Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing Suicide in YA Fiction

I started thinking about this (again) because I was standing in line at Justice (a clothing store for girls), and "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley came on. I know--odd choice.

Anyway, first I started thinking about how much I liked Buckley's music back in the early 1990s, then I went home and dug out Grace and re-listened to the title song and "Last Goodbye."

It's funny to hear his voice now. He sounds so young, and it reminds me that I was just a kid then, too.

Buckley took his life shortly after that album's release. I don't remember why, but I remember thinking "such a shame, what a waste." From there my mind wandered to how twice I've had a character in my writing on the brink of suicide.

One was an attempted suicide. The character didn't give a reason, but the reader knows it was a dramatic attempt to force her estranged father to notice her. Or at least stop ignoring her. There's much more to the story, and the attempt comes later in the book.

The second I never actually wrote, but it was on the table for one of my characters. A secret about him comes out, and he disappears for a while. Had he gone through with it, the book would've been very different.

But in both situations, I backed away.

The first became an accidental overdose, and in the second, he turns up and decides to stop hiding. JRM disagrees with my choice in the first instance. He thinks the character's suicide attempt is exactly what she would do and exactly what should happen in that situation. I didn't ask for his input in #2.


Recently, some of my fellow YA writers have discussed language in YA, specifically dropping the F-bomb. In the past I've pondered the topic of graphic violence in YA, such as in Mockingjay. I know many agent-bloggers talk about explicit (or any) sex in YA literature. And I've heard of one agent who won't represent a book in which a character smokes.

The fear seems to be that kids will do what they read.

But is this true?

I know every so often there's an uproar about Romeo & Juliet being the Shakespeare selection for 9th-grade English. I personally love that play. It's one of my all-time favorites, and not once have I considered taking my life because of it.

Still, there are times when it does seem like life imitates art. And do I want to take that chance?

I don't know.

It's a heavy topic. I know some of our bloggie buddies have dealt with this subject in their own lives. Who hasn't been touched by suicide? My dad's first cousin, a police officer, called in a 10-00 (officer down) or maybe it was a 10-71 (shooting) after his wife left him. Backup arrived at the scene to find the victim was him.

What do you guys think? Would you write a suicide if your story or character took you there? Do you think it would cause a young reader to follow suit?

Sorry for the somber post, but I'm very curious. I do hope you all have a lovely weekend! Til Monday~ <3


Laura Pauling said...

Way to start out with a tough question. Answer - not sure. That idea has never come up. If it did and there were a real reason for it, I'd make sure I knew the topic well. but honestly, I don't see that happening.

Jessica Bell said...

This is an excellent post. Firstly, I adored Jeff Buckley when I was in high school. I even pinched a few of his lyrics for my songs! LOL I also cried when he died.

When I was in high school, suicide was everywhere. Yes, in Romeo and Juliet which I studied, obsessed over, acted in, and wrote music for. But books and movies and media was not what made me think of committing suicide (and yes, I did think about it on many occasion). What made me think of it was because it was happening on my home turf.

I remember a few students at my school committing suicide. Our school held memorial services for them in brought in a counsellor to make sure no one else was thinking about doing it. But this just made it worse. It made students to start thinking about reasons why they should do it! And every one became depressed. I also had my mother threatening to commit suicide. It was there, around me. And it was real. The REAL stuff is what influenced me. Not the fictional stuff. So in answer to your question, no, I don't think a reader will follow it. It's not real to them. And I think you should do what's best for your character.

And hey, isn't there a YA book about a girl who committed suicide and 13 messages on tapes or something to the people who drove her to do it? And wasn't it a best-seller?

S.A. Larsenッ said...

This is a great subject, so vast. In my opinion, it all depends how it's written and the message that's trying to be heard. Sure, if someone is glorifying suicide (which I can't imagine) that's not good. But unveiling the realities that teens go through is valiant and I believe they are interested in exploring those issues between the safe pages of a book.

KM Nalle said...

Tough question.

I think you have to tell the story you have.

I understand where you are coming from though. I'm not sure I could tell a story about an attempted suicide (or a successful one).

Unknown said...

I would write it. It's such a real, painful part of life.

Just like with everything else, we can't ignore the tough spots and hope they go away. If it fits the story and doesn't glorify the act, then it should be there.

I was the last person to talk to a boy in high school before he hung himself. I thought it was my fault because I postponed going to a movie for the second time. Maybe I was the tipping point, I don't know. All I know is that the guilt ate me up for a long long time.

Reading about someone dealing with it would have fixed so many things.

Brenda Drake said...

I don't write those kinds of stories, but I'd have a tough time writing something like that. It really has to be done right and must show how horrible and destructive it is in the aftermath for the loved ones of the victim. I don't believe kids reading about suicide will push them to do it, unless they're already too far gone, but then they'd probably do it without reading about. Or maybe if there is a clear message, they may rethink it? Tough post - loved that you got us thinking this morning,though. Thanks! :D

Old Kitty said...

