My writing group read the first two chapters of my WIP and agreed that I was starting from such a dark place that they would expect the book to go toward the light. I hadn't planned to, of course. Is there a danger in making your protagonist so dark it becomes tiresome. When I say dark, I don't mean she's Hannibal Lector, of course. But she's inhabiting a pretty dismal place. How dark is too dark to sustain a novel?

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I'm not sure there is such a thing, and if there was, how do you gauge it?

I go for dark. I love it when it goes from bad to worse. Chaos out of order and all that. Give me a fantastic character who I can fall in love with, then kill him.

I know it caused a certain amount of controversy in some forums, but back in the march/April 2005 issue of Crime Scene Scotland, Colin Conway's short story, Angel dealt with homosexual prison rape. It doesn't get much darker than that. The story was beautifully executed. Starts off dark and it doesn't let up. You can do that in a short story more effectively, I think, than a novel.

It's like reeling in fish. Yes, you can start it dark, and end even darker, but you have to let some slack in the line. Don't just keep pulling. Bring in some humor, bring in some lightness. Life, no matter how dark, has some positive notes in it, even if it's only relative to the crap that's going on everywhere else, and even if it's only a vehicle to dash the protag's hopes that much more.

Sorry for the platitude here, but the trick, I think, is to be true to the story and the character, regardless of whether it's light or dark. As long as the reader thinks everyone acted according to their nature, you can get away with a lot.

The only crime is being boring.
Interesting question... I'm debating the same issue...I just finished a very dark PI novel. My protagonist has baggage, she's been hurt (both physically and emotionally), and she's pretty cynical about people and their motives. My agent wondered if she might be too depressed/ depressing for readers... so I'm not sure. I do know that you lose some readers when you go dark, but hopefully you pick up new ones. In my protag's case, she does go "toward the light" in her personal life, but the case she's working on gets worse and worse.

Chris Kling (who is a Crimespacer too) might want to weigh in on this -- we ended up doing a Bouchercon panel together where we discussed whether protagonists -- in their personal journeys -- are seeking "redemption" or "recognition." Being in it for "redemption" seems to trigger darker stories. More compelling ones, too.
Bits of humor, no matter how black, can go a long way toward sustaining darkness in fiction and in real life. I'm with Stephen - it's perfectly okay to start dark and stay dark (or go farther into the black). But life is not without humor - ever. It's part of what keeps us in there swinging, signals resilience to your reader. Also, flashes of light serve to set off the darkness, define it, instead of leaving it as an amorphous entity that can overwhelm your reader and your story.
Humor is the key even if it is of the blackest kind. I let my mom read The Guards last year and she loved it. I bring this up only because she is about the coziest reader that you have ever met.
that's a tough one, because it really depends on the material. i like dark, but i know i sometimes find lars von trier's stuff too relentlessly dark even though i love it. a few years ago i wrote a book where the main characters' memories had been erased. i originally wanted one of the the main characters with the erased memory to actually be the killer he was trying to catch, but in the end i was afraid my editor wouldn't accept it because it was soooo dark. and i was afraid readers wouldn't like it. so i played it safe and chose another character as the killer. the story lost some emotional punch, and i think it's one of my weaker thrillers.
I don't mind Von Tiers darkness either. Loved Breaking the Waves. He can be gimmicky
though. I guess my mistake might have been in showing it to my group so early
on--before I had confidence in it. But I literally run everything by them so I didn't
consider not letting them critique it.
I may hold it back from the other group. Getting run over twice might be lethal.
I don't mind dark, and I agree with Angie, insert bits of humour and it works. I mean, Bruen is dark. AMERICAN SKIN, the Jack Taylor books, hell HACKMAN BLUES... Dark yet brilliant. No problem keeping me on board.
I think it depends on how much of human being they are. There has to be some quality that readers can identify with, or the character is maybe just entertaining, and in some cases as entertaining as watching a train wreck, so they keep reading. Or the plot causes the reader to keep reading. Or your writing group is wrong. Or maybe they're right, and one possible solution would be to give this character an effective mirror character, someone that calls her on her darkness, or challenges her by the mirror's more positive (light) actions. Kind of foil character, or maybe sage like, or maybe the mirror character is in the dark character's head.

Overall, I have to say I like dark characters, so maybe giving her more than a few chapters to shine (no pun intended) would be advisable.
Unless you've got her locked in a room being tortured day after day, I don't know that there is a too dark. I'm thinking about Every Dead Thing by John Connolly-the book starts with Charlie Parker's family being brutally murdered and Parker's life really doesn't improve throughout the book. He carries his guilt over being in a bar rather than at home with him like a sack of concrete wherever he goes and it affects his every thought. The cruelty of the crimes involved in the book just make it worse. But the book works and it's a fantastic book-you can't put it down.
I hope I am establishing good reasons why she is dark. And what's transpiring is not so dark yet. No mutilations or torture certainly. It's more the atmosphere she creates around her. I think if she were a man, no one would think anything about it.
But how do you help from falling in love with your protagonist and wanting the best for him/her when it's the worst that make the better boo? That's what I'm wrestling with. Thanks for all the help.
"If she were a man, no one would think anything about it..."

That's EXACTLY what I was getting at Patricia. Male protagonists are allowed to be seriously flawed.... and their search for redemption is almost tacitly understood... female protags aren't as dark -- okay, there are more today than there were 10 years ago... but female protagonists up until recently seemed to want recognition and respect, as much, if not more than redemption. Unfortunately, I havent' found that to be as compelling a need. Or read.

I would be thrilled to be proven wrong.
And the thought occured to me today, would Hilary Clinton be allowed to proceed on her run for the presidency if Bill had cancer. I think not. A woman would be expected to give it up to nurse him--even in a marriage as difficult as theirs.

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