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?