Eva Darrows is Hillary Monahan, and is also an international woman of mystery. Holed up in Massachusetts with three smelly basset hounds, she writes funny, creepy things for fun and profit. Her first book under her Eva Darrows name, YA horror novel The Awesome, just came out from Ravenstone.
by Eva Darrows
The YA author has no obligation to write a role model protagonist. There’s no asterisk on our writing contracts telling us to keep our stories clean. Our shoulder angels aren’t prodding us with harps until we produce content that portrays teen life not as it is but as it should be. This is a good thing. It keeps the art honest, and frankly, the last thing this writer needs is her id beating her over the head with a moral compass on a daily basis. I’m already a walking twitch factory thanks to a diet of caffeine and talking with my imaginary friends for a living.
However! Irresponsible is the YA author that doesn’t acknowledge that their book could be a teen reader’s first introduction to a serious topic, whether that topic is sex, violence, drugs, or suicide. In a perfect world, parents talk to their kids about these enormous themes, but as we know, our world is imperfect bordering on dysfunctional at times. Too often kids are introduced to heavy subject matter through their friends, what they watch on TV, or read on the internet. This is not two-way discourse, but absorption through repeat exposure, and the opportunity for misinformation is truly staggering.
So let’s talk teen romance. Or, never mind teen romance, let’s talk romance in general. Our culture is obsessed with being in love. It’s a many splendored thing, after all, and according to any number of romantic comedies (and Kay Jeweler commercials) it fixes all our ills. Find the right person and you’re walking on air and puking rainbows. According to media, being alone and self-sufficient is not a badge of honor but a reason for ridicule. The person is half, incomplete, always pining for their one true love, blah, blah blah. Female protagonists suffering thusly are often incapable of achieving their fullest potential without a proper leading man. She fears her cold, empty bed, she bemoans her hopes for bearing children, and generally values her independence far less than she values a gold band and a certificate showing she was married by a flying Elvis. If she’s dedicated to her career, it’s because she’s hard-hearted and just hasn’t met the right man to “fix” her life choices yet.
It’s problematic and hard to parse, especially when you consider what kind of message that sends to a developing female mind. “You’re no one without a boyfriend.” “You can’t do X, Y, Z because you’re not whole without John or Stu or Tyrone or Anthony.” “You could focus on your personal growth but let’s hone in on your singleness instead because your value can only be weighed by how much a man wants you.” It puts the girl’s life aspirations far below her relationship to the man/men in her life. It also adds a pressure for the girl to couple and soon before she becomes a sobbing mess eating a Hungry Man dinner on a Friday night in front of Survivor reruns.
As a teen writer, knowing a teenager may buy into this “couple soon or DIE” thing, I feel responsible to set reasonable expectations with my romances. There is no insta-love because I don’t believe in insta-love. Insta-attraction and insta-desire, yes, but for two souls to join in romantic bliss, I think they have to share more than a common interest in number fours from Wendy’s and a love of the color blue. I think they have to know one another. I think there has to be conversation beyond “nice pants” and “do you need a ride to school?” Insta-love sets a high, ridiculous bar that communicates that how the relationship looks upon first glance is far more important than the meaty bits revealed over time. I don’t go for that and neither should anyone else. Think of it this way: you have a shiny present from your Aunt Myrtle. It’s wrapped in beautiful foil and has pretty bows all over it. Do you accept the present and say it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever gotten on the basis that it looks better than every other gift under the tree? Or do you open it up to see what’s inside before decreeing it the greatest present of them all? Sometimes the foil packaging will hide a diamond below, sure, but more often than not it’s a pair of socks and a gift certificate for fruitcake-of-the-month club.
Open the box. You can do better than fruitcake.
The second thing I will not do in teen romance is have the protagonist confuse want and need. Wanting someone in your life is normal and natural. The warm fuzzies because someone is at your side, the butterflies in the stomach because someone looks at you that way—that’s want and it’s healthy. Needing someone is different. It’s “I’ll die without you” and “be with me all the time or I’ll stop breathing.” It’s co-dependent and emotionally unstable. Wanting invites companionship and sharing experiences. Needing invites being followed around and a lot of uncomfortable staring.
Again, aim higher. Go for the partner who wants you there but won’t cry every time you go to the mall without him. The sniffle fits might be cute the first two or three times, but after the fortieth you’re going to want to smother that boy with his pillow while he sleeps.
The last thing I avoid with my teen romances is shaming a teenager for exploring their burgeoning sexuality. A lot of kids have sex. A lot don’t, but there are enough in the “yes, sex” category that I want to talk to them about healthy sex. I want there to be themes of consent, safety, and respecting their bodies as well as their partners. The teenagers in my books will think about things like pregnancy and STDs before they do the deed. They’ll consider what makes them feel good and never do something they’re uncomfortable with just because their partner wants them to. And if one teenager reads my books and can learn that sex can be a shame free choice that won’t scar them emotionally for life, I’ve done a good deed. I’ve let a kid avoid yet another unnecessary hangup.
It’s hard to navigate the pitfalls in writing teen romance because perfect romance is put on such a high pedestal in our society that being realistic with it can (and often will) look like being a Debbie Downer. It’s also an enormously difficult thing to get right because people are wired differently and what works for X teenager won’t work for Y. The teen author can’t and shouldn’t take the place of a parental figure talking to a teen about healthy relationships. We shouldn’t be the first exposure that a kid has to partnering with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, but knowing that some kids don’t have the benefit of an invested caregiver, we have to approach our work with it in mind. We don’t have to avoid writing problematic relationships in fiction, but if our fictitious relationship is problematic, the onus is on us to communicate exactly how and why it’s problematic so a teenager doesn’t confuse a toxic affair with a functional one. Does it make story crafting harder in some ways? Absolutely, but if executed well, it can be fulfilling not just for the reader but for the writer, too, and that’s invaluable.