Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reveling in Evil


I'm mentioned it before, but I was struck again last night by a real tension within in myself when it comes to my writing. If you've read anything at all that I've written, you know that my writings tend (only tend?) toward the dark. I work with pretty extreme evils as my material. I do it pretty well, I think.

This is not an easy thing for me to come to grips with.

Real evil sickens my stomach. Often literally. I've brushed against it on the ambulance crew a few times. I spent my days engaged with it when I was doing forensic anthropology. Back then, it was always very important to me that I not sterilize myself to the horrors that I was working with, because I didn't want to minimize what the victims had gone through and their families would be going through for the rest of their lives.

And yet, I write about it. I hope to someday make my living writing about it.

That doesn't always sit well within myself. When I hear news about workplace shootings and the real loss of innocent life, it becomes harder for me to play games with fictional innocents. When I think about some of the victims in the lab who were not simply killed but so brutalized that their very humanity was hardly recognizable any longer, it becomes harder to destroy the personhood of the characters I create. When I have an ambulance run with someone who is both intoxicated and criminally insane, it becomes a challenge for me to justify creating unbalanced characters.

Any other writers out there struggle with questions like this in their writing? Crime / horror writers with similar questions? YA writers who write about teens doing things they don't want their own sons or daughters doing? Historical fiction writers who have to keep entertaining a series of events that was likely not entertaining to the individuals living through it? Anyone else?

I'd love to hear your own thoughts on how you manage it.



  1. Thanks so much for writing this. I have been struggling with this same thing for a long time. I fought it a lot. My first novel started out very dark and I ended up changing it dramatically because I felt the need to make it more accessible and likeable. Now, with my current story about a cannibal, it is very dark and graphic. I am worried most people will absolutely hate it. Yet, I realize that the reason I'm writing it is because I'm struggling to understand humanity. I'm looking for humanity--okay, love is a better word--in places where I fear none exists. That's why I'm drawn to it. For me, if I'm honest with myself, this is the subject matter that fascinates me. I'm the most honest and the most comfortable when I'm writing it, and I just hope there is a reading audience out there that understands it and sees it as more than garbage.

  2. I'll chime in some more later, but Ryan David Jahn posted a response on his blog that I found helpful for organizing my thoughts about this topic.

  3. I've tried to write truly dark stories before, and I just can't do it. Like you, I get to a place where it just sickens me - and I'm ultra sensitive when it comes to truly evil things. That said, I think it's really important for us as writers to draw that line in our minds - the line we know we shouldn't cross even though it might look like fun at times. I oftentimes can read more dark things than I can write them. I just finished THE ROAD by McCarthy, and that was dark, but rimmed with light. Davin and I just had this conversation, and I think it's important to have a good balance. Most everything dark I've read has that balance. If it doesn't I have bad nightmares for weeks.

  4. Personally, I know that like Davin I am engaged in an exploration when I write. I think I am usually toying around with some psychological or philosophical slant on this human existence of ours. I have found that I do that best in some ways by establishing a confident character, breaking him or her down and then seeing what comes out on the other side.

    With Ryan, I hope that writing falls into some moral sphere when all is said and done. The division that he proposed (see prior link to his blog) helps a lot. I'm a taxonomic thinker, so being able to to categorize is always a huge help to me. I realize that categories are arbitrary, but that does not make them less useful.

    The challenge is that, like Michelle, I can have an almost physical reaction when personally confronted with true evil. While I have had a lot of exposure to violence (physical and psychological) it has rarely been first hand like Ryan's. It has usually been with the aftermath. A friend who had tried to kill himself after killing his mom's boyfriend who he had just seen kill his mom. The remains of two people who were brutally murdered for sport and then stuffed in a container and kept in the hot sun. Horrible stuff, but not direct, personal experience.

    I think that sometimes makes it more challenging for me, because I know a wee bit of what it's like to go through the violence itself and mostly I know what it's more like in the shockwave after. In other words, I relate less to the, "Holy crap, what's happening to me," and more to the, "Holy crap, how do we go on from here" aspect.

