Dark Characters in Visionary Fiction Can Reveal the Light

By Eleni Papanou

Visionary fiction’s theme is the evolution of human consciousness. But what does that mean? What is consciousness? Psychologist, William James, coined the phrase stream of consciousness. He identified consciousness as something that is shaped by experience and how the experience is processed in our minds. So it’s our life experience that defines who we are, and we play out that definition in reality. If we have many dark experiences, then it might lead us to passing similar experiences on to others. Why are some people able to overcome darkness?

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The great sages of history paved the way to free us from our dark nature. Socrates taught us the limitations of knowledge by asking us to question our assumptions. The Buddha taught us that our attachments lead to suffering. Attachment to possessions, to people, to social status, and destructive personal and outer beliefs can overcome our sense of self, and we instead become products of culture. In other words, without taking the time to reflect upon our experience, we’re instead  shaped and molded by culture. When that happens, we lose a sense of who we truly are. We go through life performing a role that we believe we’re expected to play.

The Jungian term of enlightenment is moving beyond the archetypal roles that we’ve perpetuated since the dawn of civilization. Once we can look from the outside in, we become what Jung described as modern man. He explained that modern humans (noun adjusted for modern usage) are lonely because they have detached from their historically assigned roles. They also may be viewed as crazy as a result of their unwillingness to continue being fellow cast members. Jungian psychology offers us plenty of fodder to write some great characters!

Modern Human in Visionary Fiction

As an author of visionary fiction, it’s the journey toward becoming a modern human that I find the most alluring. The journey feels more intense when characters have flaws so great, the challenge to overcome them may not seem possible. They might be close to seeing through the archetypal fantasy, and the truth frightens them to the point where they will take drastic action to avoid seeing reality.

When considering Jung’s definition of what it means to be a modern human, the fear of being lonely and isolated from the collective can touch upon many primal instincts needed for survival. Surviving might be translated into maintaining the status quo. If that is the case, how far would the protagonist go to keep from seeing the truth? This, for me, is the crux of the inner struggle for the evolution of consciousness. The deeper the conditionings, the more extreme the reactions can play out. And that translates into the action that drives the story.

To develop the best characters, I have to give them the freedom to struggle—as much as they need to, even if it means them taking actions that are nefarious. This might sound antagonistic to the spiritual aspect of visionary fiction, but the journey toward a higher state of consciousness doesn’t always translate into  a pretty postcard to send home. Abhinav Kumar, author of Once Upon A Time In Singhpur, says, “the whole idea that a plot, story or character should simply move from a state of spiritual penury to spiritual enrichment is extremely fanciful. Real movement in the real world, does not happen in such a chartered direction. I don’t think the purpose of visionary fiction should be to simply create this kind of enlightening entertainment. If a writer is adequately rooted in the spirituality he or she speaks of, they should be able to paint dark or (more appropriately) grey characters in the same light as their heroes.”

What about if the hero is dark? In steps the antihero.

The Antihero

There’s something alluring about writing an antihero, which may be why most of my protagonists fall under the characterization. The “antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. They may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit (tvtropes).”

The darkness of humankind can be displayed through the actions of the antihero. As a writer, sometimes her actions reveal aspects of myself that I have yet to deal with. Writing can also be used to vent dark emotions.  Bob Edward Fahey, says, When I first decided to try writing novels, I was writing three books at once. When I felt romantic, I went with The Mourning After. When I felt rage I worked on The Soul of Hatred. When writing passionate characters in dire situations, it has a way of taking you over.”

Affective antiheroes are difficult to write because they dare to take us down paths most of us would not travel in reality. For me, this is what makes the antihero more 3-dimensional, thus realistic and authentic. Jenna Newell Hiott, author of The Todor Trilogy, says, “I believe in authenticity and self-love, which usually means embracing one’s own dark side. Characters are born out of this philosophy and tend to have a whole lot of dark side to embrace!”

