frog jones · gift of grace · romance · writing · ya · ya romance · young adult

Bad Boys and Boyfriend Material: Redefining YA Romance

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I recently returned from RadCon, where I had the opportunity to speak on a number of interesting panels, with a number of interesting people. One of the weekend’s best panels was about young adult fiction—always a favorite subject of mine, especially when I get to talk shop with authors Alma Alexander, Frog Jones and Robert L. Slater. The discussion was lively, and one topic that came up has continued to bounce around in my head:

Do you write messages or themes into your books?

Actually, I do, though I’d never really talked about it in public before RadCon. While I’m not sure I would classify them as themes, exactly, I definitely write certain concepts into my books: concepts I want to celebrate, as well as concepts I want to challenge or deconstruct. The example I gave in the panel was the romance (and, in some ways, lack thereof) in the Flicker series—and I want to explore that further here.

I wrote Nasser and Filo as direct responses to some of the tropes and trends in YA fiction that have been driving me up the wall for the last few years.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to the absolute goldmine that is @BroodingYAHero. By some miracle, I happened across the account while formatting this blog post, and it points out everything that frustrates me about YA romance, in the funniest way possible.)

Before I wrote Flicker, I was burned out on YA heroes—specifically, I was burned out on what I call “Beautiful Jerks.” You know the kind: broody, mysterious, constantly giving mixed signals. He tends to be overprotective and controlling, sometimes to the point that the heroine is actually scared of him (though this fear often becomes confused for attraction and feelings of love). His only redeeming quality is his smoldering good looks, and that’s supposed to make up for the rest of his terrible personality.

The kind of romantic lead that interested me—genuinely sweet and respectful, from start to finish, basically the opposite of the “bad boy” type—seemed to be considered pretty boring by most people. Nobody seemed to be writing heroes like the one I wanted to read about. I had no choice but to write my own.

And I wrote Nasser. He’s warm and respectful from the very start. He never invades Lee’s personal space or tells her what to do. He makes her laugh. He’s interested in her thoughts and feelings. She falls for him, ultimately, because he treats her well, because she feels safe with him, and because he empowers her.Essentially, Nasser is the kind of romantic hero I couldn’t find and wanted to celebrate—the anti-bad-boy, if you will. I gave him a bunch of qualities that I think make for a good partner, qualities that were sorely missing in most of the love interests I’d been reading about, so to me, he’s something like the ultimate boyfriend material.

Still, I knew that if I wanted to accomplish my goal of writing the opposite of a Beautiful Jerk, I would have to subvert not only the “jerk” part, but the “beautiful” part, as well. I examined how other books in the genre had played that trope, and then I took stock of how I could play it differently.

When Lee first sets eyes on Nasser, she takes note of his appearance in a general way, but she isn’t paralyzed by his incredible good looks. In fact, in the entire book, Nasser is never described as being particularly handsome. I did that very much on purpose: In YA fiction, nobody ever seems to be attracted to anyone else in a normal way. Every novel is populated almost exclusively by inhumanly gorgeous characters.

I get that it’s all part of a larger romantic fantasy—but at the same time, I can’t help but feel this sends the message that only very beautiful people are deserving of love, and the rest of us are on the outs. Why can’t a normal-looking girl be the object of ardent love? Why can’t a regular-looking guy be a romantic hero? I wanted to see that, so I made it happen in my books.

In Lee’s internal narration throughout Flicker, she describes Nasser mostly in terms of how he makes her feel when they’re together. He’s kind. He’s gentle. He has a warm, inviting personality. She feels safe with him. Those qualities are what attract her, much more than his looks. Which isn’t to say that Nasser isn’t good-looking from where Lee’s standing. Certainly, she’s attracted to him, but that develops over time, along with her other feelings. She’s not immediately drawn to him that way. Her attraction grows as her trust deepens.

And yet, later on, I was both puzzled and interested to notice that a number of readers and reviewers described Nasser as very handsome, when that was never explicitly stated in the book. I see two possible explanations for this:

1) Readers assume that Nasser is attractive because Lee falls for him (i.e. they have been trained by other books in the genre to assume that all love interests are traditionally attractive).

2) Readers come to perceive Nasser as attractive over time, while Lee falls for him.

Personally, I hope it’s more the second possibility than the first.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that a Beautiful Jerk doesn’t make an appearance in Flicker, because one does. But he’s not Nasser. He’s Filo.

Throughout Flicker, Filo exhibits most of the qualities of the Beautiful Jerk. He’s moody and mean. He refuses to answer questions. Just when he starts to act a little friendlier toward Lee, he starts acting abrasive again. There are times when Lee feels genuinely scared and threatened by him—because, well, he’s behaving in a scary, threatening manner and she recognizes that for what it is.

