Suicide notes can be a valuable tool in a fiction novel. They can tell you a great deal about the individual, motives, and even provide clues that the suicide was staged. Unfortunately, there is some misunderstanding of suicide notes, their forms, and prevalence. Some people believe suicide notes are commonly found at such scenes. No suicide note? It must not be a suicide. The fact of the matter is that studies (from industrial countries) have shown that only about 35% of suicides involve notes or other forms of communication. Generally speaking, this percentage is influenced by a number of predictable and unpredictable factors.
One factor is the purpose or message of the note and its intended audience. As you might imagine most notes are of a remorseful tone. The language expresses regret, sorrow, frustration, and sometimes humility. In contrast, some notes attempt to lay blame for the act on a third party. It may be a spouse, child, parent, or institution. In rare cases the notes may devote more content to excusing others (like a spouse) for having any influence on their decision to end their lives. In these notes the language typically suggests an eccentric author (i.e. third party). Other clues suggesting another author include use of syntax, punctuation, certain phrases or expressions just to name a few. These clues may provide a red flag to investigators indicating a staged scene.
Individuals with higher levels of education may be more likely to leave a note as would an extrovert personality type. People with a history of past suicide attempts may also be more likely to leave a note because their depression or mental state is already known. In contrast, individuals who tend to “bottle in” their feelings may continue that trend. I imagine some people just don’t know what to say and assume their motivations are understood.
Another factor to consider is the reason for the suicide. Is the decision to commit suicide impulsive or the last in a series of such decision? Is there a single significant event such as a romantic or financial failing that had just occurred? We call that event a trigger and they can be exacerbated by alcohol or drug use. Individuals making impulsive decisions may be less likely to leave a note as opposed to someone who has come to their decision over a longer period of time.
Aside from frequency, another fallacy some laymen hold is that a note will be lengthy and comprehensive. While this certainly can occur it is not always the case. I have seen everything from a post-it note with the single word “sorry” to lengthy letters individually addressed to multiple family members and friends. Suicide notes are not always in handwritten form either. Modern “notes” may include phone messages, e-mails, text messages, or even Tweets. In fact, family members may receive these notes days or weeks after the persons death (especially if they live in foreign countries or if accompanied by family heirlooms). They can be drawings or even books (like the bible) opened to certain significant passages. Sometimes these passages have obvious meaning and other times they do not.
I once investigated a suicide in which the victim video-taped the event. The camera was facing the victim who was sitting on a couch. In the background (off camera) a television was playing a tape from an action blockbuster. The man was watching the film during a particular scene that seemed to bear no relationship to anything related to his life (or suicide). Looking back and forth between the television and the camera, gun in mouth, the victim appeared to get distracted and became visibly annoyed that this scene had passed. He put the gun down hurried over to the VCR and rewound the tape. He then sat and waited for that precise moment that meant something to him and pulled the trigger. We never could determine the significance of that scene.
So how can you use this information to the benefit of your stories? Notes are simply a tool for communication and as authors you are experts in communication. It’s all about the message you want your reader to take away. These messages can be most powerful when created as part of a staging. Obviously, this note would have to be either typewritten or convincingly forged (i.e. known exemplar writings supplied by the stager). Ideally it will serve to temporarily confuse law enforcement until your protagonist can find that one element that reveals the truth.However you choose to use these tools keep them confusing. Give their message more than one meaning and force your characters to work them out. What may seem like a simple message (such as a bible verse) may hold dual meanings to the victim or the stager.