Five Common Problems With Dark Stories

Literally so dark you need a flashlight.

Dark stories are very popular these days, and it’s not difficult to see why. They have several advantages over their lighter cousins, and not just because of swearing and violence. It’s easier to craft a high-stakes plot in darker stories because you can put more on the line and thus create higher drama. Dark elements can also add to a story’s realism, making the experience more immersive.

But dark stories are not without their drawbacks. Even the best dark stories will lose some audience members who don’t enjoy the intense subject matter. Add in these common problems with dark stories, and we storytellers can find ourselves on thin ice.

1. Empty Persecution

Quentin reading his in The Magicians. Gosh he’s such a nerd. So uncool!

Dark stories love to have a main character who’s persecuted by the people around them. This isolates the character, makes them an underdog, and paints a picture of how cruel life can be. But sometimes a storyteller doesn’t bother creating a real reason for the protagonist to be persecuted, and then things get weird.

Consider The Magicians. In season one, protagonist Quentin is a social outcast, looked down on by non-magical people and his fellow sorcerers alike. Why does he suffer such ridicule, you ask? Is it because he failed some important task or comes from a marginalized background? No, it’s because he likes to read fantasy novels.

That’s right: Quentin is a pariah because he dares to crack open the forbidden works of Tolkien and Lewis. What a nerd. The show isn’t even set in the 80s when such narratives were popular, but in the modern day, when nerds have clearly taken over mainstream culture. The idea that people would give Quentin a hard time for reading The Lord of the Rings is laughable.

Storytellers do this because coming up with a reason for their protagonist to be persecuted is hard. If the protagonist actually does something to deserve their treatment, it can make them unsympathetic. The protagonist could always come from a marginalized background, but that can sometimes make the story darker than desired. If the story employs real-world bigotry, it risks harming readers who suffer from that bigotry.

Despite the difficulties, it’s important to provide a good reason when a protagonist is persecuted. When the persecution is empty, it makes the world feel like it’s populated by uncanny machines instead of real people, with all of them set against the protagonist by the author’s hand.

One option to avoid this is to make the hero a target of a frame-up. Perhaps they’re a royal bodyguard blamed for murdering the monarch when the monarch was actually poisoned by a scheming adviser. You could also write a character who actually does something to engender scorn but for sympathetic reasons. If your protagonist is a cop who incompetently botches an important investigation, it’s reasonable for their fellow officers to shun them. But the audience will understand the protagonist had no choice: a corrupt commissioner was threatening their family if they didn’t scuttle the case!

2. Jerkass Characters

Four holding a sword to Three's throat, from Dark Matter. Jerk vs Jerk, round one, FIGHT!

Few characters in dark stories can be considered knights in shining armor. Real people aren’t always nice, so characters in these stories aren’t nice either. They push mob hitmen through engines and slug the XO when he gets too ornery; so dark and real!

That’s all well and good, until it crosses an invisible but critical line, and the character becomes unlikable. This happens right away in the show Dark Matter, with the characters Three and Four.* Right off the bat, Three is an insufferable jerk, treating everyone he meets with contempt. He’s so obnoxious, it stretches belief that someone hasn’t shot him yet just on principle. Four takes a little longer to mature out of the Silent Kung Fu Badass archetype, but when he does, we discover he has an oddly strong tendency for murder. At one point, he kills an old mentor just to send a message, and later he kills his younger brother for reasons I still don’t understand.

Both of these characters cross the line from gritty anti-hero to unsympathetic jerk. Four because he kills people even when it’s against his interest, and Three because he’s unnecessarily mean to people. Fortunately, Dark Matter has other characters in its cast, but those two are a weight dragging it down, especially in the first season.

When a character gets that unlikable, there’s no incentive to stick with their story. Watching or reading about them is an unpleasant experience. This is true even if their unlikability is part of a master plan. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your redemption arc or how poignant the character’s comeuppance is if the audience doesn’t stick around long enough to find out.

The key to jerkass characters is to give them more sympathetic elements. Jayne from Firefly is a perfect example. Superficially, he’s similar to Three. They’re both macho mercenary men who like to push others around. But Jayne is given moments of vulnerability when he’s clearly at a loss for what to do, and that makes him much more sympathetic. Three never has that.

3. Unearned Trauma

Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard from Castlevania Gonna stab everyone in the eye.

This isn’t your namby-pamby light and fluffy story, son. That means there’s gonna be blood, and guts, and screaming and… oh wow. Was that really necessary? The part with the spleen? Ew, now I’m grossed out.

