(Warning: This post contains spoilers for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent series by Veronica Roth, Blood Angel and Lord of Bones by Justine Musk, and Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.)
Dark Fiction gives readers a safe place to explore difficult themes
Fiction, and fantasy in particular, beckons readers in with a promise of fantastical lands, impossible realities, and alternate universes. Within these wondrous stories, there is always at least one underlying theme. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Harry has to learn to deal with loss. He has to process, grieve, and overcome loss of a potentially happy childhood, friends, people he considered to be family figures, and eventually even his own life and future. The overarching story keeps the reader interested and their emotional investment in the protagonist helps them to experience the loss with him, instead of just reading about it. Because of the fantastical setting, it isn’t as threatening as reading about grief and loss in ‘the real world’ –it’s safer to explore.
A reader can draw strength and guidance from a character’s experiences.
When I read a book, I’m all in. I experience everything as the protagonist, the good and the bad. I expect this is the same for most book lovers, and for good reason. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drawn on fictional experiences to help in my real life. Whether it be knowledge I absorbed, a moral lesson learned, or even a truth about the world.
In both the Hunger Games trilogy and Divergent series, the protagonists experience what it’s like to live under a corrupt government and learn how to follow your heart and do the right thing (Actually, so did Harry Potter. Boy those books sure get around!). These stories reaffirmed something that was hard for me to believe–those in authority aren’t always right, and don’t know everything. They also taught me that if something is wrong in the world, it’s your duty to work to correct it. Even if you’re young, even if you’re alone and think no one is on your side–there will always be others who undergo the same struggle. It’s always worth standing up for injustice.
In the Hunger Games, Katniss suffers from PTSD after the first book and struggles with Depression in the third. Her struggles with mental illness have made me more empathetic to the struggles that others have. Her memories of living in abject poverty and the class system within her district have informed my views on social equity. And the way she draws strength from those she loves has shown me how to overcome dark places in my life.
In Divergent, Tris experiences segregation of a different sort–separation by ‘types’ of people. Tris declares: “I don’t want to be just one thing. I want to be brave and selfless and intelligent and honest and kind.” (This is also seen at the opening feast in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when the sorting hat questions whether it is right to sort people into different houses). This quote actually made me stop for a moment in reading (which never happens) and think. People cannot be segregated by any imaginary boundaries, for we all are an amalgam of every trait in various levels. When I was younger, like many people, I segregated people in my mind based on labels. Gender, income level, education, skin color, the way they acted or dressed. But as I grew older I realized that these labels were worthless. Fiction can teach us so much, if only we’re open to listening.
A reader can relate, discuss, and share with others to talk about personal issues.
Building off of the safe place that fiction gives us to learn about and experience darker issues, I’d also like to mention the benefits of sharing the stories with others.
The book Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff has several themes–one of which is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Willie, the protagonist, has many reasons for not wanting her pregnancy–she had an affair with a married man, she’s an ambitious college student, and she does not want to be trapped in her small town with a child like her mother was. Willie struggles with her emotions surrounding the embryo and the potential effects on her future while she tries to decide whether to abort. A reader who is undergoing the same struggle, or knows someone who is, can use the character’s experiences and emotions to help put perspective on their own. Do they feel the same way? In what ways and why? Did the character make the right choices, or does the reader have different morals? I firmly believe fiction can be a wonderful tool to encourage critical thinking and self-reflection.
The issue of addiction is explored in Justine Musk’s Blood Angel and its sequel, Lord of Bones. These books specifically helped me to understand and empathize with a friend of mine who confessed to using Heroin. While I hadn’t experienced it myself, I felt that I could somewhat understand the need and the drive to do whatever was necessary to fill the addiction–and how hard it was to stop. My friend had the strength, courage, and resources to get help, unlike some of the characters in these books.
While fiction is a gateway for many things, I strongly believe that dark fantasy specifically is ideal for readers who would benefit from empathy and introspection about difficult circumstances (read: everyone). The suspension of disbelief required to accept the fantasy elements of a story helps the reader to more easily relate to and empathize with the plight of the characters in a story. Dark fantasy’s trend towards the more difficult topics and themes sets the reader up to learn about experiences different to, or perhaps similar to their own. The books can be used to help others to relate to issues that the reader is dealing with in their own life.
Have you related to something in Dark fantasy and used it to grow? Comment below and let’s talk about it!