Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching these topics, read our introductory post.
Light is a paradox. Without darkness, the light’s ability to reveal hidden wonders and dangers would be lessened. Without the night to conceal, gloom can’t be driven away by dawn. Without shadows for contrast, even the brightest light cannot manifest its full strength. This is true of the gospel as well as writing.
Hence, we must approach “clean” Christian fiction with wariness. If we value truth, we cannot afford to whitewash and ignore reality to satisfy a market of readers who have taken the idea of clean fiction to an extreme. If we avoid the darkness, we risk undermining the truth by casting it in a misty, uncontested light.
To emblazon the truth in our writing, we must show the opposing darkness.
Why We Need Darkness in Fiction
If sin isn’t a temptation, redemption has no point. If death isn’t a threat, life becomes worthless. During Jesus’s ministry, He could have healed Lazarus with a single word as soon as He heard His friend was sick. Instead, He waited until Lazarus had been entombed so that God’s power could be displayed in resurrecting him.
In Romans 9:17, Paul states, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’” God allows evil to fight against Him, not because He can’t defeat it, but because His triumph over the darkness magnifies His radiance.
The world is dark. Catastrophes happen. People die. Fear and depression abound. Every day we hear reports of murder, assault, lust, and cult activity. Due to sin’s curse, we don’t live in a happy, “puppies and rainbows” type of place.
So we read. We meet heroes and see the results of good and evil. Courage and inspiration arise from the stories. The emotions linger long after we’ve forgotten the words, influencing our view of the world and ourselves.
The truth a story presents won’t become false if it appears in a field of flowers under clear skies, but a candle will pale in the sunshine. On the other hand, a lone torch flaring on a battlefield at midnight will draw the attention of everyone within sight.
Darkness does not alter truth. It does, however, provide a backdrop that discloses the alternative to truth, giving readers a reason to care. They know the world has darkness because they’ve wrestled with it. If we want to touch readers, we need to confront truth with reality, not a straw mask of trivial problems.
Unless hope vanquishes terrors and doubts in our stories, we’ve accomplished nothing. To reinforce truth, we must demonstrate its uncompromising endurance against darkness.
Setting the Focus
No matter our intent, darkness must be handled with caution. We do not want our stories to flood readers’ minds with darkness to highlight a truth. Nor should we immerse our imaginations in grotesque imagery as we’re writing.
The key to writing a dark story is the focus. The level of darkness will vary depending on style, theme, genre, and audience. However, we need to evaluate our story’s overall goal, as well as the purpose of each scene. What message are we trying to communicate?
Philippians 4:8 commands us to meditate on the honest, just, pure, and lovely. When evil is portrayed accurately (the honest) with ensuing consequences (the just) to accentuate truth (the pure and lovely), darkness falls into this category. If we describe a human sacrifice merely to generate shock, that will not satisfy the qualifications of the above verse. The same sort of scene, however, could be impactful if the atrocities the character is struggling to escape were contrasted with God’s grace.
If our stories don’t contain any darkness, we should return to Philippians 4:8 and make sure we’re being honest about reality and effectively brandishing the truth. Although we might be able to write a book without darkness, the deeper we delve into the truth, the greater the lies that will challenge it. If we neglect to develop darkness in our story worlds and characters, we risk failing to exhibit truth in its full glory.
Four Recommendations for Handling Darkness
While writing a dark scene, first remember your focus. Don’t gloss over uncomfortable details just to protect your sensitivities. The Bible speaks of a woman petitioning Israel’s king to force another woman to honor her vow to cook her son so they could survive the famine caused by the siege. This is accompanied by the realization of how far Israel had fallen and the king’s own horror and sorrow. Yet, when Scripture records human sacrifice, it uses the phrase “making their children pass through the flame” instead of graphic descriptions. Thus, include enough details to paint a clear picture of the situation, but don’t go overboard.