Characters often suffer trauma in stories, both mental and physical. This is a natural consequence of adding conflict, and it’s a legitimate storytelling tool. The problem is that many people don’t enjoy trauma in their stories, and that number goes up the more extreme the trauma gets. Rape and sexual assault are often brought up in this context, but those are in their own category because they are unavoidably linked with issues of misogyny. So today, we’re only looking at trauma that isn’t related to sexuality. Don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to go wrong here too.

Fortunately, we have the Castlevania cartoon to serve as a cautionary tale. That show loves its gore, from eyeballs being extracted from skulls to demons bifurcating small children. Even with only four episodes, the show has racked up an impressive number of severed limbs and blood sprays. But it never feels like the extreme gore is in service of anything. Most of the fights occur without much reason, so there’s no emotional context to enforce. And the gore is too extreme to be realistic, so it doesn’t help with immersion in the world either. Instead, after four episodes of impaling and decapitating, the trauma has a big question mark over it.

A high level of trauma is likely to narrow your audience. This applies to any sort of trauma, not just battle damage. If a character is tortured or psychologically abused, it’ll have the same effect. So if you include trauma in your story, it had better add something and not just be there for its own sake. You’ll still lose some people, but you’ll gain new ones who enjoy whatever it is your trauma now brings to the table.

The Next Generation episode Chain of Command pulls this trick off beautifully. One of its storylines focuses on Picard being tortured by a Cardassian agent, and the scenes aren’t easy to watch. But the story not only gives us a commentary on why torture is evil, but also it provides a window into both characters. We learn how important Picard’s mental integrity is to him,* and we learn that despite the torturer’s power and influence, he is an insecure man who gets pleasure from hurting others.

4. Forced Character Conflict

Merlin and Arthur from the TV show Merlin. Haha, remember when Uther killed all those people? So funny!

Conflict between the good guys is a hallmark of dark stories. Lord of the Rings might be about the forces of light uniting to defeat the darkness, but Game of Thrones, and its ilk, feature characters of all moral shades at each other’s throats. That works great, as long as they have a good reason to fight.

Finding a compelling reason for otherwise good characters to fight is a real struggle. We see this in the TV show Merlin, where Merlin and Morgana get into a conflict over killing King Uther. Morgana’s reasons are powerful and compelling: Uther is a monster who had countless people slaughtered because they had magical talent; he didn’t even spare the children! He also never stopped. Every other episode seems to be about Uther wanting to kill someone because he thinks they might get a Hogwarts letter.

Against this heartfelt plea for justice, Merlin has… basically nothing. He makes weak excuses about how Arthur, Uther’s son, isn’t ready to be king yet, but that’s clearly not true. Arthur is inexperienced, but he’s obviously a better leader than his father. But this is a dark story, and Merlin needs to be conflicted, so he continues to defend a genocidal murderer.

When characters get into forced conflict, it damages the story’s credibility. If the character is otherwise clear headed and rational, it raises the question of why they’re suddenly ready to throw down over a problem with obvious solutions. It’s clear the character is acting purely for plot convenience rather than their established motivations. If the character does this sort of thing all the time, they’re frustratingly incompetent and shouldn’t be the focus of a story anyway.

Storytellers force conflict because they want the drama of characters fighting but find it’s difficult to make reasonable people come to blows. Characters need a fundamental disagreement that can’t be easily solved with words. The best way to do this is to build that disagreement into the character’s underlying motivation. If it’s established that one character venerates tradition, while another is obsessed with innovation, it’s believable that they would clash over a new technology that disrupts people’s way of life.

5. False Moral Dilemmas

A klingon woman from Star Trek: Discovery. We just want to kill them all – why are they being so unreasonable?

Spoilers: Star Trek: Discovery

Moral dilemmas are what dark stories are made of. Sometimes there isn’t a good solution, and the only options are various shades of bad. Audiences thrive on confronting difficult questions, and storytellers are happy to provide them. Except all too often, storytellers are actually taking an easy question and pretending it’s difficult.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the brand new Star Trek: Discovery. The show is one season old at time of writing, and it focuses on a Klingon invasion of the Federation. The Klingons attack without provocation, and they are brutal in their conquest. They bombard civilians and torture prisoners to death as a matter of course. This sounds like a straightforward story of good vs evil, but such is not to be.

