Channeling Your Emotions into Dark Writing Themes & Writing Complex Characters + Goals Update

Last weekend, I released a new YouTube video discussing the idea of channeling your own emotions, using them as writing prompts to tackle dark themes in your stories, and how this can result in more complex characters. I also reference some of my personal life experiences and explain how they manifest in my writing as an example.


I really believe that if you’re going to play with any particular theme in a story—be it light or dark—then it’s important to come from a personal place when doing so. Otherwise, you run the risk of writing a story that does not emotionally resonate with readers in an authentic way and instead comes across more like a dry essay or intellectual exercise in flexing your technical literary muscles.

At least, this has been my experience while wrestling with my WIP and reading other people’s writing.

For more Internet articles related to writing dark themes, check out these links below:

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Mass Effect 3


Some of you might know that I’ve been *ehem* neglecting the editing of my novel in order to do a play-through of a game called Mass Effect 3, developed by Bioware (now a division of Electronic Arts).  I’ve been a huge fan of their games since they released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  I don’t play a lot of video games, but when I do many times they’re role-playing titles by Bioware.

I love the idea that gamers can make decisions that can compound and actually affect the storyline (and, in this case, even carry over into other games).  Bioware thus far has done an incredible job of exploring the possibilities of this feature in their games, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.

I’m not really here to do a game review, though.  I just want to point out some of the highlights of my gaming experience with Bioware’s latest title and reflect on some things I can take away from it as a writer.

Mass Effect 3 Is Not Afraid To Explore Dark, Gritty Themes

There were missions in this game that really made me cringe and wonder thoughts like, “How can anyone do that to another human being?”  It took me to places I’d, quite frankly, rather not go (were they real) and affected me on a surprisingly emotional level.  The game portrays humanity not only at its best but also at its absolute worst, particularly when things go terribly awry with certain technological advancements.  It shows a possible future that is staggeringly bleak and forces you to engage it head-on.

There were many a time during the game where things got so depressing that I truly questioned our hero(ine) Commander Shepard’s ability to unite a galaxy and defeat an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.  The foes are mighty and the stakes are insanely high.

No picnics here.

Mass Effect Asks The Tough Questions

Should humans develop artificial intelligence?  Do A.I. have the right to life?  Just what are organics (humans, alien races) really capable of?  What is the purpose of organic life?  How far should we take genetic engineering–or any scientific process, for that matter?  What is the next step in human evolution?

These are just some of the many questions that this game poses to players (very similar to Battlestar Galactica, actually) and asks them to make tough decisions about.

Mass Effect Makes You Care About What Happens To Characters

No small feat.

When I cry three times during one game (I’m not even kidding)…then I think the writers and creators have done something right.

Throughout all the games in the Mass Effect series players are given the option to cultivate relationships (both platonic and romantic) with other characters, and those can continue to grow over time.  In a story about galactic war, it goes without saying that some of the characters players grow to love (or hate) will end up dying–and I, for one, felt it.  The main ones, even some minor characters, all had their own personal stories and reasons for fighting, stories they’re willing to share if only the player takes the time to get to know them.  This made the playing experience all the more personal.

Also, I’m Still Trying To Suss Out What The (apparently controversial) Ending(s) Means

I get the feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be on the surface… The “ending” (the one I chose, at least) felt very haunting and eerie to me and leaves a lot to the imagination (see here *spoiler alert*), making me suspect there’s more to come.  Whether in DLC (downloadable content) and/or another game, who knows?  Either way, I plan to stick around and find out.

Anyway, What I Took Away As A Speculative Fiction Writer

  1. Be brave in taking players (readers) to places they haven’t gone–not just philosophically or as far as using one’s imagination goes but also emotionally.  It may start in a foreign world/environment with exotic lifeforms but it really happens though characters who ultimately, alien or not, must feel human.  (See #3.)
  2. Ask the “what ifs” and try to provide some answers.  “How would a galaxy full of various alien races fare against a superior sentient machine race hellbent on annihilating and/or repurposing all advanced organic life?”  The Mass Effect series is the answer to that question.
  3. Develop distinct characters who have their own personal motivations.  If people can relate to their plights, then chances are they’ll actually care and the story will have more meaning.
  4. Endings are tough to pull off well; consider them carefully.

