Facing the Darkness (or, how dark is too dark?)

5:39 PM


Because it's a thing that comes up a lot, and I wanted to throw out my take on it.


I am a Christian. 

I am also a writer. 

Those two things are both part of my identity. Being a Christian affects every part of my life, including writing. I can't separate my worldview from my stories. That's just how it works. Of course, having that worldview, that way of looking at things, means that I'm going to come at the things I write from a certain way, and I have things to think about. Mainly: how dark is too dark? The world is a sinful place; we all know that. People do and say and think filthy things. Life is depressing and dark. It ain't pretty folks. 

This is tricky to talk about because everyone is different, everyone has different levels of what they consider is okay, and lots of us are undoubtedly going to disagree on this issue. To me it comes down to honoring God in everything I do, writing included, and finding what that means for me and my stories. So what's crossing the line? If I use too many swear words because I think it's realistic, or describe a torture scene, or talk about an unmarried couple doing things they shouldn't, or write from the POV of a serial killer, will I be struck down by lightning and holy fire? Is there an actual thin line between "okay" and "so, so not okay"?

Personally, I think it all comes down to intention. 

As a writer, as someone who realizes that I have the capability to use words to form a world that says something, I have to think about this. 

I want to write about the world as it is. I don't want to sugarcoat. 

Let's face it, it's useless to pretend like sin and darkness aren't things that exist. It's useless to pretend that war and swearing and drugs and alcohol don't happen, or that people don't make horrible decisions that they might regret. I can't act like everyone has the same worldview as me. I believe writing is a lens that lets us see ourselves and the world around us more clearly, whether you write contemporary or hard sci-fi. If I write like everything's fine and dandy and it all turns out happy in the end, with everyone getting saved and seeing the error of their ways, with no one making tough decisions that they'll have to regret, am I really doing the world a service with that story? Am I really saying anything important? 

(Of course, this is not to say that every story you write needs to be 1984 or something. Please don't do that. FLUFF IS GOOD. Happy endings are good and necessary and we need them! Just that a lot of Christian fiction tends to sugarcoat the world, and that ain't cool.) 
Oh, Doctor Who.
So, basically: Do I want to wallow in that sin? Am I writing dark things for the thrill of it or so I can be edgy and gritty? Or am I doing it to show human nature, to show the continuing power of redemption and humanity? Sometimes, as the Bible itself tells us again and again and again, darkness is the best way to see the light. 

If you feel seriously uncomfortable/guilty writing something, you probably shouldn't write it! I wouldn't push anyone to go beyond their comfort zone, with writing OR reading (or anything else, for that matter). As for me, I don't consider myself any less of a Christian writer because my characters swear occasionally, or grapple with sin, or make choices I don't consider okay. What I write doesn't reflect my hard-and-fast opinions on what's okay and what's not okay -- it reflects how I see the world. I want to write the light and the dark, side by side. I want to show God and the world, the way they really are. 

What do you consider "too dark" when it comes to writing or reading?

20 comments

  1. THIS!!!! this is my favorite blog post of the week. its something Ive been struggling with a lot in terms of art. In writing and photography. I hate when people sugar coat the world. like...it just makes me angry.
    also, I think people need to understand that just because a character in my novel does something, doesnt mean I'm okay with it or romanticizing it. my characters would swear (I myself have never sworn, but I know my characters do. Ive been on the fence about writing it though.) but it doesnt mean Im okay with swearing or like it.
    I think my favorite writer, Ted Dekker, says it perfectly. “We Christian writers must paint evil with the blackest of brushes, not to sow fear, but to call out the monsters to be scattered by our light. If Satan cloaks himself as an angel of white, intent on deceiving the world, any attempt on our parts to minimize evil is only complicit with his strategy... Turn to the light; don’t fear the shadows it creates.”

    oops this was long. I just wanted to say THIS POST ROCKED. and it helped me think through my motives for a lot of the stuff I do. thank you!

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  2. This is such a tricky topic, Aimee, but you dealt with it well! Intention really might be the biggest thing: are we writing something violent or edgy or terrible for the sake of being violent/edgy/terrible? If so, that's crossing the line. But if it's there for the sake of the story, it's theme, for the sake of shining an even brighter light amidst the darkness... Well. Then that's a good reason. (But I pretty much just repeated everything you said. XD)

    I think it's also important to consider our target audience too. A lot of that dark stuff is so NOT okay for younger readers, at least not in full force.

    And like you said, everyone's line is different. I, for one, prefer as little language as possible, and little to no 'adult content' (depending on the context...). But I have a much higher violence threshold, for whatever reason. Someone once critiqued my fantasy novel and complained about the violence, but I don't put that in there for the sake of blood and gore and pain. It's there to show the terribly high cost of fighting a war.

    *looks at monster comment* Aaand I'll stop now. XD Great post!!!!

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  3. Great thoughts, Aimee!

    "If you feel seriously uncomfortable/guilty writing something, you probably shouldn't write it!" Yes, yes, yes!

