Romance forms a big part of a lot of YA books. And it should; these books are, after all, aimed at an audience who are exploring romantic relationships for the first time. However, the result is often that the teenage characters in these books seem to fall deeply in love at the drop of a hat, and no matter what slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are flung their way, their love for each other never wavers, no matter what the cost. While teenagers do fall in love, and sometimes end up marrying their high school sweethearts and having long, happy lives together, the frequency with which this happens is unrealistic and somewhat troubling. It sets up an unrealistic standard for teenagers and, while they’re well aware that vampires and wizards don’t exist, the line between a realistic relationship, for someone who has never had one of their own, and an unrealistic one, is much fuzzier. In many series this is somewhat justified by the fact that we only see these characters for a few months or years in their teens, so it’s plausible that they break up by adulthood. However, it’s not uncommon for a teen couple to end up married in an epilogue, as in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. I was more disappointed in the former example, which I thought had done a better job of portraying teen relationships realistically up till then; Harry, Ron and Hermione had all had relationships with characters other than their ‘main’ love interests, with various break-up causes and outcomes. To see them all happily married to teenage love interests then felt a little too neat, especially for Ron and Hermione, whose attraction I can understand in teenagers but find hard to believe would sustain a happy marriage.
This came to the forefront of my mind when I read about Cassandra Clare’s newest project, which is set in the same world as The Mortal Instruments five years after its conclusion. She says this about the characters from the previous series:
As it’s set 5 years after the end of CoHF it is reasonable to assume that surviving characters from TMI will make cameos. They will be in their early twenties so you’ll get to see what they’re up to in their more adult lives…we would see where they are in life, where their relationships are, how they’re moving into their positions of power in the Clave, etc.
The teenagers from TMI are, as of the last book, more or less paired off into couples, relationships that developed over the course of six books that focussed on these people. This poses an interesting dilemma for Clare. If all three of those couples are still together, then she contributes to this overarching narrative of people beginning lifelong relationships in their teens. If they aren’t, however, then it’s unsatisfying from a storytelling perspective. After spending six books watching these relationships develops, I, for one, will not be very happy to see that a couple has broken up off-screen. Even if they break up over the course of this new series, that still won’t get the attention it deserves because these characters are not going to be major characters anymore, and likely won’t even have any POV scenes.
This isn’t to say that I think teenage characters should never fall in love. Teenagers fall in love all the time; why shouldn’t their fictional avatars do the same? And, indeed, I thought that the relationships in The Mortal Instruments were, on the whole, well-developed, and I think they are good examples of relationships between 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds (and one 400-year-old 😉 ). However, I want to remember them this way, as relationships between teenagers who love each other and which may continue through adulthood or may end. The same holds true for many fictional teen couples. If romance is an element in the story, I want to see it progress and reach a conclusion, but that conclusion is not marriage or happily-ever-after. It’s teenagers growing as individuals and finding happiness (of indeterminate duration) with another person.
One thing that helps ameliorate this is when authors write more than one romance for a character. I’m not talking about love triangles (I could write a whole other post on those), but about a given character meeting someone, falling in love, that relationship falling apart, and the character finding someone new. This is a more accurate portrayal of real life, and at the same time puts other ‘true love’ relationships into perspective. In this character’s first relationship, she would have given up her life for her partner, but that relationship ends and she finds love again. Readers can take this understanding to other series with a single relationship for the protagonist and see that their powerful love now need not translate to a permanent relationship.
Young adult fiction can have a powerful influence on young people’s perceptions of the world, and this is particularly true of romantic relationships. While I don’t think authors should censor themselves or change a story so as to be a better role model, it is important to be conscious of the potential detrimental effects of the way relationships are portrayed in fiction. I remember thinking there was something wrong with me when I was 16 or 17 as I’d never had a boyfriend, let alone been in love, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The fact that some books feature teenagers falling in love with one other person and (apparently) being together forever doesn’t bother me; rather, I think it’s problematic that this is the dominant narrative in teen fiction, so teenagers see this as the normal progression of relationships. As a result, this doesn’t mean that the former type of story needs to stop, but that we need more, different portrayals of teenage relationships.