Instead, the writers are desperately trying to make this war a morally gray one. Characters question the rightness of the war, and scary music plays when the captain talks about developing new weapons to push the Klingons back. Episode five even includes a side character who talks about how this is somehow Starfleet’s fault for exploring too much. It’s an attempt to make the conflict complex, but all it really achieves is false neutrality. Let’s see, the Klingons want to kill people, Starfleet wants them not to kill people… I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle. Look, there’s nothing morally compromising about defending yourself from violent aggression. To argue otherwise is absurd.

False moral dilemmas have two big problems. First, they are obviously contrived. Anyone who stops to analyze a false dilemma will realize that the story is based on a lie, which destroys emotional investment. Perhaps more importantly, false dilemmas can reinforce bad ideas in the real world. In Discovery’s case, too many people already believe that when two sides come into conflict, both must be at fault. This manifests in climate-science deniers and anti-vaxxers being treated like they have credibility, even though all available data is against them.

Creating a moral dilemma is more difficult than you might think. In a vacuum, you can create situations where a character’s choices can only lead to bad outcomes, but few such scenarios survive first contact with the story. You might spend weeks crafting a situation where your hero must choose between protecting their loved ones and saving their kingdom, only for someone to point out that the hero could have simply taken their loved ones to be trained as soldiers for the kingdom so they could protect themselves.

If you’re having trouble, a moral dilemma’s best friends are deadlines and a complex situation. If a deadline is bearing down, your hero might not have time to think of a way out, thus needing to choose between bad options. If a situation is more complex, it can be difficult to see what the right answer is. Perhaps the Klingons are only attacking because they discovered a Federation spy ring within their midst, and that spy ring was only in place because the Federation thought the Klingons might attack.

Dark subject matter can make excellent fodder for stories, but we must always remember that “dark” is not synonymous for “good.” If darkening a story brings up one of these problems, storytellers should ask if they really need the darkness. If the answer is yes, then they should revise until that darkness isn’t hurting the story.

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  1. Int

    Fallout 3’s got an example of #5. Do you disarm the bomb in Megaton, or detonate it? If you disarm it, the town will be safe. If you detonate it, everyone will die. But the guy who hires you to detonate the bomb wants the town gone, because it’s spoiling his view of the wasteland. Decisions, decisions.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So conflicted!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Although at least in Fallout I never got the impression that those two choices were meant to be equivalent. Blowing up Megaton seemed more like it was meant as the Snidely Whiplash choice.

    • Vorren

      That isn’t supposed to be a moral dilemma in fallout. The game outright calls you evil for doing it with its karma system. Its a choice between being a decent human being and getting some money and a nice place to live.

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        More specifically, it’s a choice between being a decent human being and getting a nice place to live, and getting some money and a nice place to live.

        Sure, maybe the evil nice place to live is a bit nicer than the decent nice place to live; I don’t know, I have never played that route.

  2. SunlessNick

    Magicians especially stands out in #1, because it includes genuine persecution (most analogous to class) *and* a main character who suffers it, including at the hands of Quentin (Julia, who also suffers endlessly in other ways, many of which have their origin in her marginalisation – and yet she remains a better person than Quentin even after she’s had her conscience forcibly excised).
    Indeed, I don’t think there’s a single facet of the show – can’t be quite as certain about the books – that wouldn’t have been improved by making Julia the protagonist.

    Regarding the Next Gen episode in #3, we also see that the torture is ultimately pointless. Breaking Picard requires wrecking his sense of reality so completely that it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking information he provides could be reliable.
    (Patrick Stewart apparently really pushed for this episode)

  3. SunlessNick

    Another thing I’d add is that it’s a common observation that you need a bit of dark in stories to make the light mean anything. Which it’s true – but it’s also true the other way round, something that’s more commonly forgotten.

  4. Julia

    Forced Character Conflict: For a long time, in the show Supernatural the brothers would have the same fight over and over, and one would leave for several episodes. We’re supposed to be biting our fingernails wondering if they’ll get back together in time to save the world, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. They’ve gotten better for the last couple of seasons, and the stories work better because there’s less whining.

  5. Sam Victors

    I’ve been able to fix some of those things in my story ideas.

    In my Time-Travel Romance story, the Heroine and her Mother live in a flat with their Aunt as their landlady. The Aunt is an unpleasant, greedy, trashy, politically incorrect woman who teases the Heroine for not being normal enough (the heroine is a introverted, scholarly demisexual virgin). The aunt also raises the rent to spend the money on her frivolous parties, booze, cigarettes, romance books, chips, and hiring the ditzy all-male group tenants as her music band/male strippers/male models posing as her sexy Romance Heroes from the books she reads. The Aunt is kind of like the Dursleys from Harry Potter, as she exists to make their relative tenants miserable.

