Today I wanted to talk about romantic relationships in YA, specifically, the issues we have with portraying healthy ones. Because teens are young and learning their way around stuff, it's easy to just fall into the trap of letting the characters have unhealthy relationships. Also because of sexism and stuff like that. But it's superbly important that we portray healthy relationship models in our literature, ones that can be sexy and invigorating and fun while also being uplifting and realistic.
Unhealthy YA Relationships
In my last post, I talked about some of the things in romance that I think are done poorly: love triangles, the girl deciding she's "unworthy" of the guy, and instalove. There are books where these things are done in a healthy way, but it's hard to do. The most obvious example of an unhealthy relationship in YA lit is, of course, Twilight, which utilizes all three of these tropes.
I do like Twilight, but I'm not going to deny that the relationship between Bella and Edward is unhealthy. Twilight has the most famous love triangle of all time (Edward-Bella-Jacob), Bella constantly puts herself down in comparison to Edward, and indeed, there is some definite instalove. Ohhhh, the instalove.
Those tropes are just the beginning when it comes to how Twilight fails at portraying good romantic relationships. As many others have pointed out in the past, Twilight also matches almost every red flag of a potential abusive relationship.
Healthy YA Relationships
It's hard to pinpoint a relationship I'd consider an example of "healthy" in YA, because so many are just "meh." Which is accurate, certainly, but I would love to see more that very clearly portray what to do. Another reason this is hard is that I'm not entirely sure what a healthy relationship would look like (super sad, right?). I think, though, if you look at a lot of popular contemporaries, they portray fairly healthy relationships. In fantasy, I think Harry Potter and Ginny also have a very nice set-up, particularly with her being such a strong female character. In these relationships, I see balance and communication. I see freedom for both characters to be themselves without overcoming the other.
Switcheroo: A Case Study
A conversation I had with one of my writing friends sparked this post, and it centered around Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games. Because their relationship is absolutely fascinating in terms of this--up until the very end of the trilogy, it's an example of an unhealthy relationship. *Hunger Games spoilers ahoy.*
Their romance begins as a farce in the midst of a love triangle, which is a large part of why it's so unhealthy. There is no communication. Peeta truly loves Katniss, but she never communicates with him about her own feelings (or lack thereof). Katniss and Haymitch communicate more than Peeta and Katniss, and they're around each other much less. On top of that, Katniss herself has no idea of her feelings, which you see with that there love triangle, and she's not making the active choice needed to establish a relationship. She's stringing Peeta and Gale right along with herself.
It takes something truly horrible for the dynamic to shift: Peeta gets taken by the Capitol and then hijacked. In his absence, Katniss realizes how much she needs his support; after his return, for the first time, she sees darkness in him. Not only that, but he sees darkness in her. That changes everything. Katniss experiences, for the first time, something similar to what he had been receiving from her. She realizes at last that relationships are two-sided and that she hasn't been giving. And in that she realizes that Peeta is the one she loves and can have a stable relationship with. The dynamic between her and Gale is too volatile. Peeta has softened her and she has learned, finally, to see him as an equal. Those two things together allow for the finally healthy relationship that they establish at the end of the trilogy.
Pretty cool, huh?
How to Write Relationships
So. In order to write healthy relationships, first, we have to know what a healthy relationship looks like. That's hard, and I don't really have an exact answer for you there. It'll help if you think about relationships that you've seen that you think are healthy, about what you want in a long-term relationship, and about healthy relationships in books you've read. Also look over lists of warning signs for abusive relationships like this one in order to know what not to include.
Second, we have to resist the temptations to take shortcuts. When there's a love triangle, it needs to have purpose larger than just to cause conflict. Instalove should be avoided at all costs: build the romance up, give the readers emotional background so we can have honest fulfillment, earn our hearts with something sincere. Basically, prioritize the "friendship" underneath before you add the sexy stuff in. Additionally, don't throw in self-confidence issues (particularly for a female character) just because you can. Healthy relationships require equal footing and mutual respect.
More than anything else, prioritize communication in your fictional relationship. Even if there are bad moments, it's important that writers make it clear to the reader that good communication is a necessary and key part of a healthy romantic relationship.
In this way, we can set up an example that teens can look to.
There you go! Thanks for checking in, and I'll see you next time for some thoughts about publishing!
What examples of unhealthy/healthy romantic relationships in YA lit can you think of?
Images via popcrush.com and thehungergames.wikia.com.
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