Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Bleak Fiction

The British Fantasy Society recently posted David Brzeski's review of The Hoard, which was positive excepting the two caveats that it was a bit too revolting and too bleak for the reviewer's taste. My guess is that he phrased it as an issue of taste because while no one ever says, "The characters in that book were so thin and unbelievable. I loved it!" but someone might say, "That book was so bleak. I loved it!" Knowing that a lot of horror fans enjoy violence and a dark tone, my joking announcement on Facebook was, "To summarize: good, but maybe a bit too revolting and bleak. I'll take it!"

*Between the writing and posting of this post, The Ginger Nuts of Horror also described The Hoard as a "seriously bleak book."*

But it did get me thinking. I realized that I've never written a novel that started with the characters in a happy place. Writing something bleak throughout really isn't a point of pride with me. I'd just never considered it, and I think of myself as a writer who puts a lot of consideration into his writing. So what's up with this?

Like I said, it's not a point of pride. I really enjoy a good tale of existential woe, say a Russian misery-fest from Dostoevsky. But I also enjoy lighter work. And yet, as far as my long fiction goes, everyone's pretty much miserable throughout. This doesn't mean everyone is straight-faced and dour. I think the humor is an important aspect of relaying the richness of the human experience, and most of my characters display at least gallows humor. But the details of their lives are always depressing.

To paraphrase the last episode of Flight of the Conchords, "Our story is the story of two guys who start at the bottom, with a lot of hard work continue along the bottom and finally end up at the bottom."

"Well, that sounds cheery. A real rags-to-rags story."

So if it's not a conscious choice, then the next logical possibility is that it's the unconscious expression of my worldview. But I swear I'm a positive person! I like to say I'm neither an optimist nor a pessimist but a realist, but that's bull shit. I am an optimist. I'm the rare anxiety-ridden person who doesn't worry. I just always assume things will work out. And so far it has, so maybe I am a realist.

I can't even say it's a manifestation of my subconscious beliefs of the requirements of the horror genre, because I've written two non-horror novels and they were both rags-to-rags stories, too.

So, while I feel like I'm pretty self-actualized and good at analyzing myself, I'm really quite stumped. Even the two novels and two novellas I have in the works are bleak from the get-go. I think they're good. I'm neither pro- nor anti-bleak. But it does point at least to something I haven't explored with my fiction.

Now that I'm all fat and sleek and satisfied with myself like an over-fed house cat, maybe it's time to tell some stories where the characters have it all before it gets snatched away. I could build them up so they have farther to fall when I knock them down. Mr. Brzeski said that he prefers for the characters to have "little light in the darkness for the heroes to strive for." He has a point. In The Hoard, I specifically point out that the only way the protagonist is able to make it in the world is by keeping his head down and plodding ahead. If Peter were to think too hard about his situation, he might decide to just lay down and die.

I think it could be fun to play God with Job, take someone who has a good life and make a bet with the Devil that this man won't break, but without the certainty of omniscience. In horror, it's okay to break your protagonist.

Now I just need to remember all this when it comes time to start a new project. It's easy to fall into old habits, especially one that's apparently so ingrained that I didn't even see it, the same way I don't see the air and a fish doesn't see water. I like to try something new with every piece of fiction. It's odd that starting from a happy place and going all Thomas Hardy on someone's ass will be new.

Seriously, what does that say about me?


  1. I don't think it says anything about you, really. I haven't written a story without disturbing levels of darkness, yet I'm pretty sure everyone who meets me would describe me as "cheery" or the even more nauseating "bubbly" and would never in a million years imagine me writing something other than cutesy chick-lit. That's part of the fun for me though, I'll admit.

    I also love to read dark fiction. It's not interesting for me unless it's terrible. It doesn't have to be physically violent, but the more awful stuff the characters have to wade through, the better.

    I think it'll be interesting for you to start in a happy place. My current project is a little bit like that, except the MC realizes it was really a terrible place all along somewhere in the middle of it. ;)

    1. So the question is, what's wrong with YOU!

  2. I enjoy bleak and depressing; it makes me feel warm and cuddly inside, like my own life isn't so bad. ;) I think that a lot of us writers are generally cheerful and happy people that enjoy exploring the darker possibilities. I say keep being bleak, but be careful because part of what brings a reader to fall in love with your characters is relating to them and being able to root for them, whether they make it out of their situation or not. If your character never have a chance, your readers might not be as enthralled as you want them to be.

    1. That last point is a good one. The funny thing is, in any other genre, no matter how dark things get, the reader is certain good will prevail.