Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest Post: The Dark Side (Writing Dark Themes) by Author S.W. Vaughn

The Dark Side: How I Handle Writing Dark Themes

Author S.W. Vaughn opens up about what prompts to write dark characters in dark worlds.

“Now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”
--Dark Helmet, Spaceballs

A lot of my work deals with stuff that isn’t exactly sunshine and roses. I don’t shy away from violence—many of my main characters are thieves and drug dealers, crooked and corrupt people, psychotics and sociopaths, even killers. At the least, they’re all disturbed in some way. I’ve tried writing happy, normal, well-adjusted characters—and it just doesn’t work for me. They bore me to tears.

But the biggest reason I write dark fiction is that I believe in the innate kindness and decency of humanity—and I promise, that’s not a contradiction. I believe that, given the opportunity, an overwhelming majority of people would choose to be good. It’s just that not everyone has that choice.

“We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood
Deep down inside us there is good.”
--The Jets, West Side Story

Let me tell you a story.

I go to New York City twice a year to work at a publicity summit. In midtown Manhattan, where our hotel is, there’s a group of homeless people who spend a lot of mornings “working corners”—each of them has a huge plastic bottle, and they’re stationed at intersections every couple of blocks, asking for money for a program that provides shelter and tries to help them find employment. Most people think this program is a racket, and their only “job” is to rip people off. So they walk by without even glancing at them.

One morning, I was headed out of the hotel to get some coffee at a Dunkin Donuts a few blocks away—and it was pouring rain. I passed one of the guys with the plastic bottles standing out on the sidewalk. He was wearing a flimsy plastic poncho that wasn’t anywhere near keeping him dry. So I went down to the next block, bought an umbrella from the dollar store, then walked back and gave it to him.

That man gave me the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. He hugged me and said God bless me, and told me I was beautiful. I almost cried right there, because he was beautiful, and I felt honored to have met him.

It’s easy to make snap judgments and assume the worst about people. But it only takes an extra minute or two to move past that knee-jerk reaction and think that just maybe, your assumptions are wrong. That’s how I approach writing dark themes—by playing on assumptions, and giving my characters real and believable reasons for doing what they do.

“Without darkness, there can be no light.”
--The Lord of Darkness, Legend

Violence and hatred exist in the world—that is a simple fact. Even if the entire population of the world were clones of Gandhi and Mother Teresa, we’d still find something to fight about. I’m not advocating violence for the sake of having something to compare with goodness. It just is.

However, even in the midst of darkness, the light of humanity rises up. People who have been forced to make hard choices and end up falling into bad lifestyles manage to fight their way out. Millions of everyday heroes—those who struggle to survive in all sorts of terrible situations—perform small acts of kindness that touch someone, even if it’s just one other person.

Sure, there are some lost causes, the truly violent and unrepentant, but they are few and far between. If you pay attention, you’ll see those you least expect to be good people—the punk with the pierced face, the bitter old man, the welfare mom, the dude with sagging pants, the bum on the corner—prove that they aren’t what you think. They are human, and they are beautiful.

To me, this is what’s amazing and powerful about the world. And that’s why I write about it.

About the Author: S.W. Vaughn lives in central New York and writes thrillers. The House Phoenix series started with the last line in Broken Angel and grew from there.

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