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Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy is when the audience is put off by the incredibly dark nature of a fictional work and won't care what happens next, lose interest or want all the characters to die off. For example, A Song of Ice and Fire can cause this due to its cynical tone, characters making morally questionable decisions in order to achieve their goals and many of the villains being irredeemably evil.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that my trilogy, The Ragnarǫk Cycle is pretty dark. The protagonist is incredibly self-centred, an existential nihilist and suggested to be suffering from depression. The only person serving as his moral compass is heavily implied to be insane, uses her religious faith to justify some rather... dubious actions she committed and secretly wants to die.

Said protagonist and deuteragonist are pawns of a military organization crippled by corruption and its politically correct dogma (think a more "progressive" version of Blackwatch) in conflict with parasitized humanoids, who seek to eliminate all forms of discrimination, by turning humans in genderless parasitized humanoids and "cleansing" themselves of people with disabilities and other undesirable traits. Things get even worse when later into the series, this organisation crosses swords with a cult that worships and is dedicated to unleashing a soul-devouring, omnicidal, aeons-old monstrosity responsible for the downfall of countless interstellar civilizations.

I plan on having several moments of levity strewn throughout the series (although I'll trying my best to ensure that they don't cause tonal disparity), having my leads become better people through the power of character development and the series becoming less cynical with each installment. However, I feel that readers will still think that I'm trying way too hard to be controversial and "edgy," rather than being concerned with trying to tell a good story.

So, what are ways to avoid Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy?

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    Neon Genesis Evangelion. – Mephistopheles Jun 15 '18 at 5:49
  • Related. – F1Krazy Jun 15 '18 at 8:15
  • You can't please all the people all the time. Some readers will seek out darker tones, so one "solution" is to make sure you are marketing your book to the audience most likely to enjoy the darkness of it. – Todd Wilcox Jun 15 '18 at 17:07
  • @Arbiter Elegantiae: There's a problem with part of this premise: the bedrock of "political correctness" is placing the onus on the perpetrators of discrimination to change their behavior. Thats precisely what leads some to castigate that "PC": detractors don't want to change what they are doing. If this org is promoting eugenics, and de-gendering people, that's a direct conflict with how you've characterized them. You've described them as "politically correct" but this plot makes them act in direct opposition to that value system. It simply doesn't make sense. – user49466 Aug 17 '18 at 17:45
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    I'd suggest scanning through for simple conversions of discrete language. Think about human psychology in your readers: "He didn't want to live" and "He wanted to die" are two things that state the same thing, but the second is more active than the first. See if there are ways to convert or delete simple words and phrases that you might not need. For example, if your characters are often sitting down in text, this may telegraph laziness or tiredness, and them sitting may be unnecessary for the story. These sorts of tweaks can change the feel of the piece while keeping the plot/etc the same. – DPT Aug 20 '18 at 15:28
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Your answer is given by your first trope link; on DIAA, perhaps you have misunderstood it!

The protagonist is incredibly self-centered, an existential nihilist

Then why should the reader care about this hero? DIAA is induced by an Evil v. Evil story.

It happens when the audience doesn't care what happens, because no matter who wins, the world still sucks.

It happens when the good guys (your protagonist and sidekick) are awful people and the audience cannot relate to them.

It happens when the audience has nobody they like, or are rooting for, or hoping will be saved or survive.

With DIAA they suffer through your movie (because it is only two hours, they can afford that), or put down your novel, because you have given them nothing to really care about; they don't care about your dystopia, or how your politics work out, or who wins.

Why? Because they read to have an adventure. They want Luke Skywalker and Leia and Hans Solo and Chewbacca to prevail! They want Indiana Jones to get the treasure and keep it this time! (in the opening boulder seq, he loses...)

Being dark is fine, the bigger the stakes, the more we root for the good guys to win, to prevail against the Emperor and a reign of terror and cruelty led by Darth Vader and his Death Star that obliterates a billion lives on Leia's home planet (or however many they said).

Read your Darkness Induced Audience Apathy trope again; when it says:

MEANINGFUL conflict is the soul of drama.

Followed by,

"The conflict between the two equally horrible sides is essentially meaningless, there is no dramatic tension."

Good guys have to be good in some sense the audience can root for. They can be criminals, hit men, thieves -- but they need some kind of humanity and must be relative good guys compared to their antagonist(s). They may kill criminals, their opponents kill babies, or intend to kill millions.

Your story has to have a likable hero, from the beginning, a self-centered nihilist psychopath is not likable, or a hero, they are a selfish psychopath and a bad guy, fighting other selfish psychopaths and bad guys, and who cares?

You avoid DIAA by making the outcome matter, which means making the audience care who wins, which means they need to root for one side to win and worry about how much damage and sacrifice their hero must endure to win.

Rethink your hero, his sidekick, and their mission.

