as a mental illness, really shook me.

    • I’m so sorry you had that reaction. Sometimes labels and negativity are tossed out when the person just doesn’t have an ounce of curiosity or lives a fairly black and white life. The ability to give true emotion to characters is indeed something to be proud of.

      Those of us who are curious and intrigued by what makes us who we are will never be understood by those with no such curiosity. I think some of those folks are blessed with minds that don’t run that way, but I feel equally blessed to have one that is endlessly poking and taking apart. 🙂

  2. I feel a whole lot better about my fascination with serial killers now 😉

    I am reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ted Bundy’s biography by Ann Rule – a fascinating writer. One of my AMBITIOUS goals is to become a True Crime Writer 😛

    Enjoyed your post, sweetie

    • Serial killers are endlessly fascinating if you watch their interviews. so normal, so engaging, and that’s one of the things that makes them so scary. You have a good ambition. 🙂

  3. SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU AGAIN, Robyn. I’ve missed you. There are so many topics here: rape, incest, murder. For me, I have a struggling drug addict as one of my narrators. It’s forced me to walk in her shoes and see beyond the labels society (and I) have placed on her and realize she’s still a human being. A fictional one, at that, but still…

    • Nice to be back, thank you. 🙂 Psychopaths are endlessly fascinating for me. Being able to write a convincing one is a goal. but watching interviews with them is like watching a snake ready to strike. So normal, so engaging, which is what makes them so deadly, eh?

  4. 1984 scared the hell out of me. But my own mind scares me more. I have a few book ideas in my head that are dark, twisted, and heartbreaking. I don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day, but I do want one of them to. We need to exam our dark selves. We need to face it and embrace it. I don’t mean become sociopaths, but understand that we are only as bright as we allow ourselves to be and without the dark, how can we appreciate the light. Love the post!

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