Murder? No Biggie!: The Desensitization of Murder in Young Adult Literature

Death. Destruction. MURDER.

It’s all just a day’s work…right?

WRONG. Murder & violence in young adult fiction is something that’s becoming increasingly more common (especially as characters in books become more and more mature yet remain the same age–another post on this next month), but it seems to shock readers less and less.

Yet, as much as we know that murder and violence are bad in the real world, and most of us would be traumatized witnessing a murder in person, it also seems to have become more common in the books we read.

Everything from popular novels, like Six of Crows (an example of a darker book, not necessarily the paragon for the paragraphs to come), to almost any fantasy and science fiction novel out there features murder or death (one could argue it’s gotten more heavy in recent years).

How did we progress to the point that the loss of innocent human (and some non-human) life (both in the real world and in fiction) is normal and nothing to be worried about?

How did we progress to being okay with reading about murderers and people who sell body parts on the black market, all without a second glance or thought of the repercussions if this actually happened in real life?

I think it stems from a couple of reasons.

Exposure

It’s like with violent video games or television (although we have to visualize it ourselves vs. being shown). Somewhere along the line, we’ve become more and more exposed to violence and murder (both in literature and the media) that it’s just felt normal.

And it’s not like these books are bad books, but I do feel like violence has become more prevalent in young adult literature to follow the norm of protagonists acting older and “more mature.”

It seems like in the past, childhood was more innocent. Children weren’t as fearful of school shootings and murderers and strangers offering candy from their vans. And this could obviously be untrue, but in the modern world with the Internet and quick communication, we’ve become less ignorant to what’s happening around us and more aware that death and murder and violence occur.

This isn’t a bad thing, but it also moves popular culture and literature along with it to become more heavily infused with real life topics and a more accurate representation of some of the things going on in the world.

Lackluster Writing

Of course, not all books featuring violence are badly written books. Some of them are truly wonderful reads.

Yet, resorting to more brutality and more murder to actually be able to shock readers and actually make them feel something seems to be occurring as an overcompensation for lackluster writing. A genocide can feel bland if an emotional connection isn’t established.

I mean, sure, we’re completely wrecked when one of the protagonists dies. But what about all the other characters who may die in the book?

An innocent monster dies? Eh. Que lástima. Too bad.
An innocent bystander dies? Que pena. What a pity.
A beloved main characters dies? OH MY GOSH THIS IS TERRIBLE MY LIFE IS OVER I AM DYINGGGG

And this is understandable given how we’re obviously a lot closer to the characters that are talked about more than the characters that aren’t talked about as much (or at all). That’s basic psychology–we’d obviously grieve a family member dying more than we’d grieve a random stranger you don’t know from dying.

But still. SOMEONE JUST DIED ten feet away. Try and act a little concerned? (*cough*A Court of Wings and Fury*cough*)

Sometimes it feels like authors just don’t instill the gravitas of some of these situations, although this is also obviously because of how the reader interprets it too.

I think resorting to brutality as a compensation for lackluster and unemotive writing can be just generally not a great move from a literary standpoint, and it’s part of the reason why readers have become more and more desensitized to murder: because they’re not instilled with the seriousness of the situation.

divider

Books with murder aren’t necessarily bad books.

It’s just that sometimes, it seems like so much unnecessary violence and brutality happens, and we as readers have started reacting less and less as it becomes a norm. As our characters get more mature. As murderers and bad people are conveyed in fiction without acknowledging the unsavory nature of what they do.

I like to try and really take in how many people in a book have died and give these side characters (Random Fae #5789) at least a little bit of thought for the fact that someone died. Although random side characters’ murder can feel nearly equivalent to some random stranger on another continent dying, remember that those are both instances of most likely innocent human beings dying (although, one is obviously real).

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that PEOPLE DIE, OKAY? Let’s give it a little bit of heart, even if they’re just a random side character in a book or your life.

much love, vicky

What are your thoughts on murder + violence in YA?

26 thoughts on “Murder? No Biggie!: The Desensitization of Murder in Young Adult Literature

  1. I LOVE THIS POST!!! I actually have been kind of thinking about this a lot, especially when plotting out my WIP — because I tend to write darker themes (including death) and yet… I know that almost every death I hear about in the news makes me undeniably sad. I’m definitely afraid of murderers, even though I write and read a lot about them. I guess it’s just that when we read about it it’s kind of disconnected, since we know they’re fictional? I don’t know, but this is a really great discussion and I’m so glad you brought it up! 💞

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah! I feel like some of this is really hard to verbalize because a lot of it has to also do with like, real life and becoming desensitized to school shootings or genocide or just people dying in general. I feel like a lot of people are just losing their grip on this from media exposure, and it also translates into books.