Filo is only missing one trait that would make him a true Beautiful Jerk, and thus, a potential romantic lead: Lee, the heroine, isn’t attracted to him. In fact, for much of the book, her feelings for Filo can best be described as: NOPE.

When you take a male character with all the qualities of a Beautiful Jerk and take away the attraction factor—all the illusions, the romantic fantasy—what are you left with?

Just a jerk. And for most of Flicker, that’s what Filo is.

What makes him more palatable to readers, I think, is that he’s also a POV character. Instead of only seeing him from Lee’s perspective and guessing at his motivations, we spend a lot of time inside his head, and we discovers those motivations ourselves, first-hand.

Again, this is something I did on purpose: I wanted to dig deep and examine what might create this sort of person, without spinning his destructive behaviors as romantic. I’ve read too many heroes who get away with appalling (even blatantly abusive) behavior because their tragic back stories are accepted as an excuse by the people around them.

My intent was for Filo to be a deconstruction of this kind of supernatural bad boy. Through him, I tried to challenge the notion that “dangerous and tormented” also equals “sexy.” (Of course, how successful I was can only be determined by individual readers!)

Filo hurts a lot of people because he’s hurting—people he loves, and people who love him. And it’s not romantic or sexy or alluring. It’s messy. It’s miserable. It’s exhausting and painful for everyone involved. He’s not a “fixer-upper” who just needs to be loved by the right girl. Ultimately, Filo has to do the real work of overcoming his trauma himself, even if he does it with the support of other people. Nobody can do it for him. Not even someone who really, really loves him.

A friend and fellow author, Frog Jones, is one of Filo’s staunchest defenders. I absolutely love him for that, because I think he really gets Filo—gets that this boy didn’t get the way he is by accident, that he’s broken almost beyond repair and that everything he does is a result of the trauma in his past. But what I really love is that Frog makes no excuses for Filo, even though I suspect he may be Filo’s biggest fan. That’s what I hope all my readers will do, actually: know that Filo’s past is an explanation for his behavior, but by no means is it an excuse.

(Also, if you’re interested in traumatized, emotionally damaged teenage protagonists who do magic, look no further than the Gift of Grace series, which Frog co-authors with his wife, Esther. I love this series. It’s got pretty much everything I want in an urban fantasy, and it also delivers one of my favorite tropes, rarely seen in the wild: a tough young guy whose mentor is an older woman. Just do yourself a favor and read the first book, Grace Under Fire. You deserve it. Treat yourself.)

Despite everything, when Flicker had been out for a while, it became clear to me that a number of readers shipped Lee and Filo. That is, they wanted those characters to become an item. (What would that ship be called? Filee? Leelo? Actually, never mind. My characters’ names don’t really lend themselves to ship names.)

And, okay, admittedly, I was a bit disappointed by this. But I wasn’t very surprised.

Readers of young adult fiction, especially paranormal and urban fantasy, have been trained to pick up on certain cues as indicative of an impending romance. Unfortunately, these cues would often be big red flags in a real relationship. If a guy is rude to a girl, it means he likes her. If a girl flat-out tells a guy to stay away from her, it means she likes him. If she’s afraid of a dangerous, unpredictable guy, they’ll probably fall in love (but only if he’s hot—otherwise it would be gross). And on and on, infinitely.

(A great post at University of Fantasy explores this topic in-depth: “Hush Hush, the Designated Love Interest and Gender Relations in YA.”)

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. For every reader who interpreted Filo as a potential love interest and was surprised when he didn’t turn out to be one, more readers found Nasser to be a refreshing change of pace.

I remember, with great fondness, one reader who wrote that she was a Lee/Filo shipper when she first read Flicker. But when she read the sequel, Brightly, she found that she didn’t want Lee and Filo to be a couple anymore. She had come to love their friendship more than the romance she had envisioned for them. I was thrilled when I read that, because it’s exactly what I hoped readers would take away from the story.

Over the course of two books (and almost a year of driving each other crazy as roommates, in book-time), Lee and Filo have come to understand each other on a deeper level. (Made possible by the fact that Filo’s cooled it considerably and made some personal progress.) They have developed an intense, intimate relationship that is not romantic at all. And that’s okay.

I’m overjoyed to see that many readers—even those who shipped Filo and Lee at one time or another—find their friendship as emotionally satisfying as a potential romance between them, if not more so. At its heart, the Flicker series is really a celebration of love, in its infinite variations. It’s also a study of love, a deconstruction of it, as I hope I’ve shown here.

No matter what it may seem like, I know from experience that there’s a whole audience of readers out there who are just like me: yearning for healthy romances and supportive love interests. I’m happy to continue writing books for this audience.

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