This weekend I had the unfortunate pleasure of overhearing a first date. It was obvious they met online and decided afternoon coffee would be nice and safe. The guy looked in his early/mid-20s. Average looking, kind of wiry, and overly agreeable. The woman was older and better looking than he was, and had one of those naturally raspy voices that come with excessive smoking or yelling.
She did most of the talking – a brief monologue about marathons she ran transitioned into her love for the Kardashians because they reminded her of her family. The guy was less than impressed. I could practically see the words “shut up shut up shut up” repeating in his brain. I thought maybe we’d make eye contact so I could offer a sympathetic smile, the way I do to people on the subway who are being accosted by unmedicated schizophrenics. But he was too far gone, focusing all of his energy on keeping eye contact and counting the minutes until he could leave. Still, part of me knew that if she offered, he’d go back to her place.
What this poor, doomed couple didn’t know is that a writer was across from them observing everything they said and did (at least until said writer’s friend came and rescued her). If these people were in a novel, I wasn’t sure which would be our main character. Both had a story that independently led them to each other. Or at least to the same dating website. While our hero seemed to grow bored with our Kardashian-loving heroine, I wanted to know more about her. Why was this woman – blond, pretty, athletic – on a date with this younger man whose story about not crashing his bike disappointed her? Perhaps they weren’t in it to find love, but the pretense of going on a date at all seemed like a waste of time.
Neither of these characters – I mean, real human beings – interested me by themselves (she came off shallow, he too bland), but the fact they were committed to putting in an effort was intriguing. Of course, this made me think of how we write romances. Outside of the romance genre, we write romances all the time in commercial fiction, literary fiction, YA, and even narrative nonfiction. We try to connect our love interests and convince our readers that they belong together, even if circumstances keep them apart.
I’m a fan of love. Reading it, watching it, experiencing it. It’s fascinating. Love is the scariest thing you can let yourself feel for another person. I think that’s the appeal. It’s a fear to be conquered, and not everyone is worth the risk. But when they are, it makes taking that risk all the more rewarding. So what does this have to do with writing? Everything.
Make your character take risks! It’s a phrase writers hear a lot, and it’s one every writer should follow. But risks are meaningless unless we know what the main character is fighting for. So while you’re writing, remember the second part of risk-taking: Give your character a worthy reward.
While I’m a fan of 1st person – the POV of choice in YA – I admit it comes with a price. We see everything through the main character’s eyes so that when it comes time to meet the love interest, we’re presented with only one view. Usually, what we see is the archetype – best friend who’s secretly hot and perfect, hot and perfect crush who’s secretly horrible, the stranger from nowhere who wins the main character’s heart (and therefore ours too). We root for the love interest based on those archetypes, but other than a few personality quirks, we hardly ever get to know who they are outside of their designated role.
The type of YA love I’ve been seeing in my submission pile is like fairytale love. When they aren’t consumed by hormones or in a literal fight for their lives, the characters rarely take the time to get to know each other. You never see Cinderella go on a date because if she did, she’ll realize the Prince is kind of lame (and probably has an awful story about riding a bicycle). If readers can see the love interest has nothing else going for him (or her), it’s less likely they will respect and connect with your main character.
For all the Gale vs. Peeta, Angel vs. Spike, Stefan vs. Damon, and Team Edward/Team Jacob debates, they can be boiled down to the same concept: “Good Guy vs. Bad Boy.” Sure, the bad boys end up caring for the girl and the good guys have some darkness in them, but essentially the same love triangles are happening over and over. Yet consider how different the main characters who’ve faced these choices have been. Katniss, Buffy, Elena, and Bella are all leaders of very different cliques (fighters, geeks with skills, popular/socially accepted, and, um, people who bump into things sometimes?); yet their choices in men are, more of less, interchangeable.
The lack of realistic romance doesn’t stop with YA. Those teens who rarely consider who they’re risking serious heartache for likely grow up to become the adults I read about in too many commercial and literary submissions. Even when the plot is independent from the state of their relationship, couples seem to hate each other, or at best, are indifferent. To me, this translates to teens as overly idealistic and adults as cynical and regretful. Or, they have simply gotten too used to each other to inspire any sense of passion.
What bothers me about this – again, when the novel is not about the state of their relationship – is that these characters I’m supposed to root for are forcing themselves to live an unhappy life. How, then, can I like or trust them enough to care about their story? These characters aren’t real to me. Love exists over the age of twenty. If you’re writing these characters, give me a reason why they need to still be together; make me understand why they are still married. Then, perhaps, I’ll follow them to other parts of their lives.
When I say I’m a fan of love, I don’t mean either of these extremes. The type of love that lasts – whether in novels or in real life – is the kind that’s present and real and remains constant. Teen romances won’t have the emotional complexities of adult relationships, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know who our main character is falling in love with. Likewise, mature adults won’t even use the word “epic,” let alone think of their relationship as such. But passion and true affection doesn’t need to die after high school.
We all might be attracted to certain “types,” but no one falls in love with types. We fall in love with people. And it’s terrifying. Your job as a writer is to make your readers feel just as scared and just as willing to take those risks, and to let them know that it will be worth it long after the story ends.