I read a blog post recently (@readingeverynight.wordpress.com) complaining about books that sacrifice character development for romance. Sometimes authors try to force a relationship where there shouldn’t be one, and in doing so, they disrupt the protagonist’s trajectory of growth.
This kind of thing never used to bother me. I’d read any book that had even a hint of romance in it, no matter how poorly the characters were developed (and if there wasn’t a romance, I wasn’t reading it). That’s kind of how I treated my own life too: I’d join any activity if there was a cute guy involved, and I didn’t care so much about my own personal growth.
It makes me wonder if the reason why some books struggle to promote character growth when they focus on romance isn’t that the author got distracted, but that the story is mimicking life. It’s hard to discover who you are when you’re wrapped up in someone else. (Not that it isn’t possible, but it’s a lot more challenging, especially as a teen.)
Take Love, Lucy by April Lindler, for instance. This girl is in Italy. She’s trying to decide whether to go to business school like her dad wants or to follow her heart and become an actress. So many opportunities for real self-discovery! So many opportunities for growth! But instead of basking in Italian culture, she spends most of her trip arguing with her travel buddy and hanging out with a guy from New Jersey. (New Jersey! C’mon. Couldn’t he have at least been Italian?) And her college decision questionings sort of get lost in her quest to figure out whether her fling with Jersey boy is love or just a hookup.
Don’t get me wrong. I love for YA stories to include romance, and there are definitely authors who incorporate romance well. Sarah Dessen generally does a good job of having her characters grow within a relationship. The guys in her books tend to further the plot and help the protagonist with her issues (in ways that are a teeeeeny bit unrealistic but SO SATISFYING at the same time).
I guess it just takes a certain level of maturity to let a relationship deepen a story rather than hijack it, whether in fiction or in real life.
I did not have that kind of maturity in high school. Back then, any time I was dating someone (or, more often, crushing hard on someone) everything else was put on hold. There wasn’t room in my brain or calendar for anything else. For that reason, I’m actually grateful that I was single like 99% of the time. It gave me time to wrestle with the big issues, to wrestle with my identity, to discover my passion for writing. I’m convinced that dating too soon, for me, would have hindered that progress.
I think that, despite a terrific start, this is what happens in Shadow and Bone. Alina decides to let go of her best friend Mal and to not let him be her home, her identity. Throughout the book, she makes great strides in becoming self-reliant.
But towards the end, Mal, who is completely indifferent to her the whole time they’re growing up, suddenly acts like he’s in love with her. Aside from the fact that his sudden interest isn’t entirely believable, I have so many issues with this. (And not just because I’m Team Darkling, either. Although, come on, the Darkling is just a ruler who wants to use the best weapon he has against his enemies. What ruler wouldn’t do that? And is the Cut really any worse than if he’d shot the guy or something else? —But this is a rant for another time.)
I’m not a Cinderella hater. I don’t have a problem with a guy being part of the happy ending. But if you’re going to spend a whole book focusing on a girl finding her own footing in the world, it seems wishy-washy to have a guy swoop in at the last minute. I wish the book would have ended with him still being uninterested and her having to accept being only friends. Then he could fall in love with her gradually later on, after she is fully comfortable with her new responsibilities and better-formed identity. (Or better yet, she could realize that the Darkling is right in that she needs to use her power, and he could end up falling for her for real.)
But I guess that’s not how things usually go. Love doesn’t always show up when it’s convenient or when you’re ready for it; it doesn’t care if it’s going to sideswipe your friends or jobs/school or whatever story you’re currently living.
And the good news is that, while in fiction, those shaky, forced relationships sometimes permanently derail a character’s growth, in real life they can still propel us forward—once they blow up in our face and we’re forced to deal with the aftermath.
What I’m Listening To: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by Britney Spears