Traveling A Dark Path…

I’ve had to put all of my books aside at one time or another, because the characters  took me to dark places I wasn’t ready to visit, dark places that I knew were lurking in my subconscious, waiting for me to bring them into the spotlight. That was especially the case in my first book, Unison. Damon, a true to form antihero, is very flawed. Getting into his head scared me at times. Some of the actions he takes are so diabolical, I didn’t think he could ever redeem himself. I was tempted to tone him down, to make him more likable. Nevertheless, I understood to get the best and most honest story, I had to let Damon lead the journey, no matter how treacherous it would be.

I hold a similar view for the villains in my story.  It’s easy to create a bad guy who challenges the antagonist. It’s harder to craft a bad guy with whom readers might sympathize with. Jenna Newlett Hyott also touches upon a similar point when she says, “I love dark characters, and I love showing that even the darkness is part of All-That-Is.” Without darkness, light cannot be known, and vice versa.”  In essence, the journey toward the light would not be an end goal if there wasn’t darkness.

In closing, Stephen Weinstock, author of the 1001, the Reincarnation Chronicles, offers some great advice for visionary fiction authors who are afraid to face the dark side of a story. “We are probably our own worst puritans, so we probably couldn’t be offensive or immoral or monstrous in our writing even if we tried. So get down and dark! Have fun with it! With visionary fiction, there’s a higher context that will contain the evil in a positive or uplifting way.”

Intention is demonstrated in the meaning of the journey…


Eleni Papanou is an award-winning author and perpetual student of life. Visit her website  for news and updates.

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24 Responses to Dark Characters in Visionary Fiction Can Reveal the Light

  1. Bob Edward Fahey says:

    I can remember early on when my characters would say something vile, whereas I didn't myself cuss. I at times would turn my eyes toward the sky and say, "Sorry, God, but this guy would really talk like that!"

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  2. Admin - Eleni says:

    LOL. I'm sure God would understand because of the message. But in the meantime, we can get a vicarious thrill through some of the actions of our characters!

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  3. Enormous and timely topic, Eleni. VF is rarely PC, but the writer may have to pay for it. I've had to talk more than one squeamish reader through the second chapter of my novel, The Anathemas, which features a rape scene in an mental asylum that also hints of incest, by assuring them that the controversial subject matter was not inserted just for shock value, that it was essential to the story, and if they continued they would see its point. Several thanked me for pushing them through. Then some put the book down because they found it offensive. Still I would not tone down that aspect just to sell a few more copies–as I have been advised several times.

    In fact, I doubled down. In my forthcoming novel I cast the notorious Heinrich Himmler as a main secondary character and I had to make him real, not the stereotypical monster of history. That was tricky, but there is a truth behind it, the one Jenna Newlett Hyott captured with “I love showing that even the darkness is part of All-That-Is.”

    Hope to see more on this aspect in this discussion and in future posts. Good job.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      Thanks Vic. It's interesting that you had to explain to readers that there was a point to the controversial subject matter. As we can't talk to most of the readers, it's to be expected that some will make an early judgment. One reviewer called Damon from Unison a psychopath! So yes, I'm well aware of what you're saying. I also feel that if controversial elements are needed for the story, it's important to get over whatever personal issues I have and let the scenes go where they need to go. I’m most proud of my work when I don’t allow myself to force a change in direction. There is a level of spiritual guidance in my work, so I agree with Abhinav Kumar when he says that when you’re spiritually rooted, you can be more open to dark aspects of a story. For me, it’s because I’m not scared of the dark anymore, so I’m able to peek inside. I want to understand more about the human experience, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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  4. Great article, Eleni! When is "endarkenment" really "enlightenment"? When it's in a story as a necessary part of the whole. Events and characters can get pretty darn dark, as Vic Smith notes, and still be uplifting in toto. Thanks for writing.

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  5. drstephenw says:

    Eleni, what a simply excellent idea for a topic. It's such an important subject for writers and all us humans dealing with the dark events of the past days. I am brimming with comments, which is the sign of a thought-provoking piece. And I love how you include VFA members in the text; I have to remember that for myself.

    I'll stick to two thoughts, the easier one first. Shakespeare's villains often start out as charming, funny, and sympathetic. I remember the first time seeing King Lear live and being surprised at the laughs and smiles Edmund's first soliloquy engendered in the audience. The brilliant strategy on Shakespeare's part was that when Edmund blinds his father later it's makes that horrible act even more wrenching. We think "How could I have liked this guy? How did he go from sympathetic victim to monster?" So writers have to find the lightness and the darkness, as every contributor to the article has stated in many variations.

