Friday, July 6, 2018

9 Tips for Writing Good, Healthy Relationships in Your YA Novel

I've never been a fan of romance in YA novels. I originally chalked that up to the fact that I don't like romance in general because apparently I have no soul.

But, the more YA I read, the more I realize that it's not just the romance that seems wrong. It's the relationships in general. 

There's an alarming pattern in YA fiction. There are very few healthy relationships in YA novels, romantic, friendship, parental, sibling, or otherwise. While a single YA book may have one healthy relationship, most other relationships depicted in the story are far from good. Thankfully, this doesn't happen in all YA novels. But it definitely seems to take place in the majority. 

It's pretty mess up. 

Pull up a chair. I think it's time we talked about the importance of healthy relationship in YA novels...and how to write them. 
Blog post title plus a picture of two hands held together to make the shape of a heart.

1. Understand why it's important to depict healthy relationships in YA. Let me sum up. The world is a hard place full of very unpleasant people. But, every once in a while, you meet a nice person who can come alongside you and make things better. They encourage you, inspire you, and help you. But sometimes these people can be hard to find, and sometimes you lose hope or go looking for help in the wrong places. It's important for readers (especially teen readers) to know that there is such a thing as a good, strong, healthy relationship. It's important for them to know that they don't have to settle for negative relationships...and that they don't have to go at this whole life thing all alone. You can do this by writing healthy relationships. By depicting difficult relationships that are in the process of healing. By portraying beautiful relationships that are outside of the typical romances, such as friendship, sibling love, parental love, mentorship, and more. There are so many rich relationship types out there. Why settle for something cliche, unhealthy, or both? 

2. Consider putting good parents in your novel. Look. I know a lot of people have crummy parents. I get it. But a lot of people have good ones, too. Not perfect ones (because no human being is perfect), but good ones. Ones that loved them, worked hard to feed them, believed in them, encouraged them, and were (or at least tried hard to be) present for them. Sadly, these types of parents rarely make it into YA novels. Parents are pretty much never present in YA fiction and, when they are, they are often oblivious or abusive. While these parental types do exist (and yes, it is okay to write about this), they should not be your go-to. Yes, I understand that you think that the parents will "get in the way" of important plot points or character activities, but if you put at least a little thought into your story, you'll be able to find ways to fit parents into it.
pooh bear saying "think, think" to himself gif
Parents shape their children, so it makes sense to show this in a YA novel. Put thought into your depiction of the parents in your novel. It's time that the trend of terrible or nonexistent parents in YA turns completely around. We can do better.

3. Give them nonjealous friends. Dude. Can we stop with the super jealous best friend? Because it's not cute. It's not healthy. And it's not creative. If the super jealous friend course corrects and sees the error of their ways, awesome. But why go there in the first place? This is incredibly cliche and there are so many other types of friendship conflicts you could go with. Protective friends are fine, but jealous? Nope. Do better.  The same goes for romantic relationships (especially when they cross over into the weirdly possessive zone, as YA romances are wont to do).

4. Avoid overly dependent relationships. There's a difference between trusting a person and being totally dependent upon them. Frodo and Sam were great friends who relied on each other and often (but not always) were there for each other to make it through situations. They each had distinct personalities and goals apart from each other. That's a type of dependency built out of trust, loyalty, and respect. On the flip side we have Bella and Edward, a couple who were unhealthily obsessed with each other and constantly needed to be together to the point that Bella puts herself in dangerous (read: suicidal) situations so that she can re-unite with Edward. Both of their personalities are thin and they don't have many goals outside of their own relationship. This is a bad, no good, terrible dependent relationship that lacks interest, complexity, and is downright toxic. Don't do this.

5. Depict relationships that have mutual respect. This is key to writing a healthy, complex relationship. Two characters who respect each other are instantly more developed than those who don't. Why? Because they can disagree with each other, hate each other, find each other annoying, but they are still connected by the fact that they're both logical enough to see the admirable qualities in each other. It is an awesome dynamic that will give any of your character relationships gravity, depth, and health.

6. Show the difficulties of relationships. Writing a healthy relationship doesn't mean that your characters are always incredibly nice to each other. That's unrealistic and makes for bad character development. Relationships are hard, so it's okay to show this in your novel. Your characters can disagree, fight, be awkward around each other, etc. That's good. Healthy, even. You need to be genuine with your writing, so don't lie and show only the good side of all relationships. It will make your readers disengage. 