    I do like realism in books, but sometimes it goes to far. If it can be taken out without affecting the plot or whatever vital realism it needs, then I think it should've been taken out.

    Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."

    I try to read books that are God-honoring AND realistic. I don't mind little tads of unclean language, content, and violence. But if it gets excessive, then I feel uncomfortable, resulting in my not caring whether that content makes it realistic; I just want to stop reading it. That's me and my little mind. :)

    You had some good points here, Aimee. Thanks for the post! :)

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  4. Wow, I really admire you, and I think that this was an expertly worded post. I have come across the same issues in my writing, especially with swearing. I want to be accurate, too, and really represent the world, but I don't want to expose my readers to something that might be unhealthy for them. But I totally agree in that Christians can sometimes sugarcoat things. This goes for Christian music as well. I've always been one to write songs and stories that reflect both hope and the hopeless. So I loved this! I think at the end of the day, it's important to remember that stories/songs/etc can be mediums used for witnessing, but they are also supposed to express your heart. :)

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  5. Yes, yes, YES! So on my mind lately. I've found there's a lot you can imply without truly SAYING. (doesn't damage little ears/eyes and the older readers get it)

    Though, that's not to say I think we should walk on eggshells around our readers, if I feel the need to say something, I say it. (*facepalm* I suppose I just contradicted myself there... I suppose it all depends on my intended audience)

    Great post, thank you!!

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  6. Wonderful post! I think you nailed it--it really comes down to intent.

    Although I personally don't write language into my works, I think it can (and sometimes does) have a place in Christian fiction. As someone said once, "'Dang' just doesn't quite cut it when your planet blows up."

    I also have to echo what others have said about labeling books appropriately for their content so they end up in the hands of the right age group and being tactful /tasteful with how things are written. I TOTALLY agree with you and Faith--writing things all fluffy really diminishes how bright the light is.

    Thanks for the great post!

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    1. Deleted above comment because it had a grammar error.

      I'm also a Christian. I get the feeling I'm atypical for the religion, and that especially shows in how I write.

      I have an inability to write entirely happy things. My sense of humor is dark, and I have a hard time pulling conflict out of fairies and sugar and high school. It just seems too tiny, too pointless, too fleeting. That being said, darkness in writing is best handled carefully.

      For one, it has to fit with the world. Bloody murders in Princess Fairytopia is glaring and out of place. As would be swearing in a book revolving around an elementary school. This leads into another issue - over-darking it. Even if it makes sense in the world, nothing but gore and death and blood and cursing and guilt and regret is wearing. No one cares if that's all there is. What it also shouldn't be is gleeful. It should have real, lasting effects, and a point.

      That being said, darkness makes excellent points about humanity. It shows there are grey areas, it shows what humans really are at the end of the day, shows good people making mistakes just like everyone else. If the world is appropriate, it also can't function without that darkness. No one expects fluff from the Hunger Games. Something I am currently writing, for example.

      The title character, Grimm, who you've heard about, is written from a first person point of view. All throughout the story, he is pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, to the point where he becomes almost animalistic in his fear for his life. He swears. He's backed into corners where he has to kill people. He hurts people. If he had the time, he'd probably do naughty things with people who weren't his spouse. He's angry all the time, and he doesn't hide it either.

      All of this makes sense in the universe, and it's all done to a point. Mind-wiping military/spy organizations? Shady politics? It kind of goes with the territory. Grimm himself isn't a saint, but he's also trying to do what's best. Trying to stay alive. Once again, it isn't the darkness itself that matters. It's the intention and presentation.

      This was a good and well thought-out post. Thank you.

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  8. This is a really interesting discussion. I think you've captured my biggest problem with christian fiction- that it isn't realistic. And that is definitely a problem. I don't write novels, so I don't have such quandaries, but I think you're right about the whole intention thing. The world is a dark place, but it's also incredible beautiful. I'd say books that don't capture this duality are written (and read) to escape, but really, a good book, no matter the genre, needs to show us the beauty in the darkness, the ugly and the awful and the heartbreaking and show : we're still here , we're still living, we're still loving even as we create this awful mess for ourselves- isn't it amazing? So I think I'm with you on the 'write dark for light, not despite it' stance.

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  9. That's so cool that you're able to see that in a clear light. I am a Christian as well, and a writer as well, and I do struggle with where the line is, but like you said, "I think it all comes down to intention." Very well put.

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  10. I guess I'm going to be a little odd and say that writing with intention doesn't matter so much to me as does perception. I mean, I'm always that person who advocates for thinking more about the reciprocal end of actions, and I think as far as that goes, what people are going to get out of our stories matters so much more because that's what they're going to act on.

    And I guess when I think about it like that, I think I would prefer including more darkness... Because I think that might be a better service to them. But then also I prefer general suffering in that regard. That's what makes it meaningful.

    Welp.