  • +1 for "Meaningful conflict is the soul of drama". Comment because this doesn't seem to explain why Breaking Bad was successful. Was the meaningful conflict all within the main character, and we could "root" for either side to win? Full disclosure: I watched all of Breaking Bad but did not like it at all, after the first couple episodes. – Todd Wilcox Jun 15 '18 at 17:10
  • @ToddWilcox I didn't watch BB, but to clarify, my understanding was that the MC was a chemistry teacher that turned to manufacturing drugs because he thought he was dying and needed to provide for his family. Those are three strong sympathetic qualities; a public servant in desperate straits risking his life to provide for his family. I could have rooted for that. Perhaps the sympathetic opening was enough; after that, the audience seldom cares if non-sympathetic criminals are killed, most worry for the guy they already saw being heroic. It depends on execution I did not see. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 15 '18 at 19:48
  • You have the very beginning correct, but his character gets really dark really fast (hence my not liking it after the first couple episodes). It's a good question (to me at least) how stories like BB and Reservoir Dogs "work". Especially in my mind where I really like Reservoir Dogs and hate Breaking Bad. RD manages to build a little bit of sympathy into each character before then taking it away, or building antipathy first and then adding sympathy. Even Mr. Blonde was an "honorable" crook in the beginning for doing his time without ratting out his employer. – Todd Wilcox Jun 15 '18 at 20:15
  • @ToddWilcox He might get really dark really fast; but how long before his motivations for being bad are taken away? I hear at some point he was no longer dying; does he also stop caring if he provides for his family? A good guy being ruthlessly brutal to criminals to survive and do a good thing is still a sympathetic character. Like 007. And don't forget relativity, the rougher the crowd, (a) the rougher he can be with them without losing viewer sympathy, & (b) the more he relatively looks like a good guy fighting the good fight. or it's tragedy; the viewers hope for redemption, denied. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 15 '18 at 20:26
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    @ToddWilcox Sounds like it. Can't help you with that one; I'd have to watch it to look for clues as to what people liked about it. Personally, I'd drop it at "remission" or "divorce." I know some people enjoy watching the straight up psychopath competition; perhaps creative surprises and twists are what they wait for; or like team sports, it could be just the tribal favoritism of "our team wins!", whether they cheated like hell or not. I don't care for it, but I know sports fans that are that way, nothing their team does is wrong enough to give up a win. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 15 '18 at 20:45
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A few ways to avoid Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy:

Learn from the dark. There are times in life when we feel that we have too much to do and not enough time to do it and that things are intent in dragging us down into a pit from which we can't escape. But then we find a way to overcome all that and succeed. And your characters can too. Sure, throw them into all sorts of poisonous, dark situations, but then let them learn something, either about themselves, life, others or nature, and then let them use that knowledge to overcome whatever darkness they're in. When you do that, your readers will recognise that they can use the same principle in their own lives, which can lift apathy whilst reading.

Pause on the stairs. Walking up stairs can be hard. It might not feel so if you're ten and there are only twelve steps and you can bound up them three at a time, but when the flight of stairs is longer, or you're older, you get to appreciate a rest every now and again. It's possible to build that kind of principle into a dark narrative. Have your characters pause every now and again to smell the flowers, feel the breeze against their skin and wash their hands in nice hot, soapy water. Then launch them back into the fray. This will refresh characters, prose and readers alike.

Wise like a fool. One way to use humour without introducing tonal disparity is to launch a jester into the story. This character will be funny, but also wise. They will be able to bring levity to a scene, but in an appropriate way. Because your jester is wise, this will provide a means for characters to grow and learn in a subtle way. Done well, especially in an otherwise dark tale, this light counterpoint can lift the mood and help to prevent apathy.

Light up the scene. Let your readers see what's happening by describing the scenery in an entertaining and informative way. Strong images tied in to the story can really bring things to life for a reader. Obviously don't go wild with this - you don't want to distract readers by purplish prose about effulgent, refulgent, lambent or fulgurat sunlight in the trees when the real focus of the scene should be the sword slicing slippery flesh with spurts of blood and dying etc. But still, appropriately done, good description can lift a reader's spirits.

Paint something fresh. Darkness is dark. People are accustomed to falling asleep in the dark. But a darkness that is full of new things is something to stay awake for. Novel gadgets that do exciting things in ways that have never been seen before and that make interesting noises while they do so can keep anyone awake in the darkness. Add something new into a scene and you will keep a reader's interest despite the overall tone being darker than dark.

End on a high. The promise of a resolution to a plot that involves light at the end of a tunnel can be something that can keep a reader plodding onwards through the darkness. Dante's Inferno works in part because it's dark, but also in part because we know that our hero is heading towards Purgatorio and Paradiso. Harry Potter's trials are dark and numerous, but in our hearts we know that he will defeat the bad guy and live happily ever after - and that's one part of what keeps apathy at bay whilst reading.

There are many other ways to avoid Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy, but these have worked for me and I hope they will be useful to you too.

Good luck with your trilogy - it sounds exceptional.