And…yeah, I think that about sums it up!

Anyone Else Playing This Game?

If so, what do you think about it?  Or, if you aren’t, have you ever played a game from which you were able to take away some writing lessons or goals to be inspired by?

Discovering The Soul Of Your Story

Yesterday I was reading a post by Madison Woods, in which she muses about the cheesiness of outlines, hehe, and the suspension of disbelief.  But then it got me thinking about something else…

Discovering the Soul of One’s Story

(Or the core themes, I suppose.)

If I had to briefly summarize what my story is about thematically–which I hate doing because, as Madison kind of talked about, this can sound cheesy…I’d have to say it’s about uncovering truths; understanding the relationship between freedom and manipulation; discovering one’s place in the world; and making tough decisions.

Even though a lot of times I’ll use a whimsical, lighthearted voice in the story, there are actually a lot of darker threads running through it.  I think a major influence for this has been playing the Mass Effect series.  One thing I love about the games is that they force you to make some really tough decisions.  The morality of the choices put before you isn’t so black-and-white, which lends the game a fair amount of grittiness.

I wanted the same thing in my story–along with antagonistic forces that were also morally gray and not just 100% pure evil–but also with an air of fun and adventure similar to that found in Joss Whedon’s Serenity or in the movie The Mummy.  (In dieselpunk TV Tropes terms, I could say it starts off more “diesel deco” and ends up “diesel noir”.)

So that’s more the spirit of the story.

Plot- and character-wise, my protagonist, Voi, is seeking a way out of a seemingly hopeless situation, which gets her involved in some darker underground aspects of her world that she never even knew existed.  During this she learns more about herself and her position on the totem pole of life.  She doesn’t like what she learns and tries not to be involved in it at first, but then she realizes that she already is involved and this frustrates her even more.  Eventually, however, she must decide to take a stance and choose a side.

Wait a minute…we’re not all that different, actually.

It’s kind of funny, now that I think about it, because I’m actually in a similar position myself.  For the longest time I’ve been brought up to believe in certain religious truths, but I didn’t entirely understand those truths and what they demanded of me.  Then, when a deeper understanding did come to me…well, the world suddenly seemed a less cheery place to be in.  The concept of “freedom” became blurry, almost an illusion.

So I’ve tried distancing myself from what I’ve been taught to accept, and like my protagonist I realized that I’m already part of it all and there’s really no escaping it.  (Can you tell I’m purposefully being vague here?  I like to do that every now and then.)

So, then, I’m left with a decision: do I continue denying it?  Rebel against it?  Embrace it?

Voi faces the same dilemma in her world.  At certain points she feels manipulated, trapped, in the dark, hopeless, and completely out of her depth.  I think, once I can share the story, others will be able to feel an emotional resonance in it because I share many of the same sentiments as my protagonist.  I’m just writing about them in a different, much more exotic context.  (My story is actually not about religion at all, oddly enough.  Sure, it has religions in it, as many fantasy novels with extensive worldbuilding will, but they are never the focus.)

Voi is older than me in her story, though only by a year now.  (I guess I’m slowly catching up to her, heh.)  It’s not something I’ve done intentionally, but I think her life, though radically different from mine, is actually an allegory to mine, in some ways.  I just never realized that until…well, now.

So maybe I’ve been using this writing experience to help with sorting some things out.  I’m not entirely sure.

<sarcasm> Great, thanks for sharing your life story. </sarcasm>

Sorry, this is kind of me just thinking out loud, so I hope this hasn’t been too useless to you, dear readers.  Are there better places to ponder these things?  Probably, but I needed something to blog about today. 😛

I am prone to analyzing things like this, when certain insights come to me, though I try not to make too much of it.  Voi’s life isn’t mine and vice versa.  Still, maybe I can learn something from this.

When did you discover the heart and soul of your story/stories?

Is this something you typically know coming into a project, or something that seems to reveal itself to you later?  Is it different with every story?  Also, have you ever noticed parallels between what happens in your stories and what happens in your own life?