    Likewise, I have always struggled to not let myself become desensitized. I fought against the urge to joke about death, murder, criminals, or victims. I understand the need police and coroners and crimescene techs and others have to put a wall up, but I never allowed myself to that. I knew a guy once who had been so abused so often that his coping mechanism had become beating people's heads in and laughing hysterically. I think being exposed to people like that as an adolescent really made me (overly, I admit) concerned about what can happen to a person who becomes callus against evil.

    That said, I think the secret really lies in a combination of what Ryan and Michelle describing. Seeing that the evil is not the entertainment of the book. Seeing that my writing occupies a moral space. And keeping a sense of light around the dark, even if it is by implication.

    I'm still thinking, so if anyone has any further thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

  5. Entertainment is a strange word. I would argue that in most books that contain violence, the violence is indeed a good part of the entertainment. If a writer is writing violence because she is curious about it, then I'd guess the reader was reading it because he was curious about it as well. For myself, the story of something violent may sicken me, but that rarely stops me from reading it. I want to know the details, and I guess I consider that curiosity and engagement as "entertainment."

    As a writer of violence, I'll say that I've never had any doubts about whether or not I should write it. For myself, it makes me more sympathetic to people. My problem--and maybe this is implied throughout all of the discussion--is that I'm never sure I want to put this stuff into the world after I write it. Even if people find it somehow educational to them, that doesn't mean they are grateful for having read it. I don't like the idea of readers regretting they stumbled upon my writing.

  6. Excellent discussion.

    Creating truly dark characters is a challenge, because the writer must go deep into the darkness, as well -- not just send the character there and hope to write with any believability. The main problem with my dark characters is that they are overblown and cheesy. I really don't want to walk those dark paths.

    As for violence, which often accompanies evil: I never thought of my writing -- or myself -- as violent until about ten years ago, when a fellow writer commented that she wouldn't let her then-preteen son read my work. Even though I didn't detail any gore or revel in the ugliness, as I re-read the piece I realized there was a lot of harshness, physically and mentally.

    There was a time when I was a much more timid writer, holding a tight rein on character emotions, thoughts, and actions. Only when I finally started coming to grips with all the violence in my family when I was a kid did I finally let my characters behave with strength and reality, even if that behavior was vile.

    It's over-simplistic to say that violence = honesty, but (in my case) it arrived in my writing when I finally started telling myself the truth.

    It's also a companion of humanity, marking our history and our present, is the outgrowth of conflicts of all kinds, and is a way of subduing or of wresting control. And what evil character is not out for power of some sort, or revenge?

    I'm with Davin: "I don't like the idea of readers regretting they stumbled upon my writing." But, if the story requires it, the violence will remain.

  7. I struggle with it. But I also know that the via negativa ("the negative way") has been used to show people the evil of, well, evil by numerous worthy authors. Heck, there's some toe curling stuff even in the Bible, such as gang rape and dismemberment.

  8. Davin and Keanan, I used to not want folks to regret reading my writing, but at this point I think it matters to me why they regret it. I remember reducing a friend to a pile of sobbing young man on the living room floor with a stack of my experimental fiction about heartbreak. At the time, he sure seemed to regret it. He was angry at me for it. But, honestly, if I made him face up to his emotional reality, then I'm glad he read it, even if to this day he wishes he hadn't.

    And maybe that's where I need to be on this whole evil and violence issue. I agree with Loren that there's a real value in negative examples and demonstrating the reality of evil, but only if that's what I'm doing.

    I know entertainment is a bit of a weird word to use, Davin, but I think it's key to my own dilemma.

    When I watch an MMA fight or an action movie, I often come away thinking, "Wow, that was a cool fight," or, "Wow, that was really good action." When I confront real, evil violence, I don't think that at all.

    I would hope people are entertained by my fiction, and that includes the suspense to which admittedly the violence is often an important part. If, in the end, they walk away thinking (or feeling), "Wow, that kind of stuff sucks," I'm good with it. If, instead, they come away feeling like I do after an MMA fight or action movie... I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.


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