The Lure of the Dark Side

Posted by Pamela Jaye Smith on

What is it that lures people over to the Dark Side?

Your audience wants to find out how people and things go bad, so in your story, be sure to reveal some of how the characters become the way they are -- not to excuse their behavior but to get us engaged with them.

In this excerpt from my book, The Power of the Dark Side, we'll explore triggers and processes that turn people bad and some of the ways things all go to heck in a hand basket.

Sleeping with the enemy

Since Adam took a bite from the apple Eve offered, humans have done all sorts of bad things because of love, lust, and sex. People break society's rules, leave jobs, abandon families, betray countries, lie, steal, and kill for love, or some version of it. Some relationships are so torrid-and-troubling, so love-hate it can feel like the Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages actually bond with their captors.

Great desire is subject to manipulation via great deception. Espionage organizations have sex schools to train agents in the arts of seduction.

It's not unusual to hate the person you passionately desire -- they make you feel weak and addicted. Abuse and stalking can result, as well as torture and death.

Double Indemnity, Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, and Dangerous Liaisons revolve around desire gone bad.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It's the Law of Unintended Consequences, when one seemingly good thing causes something else to happen, and that leads to another and to another, and the eventual outcome stinks.

In Finding Nemo, the well-meaning dentist crowed that he had found Nemo struggling for life and saved him, but the little fish was effectively kidnapped, and both he and his dad had to brave many dangers to get him back home.

Have your characters either not see or willfully ignore the unintended consequences of their seemingly good ideas, and remember the old saying, "No good deed goes unpunished."

The slippery slope

From the little white lie to Hitler, from the Prince of Dimness to Darth Vader, once you set foot on the Left Hand Path, it's a slippery slope with little hope of return. Most cautionary tales begin with the single mis-step; usually the audience knows it's a bad idea but the protagonist either doesn't know, thinks it's inconsequential, or is in a state of denial.

Sitcoms are mostly about someone telling a fib and then getting more and more deeply entangled in the repercussions. Geoffrey Rush in The Tailor of Panama fabricates the truth about local intrigue in ways that quickly get out of hand, bringing in the British Secret Service and ultimately a U.S. military invasion. In the Wachowski brothers' Bound, lesbian sexual straying leads to larceny and mob murders.

This downhill ride can be quite hypnotic. It begins with the initial bite, then the denial, the larger crime, the cover-up, the grip of guilt, giving up any remaining inclination to do good, hardening the heart, and embracing evil. You can create effective drama by focusing on three or more of these steps.

A deal with the devil

Sometimes people just decide to make a deal with the devil and sell their souls for some great desire. They know it's wrong, they know it's risky, but they do it anyway.

Ordinary people's jealousy often attributes this device to people with extraordinary accomplishments: Simon Magus from the New Testament, 13th century alchemist Roger Bacon, 19th century composer and violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. Legend has it guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul to become the greatest blues musician ever.

Though the Dark Brotherhood can supposedly defer their personal karma from lifetime to lifetime, for a regular human who makes a deal with the devil, it may be "No money down and no interest," but there's always a huge and horrid balloon payment at the end. Show us that, as in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, where the villainous seducer sinks through the dining room floor directly into hell.

Power corrupts

Julius Caesar, today's news, your big brother, your bitchy boss -- we've all seen lots of examples of power getting out of hand when in the wrong hands. Sometimes the corruption is petty, like security guards with badges and guns. Sometimes it's deadly, like Hitler, Pol Pot, and tribal warlords.

There's a little something in all of us that wants to be right, to be in charge, to be in the spotlight. The more we feel wronged or ignored, the more desirous we are of power to balance that out, and the more dangerous we are if we actually get that power and there's no one around who can or will stop us.

The movie Viva Zapata opens with barefoot hat-in-hand peasant Marlon Brando being rejected by a corrupt official behind a big desk; after leading a successful revolution and falling prey to the lure of power, the movie ends with now corrupted Brando behind the same big desk, rejecting the pleas of a barefoot hat-in-hand peasant.

Show a character flaw that isn't so awful, mostly because they don't have the opportunity to pursue it, e.g. fine food, kinky sex, fast cars. Once they gain power the character swells with explosive self-importance and the flaw goes wild, like plugging a toaster directly into a power pole, the overload bursts through those weak spots and wreaks havoc.