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  6. drstephenw says:

    The other comment has to do with Paris, which the article makes me examine, as hard as that is now. My students have been asking about the motivations of the terrorists, trying to understand what the source of the action is, how someone could bring themselves to an act of public violence, and why there is such a huge distance in trying to comprehend what would be going on in the perpetrators' minds. They ask controversial questions, as only New York City teenagers can, but I hear them thinking out of compassion, wonder at the human experience, and delineation of moral territory. The scale and horror of the Paris nightmare is forcing them to open up to 'All-That-Is.' I don't worry about a single one of them making a bad choice because of their examination, but see them growing in emotional and spiritual capacity by daring to look deeper into the situation while feeling the pain and loss for the French people. My students remind me why we have to face the darkness as writers, in order to get through to the light.

    Thank you, Eleni, for posing this issue, and presenting it in an elegant and thoughtful way.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      Excellent correlation to how we deal with these issues as writers. After all, what we write is how we perceive outside events, such as what happened in Paris. And it’s also in step to what Bob Edward Fahey said about switching to various books as his mood changes.

      Looking into the motivation of the perpetrators of terroristic events in order to understand why they did what they did requires the questioner to enter their dark minds in hopes of shedding light on why they think as they do. In my own experience, in order to grasp the light, I need to do it with detachment and not be consumed by the same emotions that permeate the minds of terrorist: anger and fear. These emotions shut us off from assessing why we continue with our cycle of violence. I think how you end your comment extends into reality, in that we need to collectively face the dark in order to see the light.

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  7. reanolanmartin says:

    Love this, Eleni! For my most recent book, The Anesthesia Game, the teenager facing cancer has a very foul mouth, as does the crazy aunt who's been roped into caring for her. Some readers have expressed surprise at the language,but this (language) is just one way of expressing the characters' rage at the illness. The mystic who advises them is also very flawed. Darkness is always a temptation. The higher we climb, the greater the opposition. It's our training ground. We have to move beyond it to reach the next level of awareness. It's about growth.

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  8. Very insightful, Eleni. I've had some great fun writing my villains. Love the quote "So get down and dark!" from Stephen. Facing the shadow can be one of the richest spiritual experiences. I've been writing something off and on for years because it's just hard to go where I need to go, but I'm finishing it soon.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      Thanks Theresa. I agree with you. It can also be a truly rich experience for me, particularly when my writing releases darkness from my subconscious. Good luck with finishing your work!

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  9. Admin - Eleni says:

    Hi Rea:

    “The higher we climb, the greater the opposition.”

    This is an excellent point, as well as another major story driver. When it’s used, it’s impossible to avoid the dark aspects of story. And yes, characters will swear when they have cancer. Depending on the type of character, I imagine they could even do far worse! I always appreciate writers who allow their characters to show their flaws, in any genre. But in VF, it has the potential to pull out hidden aspects within our own personalities. In that sense, I think the movement from darkness to light is a spiritual process, as so many of us have already mentioned regarding this topic.

    Another point I think is worthy of making. Why are people surprised by the use of profanity in our story? It might be that something within them has been awakened. Your use of profanity as a way for your character to vent might have pulled out some hidden truths within people that translated into that shock! Something to consider…

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  10. I loved The Anesthesia Game, Rea. I really like your portrayal of young people. You get how they talk and think perfectly, including the language. How does a hip, young woman who happens to be dying horribly express herself? As though she was at a cotillion? No. I loved these characters.

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    • reanolanmartin says:

      thanks, sandy! that reminds me of a funny comment I heard the other day apropos some teenagers and their cell phones–that they should all be subjected to a semester of charm school. what a great reality show that would be!

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  11. Hi, drstephenw, was this from you: "You might want to go see what they're up to! Perhaps you will like their blog as much as they liked your comment!" That came up in my mail. Actually, I'm one of the founding members of VFA, mostly contributing unseen from the sidelines. I'm working on a few "practically orientated" blog articles on marketing, which will probably air as soon as I finish my WIP, hopefully before I croak from sitting behind a computer. There's a good conversation about Eleni's article on my FB Readers' Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/174305332623147/ I shared it there, too.

