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How Should Christian Authors Depict Darkness?

October 22, 2018

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.

 

Staff Perspectives

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!

55 Comments

  1. Parker Hankins

    Wow!!!! AWESOME post!!! I can’t wait to apply this to my writing!!

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Thanks! Glad it helped!

  2. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

    Hi Hope!
    An absolutely wonderful post here!
    I love your emphasis on HOW we portray darkness is really essential for a Christian. The Bible does a great job at this – esp. when we look at some of the stories in the Book of Judges – I was appalled when I first read the story about the Levite who first found his concubine and then chopped her to pieces and sent them to the various tribes in Israel, but I then realized that this was what happened when God’s Chosen People no longer seek or obey God. Portraying evil in a realistic but negative way is so important (and hard, I think :).

    Thank you for this post!

    ~C. M.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Yeah, that was quite a story. 😛 The Bible does do a good job of it though. There are some things I read for years before I was old enough to realize what they actually meant.

    • C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

      *nods in agreement*

  3. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

    I do have a question for Hope and/or any other readers of this comment here:

    ~ What books do you think portrayed evil in a realistic and appropriate way?
    ~ And what books didn’t, and why?

    I think it’ll be interesting to get some examples in here. 🙂

    ~C. M.

    Reply
    • BrookeWolf

      The Lord of the Rings series, as well as Narnia, both portray evil incredibly well. They’re masterpieces. Lord of the Rings is definitely darker and more intense in that way, but they’re both amazing at that. The contrast between selfishness and love, light and dark, is brilliantly done.

    • Hope Ann

      Hmmm. I know I’ve read things. I just can’t think of particularly dark stories. King’s Folly by Jill Williamson is the first thing that comes to mind. Content-wise, I’d probably recommend it ages 14 or 15 and up, but she handles a number of tricky topics very well.

    • Sandrina

      I love Narnia!

    • C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

      @BrookeWolf: I was thinking of those examples, too! Lewis and Tolkien are my ultimate models for fantasy fiction. 🙂

      @Hope Ann: Yes! I agree. I think it also may depend on your maturity and how much you are able to “handle” in terms of content and topic (which of course depends on yourself as well as, say, your parents’ influence/education etc.)

  4. E. Grace

    I love this article!
    Especially the part about out lights shining brighter through the darkness; that is so true. 🙂
    I do have a question though. You talked about being careful regarding who our target audience is. I totally agree that we need to be extra careful if we’re writing for a younger audience as opposed to a young adult audience. But should the same be true about a young writer, such as myself? As a teenager, there is a lot I have yet to experience. And with my limited experience, I wonder, should I be the one exploring such dark topics in my writing? This is something I’ve really been thinking a lot about this past week, especially since Josiah’s article, and hearing your perspective I’m sure will clear a few things up for me.
    Anyways, thanks for this! And, thanks for any help you can offer. I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out for myself. 🙂

    Reply
    • Ariel Ashira

      I was wondering the same thing as EmGC. How far should my research on some things go when I am sixteen? Should I stick to writing about the evils I already know about, but not go further? We already have a lot of exposure to darkness by just living in the world.
      Thank you for your article, Hope! This series is really awesome.

    • Hope Ann

      Good question. To some extent, I think it is a case by case basis depending on how emotionally mature a person is and what they have experienced. Talking to friends and parents can help with figuring this out.

      The other thing to consider is that, when portraying darkness, one needs to do it fairly and be able to show the opposing point of view sympathetically. The point is to show the light, not just bash darkness. It can be easy for younger writers to be heavy-handed when it comes to portraying what they see as bad, since they don’t have enough experience to see everything, and this can have the potential of hurting someone who has dealt with an actual related situation. Personally, I have at least one story I’m holding onto and might write in five or ten years because while I could probably write it now, the depths of emotions and the things that happen are something I’ll be able to better write when I’m older.

      Hope that helps some.

    • E. Grace

      Yes, it does help. Thank you. 🙂
      This is something I will definitely think (and pray!) more about.

  5. Michelle Bolanger

    “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.”

    I never thought of this verse as it applies to writing, but it makes everything clear. I think that is what I am loving the most about this series of posts; I’m not only learning how to write better stories, but I’m reading and applying the Bible to my writing in new ways.

