CSFF Blog Tour – The Book of Names, Part 2

How much darkness is too much? I began this discussion yesterday as part of the CSFF Blog Tour for D. Barkley Briggs’ debut novel The Book of Names. I really appreciate all the comments addressing this subject. Each one has helped to clarify my thinking.

A little background is in order to explain why I think this question is so significant. When I first started writing my fantasy, now entitled The Lore of Efrathah, I included a section of backstory that “explained” the evil. I had a friend read it, and she said in no uncertain terms that if I included that section in the book, she wouldn’t read it. Oh, well, I thought, one reader lost. I kept the info.

Later, I asked an educator, who had said he was willing to endorse my work, to read. When he returned the manuscript, he said he couldn’t give me the endorsement in part because of the same material my friend had reacted to.

So years later, when I’d studied fiction and taken the scene out, not because of the darkness but because of the poor technique, I considered writing a prequel based on that background information. As I moved on in the story and wrote book two, I came upon a place that demanded more darkness.

Now I had a choice. Do I put the darkness in, knowing that I may find some readers like my friend, like that educator, or do I take it out? I prayed. I entered into discussions with other writers about “edgy Christian fiction,” and in the end, I wrote the chapters that are dark.

Why? I’d have to say, I did so because I needed evil to be credibly dangerous. If there was no threat, there was no need to fight it.

So now you know a little bit where I’m coming from. I have written dark scenes (I think my aunt stopped reading my books for that reason, but she’s too polite to say so).

Here’s where my thinking is now. Depicting darkness in and of itself is not wrong—the world is a dark place. In stories, depicting darkness may even be necessary to show the opposition to good. Darkness, however, to a certain degree is in the eye of the beholder. To God, all our disobedience is dark, heinous, a stain that separates us from Him. But to us? We see darkness every day, and quite frankly have developed tough skin to much of it. What makes us look away today, what would we label as revolting? The answers to those questions will vary from person to person.

So what’s a writer to do? How can you write to an audience that varies from person to person in the darkness tolerance level? Or should we write to God’s standards and show none of it because it is all revolting to Him?

Quite frankly, parts of my darkest scenes are revolting to me. I had a hard, hard time writing them. But I wanted them to be revolting. I wanted the darkness to look dark. But that’s the thing—I didn’t want anyone to mistake the dark for light.

So here’s what I came to for my writing:

  • I wouldn’t glorify evil by making it look appealing
  • I wouldn’t write in the evil character’s point of view to avoid appearing to endorse his thinking and to avoid bringing readers that close
  • I would focus the story on the fight against evil not on evil
  • Obviously other writers handle the subject differently. D. Barkley Briggs (Dean) is one. He has segments in The Book of Names that he wrote in the evil characters points of view. Here’s a short sample:

    “They will enter the bay soon,” Nemesia informed the shadowed man before her. He [The Devourer] was a towering figure, horned and helmeted with iron, caped in purple the color of spilled wine. He wore shimmering chain mail. A huge sword was slung at his back …

    The Devourer smiled dangerously. “My time is near.”

    “Well, my time is now,” Nemesia hissed. “I prepared the way before you. I weaken the will of both land and people …”

    As she spoke, the air around Nemesia became gray and blurry. She seemed to grow in both stature and terror. The Devourer, cloaked as a man, watched from the shadows, arms folded, unmoved. When he stepped into the beams of light, his dark eyes narrowed threateningly. He had a scarred face that was fierce and seductively handsome. Almost imperceptibly, he stretched two fingers toward her. The air in the room became a marinade of power.

    Nemesia convulsed. Her body shook. Her exalted stature shrunk as if melting. Within moments she was on her knees, limp, bowed over, gasping for air.

    So is that scene too dark? Or is too dark more than reading about evil acting as evil acts?

    To see the updated list of blog participants who I know have posted see yesterday’s post.

    I would like to draw attention to a couple articles I think you might especially be interested in:

    Jason Isbell has an interview with Dean.

    Rachel Star Thomson posited a thought-provoking question based on the opening of Book 2 in the Legends of Karac Tor.

    Chawna Schroeder reviews the book and gives her thoughts on its darkness.

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    15 Comments

    1. […] discussion going on her site. This time it’s on how dark is too dark. It starts here and continues here. Go join in. Then we have Brandon Barr talking about motivations. Keanan Brand has a interiview […]

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    2. That excerpt you quoted did not feel dark to me.

      Maybe I’m not getting the full impact of it because I’m not immersed in the characters’ POVs.

      I remember reading the beginning of a Brandilyn Collins novel years ago and she had scenes that were in the bad guy’s first person pov. You were right in the demented head eyeballing victims and thinking about what you were going to do to them. That was too much for me.

      But an omniscient view, which Briggs writes in, doesn’t bother me.

      There’s not even in gross stuff in that scene.

