Conflict is the basis of every good story. Whether the main character is at war with an opposing army, an evil wizard or his mother-in-law, it's the conflict that tells the reader to what end the hero is heading. Literary fiction loves internal conflicts: hero vs. himself, and I've read articles by authors which state that some of the darkest, most vile villains can be found hidden deep within our own psyches. Fantasy and science fiction, however, deal heavily with outward conflicts. Every hero has an internal conflict, yes, but genre fiction prides itself on plot driven stories that are thrust forward by bad things happening to good people.
When faced with a lost hero as a protagonist, I immediately began thinking of dark themes. Why? True, I do love a good Gothic ghost story, but I think the adjective “lost” points us to the shadows. Heroes shine; they are noble and brave and wear blue tights and golden capes. But if someone is lost, if someone is missing, there's the age-old story device of the “deep, dark forest”. Deep, dark anything makes me shudder, feel claustrophobic and immediately want to draw my sword and start swinging. I know many people who don't like reading about dark themes. They certainly don't care for monsters and wizards and fallen knights. They like tidy tales with happily ever after endings - and there's nothing wrong with those stories. We need those stories. We need to sometimes escape from the challenges and darkness of the real world and, for a few, shining hours, know beyond any shadow of any doubt that everything is going to be OK.
But when we want to go deeper, when we want to really tug at the veneer of life, we write dark. Why is that? Well, I think it's because when we set our fictional heroes up against a seemingly insurmountable foe – be it monster or memory – we are able to shine that proverbial light onto many of the issues that are present in our real world. Real life is tough. It's hard. There's a lot of crap that goes on, that surrounds us and presses in. We battle fear, we battle injustice; some of us battle chronic illness or worry for someone we love. These villains are real and we turn them into beasts with fangs and ax wielding murders.
Sometimes we even turn them into ourselves.
Our lost heroes aren't villains. They aren't perpetually clawing their ways through dungeons. They are desperately seeking salvation. Just like we all are. They go through hell in order to glimpse heaven. We put our characters through the ringer so that we can figure own way out of the dark forest. We write dark so that, as our characters find their way back onto the gravel road, we, too, can look up and glimpse the stars.
(This post is also posted over on the Lost Hero Anthology website. Click over to learn more about my story, "Mysteries of Death and Life", and to read about the other anthology authors and their stories. The collection comes out May 02 :D)