If you write with your character’s voice (either true first person or a close third person) you have to determine if he or she would tell the readers the dark parts. If you write from a more omniscient POV it may be trickier.
A good writer friend Amy Spitzfaden, author of “Untold,” wrote a very interesting post today about details. She is great, and you really should read her words here.
The gist was, when faced with hard scenes how far is far enough, and how far is too far? Do you consider the readers? The character? Your own preference? I have thought about this many times, though I have never really organized those thoughts into coherence before.
Below is my comment to her post.
While you are the creator, the world isn’t solely yours. It is your characters’ world. Certain scenes — violent, heartbreaking, gruesome, and even sexual (though it’s sad that this last gets lumped in with negatives) — come in all shades of detail. There are graphic details and the blurred outlines. Choosing to include a difficult part of your character’s story does not have to be all or nothing. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing, or seen through a memory, or recounted to a friend. Perhaps we see all the details and live it with them.
As creators (I use this term because this indecision arises with visual art as well as written) we worry about your audience’s reaction, and justly, but I think we need to lay that aside. Our stories are our characters, and as long as the event in question fits with the piece we tell, I think it should be included on whatever level. Personality-forming events are especially important. If our character makes a rash or extreme choice, the reader’s need to understand the depth of their reasoning for it to feel authentic.
We all have different tastes as audience members. I may not mind a few details to get me to empathize with the character, but not like graphic explanations. I think as readers it is a risk we take each time we open a book. We enter a world based on our best judgement whether that includes extensive research or simply whether we like the cover art. Publishers will tailor the book to the readers that may like it, but I think that is as much paring down as should be done. The reader will either stay or not.
After all, we can’t edit our own hardships, but still plenty of people stay with us for our whole journey. Trust your characters to be strong enough to earn the same.