The courage to go to dark places

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Image: courtesy of Jessica Shirley

A couple of years ago I wrote the first draft of a novel called He, She, It.  It’s a dark book, touching on dangerous and complicated themes, but looking back at it now, I realise I didn’t quite have the courage to let it be dark or dangerous enough.

For example, there’s one scene where my fifteen-year old protagonist encounters a predatory adult in a position of power.  Anna escapes unharmed, and tells her Mum, who acts impeccably: she immediately believes her daughter’s account of events, and acts strongly to protect her.

I found it very upsetting to write that scene: I was shaking as I typed, and I cried a lot afterwards. At the time, the only way I could cope with the feelings it triggered in me was by making the Mum swoop in immediately and save Anna.  I had to put an end to the unbearable tension.

A number of readers, including agents, and my editor at Mother’s Milk Books, thought the scene was great, but didn’t go far enough.  In acting to protect Anna, I jumped in too soon. In removing the tension I killed the drama.

I’ve recently starting rewriting that book, with a view to sending it out again.  Now I feel the task is to make this book darker and more dangerous, and to do that I need to find it in me to sustain that tension and sense of danger over the whole of the novel. This tugs against the part of me that wants to keep my characters safe, particularly if those characters are children.

It’s hard being a mum writing children’s or young adults’ fiction.  To make my stories gripping and dramatic I have to put my characters in danger.  I have to torture and test them, make them suffer.  I don’t mind doing this to my adult characters:  I happily subjected my protagonist Alex in Baby X to all manner of mental and physical torment. But when I write about children, I feel like a mum: my instincts are to protect and comfort.

If children in fiction are going to triumph over adversity, they need to rescue themselves.  And in order to make this happen, the adults they trust need to let them down.  This means I have to fight against my desire to write strong competent parents who protect their children from danger. I have to let my adults characters be useless, or find another way to hobble them.

I’d love to hear if any of you experience similar struggles.

 

Writing Bubble

15 thoughts on “The courage to go to dark places

  1. Marija Smits

    This has got me thinking… Thank you! 1) I wanted to say that sometimes I write things that are dark (about my own struggles) and that can be cathartic – although I know it may not always be right for me to publish that kind of stuff, but there is *nearly* always an ending that brings about resolution (be it happy or sad – that is the main thing, I think, to get closure). And 2) I know what you mean about the young heroes/heroines having to rescue themselves – that is very important, but I also think you have to tread a fine line between making the adults seem ridiculously ineffectual and completely competent. The useless teachers in Harry Potter REALLY annoy me! (Nb. The useless/non-present adult, like in Blyton’s books also annoy me – and I know that they annoy a lot of parents too.) So, the point is to make the adult’s struggles (or ineffectuality) believable. Good luck with it all!

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks, Marija, those are really helpful thoughts. I think you’re right, it’s about balance – if parents are too ineffectual they’re annoying, so maybe it’s about limiting their power to fix the problem…

      Reply
  2. Emily Organ

    I’ve read before that we often want to protect our characters and we can get to know them so well that it can hurtful to be cruel to them, often it rakes up our own experiences too. I think you do need to be mean to them because it ups the stakes in your story and can make the reader become more involved. You don’t want to put the reader off altogether so it’s a fine balance. Good luck with revisiting it x

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Emily, I think you’re right about upping the stakes, but maintaining balance. And also, because it’s a YA book it can’t be too dark or too hopeless… Thanks for your thoughts.

      Reply
  3. Maddy@writingbubble

    You’ve got me thinking too! Like Marija I get irritated by useless adults in kids books but I do know what you mean about the importance of the kids saving themselves. I guess it’s a fine balance. I’ve not tried writing really dark stuff but I suspect I would be very much the same about wanting to protect kids. I’m a bit soft – even in the ghost story I wrote (on my blog) I struggled because someone had to die in order to be a ghost! In my reading I do love psychological thrillers though so do like a bit of darkness. Can’t wait to read Baby X!

    Reply
  4. The Housewife

    I am not a fictional writer but I created a separate account that isn’t linked to my other well known blog so that I can write freely about the darker side of my life. The parts that I don’t need the people I know reading about.

    Reply
  5. Sophie Lovett

    Really interesting post. i’m not one to shy away from the dark side in my writing, but I definitely get that instinct to want to protect characters – especially young ones – from the worst of it. This novel sounds fascinating though – I hope you do get it finished as I’d love to read it! xx

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Ah brilliant, thanks Sophie. I’ll look forward to the day when both our YA books are in print and we can share some illustrious panel discussion….

      Reply
  6. Susie Fiddes

    Really thought provoking post – thanks for sharing. The image that you have chosen is truly haunting too. I have written a draft children’s novel myself, and whilst no where near as dark (adventure), your post makes me ponder if I have gone deep and far enough with the characters and story line too. It strikes me that the metamorphis you are going through when writing is almost that of the method actor. You have to sink to depths emotionally to live out the lives of your characters on paper (hoping and assuming you have no real life experience of the scenario you describe). On that basis, it got me thinking of practical aid tips could be sought and found on the subject of how to be a “good” method actor. Just a thought, but must give it a Google. It might help you to find your dark place and be sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs out the woods again.. Best wishes, Susie x

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Susie, yes the illustration is amazing isn’t it? You should check out Jessica’s website for more of her work. Your thoughts on method acting are really helpful too – I think you’re right that getting right inside the characters is what’s so emotionally draining. I’ll investigate/think on. Also, look forward to hearing more about your children’s book…

      Reply
  7. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    Like The Housewife, I do not write fiction currently, but I use my writing to explore my feelings to do with ‘the dark side’ of my psychology. I would say that in children’s/YA fiction it is important for the protagonist to be ‘powerful’, to allow the reader to truly identify with them. But I can see it is hard to let a child suffer as a mum even a fictional one.

    Reply
  8. Nicola Young

    I think that is hard, but I think being a mother can help you to write it. Knowing the dangers and possible consequence mean that you can and will fall deeply in to this when you write and it will be upsetting, but that will only make it more real. Good luck.

    Reply
  9. Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault

    Quote:

    “If children in fiction are going to triumph over adversity, they need to rescue themselves.”

    In real life too. Sometimes as a parent you have to step back and let them take that fall so next time they know who to protect themselves against it. (although let me clear, I am not talking child abuse here)

    Reply

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