If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll have noticed a distinct lack of the dark, gritty ‘realism’ found in a lot of literature. That doesn’t mean bad stuff doesn’t happen – I just like to focus on the good, to tell an optimistic tale that’s just as ‘real’ as a pessimistic one. Sometimes horrible things have to happen in order to create the conflict that drives a narrative, but they don’t have to drag a story down into the dark. The difference is in how you deal with those things.
My fundamental approach is to avoid dwelling on the distasteful. A person may suffer some tragedy, but they can choose to wallow in their pain or try to move past it, and I want to show the struggles of those who overcome their troubles. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt and grieve, but just as those people try to keep their minds mostly on the positive and move forward, so do I. A writer selects what to show – we can’t describe every detail or tell every thought a character has – and I only portray a problem enough so you see what someone’s facing, then focus on what they’re doing to solve it.
Though occasionally I need to show a main character not being very heroic, because a challenge can come from a person’s own imperfections, and I can’t show them overcoming temptation if I don’t show their stumbles. But here context is very important – to make it clear that a person’s negative thoughts or behaviors don’t have to mean that’s who they really are. And the good in them should be shown to overwhelm those negative tendencies.
But that inner battle is only one fight – a story’s protagonist usually faces challenges from outside themselves. Sometimes those difficulties are a normal part of life – natural disasters or other adverse circumstances – but sometimes they are bad guys directly (or indirectly) making trouble for our heroes, and I try to be careful how I handle that as well. At the risk of leaving the villains opaque, I don’t generally go into much detail about their motivations.
It’s very popular these days to delve into why people do nasty, unpleasant things, but I don’t like to let them give voice to their excuses, as it often only serves to validate such self-deception, unless a writer is very careful about the context. Sometimes, such as when a murderer confesses, such an explanation is a necessary part of the story, but usually I let an antagonist’s actions speak for themselves. You may have to deduce what’s motivating a bad guy, but I don’t see that as a problem.
After all, we all know how hubris or greed or selfishness or other flaws can cause people to do the most terrible things. I shouldn’t have to dwell on them for a reader to understand, and I won’t. I’d rather concentrate on how good can overcome. Because my stories aren’t about the villains but the heroes who defeat their schemes.