Around this time last year, I wrote a post about my favorite fictional couples (which you should definitely go back and read if you missed it the first time around). I thought it would make a nice parallel to do a similar post this year, but focusing on characters who aren’t in relationships.
And then I ran into a slight problem: I couldn’t think of any.
I know, I was pretty surprised too, but let me explain. The single characters I could think of usually didn’t work for one of two reasons. One, they were not main characters, so the audience isn’t expecting to hear much about their relationships unless it’s directly related to the plot. Two, the character is the “token” single person in a cast of characters who had romantic relationships, so there’s a heavy focus on how they’re different from the other characters. There were still a handful remaining after I completed that criteria, but certainly not enough to write a whole list like last year.
That got me thinking – where are all of the single people in our stories, specifically in YA fiction?
I suppose I can see why romances in YA novels are so common – one of the reasons YA fiction is popular is because teens find its characters relatable, whether the character is an ordinary high school student or a dystopian revolutionary. Since this period of life tends to be the time when people start dealing with the complications of romantic relationships, it makes sense that it would also be portrayed in fiction.
But if YA fiction is supposed to be relatable, why does romance take center stage? While relationships are common among many readers, there are almost just as many who don’t share that experience. I can’t really say I have an answer to that question, but I do know this: I want to see more YA novels portray single characters, without making their singleness a plot point or an obstacle to be overcome.
For starters, overly emphasizing relationships can put pressure on readers to enter into a relationship themselves, and that can have unfortunate consequences. There’s already enough peer pressure in high school (and college, if we’re being honest with ourselves) when it comes to dating, we should do our best not to perpetuate that in our stories too.
In addition, placing most (if not all) main characters in relationships can feed on the insecurities of already-vulnerable teens. Generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that young adults in particular deal with a lot of personal insecurities, especially when it comes to their relationships to others (romantic or otherwise). Portraying almost every main character in a successful relationship can, at its worst, cause readers be down on themselves – “Why don’t I have a significant other? What’s wrong with me?”
(I’ll add briefly that this isn’t just a romance problem either – portraying every friendship as long-lasting and issue-free can elicit a similar response from readers who have struggled to maintain relationships with friends.)
This isn’t to say we should completely remove romantic elements from everything, so put your sharpie markers away (and if you have any doubts, I’ll refer you again to last year’s post). Relationships are, after all, a pretty significant and shared element of life, so it makes sense that they would appear in our stories. What I am asking for is that we’re more careful with how we portray romance and dating in our stories and be mindful of how they can affect our readers.
The subject of single people in YA fiction may be a problem now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Whether you’re a reader, writer, or a combination of the two, take note of what you’re creating and consuming and consider what you can do to give more YA readers something they can adore.