As a teenager, I steer away from Young Adult books for (mainly) one reason: the terrible romance plots. As a writer, I know that romance can be done properly in books and can even add to the plot. But I rarely have seen it.
Almost all writers know that the love triangle is overdone, but what they do not realize is the flaw in their thinking which creates the cliched love triangle– and so they continue to make the same mistake in a slightly different manner.
However, the other day, I read this fantastically done Young Adult romance plot in a Christian Fantasy. The Blood of Kings trilogy by Jill Williamson begin with the novel, By Darkness Hid, and the romance of the young protagonist, Achan, is not the main plot of the story but actually enhances the characters, revealing their true goals and personalities, and acts as a foil to Achan’s true journey (that of a non-believer to the equivalent of a Christian.) The thing that shock me so much was that the romance felt real.
*Please note that I will be including several spoilers for the Blood of King romance plot in this post. However, I will be putting spoiler warnings before I give away anything. That way you can skip those sections if you choose.
So, based on my analysis of The Blood of Kings trilogy and my own experience as a teenager, here are several truths about real teenage romance that need to translate over into Young Adult fiction.
1. There is no love triangle or steady relationship (since the start) between only two characters
After writers realized that the love triangle (think Hunger Games or Twilight) was overdone, they began to write romances where there was absolutely no one else to whom the main characters were attracted (think Divergent.) Neither of these are realistic. Teens are attracted to someone almost everywhere that they go. Oh, that guy is really nice looking. Wow, this other guy has really similar hobbies to me! Oh look, this other guy has the same personality type– it is really nice to talk to someone who thinks the same way. Seriously, teens are attracted to a whole lot of people.
Jill Williamson did a marvelous job of this. The last time I counted (somewhere in the middle of the last book), there were ten people involved (even in a small way) in the romantic plot around Achan. Some characters is was merely a temporary “crush” (oh, that girl was really nice to me– I think I am in love), while others played major roles like his best friend since childhood (female, of course.)
2. Most teens will not be romantically fought over
Not every girl is Helen of Troy. Seriously though, this applies to both guys and girls in your romance plot. Sure, occasionally, two or more guys will compete for a single girl, or two or more girls will compete for a single guy. But normally this is for some superficial reason (like attractiveness or popularity.) However, this has become the standard for Young Adult fiction (especially if the target audience are females.) Most teens will not be able to relate to this romantic relationship, and frankly, readers are tired of reading this cliche.
Unless having a beautiful, super attractive character or a politically powerful character is a main plot point for your story, don’t have your main character be romantically fought over.
There are two characters who are (short of) romantically fought over in The Blood of Kings, but there is a very good reason for this. One is the heir of a very powerful dutchess and the other is the crown prince. Of course, people would be competing for their love, but some of the other characters (such as one of the servants) really has to work to get noticed by anyone.
3. Other people will be dating besides your main characters
For some reason, the main character’s best friend is never in a relationship of their own or the other supporting young characters. But in real life, there are plenty of teens already in relationships all around. I am not sure why author tend to isolate their two love doves from anyone else their age who are dating/courting. Maybe it is just a lack of thought.
By including other relationships in your story, it will deepen the characters around your main characters and give you the perfect chance for mentors or foils for your main characters’ relationship. Why not take a little bit of time and develop other relationships in your novel?
4. Standards anyone?
It seems that in Young Adult books, the only qualifications for a boyfriend or girlfriend is an attractive body and that “click” of friendship/romance. But in real life, this situation occurs relatively often. So teens (and everyone else) have to set standards for those they will get romantically involved with. Similar life goals is a good standard to set, or believing in the same things. Maybe your main character will need to reject a romantic relationship with another character because they do not have the same plans for their life.
Again, Jill Williamson did a marvelous job of this in her books. The main female character, Averella/Vrell Sparrow, is a follower of Arman, and though she is very attracted to another character, she refuses to have a romantic relationship with him because he does not follow Arman. This is a huge sacrifice on her part, but it was the right thing to do.
5. There are bigger goals than having the ideal boyfriend/girlfriend
If the ending of a book can be considered happy if two characters end up as a couple but everything else falls apart, then something is wrong (ahem–Hunger Games–ahem.) Please stop telling teens that the end goal is to have a boyfriend or girlfriend! There are a lot bigger goals in life!
Center your story first around a major problem that has relevance in the real world, and make your story about your character overcoming that problem. Then use the romance as a hindrance or help for your character to achieve that goal (depending on what you want.) Romantic relationship should be a method to achieve support and companionship as you achieve a common goals– romance is not the goal.
This was fantastically done in Jill Williamson’s book, By Darkness Fled. Achan’s goal is to become the best future king of Er’ets as possible as this involves taking a queen– who needs to be a powerful woman who has control of part of his country, can rule beside him, and is a follower of Arman. Achan knows that this must be the daughter of a powerful dutchess, but he is deeply and clearly in love with a stray girl. So Jill does the unthinkable for a Young Adult novel and has Achan follow his God and marry the dutchess’ daughter because it was the right thing to do.
So what do you think makes a good romance plot in a young adult novel? What are you tired of seeing? Please comment below, and if you have read the Blood of Kings trilogy, I would love to hear what you thought of Jill’s books.