What Are You Saying?

So I finally finished my line and content edits on my “first” draft in the middle of last week and have been taking some time to really just sit back and think about the deeper aspects of what I’ve written and why.

Yeah…not easy.

(Also, I apologize for not posting on Wednesday, as is supposed to be my habit.  This post was originally going in a different direction, and after much deliberation I decided to cut out and rewrite certain sections, heh.)

Asking Questions & Exploring Themes

In an article on her website, Holly Lisle asks writers to consider questions which they’ve yet to find satisfactory answers to when it comes to unraveling their stories’ themes.

Isn’t that why people write creatively in the first place?  Not because they already have all the answers but because they don’t, or because the answers they have been given do not make sense to them or just aren’t enough to quench some deeply rooted thirst for knowledge.  People, in general, aren’t creative because they are satisfied with what already exists; they are creative because they believe there are better ways to accomplish certain things in the world or see a niche in which some segment of the population is not being served.  Creativity is problem solving at its best–coming up with solutions to various problems in a novel or innovative way.  “Scissors are meant to be used with the right hand?  Says who!  Let’s make some for the lefties, eh?” (Universal design is a great place for creative people to exercise their creativity.)

Some cases of problem solving save lives (the, albeit accidental, discovery of penicillin); some make life more convenient (the invention of the wheel); and some are more fanciful because they question or speculate on the direction of an unverifiable future (what would life on Mars be like?).  Some problems even seem to be generated for purely whimsical reasons (imagining a world in which magic were an accepted part of everyday life)–and don’t even get started on the solutions to those kinds of problems.

The Role of Fantasy

Fantasy seems to sit at the bottom of the totem pole, if you know what I mean; it is the most difficult to reconcile with “life as we know it” and is typically regarded as mere “escapism.”  I feel there’s a lingering notion that if what you are doing isn’t saving lives, making lives easier or tangibly contributing to the betterment of the future of mankind then it isn’t relevant or isn’t taken as seriously.  So I guess that’s the thing: Does fantasy accomplish any of this?  (Fantasy author Mark Charan Newton recently went into this in “Relevant Fantasy,” with an emphasis on the cultural value of fantasy.)

I think where fantasy has shined in the past is in its ability to explore human values and mores but also the unknown with only the constraints of the imagination, and this is something that goes back to old mythology.  Even though we tend to understand and go about things differently today, I think fantasy is still good for the same reasons.  By stepping outside of reality as we know–or rather as we think we know–it, I believe we allow ourselves to be distanced from the familiar so that we may better examine the nature and problems of humanity.  By placing characters in exotic situations, it makes for a much more contrasting, dramatic backdrop against the more mundane themes of humanity.  You can take the ordinary and wonder if things wouldn’t be different for mankind were our situation just a little bit different.  In a fantastical setting, you can freely explore the answers to questions such as:

Why is mankind so dysfunctional?  (I mean really, we just seem incapable of staying out of trouble.)  Why do people do horrible things even when they mean to do good?  Why did I, of all people, survive a terrible car crash when so many others in similar situations have not?  What happens to people when they die, anyway?

Also, would we be any different if we encountered the divine, the paranormal or magical?  And how can such things improve us as a people?

Lots of people won’t turn to science for answers to these kinds of questions; they turn, instead, to the divine, paranormal and/or magical–areas they don’t fully understand in hopes that these mysterious realms hold the answers to the more elusive aspects of life.  (Because they obviously aren’t finding satisfactory answers within the reality they know.)

I think that fantasy writers are mythmakers, in a way, and for whatever reasons what we say still potentially holds power.  Living in modern times, however, it almost seems out of place to explore questions through mythology and fantasy when mankind is so steadily striving for knowledge accrued in such a tangible, scientific way.  Yet and still, we do it anyway.

Ask Some, Answer Some

As far as writing goes, I think you can choose to write something that sets out to answer all of its questions, but you can also leave some questions unanswered–especially when they deal with particularly esoteric concepts.  (In fantasy this approach is a plus because it already lends itself well to forms of magic, the paranormal or the divine.)  I guess it’s like having an open-ended versus a closed-ended story.  Are you declaring a definitive message, or are you inviting others to consider the possibilities?  (Or perhaps some hybrid of both?)