      MURDERS ARE REAL FREAKING SCARY. like, if I was in half the situations book protagonists were in, i’d pee my pants and literally hide in a bunker for the rest of my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting topic, but I don’t think I quite agree with you. I would divide it into two things I’ve been thinking about, (1) violence without explanation or consequences like in action or superhero avenger-type movies seeping into books as well and (2) the wide range of books marketed as young adult that exists. Six of crows might not be the best example, it’s not very obviously young adult and the story could not be told without violence. And I think that’s the main clue around including violence – books and movies need to show consequences (or lack of) and characters’ thoughts around the violence that happens. Kaz is motivated by revenge based on violence that happened to him, the stakes are high because of violence.

    I don’t think childhood was more innocent in the past, more people died early. In accidents, of illness that we now can prevent. Death is a part of human nature, the only invetiable thing that will happen in everyone’s life. Have you read folklore? People die left and right, in the most awful ways. I mean, let’s not try to give teenagers nightmares, but there’s a lot of benefits in learning about death and suffering in a fictional place and not the real world. My thoughts on this is surely tainted by growing up with fairytales where Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their heel to fit into the glass shoes, instead of the disney versions. This became a bit rambly, because I really love this topic and also it’s 2am. But I just want to end with saying that I am more worried about series that start out young adult series that turn into “new adult” which is basically adult books with sex and maybe more gore, without much warning. I think the problem stems from many considering the young adult category to be safe, while even horror books can be marketed as young adult as well.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Oooo I’ve never hit the “Like” button so hard. I hate that Six of Crows was dragged into this! The violence in that book is not in the same category as, say, Falling Kingdoms or a Sarah J. Maas work where lots people have to die so that the main characters can be sad and we know how hard life is for heroes . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I referenced SoC as a way to highlight how books have gotten darker, although I feel like people may have interpreted this as a direct critique of that novel.

        You’re so right that books like SJM’s have way more death and destruction (like how we never get enough time to mourn the THOUSANDS of people who die in the war in ACOWAR?).

        I’m not really critiquing the main characters as much as I am all the deaths in the background that we never really get to think about for more than a few seconds. Hope this clarifies things!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. you bring up a lot of good points!

      and although Six of Crows truly is young adult in marketing (although it’s always questionable as all the characters act like adults), I do agree that it probably isn’t the best example. I’m not really referencing main characters, but like–all the soldiers Nina harms at the end, or how Joost at the beginning of the novel and other people die in the first chapter and we don’t really get a chance to mourn the side characters.

      A better example would be like, ACOWAR and how during the war SO MANY PEOPLE DIED and yet we never really get to mourn them :/ (also SJM is just problematic in general)

      And I do think people did die earlier etc. in the olden days, but they also were less informed about mass genocide in countries, so it’s a lose lose, I guess.

      Idk, i still find a lot of murder that’s not necessarily acknowledged (things happening to side characters or random people without names) concerning, but the stuff about YA to NA is a SUPER BIG DEAL *cough*SJM*cough* because people do NOT know what they’re signing up for.

      thanks for your insightful comment! it was lovely thinking more about other perspectives on this ❤

      Like

      1. I think not paying attention to side or minor characters’ deaths can be a very telling thing in a book, of the culture it’s being told in and honestly our – like you said a person hears about a lot of awful deaths each day through the news and while one might stop and think it’s sad, it does not impact them the same way it would if they knew the deceased well. Most often I don’t think it has to do with desensitization of murder in literature, the world in general is another subject.

        You got me at Sarah J Maas though, she moves through deaths and crisis very quickly. Still, she has created a culture in her books where Aelin and her close group are the important people who need to be protected and everyone else is expandable kind of. That could’ve been a pointer to pessimistic thoughts about human nature – which i have seen in other fantasy – but it’s Sarah J Maas she probably didn’t do it on purpose.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post! I think, when it comes to murder and violence, especially in YA literature, it’s important to take into account (A) the genre and/or time period, and (B) the characters’ reactions. For example, historical fiction or a fantasy set in a medieval-style world is bound to have more murder and violence than a contemporary, or it’s not particularly realistic. And a LOT of popular YA fiction is in these types of genres.

