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Thursday, May 24, 2007


Angst and darkness

It's a fine line to tread, because at each extreme are people you really, really don't want to read. Allow me to introduce you to both of them...

Meet Alice. Alice is a romantic at heart, and thrives on deep, deep buckets of emotion. More is more to Alice, and angsty trauma seems to her the essence of sensitivity. Nothing is better than a story with deep emotion, and no emotion is deeper than angst, according to Alice. Hence, her every single story is larded with sorrowful, unfortunate, tragic misery, expressed at enormous length, often a little out of proportion to the events that provoke it. Alice herself doesn't find this depressing: she gets a kick out of the sensitivity that such emotional overload implies. In effect, to Alice, pain is the dessert, the treat of the meal, and since she's cooking, she's going to cook what she likes. So it's suet pudding with treacle for starters, followed by a nice big bowl of cake batter, with some cookies soaked in chocolate milk for desert. If you ask for a bit of salad, she looks at you like you don't understand the finer points of high cuisine and wanders off with a tut.

At the other end of the table, meet Jennifer. Jennifer's penchant is ego fantasies. She likes catharsis, action, characters that act exactly as she'd like to think she would in every situation - and they win. Boy, do they win. No moping for Jennifer; it's get off your ass and start kicking other people's, and if you're not prepared to do that, why are you wasting her time? Jennifer, in fact, is irritated by most strong emotions, and particularly rattled by appeals to her sympathy. Why should she sympathise with someone she doesn't want to be? And why would she want to be somebody in pain? As a result, Jennifer eats her rare steak with Atkins-like enthusiasm, but if you proffer her a bit of sorbet as a palate-cleanser, she knocks it to the floor, furious that you've tried to make her partake of anything so, to use her favourite word, 'whiny'.

Neither of these extremes are places where you really want to go. Too much angst becomes emotional masturbation, but on the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect characters never to feel upset about anything, and it's hardly impressive to make refusal-of-sympathy the key to your taste. So what's the answer?

The simplest rule is the soundest: angst, sadness or distress should be in response to the plot. If you leave it up to Alice, angst will replace the plot: story will become nothing more than a series of pegs from which you can hang great heavy sheets of unhappy. But on the other hand, if you leave it up to Jennifer, then you can throw anvils at the characters, and all you'll get is a curled lip and a 'Gotta keep going! Never mind the fractured skull and crushed babies, I've got to make those bastards pay!' Characters will not show any kind of human response. It's natural to be distressed by distressing experiences, and if your characters don't do that, they're not people.

If, using the magical third way, you keep the plot moving - this doesn't have to involve falling anvils, the rule works just as well with a well-written three-hundred-page modern novel about a family having a two-hour Christmas dinner, as long something interesting takes place at the table - then there will be events that characters will naturally have emotional responses to. Keep those responses in proportion to the events, portray them faithfully, and the plot will be in balance.

In terms of Narrative Capital, angst is expensive. You have to save up a lot of groundwork to make a scene of lamentation work. On the other hand, if you don't invest a bit of your capital in characters getting upset when everything goes wrong, then it feels as if nothing's at stake: why should we be worried they might lose their house when they don't seem to care much about it themselves?

In short, it's a simple rule of thumb. Stories aren't excuses to have endless angst; neither are they excuses to avoid writing scenes of difficult emotion. Do what the plot has to do, and have your characters react they way they actually would.

Also please remember - this is a pet peeve of mine - that 'darker' doesn't mean better, or more adult, or more interesting. Every time I hear a series or new work is 'better because it's darker', I want to pull my own hair, because this is a horribly mechanistic way of looking at writing. One of my favourite films is My Neighbour Totoro, and while it has a deep emotional wellspring, it's a festival of light and movement and little moments of joy - and it's bloody good. I've seen many darker films, but very seldom have I seen a better one. Similarly, when I hear a series is going in a darker direction, I sigh and check the guide to see what else is on. It's seldom good news. Because the trouble is that when people decide they're going to improve something by making it darker rather than by just, you know, improving it, then it's a sure sign that they think that all they have to do to make something more interesting is to put more unfortunate events in it. Have bad things happen! Finito, now it's darker, so it must be much improved. Who's for a coffee break? And incipient laziness threatens in all other areas of the writing.

'Darker' actually can appeal to both Alice, who loves to have terrible things happen because worse-is-better, and to Jennifer, who crushes sentiment under her boots and likes a good dose of cynicism. But really. Who wants to be like either of them? Darker-is-grown-uppier is simplistic and, fundamentally, is looking to push buttons rather than encourage thought and feeling. Think about it sensibly. Is an artist who sculpts in ebony inherently better than one who sculpts in marble? Should I just dye my hair and eyebrows black and have done with it? Dark is a neutral description, not a commendation.

Besides this, anyone who talks about making something darker has probably missed an important point: there are elements of darkness in any story. It wouldn't work if there weren't. Jane Austen's novels are extremely dark, looked at from a certain point of view: her heroines frequently face lifelong loneliness and destitution if things don't go their way. Would it really improve them to have a sudden massacre in the middle of one of them? Darkness doesn't have to be obvious. There's a great deal of light and shade in any human psyche, and a faithful portrayal of that will give you exactly as much darkness, or lack of it, as your story needs.

Darker isn't better. Better is better. There's no way round that, and a poke in the eye upon anyone who doesn't get it.

I think too much of either angst or darkness can become either tedious or unbelievable. Even in the most grim dystopian post-apocalyptic futures, there can't be nothing but misery and pain. I just don't believe that's human nature.

Too much angst just gets tiresome. I find myself wanting to slap angsty characters and tell them to buck up their ideas and get on with life.
Funny. Just reviewed a set of books that I labeled as dark, though I still thought them enjoyable for the fact. Have you read any of Simon R. Green's Nightside, Kit? There are times where it goes to both extremes in the same chapter, but I thought it managed to keep things "human" somehow.
No, I haven't read them, I'm afraid. But still, if they're good, then hey, good for them. Dark doesn't mean bad, either. :-)
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