I wrote a book that I knew was a little dark in places, but considered to be not outstandingly so, especially in this age of Grimdark.
I've read my share of GRRM and Lawrence (barely got through the dog scene). I've enjoyed @Lord Grimdark's books a lot, but I didn't consider that I might be writing something that mirrored the darkness of the genre, albeit in a flashy Space Opera setting with zippy space battles and futuristic palaces.
Then, I started to get reviews. And there was a theme:
"In places this book is dark and disturbing, dragging the reader in to share the trials Kare endures, but I found it impossible to put down." (Miss Moppitt)
"This is a dark story, which was a bit unexpected: to me. It's a tragedy wrapped in a dark world." (J.L.Dobias)
I'm a big believer in reflection, so I had to have a stop and think about why I'd written something so dark. I'm a pretty bright and breezy person. Heck, I barely even wear black. (And I'm being very tongue-in-cheek. I've never bought into the author-is-the-same-as-the-book argument. Which, as it turns out, is a good thing.)
Here's what I figured out. Firstly, there was a reason for the scenes themselves being so dark. I write close to the characters. I can't do otherwise, characters are what motivate me to write, to tell their stories, and without them, frankly, I'd have no book. Once I had characters and a story to tell, to a certain extent the theme was set. Because I wanted to take the casualness that genre fiction sometimes shows in the treatment of its heroes and shine a torch on it.
Let's be frank. Your average genre hero has a pretty rough ride. Jon Snow: born a bastard, cast out, sent to freeze his butt off at the Wall, chucked over the Wall on a mission, nearly dies (I've forgotten the details but I'm sure he did), is hated by half the men at the Wall, gets back over the Wall, faces an army, gets stabbed. It's a lot to take. There's Jaime and the hand incident. Kelsier (Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson) didn't exactly have a happy-fluffy background. Or Vin, for that matter...
No one gets it worse than a chosen one. They have a destiny and they have to achieve it. They also need to keep the tension up as they do, so that we keep reading. They get shot at, injured, captured, maimed, and then get up and walk onwards, briefly musing on how hard it is. They achieve what they had to do, mostly without falling apart.
Now, I'm going to be honest. I'd last five minutes as a chosen one. I don't like getting hurt, I'm not keen on weight of expectation on me, I'm personally not that brave. The first sign of being in the firing line, and I'm running for it. I think most of us would find ourselves destroyed facing the sort of ordeal we put our heroes through.
I wanted to write the person in that position. I wanted to be honest, not duck away from what it might do to the character. Which meant I had to write the ordeal. I didn't want to, especially, and I didn't get a great deal of pleasure from it. I'm no torture-bunny. But to tell the story I wanted to, I felt I had to take the reader right to the reality of it and it doesn't make for pleasant reading:
"Abendau's Heir is a challenging read in parts, though - there are very dark elements to the story, not least a torture scene. While there was little detail, and more emphasis on the psychology of it - actually, quite brilliantly done - it still made for uncomfortable reading, and means that this story is not going to be for everyone - especially if you just want to read about space heroes getting an easy ride." (Brian Turner)
Once I decided I wanted to stay close, I was left in a quandry. Take the story to a more distant, telling, level - which my writing style simply doesn't support - or approach a story that is, in essence, about ruining a person, in a different manner. Change point of views so the damage done can be seen; look beyond the damaged character to the others around them and ask the wider questions of what happens next. That is what I chose to do - take a 360 degree view of the fall-out of a horrendous ordeal and involve all the characters.
"The main character, Kare, in particular suffers--in a number of scenes--in ways that seem to me to be particularly graphic for this sort of genre, but that are also remarkably effective because of this (wow, there are some scenes where you heart is breaking for him, and where his pain is almost unbearable to read of)." (CR)
I've left book one on the what happens next question: the ending is bleak, unashamedly so. But, I don't want to write a trilogy that is bleak and unrelenting. I want to write something more, about people in all their shades of grey. Given the discussions going on in my sub-forum (https://www.sffchronicles.com/forum/jo-zebedee/) I think I've achieved that.
This first book has been a bleak stage in their lives. I can't promise there won't be bleak parts in the next two books - to write these characters honestly, there has to be reflection of what has happened - but I do know that bleakness isn't what I hope to, ultimately, achieve. I want it to be richer than that, to have more depth.
I don't know if I've achieved it - I guess the reviews will tell me that. But I do believe it is what a dark book can give us more effectively than many others - a place where, with a little light, questions can be asked and answered. And if that happens, on any level, then I'll have done what I wanted with this project.