To Bring Light to the Darkness

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

-Chinese proverb

When I started work on my work in progress, tentatively titled A Dangerous Game with Mr. O’Reilly and releasing late 2013, I knew that I’d entered an entirely different world of historical romance. Previously, I’d worked on a novel set at a house party, where the biggest problem my heroine had was damage to her reputation. In setting the book in the rookery (or slum) of Ratcliffe, London, suddenly my characters faced the very real physical threat of death. This book, with scenes ranging from brothels, public houses, secret wine vaults, and graveyards, would be far darker and far grittier than most of what I’d attempted so far.

I used to always say that I hated sad movies and books. I wanted to be entertained by my media, not led through a gambit of emotions. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become drawn to pieces I never thought I’d love. The Departed is one cinematic example, chronicling the life of an undercover FBI agent who is placed inside the Irish mob to find the mole in his own agency. The stakes are very clear from the start–if Leonardo diCaprio’s character Billy is found out, he will be killed in the most painful, gruesome way imaginable. Matt Damon’s Colin, if discovered as the leak, will spend the rest of his life in prison (provided the mob doesn’t get to him first). What drew self-confessed sap and romantic comedy lover like me to The Departed? The basic themes the movie examines appeal on an instinctual level: humanity, evil, loyalty, and love. It’s a bold, fearsome, vulgar, and very genuine portrayal of life in a perilous universe, where you walk that thin line between existence and death each day. That’s the same qualities I wanted to bring to my novel, with of course a far greater emphasis on romance.

Trailer for the Departed (Rated R)

The Departed easily could have turned into 151 minutes of sheer gore, violence, and criminal behavior. The stakes might get higher and higher until eventually the audience longed for the end of the movie and the emotional trauma. Writer William Monahan and director Martin Scorcese (hailed as a god among directors) kept this from happening from by executing one very clever element: humor. In the midst of this dangerous thriller, there comes Mark Wahlberg’s character Dingham. A foul-mouthed, hardnose cop with a lightening quick delivery, Dingham has one of the finest moments in the movie (what moment that is, I won’t spoil, but if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to!)  The audience wants to root for him, as in the midst of this unrelenting tragedy he has given us an opportunity to laugh. Four years after I’ve seen the movie, I still remember him.

The human mind can only take so much sadness. In our deepest moments of despair, it is a joke or well-turned remark that can bring us back. When my father passed, I sought comfort from my friends, for I knew that they could center me again. They’d say something funny, and for a few seconds, I’d get a reprieve from the sadness. Writers of dark romance especially know that if they want their work to be effective, they must allow their readers that moment of rest to reconnect. Otherwise, they risk completely losing the readership, for the reader becomes so depressed they have no desire to finish the book. Shakespeare used to have scenes in the majority of his plays that appealed to what was termed the lower class element–those in the pit who didn’t have the “know how” to comprehend the real meat of the drama. But what I think Shakespeare was also doing was pacing his dramas with those comedic elements. In Macbeth, the witches may not be humorous, but they’re certainly something odd to draw our attention away for a second from the devastating trauma of Lady Macbeth’s unraveling and Macbeth’s doomed fate. In Much Ado about Nothing, he inserts the drunk sheriff after particularly tense moments.

Stepback for Seduce Me at Sunrise

Stepback for Seduce Me at Sunrise

The break can come in the form of a wise-cracking sidekick. I have one of those in my WIP, a thief who follows conspiracy theories and considers life to be one giant puzzle. Other examples of this can be found in the Victorian romance Seduce Me At Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas, where she breaks up the very angsty tension between Merripen and Win with the squabbling Leo and Cat. Not only does Kleypas set the stage for their future book together, but it allows us to see the hero and heroine from an entirely different light–here is what they could be, if they’d get past their differences. Because we’re allowed that momentary break, Merripen and Win’s emotional struggles are more poignant. Lauren Willig does the same in The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, where the glib Miles interjects with his own view on Amy and Richard’s drama. Miles also gets his own book (The Masque of the Black Tulip) and it’s because of those quick moments we saw of him in Pink Carnation #1 that we as readers readily embrace him in #2.

9780451417992I had a recent conversation with fellow dark historical romance author Maire Claremont, who’s debut novel The Dark Lady has received quite a bit of praise from critics. “It’s absolutely essential,” Maire says, about breaking up the darkness in her books. Her “Mad Passions” series is set in the famous Victorian asylums, soul-crushing institutions of torture in the name of mental illness “cures.” Her characters face great peril, whether it is a threat to their physical safety or their emotional wellbeing. But Maire understands that in order to keep her characters rootable, she must infuse small bits of light. Eva and Ian eventually get their happy ever after, and it is all the more well-received because they’ve had to work hard for it. Meredith Duran’s Bound by Your Touch is another example of this.