I recently went to see X-men: First Class last Friday (which was really good, btw) and realized that in my story I am exploring a lot of the same questions and themes as that movie and in similar ways.  This made me a bit paranoid, to be honest, so you can be sure I am deeply considering the themes in my story and how I choose to answer my questions.  (Am I just saying the same things?)

Looking back on my WIP, I’m realizing that some of my “questions” are fairly prominent while others are less obvious.  These questions include but are not limited to:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is the value of being human?
  • What qualifies one as, or disqualifies one from, being human?
  • Why are certain rights that are generally accepted as universal withheld from some humans though not others?
  • What if those with inherently less power found a way to control those with inherently more power?
  • What if identifying “the evil ones” was not such a black-and-white endeavor?
  • What if one’s ideas about good and evil are incorrect?
  • Where do the notions of good and evil come from, anyway?
  • Is this source the same one that controls the universe?
  • Is this source sentient?
  • Is this source knowable and through what means?
  • Does this source actively influence/shape the lives of individuals (human beings) in a way that temporal beings can identify?
  • What connection is there between that which is human and that which is not?

(I didn’t think I was asking that many questions!  Haha.  No wonder why this has been such a long ride.)

Not necessarily original questions, but there they are.  I can very well see where and how each pops up in my story, though I continue to shape it into its final form.  To understand what a human is, for one, you have to first be exposed to something that is not–be it other forms of organic life, the inorganic, the supernatural, or the divine.  In my case, I’m choosing to focus mostly on the second and third (the elements or the natural world as well as the idea of there being an all-pervading energy source) and somewhat hint at the last (an omnipresent, all-knowing being), for the purpose of leaving myself a few (bigger) things to explore in subsequent books as I become a better and more mature writer.

By a conscious, and probably through a largely subconscious, effort I have been exploring these questions within the framework of fabricated mythology (fantasy), and I suppose that the resulting story/stories will be my answer, though a few of those answers might still just turn out to be, “I have NO IDEA.”

I guess the question after all of this, then, is what do you do when you come up with answers to your questions, or even when you don’t come up with answers?  What do you make of it?

What Are You Saying?

What questions are you asking in your fiction?  Are you finding the same answers as other authors or storytellers you read?

Also, why do you think that people continue to write fantasy?  And, if you’re feeling adventurous, what do you think is the role or purpose of fantasy in an age teeming with so much (digital) information?

Chiaroscuro: What Edward Hopper, Film Noir & Interwar American Literature Have in Common

Nighthawks.  Edward Hopper, 1942.

Gee, I’m just on an art kick this week!  (Sorry, no post yesterday.  Busy day.)

I’ve been looking at some more art and remembered an American artist I learned about in school a few years ago: Edward Hopper.  And then a million thoughts started floating around in my head, which happens a lot when I’m browsing the internet.  Though, a couple of words and phrases kept popping up: black and white, stark, depression, momentary blindness, and chiaroscuro.

In order for me to make sense of the word soups my brain sometimes generates I either have to (a) talk myself through it, or (b) write myself through it.

Today, I feel like I’ve got to write my way through it.  Let’s see if I can’t make sense of this.

First, let’s define a term that may or may not be widely understood.


Etymology: From Italian, from chiaro (clear, light) + oscuro (obscure, dark).  From

Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique in which the artist uses a stark contrast of bright lighting effects in combination with areas of deep shades.  It makes for an interestingly bold effect and lends itself well to both photography and cinematography (B&W especially) and other mediums, to be sure.  Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange is famous for her “stark” photographs (though not necessarily chiaroscuro):

 Here’s a famous example of chiaroscuro in a B&W film:

I think Edward Hopper used it fairly often in his work, as well–like in Nighthawks above.  Here are some other examples:

