Guest Author Heather Demetrios: Me Before Thee – Crafting a YA Romance That Puts Self-Love in the Equation
If you’re a YA writer, chances are you’ve got some romance in your book. At least, I hope you do: if you don’t, I probably won’t read it. Yeah, I’m one of those kinds of readers. I’m a romantic through and through, and there’s nothing I crave more than love on the page. It’s an addiction (I mean, clinically, I’m pretty sure it would qualify as such): I literally lost weight after a weekend of gobbling up a series, so engrossed in the frenzied state of OH MY GOD WHAT WILL HAPPEN WILL THEY LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER that I couldn’t even stop to eat. (I’ll admit it: Twilight—a problematic novel if ever there was one). One of my favorite parts of working on my books—whether it’s one of my contemporary YAs or my fantasy series—is crafting the love story. I’ve written epic love, quiet everyday love, doomed love, fleeting love, forever love, and unrequited love. My most recent novel, Bad Romance, is about a girl named Grace who has the misfortune to fall in love with the most enigmatic rock god of a boy (at one point, she says she’s pretty sure she won the boy lottery), only to discover that he’s cruel and manipulative—controlling and mercurial in the best of times. I wish I could put a warning label on you, she says in the book’s second-person narration.
Bad Romance is unique for me in that it’s not a book about falling in love (that happens in the first few chapters), but a book about falling out of a love. The suspense and tension revolves around Grace’s struggle to be free of Gavin, and the dangerous consequences of loving someone who refuses to let you go. Though it’s an anti-love story, it’s also about discovering that self-love is the most important part of any romantic equation, and that your girl squad is ten times more valuable than any boy (or girl) that sweeps you off your feet. Like all of my books, it was important to me that this relationship was a springboard for Grace’s personal evolution—and revolution. Even in my books where the couples make it, such as I’ll Meet You There, the key is that there is no white knight that saves the day. My girl protos always have to untangle the mess inside themselves on their own and realize they’re whole with or without the boy in question. They have friends—good friends—who are truth tellers, supporters, cheerleaders, and bullshit detectors. They have passions and dreams that sustain them or, as is the case in my debut novel Something Real, my girls need to find their passions before the love story gets fully sorted out. In the vein of chicks before dicks, it’s very me before thee.
One of my biggest pet peeves in YA novels is when the romance takes precedence over the protagonist’s internal journey, whittling down her kaleidoscopic self so that the only thing that matters about her is her capacity to get or keep a boy. This only reinforces the misconception so many teens and women have, that their self worth lives and dies with their relationship status. Any novel worth a damn is about people who are significantly changed by the adventures they undergo in the novel. That change is always internal and this results in the external changes that bring the story to its completion. If the whole novel simply revolves around the drama of whether or not two people will get together or which boy the girl will choose, it’s not doing its primary job, which is to help its readers human better. Whether your proto is the Mother of Dragons without a king or a girl grappling with her sister’s unexpected death and the weird attraction she has to her dead sister’s boyfriend (The Sky Is Everywhere—sooooo good), it’s important that her journey is on a trajectory that does not depend on her love life.
This can be really hard when the whole concept of your novel is a break-up book about teen dating violence, as mine was. In order to make Bad Romance work, I had to make sure that Grace had her own issues to deal with outside of the relationship and that her romance did double-duty, working as a vehicle that forces her to look at those issues head on, whether they are internal or external. Grace has a terrible home life where her mom is in a bad romance with Grace’s cruel stepfather and Grace experiences abuse on many levels from both parental figures. Almost all the men in her life have failed her. She has big decisions to make about college and friendships and she struggles to figure out how to trust herself. When a sweet boy who is the exact opposite of Gavin comes along, Grace has to make a choice about what kind of person she is: to cheat or not to cheat?—that is the question. Her relationship with Gavin isn’t just about falling in and out of love with someone and dealing with the day-to-day abuses in a bad romance. It’s a place where she learns the lessons her mother is not able to teach her: how to stand up for herself and shift an unfair balance of power, how to advocate for her wants and needs, how to choose herself over the people she loves when the people she loves are toxic. Through her relationship with Gavin, Grace is forced into a dialogue with her own fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. What she learns with Gavin is applicable to her life outside their relationship, lessons about her self-worth that she will apply every day for the rest of her life.
When you’re writing romance into your novel—or a romance novel itself—it’s important that the love interest is a catalyst for the changes your protagonist needs to undergo in her journey. What lessons does this person or relationship teach her about herself? How does it act as a lab for her to experiment with self-advocacy or power or compromise? What does this person bring up in her that’s difficult to look at? A friend of mine once gave an excellent lecture on how Darcy isn’t just the boy in Pride and Prejudice that Elizabeth spends the book subconsciously mooning over: he acts as a mirror for Elizabeth to see her own pride and prejudice and to see that in her status as an outlier among the women of her time, she had failed to recognize how her superiority was hurting others and herself—that, in fact, maybe she didn’t have it all figured out. Whether or not she and Darcy got together, the relationship—and Darcy himself—helped Elizabeth grow into the fullest expression of herself.
You do your characters a disservice when every single thought and action centers on getting a desired response from the love interest, when their happiness depends on whether or not this relationship works out. The ups and downs of a relationship in your novel should be a reflection of whatever it is your protagonist is trying to work out. If you don’t have that depth yet, you’ll need to dig into her backstory more. You need to ask yourself why she wants this relationship in the first place. Yes, she thinks he’s hot and dreamy and makes her tingle, but what is the wound she hopes he’ll heal, or the hole in her heart she hopes he’ll fill, or what does she lack in her life that she thinks he can give her? This is often subconscious and part of the mystery of your character that the novel will unravel. Figure out what the love interest can teach her about herself: through her relationship, does she realize she’s been incredibly self-absorbed with everyone she cares about? Or does he show her that she uses her wildness to mask a deep-rooted fear that being with him somehow exposes? Whether or not this boy is her soul mate, he needs to be someone in her life that challenges her and helps propel her into the growth she needs during this part of her life.
I won’t spoil the end of Bad Romance for you, but I will say that no matter how many people try to help Grace see Gavin for the conman he is, she has to make the decision about whether or not to leave him on her own. And she has to recognize that his happiness isn’t more important than hers and that if she does leave him, the loss of him won’t make her less of herself. At the end of the day, our capacity to love others well is in direct proportion to how well we love ourselves. The best kind of romance in a novel is one in which your protagonist learns to love herself—the rest is gravy.