Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Dark stories, settings, and characters can be great, but there are so, so many ways they can fail or backfire, and there is so much misconception and unclarity out there over how they can and should work out. So if you're considering writing something dark or are having any trouble doing so, read on!
Table of Contents
- How and why too much darkness can hurt your story
- How you can build up a dark story that works
- All kinds of characters belong in a dark story, and all kinds of characters can be dark
- Other assorted tips
- In summary!
How and why too much darkness can hurt your story
Like anything else, darkness in a story can be overdone. Once it reaches this point, it's hard to take anything in it seriously, let alone get invested in the story or what happens to the characters. One reason for this is that only so much darkness is actually believable - too much, and people won't be able to suspend their disbelief. Another reason is that if you just slap on "dark" things willy-nilly without regard to whether they're actually necessary to the story, it'll come off as pretentious and shallow. Either way, your story will end up looking tryhard - and that's not a place you want to go.
Another problem is that if your stories are too dark, audiences will have no one to root for and nothing to hope for. If nearly everyone is horrible and we know that everything will end in misery and/or death, the only reason to keep watching is sheer morbid fascination - and that's not going to hold many people.
Then there's the risk of making your audience numb to the "dark" elements. When extreme levels of darkness are the norm, the audience comes to expect it - so after awhile, this kind of stuff will cease to shock or surprise your audience. If you're trying to hinge your story on its ability to do that, you've just shot yourself in the foot.
Think of your story as a meal, and darkness as a condiment like ketchup or mustard. You can use it to add flavor to the food or to complement flavors already there, but if you're using it to cover up the fact that the food tastes bland or nasty, you don't have a very good meal, do you? And you probably wouldn't want to eat a whole plate of mustard on its own. Likewise, you don't want to oversaturate your story in dark elements, and you can't just slap together a bunch of dark elements and characters into some semblance of a plot and call it done.
How you can build up a dark story that works
When trying to make your story dark and grim, the first thing to do is the same thing that would make any other story work: focus on what makes it and its characters believable, consistent, and relatable. It's not about aesthetics, gore, violence, or death - instead, it's about situations that evoke and speak to your audience’s own feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, fear, guilt, and shame.
Although stories that do this often involve death, blood, and gore, they're there because it makes sense for them to be, rather than for their own sake. In any well-written story, the bulk of whatever darkness is in it will come off as a natural, even inevitable consequence or byproduct of whatever the situation is at the time. For example, in a story that focuses on soldiers fighting in war, brutal and messy deaths are to be expected. In a story that involves multiple factions struggling to gain control of trade on a highly lucrative substance in a place where law enforcement is virtually nonexistent, one can expect violence to erupt between them.
You can look to real-life scenarios for inspiration, but don't try to one-up them by inflating the numbers or the brutality. If your plots absolutely demand bigger scales, that's one thing - but don't aim to make them worse than their real-life counterparts for its own sake, or for the sake of shocking your audiences.
If you take inspiration from a real-life scenario, make sure you understand the reasons and motives behind it and the sort of conditions it takes to produce these kinds of scenarios. (And remember, it's almost always much more complex than "they were ignorant/full of hate" or "they just didn't care!") If the reasons, motivations, and conditions can't apply to your story somehow (even in a modified form), then what you're trying to go for will look contrived and forced.
For any "dark" element you're considering, ask yourself: will the element you're considering affect the plot or someone's character arc in a way that couldn't be achieved through other means, or through similar, but less extreme ones? If not, then it's superfluous and you should probably either leave it out or dial it back.
Another thing to do is give your characters - and by extension, the audience - a break from the darkness now and then. (Think of it this way - watching high-tension scenarios play out feels a little like holding one's breath underwater, so you need to give people a chance to come up for air.) You might give your characters something to be happy or grateful about and show them feeling it - and don't crush the mood by taking it away five minutes later. (Not to say you can't ever do this, but don't make a habit of it or else your audience will come to expect it and it'll lose its shock value.)