Well my current wip has a streak of violence running through it - but it's paranormal and so for me the violence may be dark but it's "fantasy". I haven't tried or thought of writing a scene with a suicide in it - I guess I'll be more comfortable writing it as peripheral to the story - I guess to make it a central theme - I'd have to be really in that mindset.

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post! Take care

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh man. I can't really listen to Jeff Buckley. Not without balling my eyes out. I can't really read about him either. I'm not going to go into why, but I will quote him:

"It's never over, she is the tear that hangs inside my soul forever. Maybe I'm just too young, to keep good love from going wrong."

Theresa Milstein said...

I remember people saying these kinds of things when I was a teenager, especially about music. I'd roll my eyes.

Just like you show a picture Romeo and Juliet, if it were true, we would've lost plenty of teens centuries ago. I think books and music help students identify with emotions. If anything, books should help students puzzle through difficult things.

The ones that act and blame a book or a song are probably unbalanced and would find something else to blame for their behavior.

Violence in Suzanne Collins's books are nothing compared with movies and video games. Nothing compared with the news. Why are books always scapegoated?

That's my take.

RaShelle Workman said...

Hey Liegh - The male MC in my story was in the midst of committing suicide when the female MC found him. It wsa the opening chapter actually. I received ALOT of feedback about the choice. Was it necessary? Would readers like and respond in a positive way to a lead in such a state?

In the end, because of that feedback, I opted out of beginning the novel that way. The male MC still has many family problems, but I chose to have him deal with them differently.

I happy with the end result.

Great post, girl. =D

Carolyn Abiad said...

You know I would write it, if that's what the story wanted. I just haven't written a story that wants it...that way, at least.

Kittie Howard said...

Really tough question, Leigh. Also a really good one that deserves attention. I think, in view of the bullying in schools/life today, one has to be careful. Young minds can stretch fantasy into reality. Sometimes, some things are best left unsaid

LTM said...

@Laura--Yeah, I've explained that in my situation, it made sense for the story, and it worked. But then I started thinking about all the "what ifs," and took it out.

The truth is, an accidental drug overdose has connotations that don't necessarily fit the character. She's not experimental or wild necessarily... she's just sad. Urgh. It's a tough one! :o) <3

@Murray--Hey, man! I know. Buckley. *sigh* You're right about the suicide. And it's hard for me to imagine someone choosing that option b/c of something I wrote. It's just one of those responsibility things... :o) <3

@Anne--Good points! And wow. What a terrible burden to carry for so long! I'm feeling confident telling you I bet there was more going on that your postponement. But still, it's good to know the other side. ((hugs)) :o\ <3

@Brenda--I hear ya, and it was hard. It's always hard to write scenes like that. And I like the idea of perhaps changing their minds? It's a topic not to be taken lightly. Thanks! :o) <3

Unknown said...

Suicide is a difficult subject to approach whether it be YA or adult. I think that you have to do what is right for your story and characters. Never back away and do them a disservice. As someone who experienced the death of a childhood best friend in 4th grade and the suicide of another friend at 15, death was brought to me very early and I longed for something to read to help me understand. Kids want to know someone out there gets their feelings. I don't think that anyone would commit suicide because they read it in a book. It's a hugely complex and pain-filled issue.

Sorry if I sounded too preachy or anything. Caught your blog from Dez's and saw this post. I had to click over.

Talli Roland said...

Hm, this is a tough one.

I think I would write about it, if the story needed it. Suicide is something kids face - someone in my junior high committed suicide. Writing about it can actually help, not hinder.

N. R. Williams said...

I think that this is a topic we hear about all the time. If a writer does have a character commit suicide, I hope the author takes time to emphasize how that death affects everyone around that character. Handled correctly, it may be the very thing that prevents a suicide in a young person.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

Stina said...

Wow, that is a tough question. One of my books has a character (not the mc) who's dealing with the death of his sister. But you don't realize she committed suicide until later in the book. Before that point, he lies about what happened to her. The idea (at least the partial idea) was to show how suicide can affect loved ones.

Unknown said...

Wow, that's a really good question. I'm writing a YA book where a teenager jumps off the building. Half way down she regrets the decision. She doesn't die but maybe I should re-think.

M Pax said...

I think it's valid especially if you show how it affects the people left behind. My younger brother's best friend blew his head off. My brother had a really hard time with dealing with that.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I think it's an important topic that's worth exploring because like you said it does happen. We can't pretend it doesn't. Of course, it must be written carefully and with loads of sensitivity. Not an easy thing to write and it takes a brave author to do it.

Hart Johnson said...

Kahlotus, my ABNA book has suicide right at its center--it is how my ghost MC died and... erm... there is a time later in the book she works very hard to stop another character from it. The setting though, would be negligent to ignore suicide. (and the F bomb)--there is no way a book set in a reform school can avoid violence, mental illness... none of it. It is part of that setting or it becomes a trite lie.