    Further, the way I see it, it’s not the murder and/or violence that’s the problem. It’s the REASON behind it, and how it impacts on the characters. Is the character in a fight for their life? Or did they kill someone in cold blood? How do they feel about that? Are they remorseful or are they numb to it all? Six of Crows is powerful in this way as it highlights the contrast between someone like Kaz, who is desensitised to death and suffering, someone like Matthias, who comes to feel guilt for the lives he’s taken, and Inej, who also feels guilt but accepts she did what she had to do to survive.

    Like

    1. True! I’m not really referencing what the main characters do, but a lot of the death and suffering that happens on the side. Like how those people are dying in the main chapter of SOC and it’s shocking.

      Murder is definitely a good tool to help build the characters (esp. the main character and people like the protagonists), but i’m honestly more concerned about the random side characters who end up dying in a war, or the ones who are part of a mass genocide that we don’t necessarily have much time to mull over.

      This is all a conversation about SFF, i should have been more specific. I guess I just feel like sometimes we don’t give enough time to think about all the other lives that are affected in the story that are barely even referenced–not ones killed by the main character, but ones that are happening in the background, you know what I mean?

      I might not have explained that extremely clearly. Thanks so much for your insightful comment, though!

      Like

      1. That’s a fair point. I suppose it’s one of those easier said than done situations though. When it comes to writing, there’s not a whole lot of time/space to cover things that aren’t 100% essential to the main story (but I’m sure on could debate what is “essential” until the cows come home!). Unless one of the themes of the book is to look at all the lives impacted, I doubt that will change any time soon. And I also kind of doubt the modern audience wants to read about that anyway – which is actually the point you’re trying to make, right?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. True. I guess I feel like when authors include unnecessary deaths rather than just making the most out of a few deaths, it seems a bit cold. But I get where they come from.

        And the point I’m trying to make is more that the modern audience should be more aware that although mass murder can be super glib in books, it’s still something that’s super important and moving irl and should still be recognized that way when we see it in the news 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, that’s so interesting to read. It makes me think a bit about a situation in the past. Maybe this is not the best example, but let’s try. I was reading Now I Rise, and do not spoil, let me just say that there will be war. Yes, war is war but many of the things that happened to some generic random people. were indirectly/directly the fault of one of the protagonist. This always disturbed me a bit, seeing how many were so apprensive of such character but never held them accountable for where their decision and acts led, aka a massacre.

    One part of me can even get that if we treated books as something that happens in real life, probably the novel would lost part of their appeal. But I just don’t feel like it’s right?
    And sometimes I admit that maybe I’m bit onto my high moral horse, but it’s super difficult to relate to certain readers, when I saw them express quite violently how much they want a character to die (usually it’s one of the “unlikealbe girl” or the “bleeding hearts”), or how much they desire a massacre or try to wrap a blanket around a mass murder villain. Which is diffrent from appreciating a villain as a villain.

    I always thought that in a way or another, a part of how we relate to novels, fictions and such, expose part of our behaviour. It’s make me think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I totally get that! Like, if so many book things happened in real life, I would be so freaking scared. A lot of these things are extremely realistic, and it’s nice to see that people are still grounded that “hey! these things are a no-go in real life”

      I guess I just want people to realize that what happens in books is not acceptable in real life, and irl we should be sad for the random side characters that die in the war.

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment! Glad this made you think a bit ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this is a great topic for discussion! I’ve kind of been thinking about this in my most recent read Rebel Spring (Falling Kingdoms #2). It’s definitely become a pet peeve of mine to read books where there’s a lot of death for no good reason. It reminds me of the “Disposable Woman” trope, where female love interests are killed off so that protagonist has an additional motive for taking down the villain.

    I definitely think it’s a result of lackluster writing. For one, if the villain is killing people so often and easily, they aren’t a very nuanced or complex antagonist. So it most likely won’t be a very satisfying read, because the world is not black and white. Complicated villains are so much more fun.

    But if the violence is justified by the story told, like it’s a story about criminals or otherwise seedy characters, where it’s integral to the plot and not just thrown in for emotional manipulation, then I don’t think it’s as problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s so true! I feel like in books (especially ones with war), side characters and civilians have become disposable in a way just to shape the main characters instead of actually developing the people.

      It seems like some writers think the death of a bunch of people will seemingly have the same effect as a well-written couple people dying that really pulls at you, even if they were random side characters, but that’s not the case. Whether it’s from an antagonist or protagonist or morally grey in between. (Complicated villains really are so much more fun!)

