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
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
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
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
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
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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