Darkness is enticing. As writers, we are drawn to it. And we’re not wrong to be.
It has so many possible routes to go with in exploring human fascination with our own natures, and how they can be corrupted and perverted. There is a lot that you can do with it.
But it can be easy to get excited and forget that darkness is a tool, and like any other tool, it can really alienate your readers if you take it too far, and cross the line into overly edgy.
For the sake of convenience, I will clarify what I mean by ‘overly edgy.’
When a story sacrifices reasonable suspension of disbelief, so it can multiply the tragedies and sorrows of a character’s life to a ridiculous degree, to the point that it feels cheap.
I would like to use my experience with Tokyo Ghoul as an example of how doing this can alienate an invested audience.
I was initially a fan of the protagonist, Kaneki Ken.
Kaneki was a kind and sympathetic young man who was put through all sorts of hell. I found his arc to be very compelling. He was overwhelmed and seriously outclassed by every threat he had to face, and he gave up at a few points, but for the love of his friends and the strength of his own conviction, he pulled through it all to become stronger. As he became stronger, he never lost sight of who he was and what was important to him. He was always the same kind-hearted Kaneki. I’d be rooting for him all the way, shouldering all kinds of horrors with him, and feeling the same relief and kinship when he made it back home.
Then the Aogiri Tree arc happened.
Kaneki got captured by a new enemy, and what followed was a painfully long torture scene.
Now, as it is, I can watch people get dismembered on the battlefield without difficulty, but torture, I find very difficult to watch. (I won’t criticise them for using torture at all, of course.)
The scene got longer and longer, and more creative and visceral as it went on, animated in lurid detail. The time lapses indicated that in the show’s time, this went on for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
The only reason I got through this at all was by watching it between my fingers and with a friend sitting next to me. I held on tightly to the knowledge that it would all be fine in the end.
Kaneki’s friends would rescue him, or he’d find a way to escape on his own, and he’d recover.
He would make it back to them, and they would comfort him, and then it would be alright.
Kaneki was eventually put through enough that he became numb to the pain it would cost to rip through his chains and reset his twisted limbs. Having broken free, he got bloody vengeance on his captor. He had finally made peace with the demons he had been struggling with up to this point. It was a moment of triumph.
Kaneki, whole and unafraid, had become something very powerful. But his eyes looked less alive than they used to. It seemed that the price of that strength was his vulnerability and humanity.
But I thought that under that gritty and aloof exterior, the Kaneki I knew was still in there. I was excited about where this would take the show.
Would his friends find it difficult to get used to this newly distant Kaneki?
Would he be able to help them reconcile with their guilt for not being able to rescue him?
Would Kaneki feel guilty about making them worry?
I saw so much potential for future character relationship dynamics. I was excited about getting to know the new Kaneki.
But I was disappointed to find that I wasn’t going to get that heartwarming reunion scene.
When he met his friend Touka again, he barely said a word to her before running off to do his own thing. This thing being joining the group that kidnapped and tortured him.
The reasoning behind this bizarre decision was so that he could ‘get stronger so I can protect my friends.’ (‘Getting stronger’ seems redundant, considering how ridiculously powerful he got in the last two minutes alone.)
He left Touka worrying about him, with no idea what was going on. That seemed so callous.
He left everyone who cared about him behind, without any message of assurance.
It was then I that I realised that Kaneki didn’t change. Kaneki was replaced.
He was replaced with a cold and quiet action hero with only a hint of personality behind those distant eyes. I just did not care anymore.
Whoever was standing in front of me, even if he would become interesting in his own right, was not the same person I had followed up to this point.
The Kaneki I knew would never have left his friends in the dark. He would never decide he knew what was best for them without talking with them about his plans.
And he certainly would not have left Touka wondering what she did wrong.
I felt like so much potential was wasted. I felt so proud of Kaneki for finally making peace with himself. I was excited about the possible future arcs that could be done with him the way he was. I felt like all of that had been sacrificed so that more darkness could be milked out of the story. Kaneki gets a makeover and starts wearing lots of black. Kaneki joins the bad guys.
Kaneki has to leave his friends behind to keep them safe.
His ice cream is dead, his milkshake is dead, all the puppies are dead, and he can’t find a parking space. Cue the rain.
I wondered, why did the writers think that sacrificing the character of Kaneki for the sake of more darkness was a worthy price? What was the thought process behind this idea?
I explored the motivation behind the desire to write darker things, and I think I now understand why this happened.
A lot of kids who grow up on things like fairytales and cartoons aimed at young children get embarrassed to like such ‘baby stuff’ when they notice that bigger kids are too cool for it.
The first time they see Snow White come back to life after they thought she was gone forever, it might get an emotional response out of them.
But give them a few more years of the death fakeouts that are in almost everything aimed at kids, it begins to feel cheap, and they feel insulted.
They want something new, something that feels more real.
Then they find media aimed at teenagers, and they see real violence, and real death. They feel proud of themselves for graduating to the next level. They begin to jeer at the ‘baby stuff’ they grew up on, to assert this graduation.
Some of these kids can come to realise that not all adult media is created equally, and that violence and darkness are tools that don’t inherently equal maturity.
Some kids go on to be writers without reaching that realisation.
They think they need to be dark and gritty, or risk being labeled as ‘baby stuff.’
They think that’s what they need to do to be taken seriously. They might see a compelling mature story, and imitate what was on the surface (i.e, violence and death) and miss the point of what made it really stick with people (i.e, a sensitive and gripping emotional narrative.)
Writers don’t deliberately screw over a good character. The downfall of Kaneki Ken wasn’t the simple story of writers caring more about darkness than an interesting character that I initially saw it as. I believe that what I saw as an already great character being replaced by a boring new one, the writers saw as a weak character growing and becoming strong.
In my eyes, Kaneki was already strong. But maybe the writers thought that the only real way to be strong, or the only type of strong that sells, is being emotionally unavailable and able to benchpress bricks with your face.
So I’ve come from the question of ‘What happened to Kaneki?’ to ‘What is true strength?’
Even if you’re the toughest, fastest, most tactically knowledgeable person in the world, you won’t be very useful in a team if you can’t communicate with people, or process your feelings in a healthy way. Kaneki was very strong in the ways that mattered most.
He was not able to save of the life of Hinami’s mother, but he was like a brother to this frightened little girl when she needed one most. He taught her to read. He gave Hinami the kind of connection she really needed.
His conviction and compassion were indispensable to the team, and with them he made the team as a whole stronger.
It is baffling to me that the people who wrote him thought that that wasn’t enough.
Darkness can be great. Making your characters struggle through scary and dangerous situations to get their happy ending makes it more meaningful when they get it.
It gives you so many options for compelling flaws and phobias they can work through, and great emotional arcs you can get out of them. It offers catharsis for the readers who can see an analogy for their own struggles in your character’s story.
Just remember it can alienate readers when you take it too far.
Because without enough breather scenes, it gets exhausting. Because without enough hope, your readers may feel as though there is no point in continuing. Because when it’s all dark all the time, it gets predictable and dull.
Darkness is a tool. What matters is how you use it.