    In my children’s fantasy story idea, there is a group of child antagonists who serve as foils to the Heroic Kids. They are partially based on the rotten kids from Willy Wonka; Miranda is a cocky and rude pop star celebrity who uses homeless kids as experiment trends to show to her internet fans, her friend is also helping, Tommy is a cowardly and uncharitable glutton who likes to tease the street kids by tantalizing them with his food; Bertie is a tv-addicted, secret smoking, bigoted macho egotist who culturally and racially abuses kids of gender/color/ethnicity. Mary is a tattling, sanctimonious Preacher’s daughter and enthusiastic chore freak who morally insults rebellious/supposed naughty kids; Marvin is a conceited and hardhearted boarding school Head Boy who is the star athlete, team captain and model student who bullies his subordinates, not out of improvement(as his teachers and he himself would believe), but out of condescension and insensitivity. Elvira is a demanding, haughty, spoiled posh brat who treats everyone as a servant and is prone to retaliation.

    • Julia M.

      That sounds interesting. I especially like there being a demisexual heroine, since I am ace. However, I would be wary of the villain aunt being very ‘out there’, because it may cross into tropes of virginity = good, or something like that. To fix this, one person on Team Bad should probably be a virgin, or the aunt’s villainy should be seperate from her sexuality.

  6. Kathy E Ferguson

    Thanks for this great analysis. I think a good way to make compelling conflict is to anchor characters in competing political philosophies. A character with a commitment to justice as balance and harmony among social “types” ( such as intellectuals, warriors, and workers, a la Plato) will have many deep conflicts with a character committed to, say, the overthrow of the ruling class and the empowerment of the workers (Marx). Yet these characters will also have much in common, such as a deep investment in their respective images of justice, so they may be able to work together some of the time but at critical moments of conflict could be overwhelmed by their differences.

  7. Your Conscience

    I think you are missing the mark on the discovery dilemma. The dilemma isn’t “should we defend ourselves from annihilation?” Obviously yes.

    It’s “should we commit planetary genocide in an effort to protect yourself?”

    That is a far more compelling dilemma worthy of exploration. Everyone agrees that genocide is wrong but what about genocide in self defense?

    It definitely had some major cop outs to their tough questions, mirror universe Lorca – and a disappointing resolution. “She has a bomb so they make her Queen? Wtf?”

    Those were dumb as heck but just wanted to point out the actual dilemma was more absolutism v utilitarianism.

    Seriously, could anyone imagine some guy walking into congress with a bomb so america decides to make him King? Seriously? How the heck does that work?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, the dilemma you’re referring to doesn’t happen until the end of season 1, while this post is talking about stuff that happens earlier in the season.

  8. Tifa

    I was really looking forward to the Castlevania series, hoping that it would be in the style of the Metroidvania games, intentionally not taking itself seriously at all. Then came the reviews of how violent it was…*sigh*

    #2 is such a common problem recently, it seems. Grim-dark isn’t enough, now characters have to be unlikable!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Castlevania takes itself really seriously too. It’s not great. I suspect jerkass characters are what happens when the author wants to show how serious their world is but doesn’t really know how.

  9. Star of Hope

    Here are 3 contrived stories that are dark(and stupid):

    1. Assassin’s Creed Rogue:

    Starts out like any AC game ever until our Hero, Shay Patrick Cormac comes into the fray and he is…a Very lazy dumbass who comes always too late to training, disrespects his mentors, talks about how not being respected and feels bad for having killed an Slave owner…during the Seven years War in the Colonies. He wants to prove himself to the other Colonial Brotherhood and the grandmaster of the Assassins, Achilles gives him a Mission to find a Precursor site. Achilles had been looking for sites with an similar construction in Haiti and has send an Assassin to claim it, but then an Earthquake happened and the truth behind the Sites is lost. Now Shay has to go to Lisbon to retrieve an Precursor site there and he finds an Star Tetrahedron inside the Temple. He touches it of course and this causes an Earthquake in Lisbon and many people died. Shay, instead of rationally explain what happened, screamed at his mentor and accuses him for having made him slaughter Innocent people, despite having no Idea what these sites are. Shay escaped and joins the Templars for no reason and kills his former friends and Mentors without any second thought and ruined the Brotherhood, allowing the Templars, the guys who wanted to turn the U.S into an Dictatorship to gain foothold in there, and they fail thanks to Connor, but that’s an story for another time. So basically Shay overreacted to an issue and he killed Innocent people by destroying villages just to hunt one Assassin, despite having left the Brotherhood for their supposive lack of care for life. Also the player who is in the Animus (an apparatus that allows us to see the past through the eyes of the person who lived in this time period) can kill Innocent people without desyncronizing(basically game over because Assassins don’t kill Innocent people), thus making him hypocritical. Basically a story without any need for Conflict.