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  12. Well done, Eleni. You say much with the following two quotes : "It’s easy to create a bad guy who challenges the antagonist. It’s harder to craft a bad guy with whom readers might sympathize…" and "Affective antiheroes are difficult to write because they dare to take us down paths most of us would not travel in reality." You do both so well in your writing.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      Why thank you much, Margaret. I suppose I get my bad out through my villains, not to mention it keeps me out of jail!

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  13. Eleni, This is such an important topic to explore. Thank you for your well thought out and well written post!

    Sometimes our society is so blinded by 'positive thinking' that we suppress the idea that the human experience can be messy, smeared with heartache, and tinted with darkness. If we ignore that side of our humanity, that side within ourselves, we do so at risk, because it will come back to bite us. The same with the stories we write.

    When writing, I strive to flesh out my dark characters, showing their motivations, their wounds, what led them down their path in life, as well as their vulnerabilities. Then, as you implied, readers will feel the personal and transpersonal chaos and conflict more fully than they would in a dark character who is one-dimensional and a cardboard cutout villain. Creating authentic dark characters is an opportunity for readers to explores their own darkness through story, which is what we want in VF – for the reader to grow in consciousness through the characters and stories.

    Perhaps our culture expects a genre such as VF or spiritual/metaphysical fiction to focus only on the 'light.' (examples already given – why does your character swear?, or why do you include a rape/incest scene?) Well, one-sided 'light and positivity' is not reality, it is not authentic. I love your term endarkment…then there's enlightenment and the Adorata term called enlovement. Love is down in the trenches, sifting through and transforming the dark pain of our human experience. This is what needs to be emphasized in VF – not just the end goal of transformation, but the path of just how our characters got to that end goal. And transforming darkness is one such path.

    I was stopped cold in my third novel – I had to make my dark character more real because she was one-dimensional. And the only way I could do that was to go through and transform a piece of my own shadow. It took months before I could write this character in a believable, deep and authentic manner. It was well worth the effort.

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    • Admin - Eleni says:

      As usual, your explanation of the VF writing process is spot on:

      “If we ignore that side of our humanity, that side within ourselves, we do so at risk, because it will come back to bite us. The same with the stories we write.”

      “Perhaps our culture expects a genre such as VF or spiritual/metaphysical fiction to focus only on the ‘light.”

      I think a large part of this issue is that spiritual and inspirational fiction sometimes gets filed under VF, so the readers that look for that particular genre would likely get offended by themes and characters that veer into the darkness.

      “It took months before I could write this character in a believable, deep and authentic manner. It was well worth the effort.”

      Ah, the spiritual therapy of writing!

      And by the way, although I’d love to take the credit, Sandy came up with endearment.

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    • libredux says:

      Eleni, thanks for this excellent article, and hope more will follow. I relate to much of what you say, especially about giving the anti-hero the "freedom to struggle". Indeed the anti-hero is so suited to hard-hitting VF! I had two of them in my novel and they turned out to be thoroughly more fun to write than either the hero proper or the villain proper, not to mention they also had more substance. And yes, it's so hard to write a villain who is more than just the power-seeking bad guy. Would that make him/her an anti-villain? 🙂

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  14. Admin - Eleni says:

    Yes, they are more fun to write. There's more substance because everyone has a flaw. We're all told to present them in our writing, but flaws are not always fleshed out to their fullest potentials. For me the fun factor comes because some of my characters take more risks than I'd be willing to take…and I've taken plenty of risks in my life. With my characters, that's probably for the best, as I'd probably be locked up for life! Think you might have hit on a potentially new characterization with anti-villain.

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  15. I agree. We have to acknowledge our shadow side within and without to bring it to the light of consciousness. All fairy tales seem to do this very well. I like to think of the dark side in terms of polarity, not duality, so that judgment is suspended and a better understanding of myself, others and my characters can be had. The dark side can be very illuminating as you say. Great post!

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