      The scene that bothered me in his book was…

      :::::::::::::::::::::::SPOILER ALERT:::::::::::::::::::::::::
      ::::::::::::::::::::::A MINOR SPOILER::::::::::::::::::::::::
      :::::BUT A SPOILER OF A SHOCKING SCENE ALL THE SAME::::::::::
      :::::::::SO DON’T READ ON IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW:::::::::::

      highlight text to read:

      was the girl being rolled off the raft and killed. It seemed gratuitous to me. Because they could have killed her at any time, but they waited for him to wake up to do it.Why? Why that moment. It was not foreshadowed, it was not motivated, and it felt like it was in there for shock value.

      :::::::END SPOILER:::::::::::

      Your dark stuff, in your second book, which I’ve had the great privilege of reading, is very dark but was really good and since it was written in the third person pov and your evil guys are not sympathetic in any way, I wasn’t bothered by it (in the sense of feeling like it was too creepy or it was sinful to read).

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    3. heh heh I tried to do the text in white but it didn’t work. I guess we can’t do html in your comments.

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    4. This is a really important topic, I think. The key is this: you have boundaries. You have established the lines you will not cross in your writing, and you have based them on the solid moral teachings of the Bible. On my website at http://www.jdog-ink.com/jdogink/jdog/content/About.jsp, I have a list of “do’s” and “do not’s”. As I was writing them, I likened it to building a fence. The area inside the fence is safe to explore. It’s my “play yard”. The area outside is off limits.

      When I was completing my English degree, I became bothered because it seemed like the majority of the authors I studied had mental issues. Many committed suicide. My husband was completing an art degree at the same time, and it was pretty much the same story there. Overall, these writers and artists seemed like a pretty messed up group of individuals (aren’t we all, but these folks, even more so). Additionally it seemed my professors viewed their mental illness, struggles, confusion as a virtue. At one point I heard someone say (about an artist who committed suicide), “if so-and-so hadn’t been depressed we wouldn’t have their great artwork.” Excuse me? That comment made steam blow out of my ears, and I suspect it angered God, too. Does the importance of the artist’s work really trump the importance of the artist’s life? No way! Needless to say, after four years of this, I was really annoyed and ready to graduate.

      I’m sort of going off on a tangent in order to say this: there is some danger in what we do as writers. I believe the intense focus is somewhat like a form of meditation. Because of that, I think it can expose us to spiritual dangers IF we are not careful. Becky, I think you are doing precisely what all of us need to do to stay safe. You are creating your boundaries, building them on strong moral foundation. When you sit down to write, you do not take off God’s armor. You leave it on. And, if you are like me, you probably tighten it up a bit.

      I think most artists/writers/musicians do not set boundaries, nor do they wear any armor, so they run the high risk of developing spiritual and psychological issues. They allow themselves full exploration into the world of sin in the name of self-expression and “art”. They explore too much, deconstruct too much, go too “deep”. And all without God’s armor. To me, that’s a pretty scary thought.

      I’m pretty passionate about this subject. Obviously. I’ve been guilty of going too “deep”, thinking there was something valuable to find there. What I found was nothing. Satan sold me a lie. What I realized then was, I don’t want to go there again, and I surely don’t want to lead anyone else there. The following summer, I became a baptized Christian. Now I have the armor of God. Amen!

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    5. While I believe art, including and perhaps especially Christian art, has a duty to be honest, een when it’s bright and chirpy. 🙂 And that means an element of dark. Reality is dark–ask anyone whose spouse just cheated on them or who trusted in Ted Haggard or who has a son at war or who was raped or who has a desire to bed children or who wants their parents to die so they can inherit the family fortune (though they’d never admit it).

      I like darkness in fiction because it jives with what I see in the world and in humanity. But I don’t like ONLY darkness, because I don’t see only darknenss. I see beauty and love and hope and the expectation of Kingdome to Come. As long as a person believes in Christ Risen, the work they do must have hope and light or it’s not consistent with the gospel. If a person only has light, they have forgotten sin and how Christ had to pay for them with sweat, spit,, snot, and blood.

      Darkness is just what is and undeniable, and people who find it intolerable inf cition probably just want escapist fiction and not what is true, or they fear truth, or they simply wish truth would go away and leave them to sing cheery songs. 🙂

      Mir

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    6. I really like Mir’s comments. I, too, like dark in fiction because it is what I see everyday. But I also see hope and light everyday.

      Great answer, Mir!

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    7. I second that Merrie.

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    8. I do not have a problem with dark fiction. Evil exists. We need to show it for what it is. After all, if God did not shy away from including it in his book (see Judges, Revelation, or the gospel accounts of the crucifixion), why should we?

      Rather, the question for me is how dark is too dark? Like you, Becky, I’ve struggled with this in my writing. Sometimes I’ve felt compelled to go to dark places, even after much prayer. I didn’t–don’t–want to cross the line.