The relief can also come in the form of the main character themselves. This is especially common in first person narration, where the voice of the MC veers toward the sarcastic, like in Andris Bear’s paranormal romance Angel Unborn (link to Andris’s interview on Teatime Romance last year). Joey literally goes to hell and back, but we feel for her more because of her sassy, take no prisoners attitude. This technique is used on many crime shows–we have quick one-liners from our main characters to allow the watcher to distance from the horror of the crime. What would Castle be without Richard Castle and Kate Beckett’s banter? It would lose a considerable amount of its charm.

Do you like dark romances, and if so, which ones are your favorites? I’ve referenced some of my historical loves, but I’m sure there’s other ones out there.

5 thoughts on “To Bring Light to the Darkness

  1. I must admit that I have to be in the right mood if I know something — book, movie, tv show — is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Not that I stay away from them forever, but sometimes you just need a happy story.

    Partly because I cry at the drop of a hat anyway. And I wear mascara. I once finished an emotional story while I was riding the train to work and managed to have a stranger ask me if I was okay because I was bawling on the subway. So yeah…

    I get kind of attached to characters. And this hasn’t gotten any better since I started writing. If possible, I’m now even MORE invested! So, I feel your pain, Erica, and I can’t wait to read Book 1 in Rookery Rogues! (When I’m in the right frame of mind, of course ;) )

  2. This is a GREAT post Erica! I think you really nailed it. A dark angsty romance that takes you on a roller coaster is great, but it needs moments of levity to break up the tension or it becomes too much and you lose the audience.

    Tiffany Clare, Anna Campbell, and Courtney Milan all write romances that are on the heavier/darker/more angsty side and Lisa Kleypas too. I am a real big fan of Courtney-her Turner and Brothers Sinister series is SO GOOD! And I’ve loved Lisa since I read her Wallflower series.

    Generally speaking though, I tend to like my romances on the lighter side. My feeling is, there is enough stress and drama in my life, why look for it in books? But I get the appeal of the emotional payoff and the cathartic aspect of letting your emotions out while reading-just doesn’t really do it for me I guess. However, when it comes to writers like Lisa and Courtney, the writing is so good, the angst and emotional turmoil is worth it. :)

    Will definitely have to check out Departed!

  3. Wonderful post, Erica. I agree, it’s so important to lighten the darkness. Although my writing is not dark, I do have dark moments, and I find humor helps move away from that. After years of working criminal law, both prosecution and defense, and family law, I tend to avoid dark books, but if the writer is good, I can’t resist. I do have to space them out. I can’t wait for yours! Tweeted.

  4. Wow, lots to think about, Erica!

    When I think about darkness, it seethes beneath the surface. It tricks you. It surprises you. It blinds you. It tempts you. It betrays you. In my experience, the cheeriest seeming people can be the most self-loathing and self-destructive, so I tend to be drawn to the “perfect on the outside” type of books/characters where darkness rests just beneath one’s conscious mind. That thin edge of the wedge inside of people, where darkness waits for the opportune moment to strike, is why I love Buffy and Angel (the latter especially). Both shows battled redemption, forgiveness, family, love, etc while maintaining a lot of sharp levity, and when I pick up a book that promises to be “dark,” I want that lightness there.

    Lydia Joyce, early Liz Carlyle, Meagan McKinney, pre-Avon Teresa Medeiros, and 90s Jane Feather are some authors who balanced these elements superbly. I’ll also throw in my favoritest historical romance ever, To Dream Again by Laura Lee Gurhke, into the ring. Some of the traditional Regencies from the 80s and early 90s too.

  5. I don’t want to read dark romances.

    I say this to myself each time I pick one up. Then I get into the story and I just can’t help myself. If a writer does it correctly, I take the plunge right along with their characters and rollercoaster along in their life until they end up with their happily ever after (or even just their happily enough ever after). But if they do it wrong, and a lot of them do it wrong, I end up throwing things across the room in frustration. And you’re absolutely right. It’s that break of comedy and its timing that makes all the dark palatable and even enjoyable. When the dark goes on too long without it? That’s when I throw the book across the room (a little more difficult now with eReaders, mind you).

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