The second factor to consider is your target age group. Obviously, a young adult novel can address harsher realities than middle grade. In the former, a man might wander through a red-light district and stay until morning, with enough details to establish the setting and hint at his choices. In the latter, this topic might not even be broached. If immorality were part of such a story, it would probably be woven into the subtext. The characters’ emotions and the sin’s ramifications would be emphasized more than the action itself.
Thirdly, plan out the truth you aim to convey, then use your setting, culture, and plot to underline it. If your theme is love, create a culture where love is self-centered, sensual and pleasurable, or rooted in survival of the fittest and rife with betrayal. Then manipulate this setting to test and prove your message through the bitterest of trials.
Finally, don’t concentrate solely on events, but also the characters’ emotions, whether they’re victims or witnesses of the aftermath. No matter how appalling a death, blood spatters and crushed skulls won’t stir empathy, whereas palpable grief and alarm will. Build the character’s arc to underscore the tragedy of a life cut short. Maybe he is murdered while preparing a gift for his son or en route to ask a friend’s forgiveness. You can capture his last thoughts, as well as the emotions of onlookers and mourners. These reactions will expose the depth of your story’s darkness like nothing else.
To develop a character to the fullest degree, a writer must seal herself inside his skin. If the character has a wicked heart, this intimacy becomes dangerous for both the writer and readers. Choosing the wrong point of view can plunge a murky scene into utter blackness.
Since every person on earth is guilty of falling into temptation, characters should be flawed, but an evil character will embrace his depravity rather than striving (or yearning) to overcome it. Writing a torture scene from the POV of a tyrant who relishes inflicting pain versus a guard who follows orders but secretly loathes himself will produce two entirely different results.
Whether readers realize it or not, the POV character conditions them to accept or reject truths and lies according to his thoughts and actions. This is why writers need to be cautious about entering a villain’s POV. Since he gazes at the world through a darkened lens, portraying evil from his perspective for too long and too deeply can throw a story off balance. If time must be spent with an evil character, don’t forsake realism by toning him down, but consider whether the scene could be better conveyed through another conduit.
–Brianna Storm Hilvety, Managing Editor & Graphics Director
When I encounter elements of darkness in a story, my impression is not only based on the depiction but also on whether I see hope. When I mention hope, I don’t mean wishful thinking, such as longing for snow on Christmas. That’s an uncertain hope. True hope is expecting, knowing, and believing God’s unwavering promises (Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:19).
I love Nadine Brandes’ motivation for writing the Out of Time series: “I got sucked into The Hunger Games and, after that, Divergent, but had a hard time feeling hopeful by the end of those two series. So I started diving into an old story idea of mine with the goal of showing that hope can still overcome, no matter how despairing the darkness is.”
Though the world suffers from death, violence, hunger, pain, wrongdoing, and injustice, we have a hope that combats the darkness. It will overcome no matter how disheartening a situation seems. Hope helps us navigate the reality of darkness.
–Rolena Hatfield, Outreach Manager
Depicting Darkness Appropriately
In the end, your message will be as strong as the enemies you pit against it. Compelling stories reflect the multifaceted reality of darkness and light that surrounds us.
Though we have a truth that cannot be destroyed, we must test it, and when it emerges victorious, it will shine brighter for being irrefutable.
Tune in next week as Daeus tackles writing about violence. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you feel called to do as a writer, and how do you contrast light with darkness in fiction? Share your perspective in the comments!
Hope Ann likes to think herself a dragon-riding, griffin-taming founder of worlds and explorer of legends. Using chocolate, she bribes a wide ring of spies, from the realm leapers of Aslaria to the double agents of Elkbend, for their stories. She thrives on frost, steel, and the tears of her readers, which she secretly mixes into iced coffee. Deep in her hobbit hole, her actual life involves staying up too late writing, reading, researching stab wounds, and struggling to remember the difference between effect and affect. Based in Indiana, she is the self-published author of the Legends of Light series. Hope Ann helps other writers as a personal writing coach and the newsletter manager at Story Embers. You can download her free Beauty and the Beast prequel here.