Dec 20, 2015

The YA Rabbit Hole of Darkness.

Star is a project near and dear to my heart, but it's got a few lines I hesitate to cross. My main character is 15 at the start of the book and married off to man more than twice her age. I had to decide how much of their sex life to show - this is YA - and if it was even appropriate. Sex, sometimes violent and rarely pleasurable for her, is at the core of her relationship with her husband. Part of her character development/plot is realizing that she's not exactly a wife like she thought she would be - she's a private sex worker - and her marriage is not legal where her husband lives.

(Let's not get into the fact that the other main character lives alone with an abusive father who snaps and turns serial killer. He is so isolated and socially deprived that at 17 he still talks to his invisible cat.)

During NaNo I had a conversation with a friend about something similar. One of her characters had been bullied and hazed from name calling right up to sexual assault and it had been planned. The incident was so traumatic, the girl kills herself. It's her death that's the mystery of the story and the question was - how deeply should the reason for the suicide be explored? Especially since the tone of the book was lighthearted and full of sass.

I felt like we were toeing the same question and it was directly related to the audience we want to read these stories - teens. I mean, I've been asked before why Stars is a YA and not an adult novel, and the reason is because I want teens to read books about the tragic lives of others in the world. I've seen child brides. But I've also seen how a story about someone in a horrible situation can help someone pull themselves out of their darkness. I want Stars to help, in any way possible, a girl who might be in a similar situation. Teens have to read it.

But that still raises the question of how deep down the rabbit whole of darkness should I, and other authors, go? It's one thing to say a girl is raped, it's another to show it. Even Susanne Collins toes a line. Kids are killing each other in the Hunger Games, but it's never vividly described in the books. A death is typically a one line affair.

I came across this page in a graphic novel I was reading, The Unwritten, on Friday and, well, it resonated. The idea that the adultness, the darkness, of a story is always there but just ignored made perfect sense. It's why people love Avatar: The Last Airbender - it's lighthearted but literally won an award for how it introduced kids to the consequences of warfare. I know people who fell in love with it at age 28, even though it was marketed towards 8 year-olds.

And thinking about it, that might be what helps a story connect across generations. When a story flirts with the darkness of life in just the right way so that the older readers get it even as it slips over the heads of younger readers. What child would identify the Dursleys as 'abusive' instead of 'mean'?
So I get that now. Every story has it's darkness, but the younger your audience the more you ignore it. It's the difference between my FMC telling a friend sex hurts and writing that scene in the moment. But I'm still confused on how to walk the middle road, the YA road, where one teen could be more mature than the next, where there is darkness and some teens know it intimately and others can't conceive it.

Personally, I want to show it. All of life's darkness. Books are models, lights and hopes. But I'm not sure everyone can handle that - nor the market when I start shopping it around. I've found myself outright acknowledging things in Stars, but still brushing over the parts that would have made me cringe when I was 16.

For example, I slid a portion of it last week to my critique group. It was about how scared my FMC was to be leaving home, how she didn't like the way her husband undressed her, and then flashed to after the sex and mentioned her soreness. But a few people want more. They wanted to see them on the bed, knowing this was a YA audience. And I'm not sure if that's right or not. It's a huge memory for my FMC - it stays with her forever and establishes the relationship between them moving forward - but it's not the act that's the issue, it's the emotions and power dynamics around it.

Others said leave it.

I'm not asking what you guys would do. This is my story. My lessons I want to tell, but I can't imagine no one else has contemplated about this too. So now I am curious.    

Do you have your own guideline, your own idea or image, of what the balance in a story should look like? And does that shift depending on audience? Readers, what do you like to see? Or not see as the case may be.

1 comment:

  1. Hurrah to you for trying to tell your story so that it impacts the folks you want to impact. I have certainly made similar choices in my YA realistic apocalypse. My reason for writing the books is to give kids who don't read, especially 'tough girls' a protagonist they could connect with. To do that I had to try my darndest to make her real. There is profanity, there is a little sex and there is violence. Though I would love a wider readership the several thousand people who've read it, many of them those teens, haven't complained about the reality. TWO REVIEWERS did and I can only assume they didn't read the warning label! ;-) Both of them were middle-aged folk who found what they wanted to find: smut/profanity and anti-christian sentiment! Follow your muse. Write on, Rob