I’m a writer of speculative fiction that likes to write stories that have have positive endings. I want to see my main characters overcome their weaknesses and transform into heroes and heroines. For example, Luke Skywalker transforms from a shy farm boy to Jedi Knight. (Yes, I’m a big Star Wars fan). I like to see good overcome evil, for love to find a way — the happily-ever-after ending. Yes, that may sound kind of soppy. But that’s the way I am. And that is the reason why I’m not normally drawn to dark tragedies.
Hollywood with some notable exceptions also seems to agree with me as as most movie stories have positive endings. Although the reason for this maybe because they are easier to make and financially more attractive.
In Shakespeares day, plays were categorised between ‘tragedies’ (those with sad endings) and with all rest categorised as ‘comedies’. In this case, comedies were not just about humorous stories although some, of course, were. Many of Shakespeares best works were tragedies: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
But tragedies that have sad endings are not necessarily dark. Romeo and Juliet was certainly a sad endings, but the ending was a positive message that ‘not even death could overcome true love’.
Horror stories too, can have positive endings although many don’t. The movie ‘Alien’ is a horror movie in space, but the hero Rigby overcomes the Alien Queen. In comparison, Alien Covenant had a darker and more sinister ending. Stephen King, of course, is the master of horror stories and dark endings. He once wrote:
There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once Upton a time”.
Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us. And sometimes, they win.
So what are modern dark tragedies? They are stories where the main character undergoes a negative character arc from good to bad. One of the best examples I have seen recently is the series Breaking Bad.
Recently, I was a looking for a new movie or series to watch on Netflix and I chose to watch the first episode of Breaking Bad to see if it was worth watching. I and my family ended up binge watching the whole five series. It was compulsive watching.
The main character in Breaking Bad is Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who discovers he has cancer and turns to meth-making to repay his medical debts and provide a future legacy for his family after his death. Of course, Walter’s initial morally questionable action leads him down a difficult path where he takes increasingly immoral actions. So what started as a plan to provide for his family after his death, becomes twisted into a reason that he did it ‘because he was good at it’.
Breaking Bad is therefore a story about how a good man, with initial good intentions turns to the dark side. He’s a Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein character that gets corrupted by his own hubris. It was always going to end badly, and it did.
Why do we find these types of characters so interesting? I think we start with empathy in understanding their dilemma. But as their actions become increasingly questionable that empathy turns to overwhelming curiosity as to how the outcome will come out. There is always the thought that they might just find their way to moral salvation and do the right thing. But in the end they are always destroyed by their own hubris. Karma gets them in the end as they have to pay the price for their past wrong doing. So there is an underlying moral theme to these types of stories that dates back to Shakespearian times.
Could I write a character like Walter White — probably not. He’s a complex character and has a complex character arc. The skill set in writing such a character is beyond me. But then again, it’s not the kind of story I would want to write. What about you?