I’m not going to try to deny it. I love a great love story. Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Katniss and Peeta. The problem as a YA writer, though, is that there are only so many good reasons that an author has to keep the lovers in the story apart. One of my favorite love obstacles was on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Buffy and her love, Angel, were “together”, Angel becomes an evil vampire hellbent on killing her due to an ancient curse placed on him. It made for pretty intense viewing, but it could only last a few seasons before the options fizzled out.
As I continue to noodle on my next series, which will have a fairly weighty romance element woven in, I wanted to consider some of the options for making love difficult for my protagonist (poor thing – not a word written and I’m already trying to sabotage her). Here are some of the classic romantic obstacles and examples of how they’ve been handled by YA writing pros.
The Love Triangle
Sure, it’s overplayed. For a good reason. A well-written love triangle gives readers the exhilaration of true love and the pathos of heartbreak in one neat package. A really cool twist on the love triangle that I recently enjoyed was Timebound (The Chronos Files Book 1) by Rysa Walker. The heroine has the ability to travel in time, and making changes to history affects the world as she knows it. As a result, she has two soul mates from different timelines – but she only remembers one. Too bad he doesn’t remember her… Some prominent voices in traditional publishing are saying that love triangles are really overplayed right now, but I think there is still a place for them. However, it has to be tackled with care – three likable characters are a must and a unique twist is even better.
Somebody’s Already Taken
There’s nothing like falling in love with someone who’s already in love with someone else to create high drama. I thought Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins did a good job of evolving friendship into love without being cliché. In this case, it wasn’t the protagonist who was taken, but the boy she likes. It brought me back to the days of watching Joey pine for Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. So relatable and the drama carried me through for this super quick read.
They Hate Each Other…Until They Don’t
This is a staple of a lot of romance novels, and I’ve seen it work for YA fiction as well. The key to doing it well is having the lovers have a compelling reason to hate each other (think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth hates what a snotty brat Mr. Darcy is, and Mr. Darcy is appalled by her trashy family, rather than a Harlequin romance). Where it falls apart is when the reason the characters don’t like each other is flimsy to begin with, because the conflict in the story feels artificial, or there simply isn’t enough of it.
They’re From Two Groups Who Hate Each Other
The classic example is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but for a more recent example, check out The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The author uses a caste system in the series. The heroine is from a low caste, and the hero is a prince. It leads to lots of conflict because there are many people invested in seeing their relationship fail. One reason I think this device works well is because the hero and heroine don’t have to lose faith in each other, cheat, or doubt their feelings, which can make a reader’s interest fizzle. They’re on the same team, battling forces outside their control.
It’s Too Dangerous to Be Together
Especially in YA fantasy and dystopian books, this is a popular theme. The Twilight series famously combined this with the love triangle and was spectacularly popular. I have to hand it to Stephanie Meyer, the idea that your soul mate might kill you at any time was a twist I hadn’t seen a lot of in YA fantasy before she wrote her series. But other books have been successful here too – I enjoyed the Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi. The world is toxic and on the brink of war, so the main characters have to put aside their love for each other to battle the bleak realities of their lives.
Something No One’s Seen Before
This is the hardest and best option. The devices listed above are tried and true, but as a reader there is nothing that hooks me more than a love that is too nuanced to be shoved into one category. I recently read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and the hero and heroine are kept apart by lots of things – their age, insecurities, and personal tormentors, to name a few. But the depth of and sweetness of the feeling couldn’t be denied. In the end, good writing trumps all.
I’m on the hunt for YA books that handle romance skillfully as inspiration for my next series. Any recommendations?