7. Show the beauty of relationships. While it's important to show the difficulties in a relationship, you don't want to go overboard. Bring some balance by showing all of the amazingness that good relationships can bring. Parental relationships give love that is pretty much stronger than you'll ever find anywhere else. Sibling love means you always have somebody in your corner. Friendship means loyalty, getting new perspectives, and having somebody to laugh (and cry) with.
Fox and the Hound gif saying "And we'll always be friends forever, won't we?"
Just casually using a gif from the most traumatic children's movie ever.
Romantic love means...well, as mentioned before, I have no soul and don't like writing (or reading) about this type of relationship, so you can finish this sentence yourself. My point being: Get to the heart of each character's relationship. Show what makes each character love and respect each other and show how it brings a little (or a lot) of heart and joy to the story.

8. Don't romanticize abuse or unhealthy relationships. I'm incredibly annoyed that I have to even write this, but given how common this is in YA, I'll do it anyway: Abuse is not good. Don't glorify it or make it look romantic or cute. It isn't. It's horribly unhealthy in every way. If your characters are possessive of one another, hit each other (or threaten to hit each other), exploit each other for sex, constantly manipulate/threaten each other, try to cut each other off from other healthy/relationships in their lives, won't take responsibility for problems in their relationship, then you've got an abusive relationship on your hands. Go rewrite it. There are, of course, many other types of abuse in a relationship, so go through and make sure that your novel doesn't have these (unless you are writing a careful, thoughtful novel about the dangers of abusive relationships, in which case: Carry on).

When it comes to romanticizing unhealthy relationships, there's an easy test for this. Look at the romance in you novel and ask: "If [insert name of friend you really care about] was in a relationship like this, how would I feel?" If the answer is: "Not good," then you have an unhealthy relationship on your hands. You can try to cute it up all you want by chalking up the possessiveness to passion, the manipulation and selfishness to being new at the whole relationship thing, but the unhealthy aspect will still be there. Fix it.

9. Don't center the romance around sex. Please. If your teens are drawn to each other physically and have no real connection beyond that, then this counts as an unhealthy relationship. And it also cuts out the chance of writing a complex, interesting relationship. Way to go, you. You just brought your character development to a screeching halt while also reinforcing negative stereotypes (all teens have sex) and feeding your readers questionable morals (teens having sex is totally okay and doesn't at all have negative emotional and physical ramifications). Good job.

Okay. I think we're done here. Do you have any tips of your own that you'd like to add? What are some YA novels that are full of good, healthy relationships? I'd love to hear about them!

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
Romance in YA Novels: The Good, The Bad, and The Stupid
7 Cliché Characters in YA Fiction That Need to Stop
6 Problems with "Edgy" YA Fiction (And How to Fix Them)

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  1. This is everything that I couldn't stand about the Divergent series. (Of which I read the first book for a friend because she wanted me to read it before seeing the movie with her, so I did appreciate the fact she wanted me to know what was going on.) But I could only get partway through the second book, and I didn't even want to start the third because of how terrible the romances were. Not even from a point of, "Oh, this person's grammar or writing style is terrible." But I honestly felt sad that there were so many unhealthy relationships in that book series, and that it's such a teen favorite. (I myself was a teen when I read it.)

    I think some of the reasons you listed is why I've opted to not really include a lot of romances (if any) in my own stories, unless I know they'll add something. But I like to focus on the friendships and family relationships in my stories because of how undervalued I think they are in many stories. That's probably also spurred by the fact that in my own family we all depend on each other, even when things get tough, we don't "Stomp off and just wait for the other to admit they're wrong and I'm right because I think I am."

    (Sorry if this is rant-y, I think about this subject a lot when I'm reading YA novels and middle school books.)

    All this to say–depicting healthy relationships is so sadly lacking in books and modern media that I feel it's my job, and an important one, to help show that not everything is as grim and dark in those parts of life as many books make it out to be.

    1. Ouch. I never read Divergent...Mostly because I heard that the romance was unhealthy. So ready for this trend to go away.

      Now worries about ranting! It needs to be talked about, so go for it! I'm so glad that you are writing stories that portray healthy relationships. Go you!

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. This is so very true! I hate how there are so many unhealthy relationships that are glorified as this is normal and good. Books influence readers. I know; I was one of them. My mom allowed me to read Grace Livingston Hill books as my only romance books as a teen. I vowed to be like those heroines who didn't kiss until they said "I'll marry you." I was in for a big shock when I discovered that the engagement time is just as important. The books led up to the engagement itself, and then suddenly they were married. No middle ground.

    If this is true of good relationships, how much more true with bad relationships being emulated from what you read. I've watched someone close to me go through one very unhealthy relationship and the damage it dealt has affected every single relationship since.

    Please, no more honoring of bad relationships.

    1. YES! The fairytale romances aren't helpful, either, are they? I'm so glad you pointed that out. Thank you for the great comment!