Let your characters do something fun or lighthearted for a little while now and then, too. It doesn't have to be pointless fluff or filler, either! A few ways you can keep these moments relevant to the story include using them to establish characterization, catalyze character development, progress a relationship, or have your characters talk about, overhear, or find something relevant to the plot.
If you can't find a way to work in something story-relevant all the time, even something like a brief mention at the beginning of a chapter that describes something enjoyable the characters did and tells us that they had fun can help. Either way, do something to lighten the mood now and then, or else you risk creating an unbearably crushing atmosphere.
All kinds of characters belong in a dark story, and all kinds of characters can be dark
Many characters in "dark" stories end up being very much the same - often because the writers tend to take the same routes when trying to make the characters themselves dark. These characters tend to come from horrible backgrounds and have personal issues up the wazoo. They're cold and callous. They're angry and distrustful. They get into faces-a-foot-apart arguments with each other on a regular basis. They rarely, if ever lighten up, and their ideas of fun tend to always involve sex, alcohol, motorcycles, or things that involve sharp and pointy objects.
None of these are necessarily problems on their own, but when most of these behaviors fit the majority of your cast, they get old and stale in a hurry. (And if you tack on all-too-common "dark" character habits like smirking, sneering, and taunting other people, they can become downright unbearable.)
Every personality type potentially belongs in a "dark" story, because "dark" scenarios can happen to anyone, and any kind of person can be connected to someone who is experiencing such a scenario. Every personality can be a lead character in such a story, too - you don't have to relegate relatively happy/perky people to the roles of doofy sidekicks or bumbling best friends.
And please remember: personalities don't have to be all-or-nothing where darkness is concerned! Even your "dark" characters can lighten up and crack jokes that aren't intended to mock someone now and then. In fact, cracking jokes is a normal and healthy coping mechanism when facing dark situations, and those who can make jokes (even morbid ones) will realistically likely end up faring much better than those can't. Your "dark" characters can also have hobbies, interests, and pastimes that anyone else might have. They can be warm, loving, and even nurturing toward certain characters or certain types of people. They can even be mostly nice most of the time, but still have a very, very tiny dark aspect that only comes out under very rare or extreme circumstances.
If you're aiming to create a "dark" character who will leave the audience unsettled in some way, remember: some of the best characters for this aren't the ones who leave the audience unsettled with them per se, but with themselves - because they make the audience realize that under the right circumstances, they could be those awful characters who do those horrible things. Such characters tend to have relatable problems, goals, or insecurities that they have chosen to tackle with questionable and even heinous methods, usually because they're desperate and see no other way to get it done. These characters can come from all walks of life and have all kinds of personalities. On the other hand, characters who feel or show no emotions, or whose emotions and motivations are entirely alien, cannot unsettle people in this way.
And while we're here, resist the urge to put every "dark" character in dark and/or "edgy" clothing. Darkness isn't an aesthetic nor a fashion statement. Someone can be completely comfortable with slitting an enemy's throat and still go around wearing Hawaiian print shirts most of the time. Someone wearing blue jeans and light-colored plaid might be a person who just plotted out an elaborate murder, and someone in a light blue bird-patterned cardigan may be a Machiavellian manipulator.
Finally, remember that if you have your characters use their darkness as a point of self-glorification, they're probably going to look like petty edgelords, tryhards, or cheesy old-time comic villains - even if they are legitimately dangerous. So unless they're supposed to look this way, don't have them brag about being one with the darkness or somesuch - just let them be it.
Other assorted tips
No matter what their jobs or positions, never let your characters be in complete control or on top of everything around them. Protagonists and antagonists alike should live in a chaotic and unpredictable world that always challenges them and keeps them on their toes. Often as not, they aren't really even too sure of what they're doing, but they have to push on and do the best they can regardless. Not everything they do will succeed, and sometimes mistakes will be catastrophic. Victory for your protagonists should not be about defeating all threats and danger forever, but about holding them back for just one more day or finding a way to make the world just a little less bad than it would be without their efforts. If they find happiness, it's not to be found through completely stopping the chaos and pain they face, but in finding ways to be happy regardless.
