How Much Violence Is Too Much in YA Literature?

As a writer of YA science fiction and fantasy, I’m no stranger to writing my heroines into some violent struggles. Whether it’s emotional abuse or outright warfare, somehow these themes are embedded in the hero(ine)’s journey.

But I am also sensitive to the fact the readers of my stories are not adults, like me. When I grapple with violence in my writing, I am aware that my words carry the potential to be a force for good, or to be damaging. Walking that narrow line, without condescending to readers who are smart, sensitive people, is not easy.

Below are the yardsticks I keep in mind when violence erupts in my stories.

Avoid gratuitous violence.
It’s easy to use graphic violence for it’s shock value. As writers, we want to make our readers feel something when they engage with our work. However, it’s not appropriate to use violence or trauma as a shortcut to actual writing and character development. For example, I’ve noticed a number of YA novels recently where the main character is a rape victim. The topic is not explored or an organic part of the story, but rather used as a way to generate instant sympathy for the protagonist. Inevitably, the result is a character that is a shell of a person, defined by what is done to them, rather than who they are. A character that is no more than a victim, rendered lovable only by their trauma (and drop-dead good looks, of course), is not a safe message to pass to a young adult audience.

Focus on the emotional drama of a violent event rather than the gore.
Young adult fantasy seems to have a different metric than other YA literature when it comes to the level of acceptable violence. In fantasy, YA heroes and heroines wield weapons, fight in wars, and kill enemies. But handling that level of violence when writing for young adults requires some delicacy. As a huge fan of Sarah J. Maas, one aspect of her work that I have always admired is her ability to address the psychological impact of the violence in her stories. She includes enough information to set the scene, but doesn’t plunge into the details of gory acts. The reader’s horror is evoked by the reaction of the protagonist, rather than the gore.

Do your due diligence when addressing issues of abuse, depression and suicide.
As writers creating fiction for young adults, we have a responsibility to make sure that our novels do not encourage destructive behavior. A recent example is the Netflix video series 13 Reasons Why, based on a novel of the same name. The story centers around a girl who commits suicide. For teens who are depressed or suicidal, reading about others who act on those feelings can be triggering. That doesn’t mean that authors should avoid those topics. Rather, do your homework and learn what experts say should be emphasized and avoided to craft a story that acts as a force of good (or at least good entertainment).

Address the consequences of violence.
After writing a scene where a character endures violence, remember that the pain lives on long after the act is over. That means that characters need time to heal, and may suffer from PTSD. Aside from the fact that this will make your story deeper and more resonant with readers, it is particularly important for YA audiences to understand that violence has long-lasting repercussions.

Write a book description that makes any violence in your novel explicit.
If your book includes violence, make sure that readers are aware of what they are getting into before opening your book. Your book description should make it clear that you are touching on a sensitive or triggering topic. When marketing your books, reach out to age-appropriate readers, and include disclaimers about the violence.

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About conjurors

I am a YA fantasy author who started this blog to share the unusual places I find inspiration for my writing, and to discuss with other artists how they find their muses. My first book of The Conjurors series, Into the Dark, is now available on Amazon.
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3 Responses to How Much Violence Is Too Much in YA Literature?

  1. Jason Luthor says:

    Unfortunately, my novel is constructed on the foundation of mild body horror, with a living disease at the base of the story that can manifest and attack people. Keeping that in mind, I had to revise the sequel multiple times to streamline the violence as much as possible, and consulted with a friend of mine on where the envelope was being pushed too hard. I never used gratuitous violence, but the horror aspects of the story mean more violence was almost a natural part of the story.

    • conjurors says:

      That makes sense – it reminds me of the Unwind series by Neal Shusterman. The gore was an innate part of the story, but he handled it in a way that wasn’t gratuitous. I think it actually made the gory parts all the more terrifying. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Pat says:

    insightful!

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