Writing in the sense that we talk about it here relies on the artistic use of language. We use words to inform, influence, and most importantly of all entertain. It’s understandable then that when we use foreign settings, fantasy universes, and alien worlds, we might want to use elements of foreign languages to match those settings.
Tragedy and hardship are often important ingredients in the brewing of drama, conflict, and characterization. Sometimes, it’s caused by the nature of the story’s conflict. Sometimes, it’s an element of a character’s backstory that is revisited during their character arc. Even in a genre or story where such things aren’t front and center, few if any people (and that means characters) go through life without experienced some kind of personality-affecting trauma, even if it’s a small and relatively inconsequential affair.
Obviously, then, we writers should learn and understand how to tackle such topics. There are a lot of dark events that can shadow a person’s life: the deaths of loved ones, chronic illness, natural disasters, warfare, slavery, serious injury, sexual crimes, and so on. When we introduce such things into our stories, it becomes imperative that we not only handle these things in a realistic fashion, but also in one that shows a social conscience towards readers who may have dealt with these same issues.
That isn’t to suggest that these subjects shouldn’t be tackled or that they should be glossed over to prevent triggering old wounds. What I mean to suggest is that tragedies and horrors that crossover into the real world need to be handled with all due respect and even then with caution. In fact, glossing over a traumatic incident in your works is probably more insulting than harming to your potential readers. It suggests that you believe such a horrible thing should simply be pushed away and not properly explored and, be inference, that the pain of the readers who have suffered from that thing should likewise be glossed over.
Don’t even include trauma if you don’t want to explore it and treat it properly. Don’t throw in extraneous traumatic events to a character’s backstory and never explore the meanings and repercussions of those traumas. Giving a character a tragic history to simply drum up reader sympathy without dealing with it is a poor poor choice and will, again, insult more readers than it will possibly endear.
In the end, when you consider including such dark matters into your plots and characters, always remember that we have a social responsibility as writers and creators of media. What we do influences others. Always keep that in mind and remember, always do your research!
I write in fictional genres that classically lend themselves to a very old school ‘black vs. white’ mentality. The truth is, though, that is boring and unrealistic. It’s not that I don’t see morality and ethics as realistic, it is simply that the human mind doesn’t usually work in absolutes. Even people we would consider to be saintly are not pure white in motivation and action and even the most vicious murderer is often found to have strangely positive points in their personality. The human psyche is far too complex for such absolute moral stances.
In fact, it could be argued that the best conflicts in any piece, no matter how action-packed, comes from the inner turmoil of a good person faced with decisions with no clear positive outcome. The classic ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’ situation can not only make for great drama, but tell more about a character’s mental state and moral compass than pages of ‘telling’ and pontificating. The key, I would say, is to make sure such choice points themselves are not contrived or unrealistic. If it all happens in the flow of the story, it will make for a dramatic and defining character moment.
At the end of the day, it’s the oft-repeated advice to make every hero have flaws and to make every villain have positive points. I think the truth is a bit more nuanced though. I think it could be valid to have a character that truly is so evil as to be irredeemable, but there must be a process to make a person that way. That process has to come out, and in that process you can make a, for instance, heartless serial killer with no good qualities be shown to have once had them. To show how that morality was purged by a spiraling series of no-win choices, the influence of other darker figures, and/or the occasional whim of fate could also be a fascinating addition to the story. Much like you can show a protagonist’s rise through dramatic struggle, you can show the moral fall of an antagonist in the same way.
Maybe what I’m ultimately pontificating about is the simple act of not making characters faceless cutouts representing the archetype you need to fulfill your plot. Archetypes aren’t by their nature bad; in fact, they represent vital tools in the writer’s bag. It is the blank archetypes that can weaken an otherwise fantastic tale until it crumbles, unable to be supported by a base of cardboard cutouts. Remember, for most types of stories, the characters create and support the plot, not the other way around.