However, individual threats can be permanently destroyed along the way. You needn't make what threatens your characters completely indestructible or constantly contrive ways to keep it from being destroyed. In fact, showing your protagonists taking someone or something especially antagonistic down for good now and then is great for audience morale. In a dark world, darkness can be overcome - there's just more darkness out there than anyone can ever completely take down.
Remember, shadows can't be cast without a light somewhere. Everything is relative, and how "dark" something will seem will depend quite a bit on how much it contrasts against what it's juxtaposed against. Thus, a brutal murder in a neighborhood that up until now seemed quiet and peaceful can potentially be much more startling than a brutal murder in a place known for high rates of violent crime.
But keep the light real. Don't exaggerate your "light" elements beyond something that could plausibly exist in the real world - EG, don't make a character who is the untarnished embodiment of purity, innocence, and goodness, who makes others feel ashamed and guilty just by looking at them. And even the most sweet and selfless of your characters should have a selfish desire or dream in there somewhere.
Remember, darkness is not cruise control for quality. Dark stories and characters can be awesome, but darkness doesn't automatically make them better, deeper, or more "real" than their lighter and softer alternatives.
If your story includes fantastic or supernatural elements, they don't all have to be malicious or dangerous to humans. One way to prevent yourself from over-grimdarking your world is to make your fantastic/supernatural elements a mixed bag. Some might be very dangerous, some might be mildly dangerous, some might be mostly inconveniencing, some might be neither here nor there, a few might be beneficial in some way or in certain circumstances, and some might be a mix.
Curb your spite where lighter and softer fantasy elements are concerned. While it might be tempting to toss in a few spiteful comments at other stories (such as by having a character comment upon how foolish people are for believing "those Hollywood myths"), resist the urge. Your own personal take on a fantasy element is no more "real" or legitimate than anyone else's, and this sort of thing might not make a good impression with the people who actually like the kind of thing you're trying to spite.
Tailor the darkness to your target audience. Different subject matters resonate with different people - for example, children might be afraid of a monster living under the bed that wants to eat them, but adults might be terrified of not being able to protect their children - whether from fantastic monsters or from real-life threats. So figure out who you're writing for, and try to pick something that works for them.
- There's definitely such a thing as overdoing the darkness. Too much, and your audiences get numb and apathetic toward it. A story also needs to be more than just a bunch of dark elements assembled into a plot.
- You make a dark story work the same way you make any other story work: make it and its characters believable, realistic, consistent, and relatable. Any death, blood, gore, etc. that happens should come off as a natural, even inevitable consequence of the situation at hand, not something tacked on for shock value.
- You can use real-life scenarios for inspiration, but make sure you understand how and why those things happened. Also, don't try to one-up them simply for shock value.
- Take time to give your characters (and the audience) a breather. Let things lighten up for awhile now and then. Let nice things happen to your characters without destroying or souring them five minutes later.
- Every type of (realistic) personality you can think of potentially belongs in a dark story. Darkness can happen to anyone and everyone, and any kind of personality can potentially have a dark side or be driven to dark acts under the right circumstances.
- A dark setting should always keep its characters (protagonists and antagonists alike) challenged and on their toes. Their lives should never be entirely secure. They should never be entirely certain in all that they're doing. Also, victory shouldn't be about destroying the darkness once and for all, but holding it back for just a little bit longer, or making the world a little bit brighter than it would have been without their actions. Happiness is to be found by coming to terms with the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life, and finding things to enjoy regardless.
- Individual threats may be destroyed. (Remember, this is great for audience morale!) Basically, darkness can be overcome - there's just too much of it to ever take down entirely.
- Include lighter elements in your story - they give your darkness something to contrast against. But don't exaggerate them beyond something that could plausibly exist in the real world.
- Darkness isn't cruise control for quality, and darkness in and of itself is no guarantee that your story is any better, deeper, or more "real" than something less dark.
- If your story includes fantasy/supernatural elements, consider making them a mixed bag of dangerous, inconveniencing, neutral, or helpful rather than making them all super-deadly or dangerous.
- Don't spite lighter and softer takes on fantasy elements in your work. It's just petty.
- Know your audience, and tailor the darkness in your work to be something they can connect and relate to.
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