    Octopath Traveller ( Alfyn’s 3rd chapter):

    You can play the stories of 8 Heroes and one of them is the Apothecary Alfyn, who wants to give humanitarian aid to everyone. All so far so good, but it gets contrived and frankly idiotic in Chapter 3 where we meet an injured Man and a dock who calls himself Ogen and he refuses to aid the poor guy because this dude was an thief, who got injured. Alfyn’s response was to help him and call out Ogen, because it’s their job as Docks to help people, but Ogen has this sort of being tough to criminals attitude and wants to let him die. Alfyn helps the Thief to get back to feet, while the Theif story of stealing for his family…but he lied and once at the first opportunity he kidnapped an Child and injured it, while Alfyn confronts him and it’s revealed he lied and he had no family, yadayda.They fight and Alfyn Mortally wounded him and take scare of the Child he endangered. Ogen tells his sad story of having lost his wife after treating an Criminal. They wanted to start an false Dilemma of making us question, if Doctors should Only aid good people, which is stupid because bthere are tons of ways to treat evil patients without endangering them and that is by restraining them or keeping them in prison. The final chapter has him heal Ogen and he changes. Very weak as Dilemma and very bad.

    Fire Emblem Three Houses:

    It’s basically a game where you can choose to lead as an Professor your own students and they are all hailing from 3 Countries in a Monastery called Garreg March owner by the Church of Seiros, the major Religion of the Continent of Fódlan. One is the Empire, then the Kingdom and the Alliance(which is an Republic led by Nobles) and they are at a relative peace for 3 centuries. You can choose to teach an House and lead it as Professor. You can go with the Black Eagles led by Edelgard the future Emperor, the Blue Lions led by the Future King Dimitri and then the Golden Deer led by the future leader Claude. It’s kinda like Hogwarts and there are super Humans with an power called crests that is assessable to mostly Nobles and gives them superpowers above others. This is an important plot point because Edelgard after ascending the Throne wants to get rid of the Crest, Nobility and Church…by declaring war on the other 2 Counties and the Church to implement her system of Meritocracy under the banner of Conquest. Dimitri who is now King, believes her to be responsible for the death of his parents and not him hating violence is vehemently against her. Claude does have not much beef with her ideals, but he is against the excessive Violence of Edelgard and opposed to her. The Church is also opposed to her because of her dislike towards them and having issues with the Religion. When she(if you choose her) wins, she basically doesn’t get rid of the Nobility or Crests at all as the ending cards have still noble titles in them and Meritocracy is not a good system…worse the other 2 also had misgivings with Church,crests and Nobles and had they talked with one another it could have been avoided, but no Edelgard was stubborn and that caused war. There are also issues within the story like Racism, Sexism, Historical denialism (the Genocidal kind) and the idea of marrying your own students is gross. But it’s too much to talk about so I kept it short.

    Very very bad isn’t it.

  10. Julia M.

    Another thing that can happen is when stories make their characters jerks in a black and white story, because it’s ‘edgy’. One example is when a character tortures a villain, or kills a bunch of soliders, even if there’s another way to do things. This often happens in badly-written books. It’s worse if the character’s actions aren’t condemned.

  11. John Burns

    Talking about 3 and 4 in Dark Matter, it’s explained that 4’s (Ryo Ishida’s) brother worked to make the society in the future more Democratic which lead to an uprising.
    I accept that even I was surprised by the killing of his brother, (dude, he’s not Fredo, you can have a chat with him!) but I feel that since the idea of the show centres around the crew, no matter what Ryo attempted he would end up back on the RAZA.
    As for 3, we see his weakness right at the beginning. He’s afraid right off the bat, hence the sarcastic reaction, but as he gets more comfortable seeing the strengths of the other members of the crew, he starts to trust in himself, and expresses himself more.

  12. Ronald DeMitchell

    A lot to think about. So I want to write a darkish story about a college-aged woman who gets called to hunt demons in a similar way to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turns out that there is a dark sorcerer who is using demons to keep non-magical folks in line as he calls it, but it’s really a disguise for magical people enslaving the non-magical ones and using these demons to do it. I haven’t fully fleshed out the world, although I want to make it hopeful in tone even with a dark setting. What recommendations do you guys have?

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