You may not be surprised to hear I agree with JRM on case the first from what you've described (since he channels me and all) but I think you made the right decision in case the 2nd, as the whole tone of your book would have been wrong for a story that has that suicide. It has some heavy-thinking themes, but it's told lightly, and I don't think you can tell suicide lightly. (maybe had the character been presented as a brooding but dreamy, instead of the preppy GQ thing--though I can't see Harley falling for the brooder)

Unknown said...

The writer in me says no subject should be off limits in literature. The mother I am isn't sure I'd want my kids reading about suicide in a YA novel. Tough one...

PK HREZO said...

I think suicide is a very real issue for teens. Look at how many have succeeded at taking their own lives, and I'm sure even more think about it. Teens are especially vulnerable to it since they live in the moment and every problem seems so huge it will swallow their life. So I strongly disagree with omitting it just because it's YA. If it's done right, and it's part of the character's choice, I think it can work, as long as the consequences are shown on how final it is. Not in a preachy way, mind you. But in a really real way. Perhaps in some way it could save a teen on the line between doing it or not.
That's why books that deal with real issues are so powerful. Teens need to know they're not alone in those feelings. Having a voice as a writer is such a powerful opportunity, not to teach a lesson, but to touch a soul.

LTM said...

@Marsha--first welcome! Great to have your input. And wow. That's an awesome real-world example of how maybe addressing this issue in our writing can actually help. Never thought of it that way. Thanks! :o) <3

@PK--ooo, fantastic point. And I really like the way you phrased it. Very nice, and if I weren't convinced to go with it before, I am now. :D <3

Thanks, guys!

Lydia Kang said...

Wow, great post and great topic. I fear the public making general statements about YA subjects that might incite teens to do drugs, violence, etc. But our culture is steeped in all that. It's unavoidable. And in many cases YA books can go into a subject that no one else will talk to them about. I think of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak which is banned (was? will be?) in Missouri. It doesn't glorify rape, but it does deal with one girl's journey.

Al said...

My impression is it is better to talk about this issue in a balanced way than to pretend it isn't there.
Education is always the best defence against any danger.

Al said...

Great topic by the way. Thanks for making us think ;-)

Jemi Fraser said...

That's a tough one! On one hand I'd like to see kids who are grappling with those issues to see characters realistically dealing with the issue and the after effects. On the other hand, well, ... just no, I'd reather not see it. It's a really tough call and I can't decide where I stand!

Ellie Garratt said...

Tough question. I just can't imagine ever taking one of my characters to that point. But I guess never say never!

Ellie Garratt

walk2write said...

It's a perfectly valid and reasonable subject to broach in a story. Many people who would never admit it have had suicidal thoughts at one or times in their lives. It's probably most prevalent during the teen years when hormones are raging and emotions take over rational thought. It would be wise to show how devastatingly painful suicide is to family and friends left behind. Suicide is ultimately a selfish act without regard to consequences for loved ones.

Anonymous said...

I think books should handle real issues. And if it's an issue like suicide, it should be written in a sensitive way. I just started Thirteen Reasons Why and so far it's a powerful read. I'm glad the author tackled this subject.

Julie Musil said...

The story about your dad's cousin gave me the chills. Wow.

I'm proof that you aren't what you read. My favorite books (as a kid, and now) are about spies and terrorists and killers and hookers, druggies, and, and, and. And from my previous blog post, you know I'm like the church lady in real life.

I think suicide in YA literature can be handled well, such as in 13 REASONS WHY. It showed the main character's frustration that his friend chose to take her own life, and wow, what a story.

Anita said...

In the current YA I'm writing, one of the main themes is suicide prevention. It's weird because I wondered why I gravitated toward the subject and then it just recently hit me: my cousin committed suicide several years ago. I guess I've needed to work through that, and my characters are my counselors. Amazingly the book really isn't dark or preachy...that's what I'm hoping, anyway.

Dawn Kurtagich said...

Wow, quite a powerful question. If my characters take me there, which they have, I would explore it. There is always a resolution in YA, for me, and exploring these things just might bring some kid back from the brink of something terrible. I spoke about this recently in my post "Sex in YA Fiction". Hope you'll check it out :)

Great blog!

LTM said...

@Dawn--thanks, girl! I will check it out, and I am glad I brought up the subject. I've got a whole different outlook on the topic now. Lurv my bleeps~ :o)

Nahmala said...

I'm pretty sure Jeff Buckley drowned accidentally, actually.

I would really like to see characters in YA successfully commit suicide, rather than being "saved" or backing out. Everyone is touched by suicide in some way. Shielding our children from it in books will make it that much harder for them to deal with it in real life. I'd go as far to say that reading about the aftermath of a completed suicide could possibly stop readers from doing it themselves, once they see how much it affected all the other characters.

The YA novel You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn is a great example of suicide in YA lit, as well as other sensitive topics, including drug abuse, depression, and body image. It follows the main character on her journey from grief to recovery, and it has a hopeful ending for a book that started with a suicide in the first chapter.