YA Romance: When Strong Doesn’t Have to Mean Single – @justine_manzano
When the movie Tomorrowland was doing its press tour, an interview in Vulture with writers Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof (and also star George Clooney) in which Lindelof was quoted as saying the following when asked about rendering strong female characters. “What if she doesn’t get distracted by romantic entanglements? What if her “romance” is with the future?”
In my infinite insecurity (I am, after all, a writer. We’re all insecure.) I started to think about my story while panicking. Was there something wrong with romance in an adventure story? My story doesn’t involve a romance with the future! The relationship between my main character, Jacklyn, and her confused and confusing as hell potential love interest, Kyp, is a central part of the plot. It’s often the driving force. By not having my main character’s true love be adventure, or being a hero, or something more abstract, was I being somehow anti-feminist? Considering my strong feminist stance, I was genuinely concerned that I had miscommunicated my message.
Now, I’m sure Mr. Lindleof didn’t intend to panic me when he answered his interview question. He was speaking of one type of strong female, not the only type. Still, this is not the first time I’ve heard comments like this. People complain about the (admittedly barely existent) love triangle in The Hunger Games as though it is abhorrent for Katniss to love anyone at all in the midst of the dangers she is in. Is it impossible to be a strong female and still fall in love?
I believe that people’s problems with this dynamic started with the Twilight craze. People’s complaints about Edward and Bella were not based on the fact that they were in love, but were primarily concerned with the idea that Bella was a wet noodle in said relationship, whose life suddenly revolves around her boyfriend.
But is anything taken from Katniss because she has feelings for Peeta and Gale? She is made weaker by the attacks of President Snow, by the trauma inflicted on her by the Games, but she still stands strong and continues to fight. Even though she has romantic feelings for the boys, her true love and driving force of the story is her little sister, Prim. In The Divergent Trilogy, Tris and Four’s relationship is in the forefront, but she remains a strong warrior. Her life and her decisions, especially in the final book, are her own and often not what Four would advise. In Eleanor & Park, Eleanor’s feelings for Park don’t keep her from making tough choices that run against Park’s interests. Hazel Grace, in The Fault in Our Stars, stands firm as a strong character in the face of tragedy. Her romance with Augustus doesn’t dampen that strength.
The issue seems to be less about romance and more about how the romance effects the character. Does she suddenly go to her boyfriend to guide her through everything? Does she make her own decisions? Does she retain her own agency? Yes? Then, no matter the romance, you still have a strong female character.
Faced with this question about my own work, I started thinking about Jacklyn and her relationship with Kyp. When Jacklyn arrives at her new home, where she will be trained to use her powers, Kyp serves as a sort of mentor, teaching her the things she wouldn’t formally learn about the Order. In this way, the power in the relationship is most certainly in his favor. However, Jacklyn is definitely the more well-adjusted of the pair, able to handle her emotions way better than her slightly unstable counterpart. Her powers lie in her body, so she is physically stronger than Kyp, whose powers lie in his mind. And while Kyp is actually the leader of the rebellion Jacklyn joins, she often makes her own rules, finds her way out of tough situations, and many times, she and Kyp butt heads over the way things should be. At times she is right. At times she is wrong. But what starts out as a clear power differential, slowly becomes something a little more even-keel. Like Katniss, Jacklyn’s agency takes some hits because of forces out of her control, in this case, the female leader of The Order. But, also like Katniss, Jacklyn is often able to make tougher decisions than the men in her life, and is often far more headstrong and powerful.
When you’re writing about young adult characters, they should feel real, even in unreal circumstances. Some teenagers are not interested in romance. Many are. And if your character has a significant other, their lives are going to be impacted by them in much the same way having a best friend, siblings, parents, would impact them. Good relationships, of any kind, lift us up. They bolster our confidence.
If you still think writing a female character in a romantic relationship must somehow weaken them, then ask yourself this – is a male with a girlfriend made somehow weaker? Just because he has a girlfriend he cares about? If your answer is ‘no, that’s ridiculous’, you might want to consider why anyone believes a female with a boyfriend would be any different.
Justine Manzano is a multi-genre writer living in Bronx, NY with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. She maintains a semi-monthly blog at JustineManzano.com and a twitter account @justine_manzano, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery. The Order of the Key, the first book of her YA Fantasy series Keys and Guardians has been contracted for publication by Fantasy Works Publishing and will be available for purchase in Fall 2015.