 Okay, now on to why I’m writing about any of this. Stark Opposition: Understanding the World through a “Black & White Lens”…So to Speak The world is clearly not black and white, but I find it difficult to understand without at first filtering it through this approach.  I think of the story of Adam and Eve and have wondered what it might have been like to never known sin, or that which was not deemed “good.” Complete innocence and ignorance.  (In their case, ignorance was bliss…until they sought out knowledge, right?) To understand the value and meaning of good, you must first be exposed to that which is not, and I don’t think Adam or Eve understood this so clearly as the moment they ate from the Tree. It moments like this that are so stark in the human experience, so clear in one’s memory, that they forever define the way a person looks at the world. You are almost blinded by the contrast between what you once knew and what you know now.  They are particularly powerful experiences. In a flash of a bright light you are momentarily blinded; it is impossible to perceive shades of grey during that time. I think this is what chiaroscuro is all about: capturing moments of stark (first) impressions–truths in their most naked forms.  Only, as a viewer, when you experience it in a painting as opposed to real-time media you actually get a still snapshot of the moment and therefore have ample time to really process it and consider any “grey” aspects in the artwork, as with Hopper’s Nighthawks (why does it seem so empty there?)–though, you do still experience that “momentary blindness” at first sight because you can’t take everything in all at once (and this is true with any complex, multi-layered piece). I happened to write most of these thoughts up to this point in a moment of “stark impressions,” but as it settles in (and as I edit this) I find I want to explore those shades of grey as it pertains to fiction. Can Chiaroscuro Be Achieved in Literature? I think so. The Great Depression (or even just depressing themes) made an excellent backdrop for the practice of chiaroscuro in literature, thematically especially.  Two novels that inevitably come to mind, here, are The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.  At one moment in The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway was looking forward to life in the big city; look how that turned out.  (Edit: I should acknowledge that this book wasn’t set during the Great Depression, but you still got this feeling of something rotten and corrupt happening in the city, a feeling of ruin and grit with references to ash, etc.  It was depressing, in a way.)  Similarly, in The Grapes of Wrath it started out as, “We’re going to California–yahoo!”  Though, that excitement soon dissipated once they arrived and took in the reality of the “opportunities” out west. Blind, or perhaps just innocent, optimism (chiaro), met with stark reality (oscuro)…followed by disillusionment (grey–or grigio, as it is in Italian, according to Wiktionary, haha). I think another way to apply “chiaroscuro” in literature is using foils.  What better way to show the difference between good and evil than to have characters which personify both in complementary ways?  You can also have a chiaroscuro of setting versus context, where the setting reflects an opposite atmosphere or mood to what is actually happening in the story (a happy couple out on the town, having a pleasant stroll when two violent thugs come out of nowhere–an experience they’ll always remember afterwards); or a chiaroscuro of character (an ongoing internal struggle between two desires met with a moment in which the character is forced out of their “grey” understanding and expected to take a decisive stand). Of course, it could be executed literally, narrating how certain objects or persons are in shade and how others are illuminated in bright or harsh light.  (A nefarious interrogation room, anyone?)  It could also be accomplished with the clashing of themes: life versus death, hope versus despair, sanity versus insanity, truth versus lies… In the end, it’s about dichotomies: exploring the relationship between opposites and their effects on everything they touch.  It’s just one way to look at conflicts in stories. In any case, I do think chiaroscuro works best when darker, more serious themes are being used, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end on a negative note.  You could have a story that focuses mostly on despair and ends on an up-note, for example.  Switch things around. Why I’m Drawn to These Things As I mentioned, sometimes I have trouble understanding certain things unless I can compare them to their exact opposites.  “This is a boy; this is a girl.” Ah…” Not that I’ve ever had trouble understanding the difference there, though if I were, say, a sexless alien I might have trouble grasping this simple concept until I saw it with my own eyes. I think as children we learn a lot this way.  “This is good; this is bad.”  Only difference is now that I’m older I don’t always say “okay” but sometimes, “Why?” *sighs* Yeah.  Life was much simpler as a kid.  There wasn’t a whole lot of room for greys.  Though, I’m pretty sure life would be boring if it were all black and white. So anyways… No writing prompt.  Not sure what I’d ask, to be honest.  Comments are still welcome, though, if you have any.