Cover your ass

It's not the crime, it's the cover-up. Lots of people get snared deeper in the Dark Side while trying to escape blame or punishment. People turn stool pigeon and rat out their buddies to save their own skin, hence the Witness Protection Program.

Cover-ups compound the crime and escalate the consequences: President Nixon and the Watergate burglary, President Reagan and Iran-Contra, AIDS in many countries, bird flu in China, the Bush Administration's outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and many more.

The Bourne Ultimatum centers around revealing a cover-up.


Abuse breaks something in the human soul which once broken, can seldom be repaired. The Dark Side uses those sharp fragments to create more pain by harming others, passing on the pattern to one's children, or turning on one's self with disgust, shame, or the desire to escape at any cost.

Sometimes people are literally forced to be bad. Children kidnapped and turned into soldiers is a horrid but real example. Books by and about African child soldiers recount being "turned" by being forced to kill family members and other children, being made sex slaves to adult soldiers, and being thrust into battle.

Though there is an instinctual cruelty in children, it's usually socialized out by positive upbringing and the wiring for empathy that occurs around ages 3-5. However, those who gleefully inflict pain and torture at an early age seldom give it up. Whether it's bad brain wiring or any of the other possible causes, children who torture animals or other people -- physically, emotionally, or mentally -- usually grow up to perfect those Dark skills.

Sometimes instinctual blood-lust kicks in, like in Bloodsport or Fight Club (or self-defense, like in Carrie), but often it's a cold-blooded fixation. Different from the Slippery Slope paradigm, this is more a hunger-for-more. Talk to anyone who'll admit having done something bad while knowing it was bad but keeping on with it, and you'll pick up a fascination for the lure of power and pain. Investigate China's Cultural Revolution, The Killing Fields, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the TV series 24 for more details.

Go along to get along

Allowing evil to occur makes you partly to blame for whatever happens. In a landmark case from the 1970s, New Yorker Kitty Genovese repeatedly screamed for help, but 18 people in the middle-class neighborhood didn't want to get involved, and the young woman was knifed to death.

Most of the world ignored the Rwanda genocide, and were slow to move into Darfur, some say because the people are black and there are no valuable resources in the area. Many Turks still deny the Armenian Genocide of the early 1900s, and some people deny the deadliest example in centuries, the Nazi Holocaust, wherein millions were exterminated.

Excuses are, "It's always been that way," "You can't fight City Hall," "I'm just one person," "It's none of my business", and "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown" from the Robert Towne film starring Jack Nicholson as a detective uncovering corruption about LA's water supply. Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond is an excellent example.

Whistle-blowers are the heroes of this category. The U.S. has laws to protect them, and Time magazine once made three whistle-blowers Persons of the Year.

Dumb and dumber

Sometimes people are simply too stupid to realize what's going on, like teenagers who have sex in the spooky woods where six of their friends just got massacred by a slasher who's still on the loose.

People who take ridiculous chances in sports or home-made stunts, and people who're careless with fire and sharp edges are open to Dark Side dangers. Blithely ignoring the warning signs from bad people or dangerous situations, as well as ignoring actual signs, gets people into lots of trouble.

And for those nude photos that turn up once someone's a celebrity? "I was young and I needed the money" from Naked Gun.

The Dumb(er) device is mostly used in comedies and the horror genre.


The Dark Side has many devices to lure people onto the Left Hand Path. Your own experience and observations of yourself, others, and the world around you will already have given you a rich resource for creating characters and situations.

When you consciously select and develop one of these Lure processes excerpted from The Power of the Dark Side, you can add even greater depth to your villains, pathos to your heroes, and danger to your story situations.

Writing Exercises

1) What other films or stories can you place in the categories above?

2) Take a character in one of your stories and shift the lure that got them onto the Dark Side. E.g. If in your teen horror story they had been simply dumb, make them increasingly addicted to the violence around them. If your story has a parent Going Along to Get Along to the detriment of the children, switch that to a Sleeping With the Enemy scenario.

3) Write 1-3 lines of confession and explanation a character would give for each of the categories above.

E.g. "I was young and I needed the money."
"Everybody else was doing it."
"They made me."

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