    I am so glad I found Storyembers.org. Being here has already radically changed my writing.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Yeah. I actually hadn’t thought of that verse in connection with the darker aspects of writing myself before this article. Then as I was looking deeper into it, I realized how well it fit. It’s quite cool. 😉

  6. Victoria

    This was an amazing post! As a writer I always try to portray darkness balancedly (if that’s a word). And most of the time I struggle to make it real enough. A good story is one that will turn darkness into light, but yet have enough darkness to make it real.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Eh, it can be a word. And yes, a good story uses darkness to show the light. The darkness might not even ‘convert’ to light (that doesn’t always happen in real life, after all) but it’s there to provide a backdrop and contrast.

  7. Andrew Schmidt

    Good article. 🙂 I like it.
    I’ll do my best to balance the light and darkness in my story.
    Thanks for the article!

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Glad it helped!

  8. Heather Drabant

    Good read. Looking forward to the rest of this series immensely.

    My characters are faced with many physical threats (as is the case with most action adventure stories, of course) but the true conflict is mental intrusions with, quite literally, the antagonist “Getting inside” my protags head.
    I’ve struggled with the balance of what to show, what to elude to, and what to leave to the readers imagination entirely.
    All while keeping the desired impact.

    I love the approach you’ve laid out here and will be examining my content from a new angle.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Oooo, that sounds fun. Glad it helped. 😉

  9. Maddie Morrow

    Fantastic post!

    I completely agree with you that being in a villains POV too deeply can be problematic.

    While I loved the story in Six of Crows, being in Kaz’s mind for certain scenes really bothered me.

    Right now I’m working on a story that has a criminal for the main character. While he does do bad things (like steal) hes not a vicious, graphic person, so I don’t think he should cause readers that sort of discomfort. He’s also offset by my other main character, a girl who is morally upright, and who is constantly after him about his choices, so eventually he will grow and change.

    Again, great post. I’m really enjoying this series.

    Reply
    • Brianna Storm Hilvety

      Yeah, I agree that how deeply you can go depends upon the type of villain and whether he/she has a redemption arc. I’m currently reading a series that jumps into the villain’s POV a few times, but the focus is more on what’s happening around him than his dark thoughts, so it’s not off-putting. I’ve read other stories, however, where the villain’s POV chilled me enough that I stopped reading.

  10. Priscilla

    WOW! I’m SO excited that I found this series of articles! I just had a discussion with a friend about a murder in one of my latest releases, and we discussed a lot of the same things, but it was disconnected. I’m REALLY glad I found this article. It was so well put together and brings the glory back to God!

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  11. Katie Hanna

    “Your message will be as strong as the enemies you pit against it.” Wow. I like that a lot.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Ha, yeah. It’s a nice quotable comment. I ought to make more of those. *nods sagely*

  12. Sam Kowal

    The idea of looking to Scripture to see how to portray darkness is definitely helpful. The decision to portray darkness and actually executing that can be pretty different sometimes, so it’s nice to have examples of how Scripture does that.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Yes, Scripture is a good guideline for quite a few things. 😉

  13. K.M. Small

    I love this article! Definitely the most thorough and concise one I’ve ever read on the topic! 😀
    For some novels I’ve read (and even for myself), it seems that authors write darkness “just because.” Just because that’s what’s “in” right now and that’s what the world is like. The problem is, exposing your mind to evil without some sort of guideline (like the brilliant example of how light overcoming darkness IS in line with Philippians 4:8) is bound to turn out badly. Evil and sin are alluring. We need to be very careful around that. So I think another point to consider is how much you as the writer are able to take. When does the darkness become so much in your writing that you, as the writer, can’t even see the light anymore?
    For myself, I’ve noticed that I have an easy time taking characters on negative arcs or digging them into a pit through the first half of the story, but the actual redeeming part has gotten harder, so I’ve learned to take more time writing the /positive/ end of the arcs. I believe the problem started when I thought I was being too “nice” to my characters and ended up over-correcting and being too mean to them without offering enough hope. Currently in the stages of fixing that 😛
    Also, Rolena’s words… “Hope helps us navigate [writing] darkness.” *coughs* Thanks for the article, Hope 😉

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Yep *nods* I help a lot. XD I think…