      I didn’t really mean in reference to main characters (although sometimes authors do write main characters that are so flat and just kill kill kill and never really develop??) and I think you’re referencing SoC! I brought in SoC as a way to show books were darker, although I think people interpreted my meaning differently (which is my bad for not being clear).

      If we’re talking about SoC, Bardugo did SUCH A GOOD JOB WITH THAT BOOK. I think the murder was really examined compared to things like ACOWAR where thousands of people die and we get barely any emotional impact. I feel like authors just need to use their murder and death more expertly (like Bardugo) vs. kill a bunch of characters off and still not have the same effect (like Maas)

      Thanks for your comment! You bring up so many great points, and hopefully this helped clarify!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does clarify! I didn’t really think you were criticizing SoC, but since it’s the only novel you explicitly name in this post, it stayed in my mind as the only tangible example. A part of me was wondering if you were also referencing a violent trend on genres outside YA genres beyond fantasy?

        The main reason I commented in response to aquapages//eline was in case there are other people who like to read previous comments (like me) and might leave the post thinking SoC is an example of a shallowly violent book. Sarah J. Maas is a much better example for callous crimes against background characters. Her combined death count across her books must be insane.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. oh! I’ll definitely make a note & clarify that in the post bc it’s not really a criticism on SoC, just mentioning how that book is dark (oops).

        And the violence is definitely prevalent in sci-fi too, but also could be applied to things like other pieces of media like video games and television and movies etc., if that answers your question!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh good! And yes, I’m aware of the research on violence in traditional media. I majored in emerging media and social scientific research.

        My question was more about genres, since YA fantasy is the popular genre I’m most familiar with. For example, I wonder if the same could be said of contemporary. Violence in popular literature would be a great subject for a content analysis 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hmm, I feel like contemporary doesn’t have as much violence. We don’t really get a lot of contemporary novels about genocide in a certain place, or soldiers in the Middle East–or at least, not in young adult literature.

        In contemporary specifically, I feel like it’s just not as prevalent because most English speaking teens (as that’s what this specific YA market centers around) don’t really encounter a lot of murder. I mean, there are some thrillers with a couple (10 max) murders in them, but not as much as the sheer number in fantasy.

        In sci-fi, however, I do think there’s a lot of murder & death (possibly more due to things like disease warfare etc.) and potentially historical novels from wartime.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I could be wrong, but I feel like this new norm started taking off in YA because of A Game of Thrones.
    A Game of Thrones has a lot of themes of morally grey characters, death, and darkness. It seems it filtered into the YA market.

    Examples include:

    The Cruel Prince
    ACOTAR
    Children of Blood and Bone
    Stalking Jack the Ripper
    Six of Crows – While death/violence may not be as overt or random, it still contains it and is popular.

    These aren’t all bad books, just examples of either dark court politics or a lot of death.

    I always wondered what TEEN readers thought about this. I read adult fantasy with a lot of death and gore, but when it trickles into YA I’m like, do teens like this stuff? Particularly, the pointless murders. I absolutely agree adding it for “shock factor” can be lazy writing. While it is fiction, I do think death should hold more weight in storytelling.

    This was an eye-opening post with excellent insight. I’ll be sure to include it in my next wrap up!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww, thank you!

      I mean, as a teen reader, I’m not opposed to reading murder, but sometimes it just feels pointless and unnecessary and I feel like authors could *do better* in a way and write more emotively without having to kill kill kill to make us feel something. If it has a purpose and meaning, I’m all for it, but sometimes it just feels like lazy writing.

      I’ve never watched GoT, but I could definitely see how it has its influence on the YA market!

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment! You draw a lot of great connections ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  7. To be honest, it’s not something I’ve thought about much… Maybe because I AM desensitized to it, but I guess I only think about it much when it pertains to a main character, or is a contemporary book (what automatically comes to mind is THE HATE U GIVE or SADIE) where it reflects a bigger purpose. I don’t even know if that makes sense… o_O;

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I get what you mean! I don’t know why I started thinking more about the murder of side characters, but I used to only notice it when it’s super involved in what the MC is doing (while all the people who are just mentioned to have been massacred or killed fade into the background…oops)

      Like

  8. Wow I never really thought about this. I do feel bad that a side character has died but never as much as the main character. Maybe we are desensitized but I think that’s has to do with the society we live in with all these tragedies. We shouldn’t normalize it but do something about it. I’m glad that there are some YA books that spread the awareness of some of the topics but some are just to shock an audience and we should not be shocked. We should be scared. That’s my opinion at least. Great discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.