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  11. Actually reading books that are totally sugarcoated where the characters are all "perfect christians" is the #1 reason I NEVER read Christian fiction anymore. D: It's awful and unrealistic and annoying. Plus I find those "perfect" characters come across really shallow?! Life is aBOUT struggles and growing and prevailing against them! I think dark books are awesome. ;D And I also like how the darker the book, the more awesome it is when the light peeks in, if that makes sense. :P

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  12. You handled this tricky topic very well! I totally agree with you on the sugarcoated part. I mean, you need to be realistic. Even Narnia had a witch, death, and betrayal. Things like suffering, bad decisions, and fatal flaws should be somewhere in everyone's novels, because it's real. And I have no qualms making a story real.

    However, I think, like you said, your conscience is your limit. If you don't feel comfy writing it, don't. My main standard is that whenever I am creating a situation that is truly sinful, I will not describe it, but refer to it or mention it in passing. It's a reference, not a scene, be it language, or immorality, or whatever. I read much more dark than I would feel comfortable writing and that's mainly because I am trying to reach a different crowd through my writing than many of the authors I read. :)

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  13. Right. As you said, it all comes down to intention. Like everything else, it's intention. I myself have not yet become comfortable with writing super-dark elements in my stories -- I'm first trying to get a hang of how themes and plots actually work -- but in the future when/if I begin a career in writing I would definitely want to grapple with the darkness of this world. I think I just want to gain more maturity and a more solid understanding of how to portray it in a Biblical way.

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  14. I think your right, as long as we write with the intention to use the darkness to showcase the light. Instead of just putting it there to be there. I don't see anything wrong with it. It's hard to gauge how much is too much.

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  15. This is a really neat discussion, Aimee. I agree. Personally, I like to portrayed the world as it is, but use writing tactics to avoid being explicit in my writing such as excess swearing, violence, and sex. I wrote a whole post about it, because I do believe there's a way to show the world as it is, but not make it so dirty in fiction that you feel dirty reading it. Does that make sense? Good topic to bring up.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  16. This makes sense to me. Truth be told, I still haven't figured out how to avoid writing something that is too dark or that isn't. Like most writers do, I write characters who murder, cheat, steal, etc. etc. That's life. I think you make a really good point about how to do that the right way, about intent.
    One thing that I've found is if something makes me squirm and feel guilty, yeah, I don't need to write about that. However, if I'm sure something needs to be because it's showing something about how the world really works, and it's not something that's making me feel black and greasy, I'll sometimes just hint at it.
    Say, in the old time shows, if an unmarried couple did things they shouldn't, they kissed and closed a bedroom door behind them. That tells us what happened, but it also keeps us from seeing anything pornographic. We also get to see all the wonderful fallout.

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  17. Oh, this is so good and important. I totally agree about it all coming down to intention. Like you said, it's important to show the world as it is. I think it's especially important for Christian authors to portray darkness in their work, because it's where most "Christian fiction" goes wrong. I tend to err on the darker side of things, but I avoid being explicit. It all depends on the situation, I think.

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  18. Love this, I've been thinking about this A LOT recently. My WIP trilogy is high fantasy and (in theory) I am able to do things allegorically, Narnia-style. In my world there is a state religion which is one of false gods, and there is a real God (THE real God, I should say, who I believe exists in every universe, this one or fantasy ones), but that religion has been suppressed so the characters don't get much of it. I'm confident it'll all pan out OK, though.

    CONTEMPORARY IS MUCH HARDER.

    I know you've read at least one of my A Room Alone stories, and this is the novel I'm going to write after the TCATT trilogy. I can't do things by allegory. You say "fluff is good", but the Ruskins aren't Christians, and therefore I really don't feel I can end on a happy note because whatever problems get resolved in the book, if their eternal problem hasn't been resolved then they are still, essentially, screwed. I have got a couple of Christian characters planned and hope to have good chats with the MCs, so that at the end of the book at least some of them are starting on the road to faith. But it is difficult.

    The swearing is a big deal for me. My TCATT characters are pretty vanilla and I've never considered swearing (by which I mean words from the S word "up") as necessary. But for the Ruskins it's going to be different and I'm a bit concerned.

    Then again, there will be sex and there will be drunkenness (even in the story I posted last week the MC is drunk) and who knows what else, so how is swearing any different?

    Yet, I'm still uncomfortable with it (I don't think I've ever said or written a swear word!), but should I quash that for the sake of realism, or not?

    I JUST DON'T KNOW.

    Right now I've two more fantasy books to write so it is Future Emily's problem XD

    Great post, Aimee!

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  19. "Do I want to wallow in that sin? Am I writing dark things for the thrill of it or so I can be edgy and gritty? Or am I doing it to show human nature, to show the continuing power of redemption and humanity? Sometimes, as the Bible itself tells us again and again and again, darkness is the best way to see the light."

    ^^ You hit the nail on the head. You've expressed my feelings towards this exactly. Thank you for writing this, Aimee. I may be sharing this blog post with other people, because I like how you've expressed everything.

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