  14. Julia/AristaeH

    This article is great, Hope! I’m definitely gonna apply this knowledge to my first draft which is in serious need of edits. 🙂 Thank you for being a light in the darkness of this world.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      I’m glad it was a help. 😉

    • Hope Ann

      *smirks* of course it was

  15. Grace

    Wonderful article and very helpful. Thank you. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Glad it could help. 😉

  16. Eden Anderson

    Great article, Hope! I tend to be a pessimistic person, so the dark, depressing side of me sometimes comes out and threatens to overtake my whole plot. You’ve inspired me to find a healthy balance of light and darkness. Yes, I need darkness in my stories to contrast the light and be realistic, but I can go to far with that. I need to remember that I’ve been made new in Christ, I have hope…I think when I keep that in mind, hope will shine through even the darkest of my stories and offer a message of love and redemption.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      Ah yes. It’s the light and hope that makes the stories so powerful. It can be quite fun using the light and darkness to complement each other.

  17. Lara Doorn

    I really enjoyed this article but I also have a question for anyone who cares to answer.

    One of my characters came from a physically abusive family and due to this has a very intense fear of his parents and adults in general. I use flashbacks throughout my story to highlight parts of his past. Does anyone have ideas for knowing how to portray something like abuse without being too graphic but still giving the sense of terror and pain typically associated with something like that especially from a 1st person viewpoint?

    Reply
    • Peggy Perry

      I think I would probably use some physical reactions: flinching, panting, sweating, watching the feared ones closely, nausea, clenched stomach, waking suddenly from nightmares, panic attacks. Sometimes the reader’s imagination can fill in blank spaces better than the author’s words.

    • Hope Ann

      Peggy’s reply was good. And really, portraying darkness in a flashback is no different than portraying darkness in any other part of a story. It needs to have a reason, of course. But flashbacks are one of a number of tools which can be a good way to contrast darkness with light.

  18. Corban

    Great article; I’m really enjoying this series so far and look forward to the upcoming installments. 🙂

    I do have a question, though. Does Crime and Punishment fit your criteria for a Christian portrayal of darkness? Because that book is terribly dark. And violent, graphically. Yet Dostoevsky was a Christian, and the story contains perhaps the single clearest picture of the Light that I have found in fiction–and this, not despite the darkness, but because of it.

    I guess my question is, did Dostoevsky go too far?

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Hey Corban,

      I happen to know a lot of us on the staff (myself included) love Crime and Punishment. You’re right that it’s a darker book, though compared to some other dark classics I have read (The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notradame) there’s a significant difference.

      To summarize, I would say that while some books show darkness to add “intensity”, Dostoevsky seems to do it from an intellectual rather than emotional basis as if his goal is to be completely honest in exploring the human condition.

      With the protagonist, I think foreshadowing helped in the main graphically violent scene. We had a sense early on that the MC was not a hero and that the violent act would not be the climax of his story.

    • C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

      Love that you brought Dostoevsky up! 🙂

    • Hope Ann

      What Daeus said. I haven’t read Crime and Punishment yet myself, though I’ve heard good things about it. Someday…

  19. Peggy Perry

    I have had a novel brewing in my head for years and now it seems ready to come out, and it is all about this subject. Four very unusual teens find themselves in a situation they want nothing to do with. They all hide a darkness inside them from the world and try to keep it under strict control. They discover God has chosen them as the heroes to save a people who have been victimized by their four doubles who revel in the same darkness they hide. The four teens don’t believe in God, though one claims he does. But they soon learn they cannot run or hide from God’s will, and have to rise to the challenge or die.

    When I first started writing on this I presented the rough first draft to a writer’s group. The two professionals in the group scorned the villains as being ‘unbelievably evil’. Most of the villains’ actions were taken from published news reports about various crimes. Since they were both science fiction writers, I was surprised by their naivety. Perhaps it was the way I wrote it. I’ll see. I am part of a new writers’ group, and they like it so far.

    Reply
    • Hope Ann

      *nods* though admittedly, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. The main thing that makes a villain’s evilness believable or not is their backstory if it makes logical sense in their own life. The worst villain can be very believable if he’s built right while a less bad villain might not make sense if there isn’t a good reason for him to act that way.

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