Meridian and Tens, Luce and Daniel, Nora and Patch, Calla and Shay, Jacinda and Will, Helen and Lucas... what do all of these couples have in common? Well, for one, they are the most talked about couples in YA paranormal fiction today. Everybody’s eagerly awaiting and devouring the next installments in their stories, getting starry-eyed about their romance and fervently believing that these star-crossed lovers will get their happily ever after.
But you know what else these couples have in common? They all meet and fall in ‘love’ in intense, highly-emotional, stressful situations. They are all living in fear of their lives, fighting battles that are bigger than they are, and they are all cut off from the world, from a support system, from the reality of day-to-day existence.
So today, for a change, I am actually going to support the insta-love trope. Because what these kids are facing is wartime. Maybe it’s a war that’s happening on a hidden, paranormal level, but it’s still war. And you know what happens during wartime? The rate of marriages increases exponentially. (Also divorces, but we’ll save that for later). The Chicago Tribune had an article a few years ago that pointed out that a lot of servicemen heading to Iraq ended up getting married before they left for duty. Sometimes they just pushed forward a marriage that was in the works anyway, but a lot of them also ended up falling for and marrying complete strangers.
Nothing makes you quite as aware of your mortality as war. There are so many things that could go wrong on a field of battle; the best you can hope for is to leave behind a legacy, someone who will remember you, and pray like hell that you survive. This is the main reason so many soldiers rush into love and marriage during wartime, hoping to cram a lifetime’s worth of experiences into a few weeks or months.
So I guess it is not entirely incomprehensible that the enforced intimacy of their situation leads these teenage couples to fall in ‘love’. After all, something similar happens to victims of the Stockholm Syndrome. The captive and the hostage taker spend such long periods of time in forced proximity that the hostage begins to view the captor in a positive light. The captor would probably not, under normal circumstances, be someone the hostage would cross paths with, but the captivity fosters a false feeling of intimacy and connection. Are you seeing the parallels here?
But now we come to the real problem. The fact that these feelings are being touted as the basis for forever love. The fact that readers are being led to believe that someone who has emerged from a warzone will just settle down and build picket fences and play with their 2.5 children for the rest of their (im)mortal lives. Did you know that after every war, there is a boom in divorces? And that divorces amongst veterans were higher than amongst soldiers who did not see combat?
Take the Lord of the Rings, for example. After the war was over, and the ring was destroyed, Frodo, who had perhaps suffered the most, and upon whose shoulders the fate of the world literally rested, found that he could not return to Hobbiton and resume his pre-Ring life. So confined did he feel by the constraints of everyday life, he finally decided to accompany the Elves on their mission to find Tol Eressëa, leaving behind all that was dear and familiar.
Similarly, almost one in every 3 veterans returned from Vietnam, and one in every 5 veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan succumbed to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Why am I telling you this? To show you that returning mentally and psychologically unscathed from war is impossible. A fact that Suzanne Collins depicts beautifully in Mockingjay, where it’s not all roses and candy, even if it is about true, realistic love.
So here’s my question. What happens to these couples after the Happily Ever After? Can you really see Patch picking up the milk on his way home from work? Can you see Daniel allowing Luce to live her own life, being supportive during the recession, or even letting her pick her own hair colour, for God’s sake? Life doesn’t end after the HEA. In fact, it’s supposed to only be beginning, but as the victims of trauma and conflict, will these couples be able stick together once the excitement is over?
Frankly, no. And this comes back to the basis of teenage true love in YA PNRs. Firstly, they are teenagers. How many teenagers end up married to their first loves? (Some do, I agree, but most?) Secondly, the basis of these relationships is ephemeral, based on attraction and enforced proximity. Thirdly, as The Duck pointed out in her post last week, there is no give and take in these relationships; compromise is the cornerstone of long-lasting relationships, but in YA paranormals, it’s an unknown concept. Fourthly, there is no meeting point outside of lust for most of these couples. What happens in ten years’ time, when the illicit thrill of physical attraction to the ‘bad boy’ wears off? When you look across the breakfast table and realise you have nothing in common with this person except sex?
And now I come back to my favourite example of a ‘healthy’ relationship, Clara and Tucker, from Unearthly. This is a couple that I can actually see working. They didn’t fall instantly in love and declare themselves soulmates. They actually got to know one another, they talked and spent time together; they dealt with their issues and got through the tough times by compromising ad co-existing. So, whatever happens in the subsequent books, and whatever happens after the happily ever after, I will be rooting for Clara and Tucker; I will have faith in the longevity of their relationship.
So here’s my advice to YA paranormal authors: try to think about what comes after. Your job may end at the last page of your trilogy/series, but your characters live on, and we’d LIKE for them to live on happily. One of my favourite things to do after I finish a series is to imagine what the characters are going to do with the rest of their lives. With books like Hush, Hush and Nightshade, I really can’t see a future that ends happily. And don’t even get me started on Vampire Academy! A relationship that starts with cheating, lying and causing all-round misery? Yeah, I’m sure that’s fated to end well!