  • It probably goes without saying, but the "jester" doesn't have to be a literal cap-and-bells jester. Virtually any character can fill the role. – Stephen R Jun 15 '18 at 15:47
  • @Stephen - true that. ;) – robertcday Jun 15 '18 at 15:59
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At the heart of every story there is a moral choice -- a choice about values. The hero will be brought by some means to a point where they must choose between two things that they love. They may choose well or ill. The consequences may be for good (comedy) or ill (tragedy), but there must be a choice and that choice must matter, both to the character and to the reader.

To sustain the reader's interest, they must perceive early on that the hero cares about something, that they have values that may be challenged, that may be brought into conflict with each other, and that events may bring them, are starting bring them, to the point where they will be forced to choose.

In this sense, there is some darkness at the heart of every story, some sacrifice, some loss. But just as a light story cannot be entire light, a dark story cannot be entirely dark, for in an entirely dark world, there is no love and therefore no values to choose between. Find that spark of light, however, even if you intend to extinguish it at the end, and you will find a way through the darkness.

This theme, following a spark of light into the darkness, is one of the great theme of human art. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

If there is something that the hero loves, and some choice of values they will eventually be forced to make, and if the reader can feel the story moving towards that moment of choice, then the audience has something to care about and will stick around. A deep darkness can make that spot of light shine all the brighter, but if the light is not there, there is nothing to see and that audience will wander away.

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A big factor is going to be picking the point where the story starts.

If the character arc across the trilogy is one of redemption, the protagonist's story will begin when this starts to happen - the first time we meet him would contain the event (or the seeds of the event) that made him begin to question his former nihilism. If you establish hope for redemption at the beginning, the reader is more likely to stick with the darkness of the story to see it come to fruition.

After that it will be a case of sticking with the continual (though not continuous - there will be setbacks) move out of the darkness for the protagonist throughout the trilogy.

You're right to keep an eye on tonal disparity - levity in a dark book can come over as gallows humour (which can be good) or frivolity (which usually isn't).

When the protagonist reaches redemption or enlightenment at the end of the third book, the reader should feel that they knew this was going to happen all along.

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    Indeed. The nihilist has to do something good, maybe even noble, early on. Rescue someone from a mugger. Pull a child out of traffic. Stand up for someone harassed by a racist. He may question why he did something that he considers stupid and pointless, but he's done it and it at least gives the readers hope he can do better. – Keith Morrison Jun 15 '18 at 17:54
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You have to give your readers hope. If the world is irredeemably grim and dark, it's extremely difficult to make your readers care what happens to it. Somewhere there has to be somebody who sees something better. Maybe your dark character, though himself grim, does good things that noticeably help others. You might even be able to wrangle interactions between multiple characters where one character manages to make the other better. Momentary levity can help, but somewhere there needs to be an underlying possiblity that things can get better.

You can even have characters that are funny and dark at the same time. Years ago I ran a game of Dungeons & Dragons in which the characters had this recurring nemesis. He was an assassin, but he knew the characters were pursuing him, and when the opportunity presented itself he would taunt them or play (often dangerous) pranks. But the taunts and pranks were also clever and funny and infuriating once you got past the "oh c***" moment. He was also higher level than they were, and thus actually quite dangerous when they encountered him face to face.

In terms of "dark" TV shows, I can think of, Breaking Bad stands out in my mind. An affable rather boring guy slowly degenerates into a significantly evil character, but even as he descends into murder and mayhem, he is still a highly developed human character with people he cares about and intents and goals beyond simply death and destruction. By the end of the series you're really not rooting for him any more, so much as wondering how he's going to End, and who is going to End him. But that show is an AMAZING bit of writing, and a very very difficult trick to pull off. The saving grace is in the character Jesse, who goes along with White, but remains a good person throughout. He becomes horrified by the man he's been working with, and he becomes the main focus that allows the viewer to care about the events though to the finale. If Jesse had gone dark along with White, the shouw probably would not have worked so well

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Glittering points of light. The whole point of a dark story --morally dark --should be to highlight and showcase points of light that might be lost or overlooked in a more brightly lit context. I personally hate dark sludge books, but there are a few I love, and it's all for those glittering points of light.

Here are my favorite examples:

  • Lolita (Nabakov): The narrator is a narcissistic, sociopathic moral abomination. But he has a brief moment of (relative) moral clarity late in the book --that's what the book is really all about.
  • The Moor's Last Sigh (Rushdie): This book is about lots of unhappy people who betray each other and meet violent ends, often at the hands of loved ones. But there's a minor character who becomes a good person against the odds, and who has the strength of character and positive attitude the main character lacks.
  • Boys of Life: This is a dark fable about artistic obsessions overriding human instincts, extreme perversions, abuse and murder. But there are genuinely kind and caring people scattered throughout it.
  • Children of Men (movie): This is a near-future dystopia of incredible darkness and dysfunction. But strung across it, like a glittering string of pearls, are multiple people who are willing to overcome their own selfishness, and risk or even lose everything, even their own lives, to help out a complete stranger and her child.

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