I used to think I didn't have an outer limit for dark. I mainline bleak like other people put away Ben 'n Jerry's or fresh air or right-wing talk radio - which is to say hungrily, immoderately, addictively.
I don't merely appreciate flawed characters, I crave them.
Part of my problem is that I'm a natural-born envelope-pusher. A rebel, a contrarian. I don't like being told what to do. Everyone knows, for instance, that good needs to prevail over evil; that altruistic impulses ought to be rewarded; that everything happens for a reason.
Only, what if it doesn't?
I mean, isn't it kind of interesting to set aside what we know about fictional humans, and reach into the grab-bag of our observation and imagination and work with whatever deeply flawed character we pull out? Do so and you get to work with questions like these:
- Think of the most horrific crime you can imagine - is there ever a circumstance where it's justified?
- Could you love a child who lacks a conscience?
- Is there a man or woman alive who cannot be tempted to abandon everything s/he holds dear?
- Is addiction a curse from the gods, or a necessary expression of a particular corner of the human soul?
- Is true forgiveness possible?
- Is it possible to determine the exact moment when a tortured soul crosses over into irredeemable? How close can you drive your narrative to that cliff's edge without going over?
- How profoundly can you taint romantic love before you turn it into something else entirely?
I am absolutely aware that a great many readers - a majority, in fact - prefer lighter reading. They want their heroes to be good and their villains to be bad, their justice served cold and their love stories to be firmly in the happy-ever-after camp.
But my own restless mind wanders when I try to write in that territory. A dear friend frequently insists that fiction ought to be pure entertainment. I don't disagree, exactly...it's just that I find the darkness way more entertaining than the alternative.
As it turns out, even I have my limits. A friend recently introduced me to a work that I wish I'd never seen, proving that I do have a bit of marshmallow left on the inside. Frankly I'm glad to know that's the case - I'd like to hang onto the possibility I might go soft someday.
Incidentally, I like other stuff too. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for soul-gouging, you know? I own books that make me laugh and romances that make me dab at my eyes with a hanky, and I'm quite fond of them. I own a Bible and, until recently, about two hundred books about quilting. I own cookbooks and trail books and guidebooks, and they all have their place.
But when I'm in the mood for dark, please don't drop me off in the suburbs - drive me straight to the seething heart of it.