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
5 thoughts on “When YA Romance Derails Character Development”
Great post on this topic, I agree with everything you’ve said and probably couldn’t have written it better myself! 😀 When I was younger I did the same thing, I loved books with romance in and it wouldn’t matter how badly written it was, either in terms of the characters or the romance, if it had a romance in it was an automatic read for me. I actually remember talking to my friend ages ago and she said she wouldn’t recommend a certain book to me (not sure on the book now) because there was no romance in it. Sarah Dessen definitely does romance in YA really well, she’s one of my favourite YA contemporary authors, and I know there are others out there who write romance really well but I think now I’ve gotten to the stage where I prefer development and well-written characters over weakly developed romances, though like I said earlier I do agree with your thoughts on how when you are that ages everything’s put on hold when you have a crush. Still it would be great if we could have more romances in YA that didn’t put character’s lives on hold for crushes, especially when there are other adventures to be had (if I’d been in Italy you can bet I’d have been exploring the city rather than hanging out with a guy from New Jersey!) 🙂
That’s so crazy that your friend wouldn’t recommend a book because it didn’t include romance… Now that you mention it, I can’t even think of any YA books off the top of my head that don’t have romance in them. I guess it makes sense considering the audience (i.e. people like us haha) but it really limits authors who have a story that doesn’t easily include a love interest.
Thanks so much for reading! 🙂
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This was ages ago when we were young teenagers so I think she just thought I wouldn’t enjoy it because it didn’t have romance in, which you never know back then I may not have. There must be a few but honestly off the top of my head I can’t think of any either.
That’s all right. 🙂
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Great piece, Kelly! I actually felt that way about The Hunger Games; the “romance” seemed a distraction from the hero’s quest. As someone who is experimenting with writing YA, I’ve been trying to keep this in mind.
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Yes!! There were definitely moments in The Hunger Games that I thought felt a little out of place. I write YA too and it’s so hard to find that balance.