  3. I especially agree about the parents part (although I also agree with the rest of your post and it's gonna be incredibly helpful in my latest novel). It's as if the protagonist has forgotten his/her parents once he/she discovers the wonders of the 'new world'. That's why in my ongoing ya book, 'Elementary school', the protagonist's mom plays a pivotal role.
    Honestly, this was a really helpful post, and it re-inforces all the relationship ideas I have for my book.

    1. I'm so glad that you're writing a important mother character into your story. That is awesome! I'm cheering you on!

  4. This is awesome! I love all these tips! The biggest problem I have with YA fiction is the romanticization of unhealthy relationships. *cough cough* Tris and Four *cough cough* Not to mention the lack of sibling relationships that aren't hero vs villain. I'm making it my business to include happy, healthy sibling relationships in my work.

    1. Haha! I keep hearing Tris and Four used as an example of an unhealthy YA romance and this makes me even more glad that I decided not to spend time reading that series. =)

      Sibling relationships are so cool! I'm really excited that you're working that into your stories.

      Thanks for the cool comment, Hallie!

  5. LOL, hello fellow soulless creature! (I also can't stand romance.)

    But I love, and completely agree with you, on all of these points. I often find these models of healthy relationships in Middle Grade books, but not so much in YA. I get that teens+ have different interests, but they're still people, right?

    If you happen to have recommendations of YA books with healthy friendships or family relationships, I can always use more of that!

    1. Lol! *fellow soulless creature high-five*

      I totally agree: MG tends to have much better relationships compared to YA. I think a lot of this comes from authors not fully understanding the YA audience. Teenagers have enough difficulties in their lives as it is. It's okay to reflect this, but also important to point the way towards the possibility of goodness and healthy relationships. People always need hope. Teens are no different.

      YA with good relationships would be The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Fractured by Rae Elliot, The Chronicles of Prydain (more tween than teen, but may still count), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (complex relationships, but still good), Harry Potter (for the most part). I know there are more, but I'm currently away from my bookshelf and thus can't search for the titles. =) When I come across more I'll be sure to recommend them to you on Goodreads!

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. This is exactly what I've been thinking about YA!
    I also did a post on romantic relationships and certain things that needed to stop, and having it all center around sex was one of them.

    While I think not all YA novels are this way, it's definitely something to be fixed. Then again, it kind of depends on the story, really....

  7. You have done a wonderful job with this article. As a writer of eight YA novels with heaps of relationships in them, with parents and siblings, the whole works, I find your article spot on with great advice. I'm learning from it and I hope other YA writers do too. Thank you.

  8. Yes! I especially love point 5- if there is genuine respect between two characters, most of the rest of the points will fall into place.
    One of my favorite depictions of YA relationships is the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. There are four or five in the main friend group, and the dynamics between everyone is very unique to each relationship. Some of the friends argue more than others, some lean more into the romantic area (but it grows gradually out of friendship), and some have a hard time understanding each other.
    Some of these dynamics are healthier than others, but the author seems very aware of what she's doing when the relationships are unhealthy.
    Thanks for the post!

  9. Hannah, you are a voice of reason in the midst of a whirling storm of unhealthy YA relationships! I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    One author who usually writes really good relationships is Kasie West.
    KB @

  10. YES TO ALL OF THESE! I'm especially disappointed in the "bad booiiii" cliche going on. And also the portrayal of abusive relationships as 'romantic'. I see young girls reading those, and I know that they'll go out and think those relationships are healthy, and I also see young men trying to be those bad boys since those type of guys are the ones the readers lift up and I'm over it.

  11. I think there's an incorrect assumption that everybody has to become interested in romance at some point; it just isn't the case for some people. While it's completely realistic that most people will want to find a life partner, it's also not out of the realm of possibility that some of us just won't. It's why I have solid, healthy, committed marriages in my books, but also some single people who aren't whining about being single. And I make sure all my "good guy" characters are gentlemen, regardless of their age. I also don't portray my teen romances as being ready to run into the bedroom, because they're young and as the parent of a teen myself, I really prefer the idea of adolescents viewing sex as something terrifying. (At least until they're older.)

    There is definitely a lack of healthy relationships, of all kinds, in many recent publications. Sometimes it has to be that way, because the author is deliberately focusing on showing abuse or mistreatment, but if they make it seem like this is "normal" and don't also offer an alternative, that defeats the purpose. And on the whole, I feel we really need to concentrate on healthy things for quite a while (to balance out all the nastiness that's been prevalent in the last several years).

  12. One of the biggest difficulty that most of us face is that in the initial stage of a new love affair, we all put our best efforts and reveal the finest behaviour. If you are in search of skilled relationship coach to enhance your love life then immediately visit Healthy You Healthy Love.


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