      So where is that line? I think it has to do with the light and its balance with the darknesss and upholding moral law (the spiritual truths written into the universe like the physical laws of gravity). I think that ultimately the light must outweigh the darkness on the scales. This doesn’t mean it has to be a happily-ever-after ending, but that the darker the darkness, the brighter the hope of God must be shown to be.

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    9. p.s., Rebecca, you inspired my latest blog entry. Thanks!! (I gave you credit.)

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    10. Great thoughts Rebecca. I valued the story of your personal journey in writing the dark scenes of your stories.

      The guide I go by is…if the darkness is in the book/movie/music for the sake of darkness…a self glorifying darkness…almost like a romance with darkness (which can be a powerful hunger), then it is evil. But if the darkness is used to expose evil for evil, and to show our powerful need to oppose it, then that is when it is used the right way.

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    11. One problem I have with discussions like this is that when Christian authors discuss evil in fiction, they almost always frame it in terms of violence, morbidity, occultism, or demonia. Biblically speaking, however, pride, gluttony, greed, materialism, gossip, envy, etc., can be just as monstrous. Liars go to hell along with serial killers. But when was the last time we got bent about a character who drank too much coffee, gossiped about her co-workers, ignored the plight of the poor, didn’t tithe, or was snooty? No, it’s always the satanist, terrorist, child molester, vampire, or mad scientist that’s the evil one. In some ways, the Christian market’s perpetual infatuation with romance seems, um, unhealthy… especially for people who claim to be pursuing Christ. Yet we’d never think about posing the “evil question” to Chick Lit or Romance. It’s always the Speculative that gets the “evil rap.”

      How much evil is too much? It’s in the eye of the beholder. Some can eat meat sacrificed to idols with a pure conscience, others can’t. The problem, as I see it, is that the same Book many claim to cultivate their sensitivities from speaks about the slaughter of children, human sacrifice, incest, genocide, circumcision, beheading, disembowelings, idol worship, demons, plagues, rivers of blood, necromancy, martyrdom, cosmological apocalypse, and ultimately, a place where the souls of men exist in perpetual torment. I will agree that Christian Fiction requires light. But how much darkness one allows to get his/her readers there is entirely up to them.

      Sorry for the explosion, Becky. Grace to you!

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    12. […] Hicks Joleen Howell Jason Isbell interviews the author Cris Jesse Jason Joyner Carol Keen Magma Rebecca LuElla Miller on how much darkness is too much? Mirtika Eve Nielsen Nissa Steve Rice Crista Richey […]

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    13. I think I know what you meant about the comment you made about not making evil appealing, but I want to point something out: evil, sin, darkness, whatever you want to call it IS appealing, that’s why we do it. It looks beautiful and fulfilling and therefore we grasp it, take a bite, then realize the horror that it was not what is seemed.

      Now I’m not saying glorify evil. But showing the seductive nature of evil, how it hides behind a veneer of beauty and deceives us is a legitimate subject to write about. Not all evil looks ugly.

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    14. I wouldn’t write in the evil character’s point of view to avoid appearing to endorse his thinking and to avoid bringing readers that close

      That is on my list of standards, too. I also prefer to suggest or imply any necessary graphic violence rather than give a full gory description of the act. It works, too. Psycho scared the pants off us and all they showed was a brandished knife, the sound of a woman screaming, and blood running down the drain.

      The bible does give us a good guideline for writing about these topics. It’s pages are filled with evil. But it just tells you simply what happened; it doesn’t give you a graphic groan-by-groan description of, say, daughters getting their dad drunk in the only known-by-me case of parent molestation (The girls thought they were the last three people left alive on Earth)

      Interestingly, you can get away in the CBA with writing about such things if you find a bible story that features it!

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    15. I agree strongly with Morgan. Evil is appealing (to different extents to different people. Christians wouldn’t still struggle with it if they weren’t attracted to sin. The desirable person who tempts us to lust and fornication or adultery. The luscious food that prods us into gluttony. The grand house and car that pushes us into avarice or envy. The self-absorption that causes us to have undue anger. The power and lure of beauty that makes us vain and covetous.

      If we don’t show that sin is appealing, we lie as much as if we never show darkness. If sin didn’t tempt, if it wasn’t what we ached for in some measure, then why do we fall so often in our daily struggles for holiness? Why don’t we stick to diets? Why don’t we give more as a people (and the stats on Christian giving are horrifying)?

      And I totally disagree with the connection of the art of the novel to a historical format like the Bible. The Song of Songs is an erotic poem and it’s quite potent in what it is saying, as a POEM. But historical books do not teach us how to write novels. So, saying, “The bible doesn’t give a blow-by-blow” is pretty non-comparable. The bible doesn’t give show us how to write good dialogue or give in-depth perspective. How often do we get right into Esther’s head as she goes through her days, doing her little things and dealing with conflicts minor and major. We don’t. It’s not fiction.

      Mir

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