Toxic Romance?

My mother-in-law forwarded me an interesting article on the toxicity of many of the romances depicted in YA novels and it got me thinking about how writers tackle the whole romance thing, especially in an age where many protagonists (in mysteries, thrillers as well as YA) are often ‘bad boy’ (or ‘bad girl’)  heroes/anti-heroes.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age (link here), is an interview with Kasey Edwards, an Australian writer, about the often abusive, stalkerish, and horrible relationships depicted in some YA novels (most notably, the Twilight series) where girls fall for the ‘bad boy’ who thinks ‘no’ just means ‘try harder’ when it comes to winning their affection. And it’s not just YA – you have books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series which translate this behavior in a decidedly adult way where girls/women fall in love with someone who is more powerful, controlling and possibly abusive (I confess I haven’t read the Fifty Shades of Grey books so I can’t really comment!).

I do think there is a broader issue at play in terms of the way relationships and romances are depicted, irrespective of gender or genre. I know I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of creating emotionally distant male characters who don’t treat their female counterparts with the respect that I certainly would demand in real life. But then fiction isn’t real life and nice, kind, pleasant people don’t necessarily make the most compelling characters!

In YA I think the issue of depicting abusive, controlling relationships and toxic romance as ‘normal’ is a definite concern, because girls (and boys) reading them may start to believe that these are the sort of relationships they should seek in real life. In adult fiction the lines are more blurred and, though I wouldn’t want to write a book that would in any way condone or encourage abusive relationships, mysteries and thrillers by their very nature deal with the darker aspects of human nature as well as society. So how do we, as writers, reconcile the two? How do we create compelling relationships without falling into the trap of writing ‘toxic’ romance?

I don’t have any answers, except to say that I support a writer’s right to choose to depict whatever characters, relationships, or romances they want – even though somewhere along the line those choices must come with some level of responsibility (again, I think in YA, this is much greater). Beyond that, I’m not really sure – although I do think it’s a valuable topic to debate. After reading this article, I’ll certainly think a little more carefully about the type of romance and relationships I portray in my books.

So TKZers how do you approach the issue of potentially ‘toxic romance’ in your writing? Do you step back and consider the nature of the relationships and romance between your characters – especially if they might be seen as condoning abusive or dysfunctional behavior or perpetuating damaging stereotypes?


14 thoughts on “Toxic Romance?

  1. I don’t really write about romance because it hasn’t happened to me yet, and in my family, falling in love doesn’t happen the way it does in books. I also refuse to read Fifty Shades precisely for the reason you put.

    Since I like reading YA, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “don’t put heavy topics in children’s literature” issue. For me, it’s all about balance. Yes, this toxic romance stuff actually happen in high schools, but that doesn’t mean every romance in a novel has to be toxic. So the MC may suffer through it, but allow her parents to have a healthy relationship she can draw from. Or a sibling to have gone through it first that she/he can learn from.

    For writers, I think it’s a struggle between deciding to depict real life, and to show a better world as a way for kids to improve their own view of the world.

    • I think the whole YA genre is a tough one at the moment especially given the politics involved and the issues raised in the article – it’s certainly making me more mindful of how I strike the balance you speak of…I’m more likely now to think of the ‘toxicity’ aspect of some of the character relationships I develop.

  2. I don’t have anything to contribute to the YA romance angle specifically, but I do think it’s a good idea for adults in the lives of teenagers (be it parents, aunts, uncles, whatever) to try & read at least some of the books their teens are reading. It’s not easy to do when you already have so many chores and responsibilities. I recently started doing that and it has been an eye opener to see what types of fiction are grabbing the attention of this age group. I’m not talking about some big controversial subject, but I just like to know what my niece is being exposed to. Plus it’s another good way to have dialogue with those you care about.

    • I am a great reader of YA and love discussing books with my boys. Sometimes we discuss these types of issues and it’s fascinating to get their take (they pretty much shrug off a lot of the issues I raise!).

  3. Dark romance is a current trend at the moment (Captive in the Dark series, Twilight series, and 50 Shades are the three that I know of), and the genre is defined by antagonistic leading men, with an element of criminality or taboo (sexual taboos, living on the fringes of society), power imbalances, and codes of honour. The men aren’t anti-heroes- they’re not doing bad things for good reasons; they’re doing whatever they want for their own reasons.

    The thing about dark romances which sets it apart from “normal” romances is that it has a redemptive arc: these antagonistic leads are brought around to anti-hero status by the “love of a good (wo)man” (because I’m not one to judge). Dark romances *must* have a redemptive arc. The Captive in the Dark series is probably the best example of this. 50 Shades’ redemptive arc was particularly weak, and so was Twilight’s. I don’t read YA and can’t comment too much.

    This isn’t the kind of romance you want anyone to engage in in real life- young or old. However, in Romancelandia, there’s the HEA/HFN endings that readers crave and writers deliver. You don’t get HEA/HFN in real life, hence this being an unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationship.

    To build a dark romance into YA, there has to be a balance. We love a good bad boy: the motorcycle guys, the guys who live on the fringes, but there has to be some kind of redeeming feature (he likes animals, he dotes on his grandmother, he genuinely likes the object of romantic desire). I didn’t find that Edward Cullen or Christian Grey had any of those redeeming features.

    As a reader and writer of the genre, I view dark romances as a different kind of escapism, and escapism for adults. It’s like watching a horror movie. It’s a purge, a catharsis, and it’s a safe space for (wo)men to live vicarious fantasies. I don’t think it’s really a place for teenagers.

    • Mollie – thanks for this perspective and I do see the appeal of dark romances as escapism. I think it’s definitely crossed over into YA and I am beginning to wonder with some of the YA books I’ve read whether there’s more of the ‘shock’ factor as each author tries to go darker than the one before. Maybe what is missing is not only a decent redemptive arc but also that crucial balance. Teenagers (like the rest of us) enjoy escapist fiction that doesn’t resemble real life relationships (we hope!) but maybe for YA authors should also bear in mind the impact of this on younger, more impressionable (perhaps…) minds.

    • Thanks, Molly. That really cleared it up for me. And I agree with you that redemption arcs are necessary and fulfilling in their own right. If you have a redemptive arc, the “lesson” you’re learning is that there is always hope for you. It is why I like darker stories.

  4. Nah nah nah nah nah. Jerks are jerks, whether they’re a novel protagonist, a television character, or a real guy walking the streets.

    I, for one, am sick and tired of the Tony DiNozzos, Harman Rabbs, Jason Hayeses, Horatio Caineses, and other fictional characters who are above women, romance, and human warmth and kindness.

    Somewhere, in their smoke-filed bungalows, writing nooks, or other writing places, Hollywood writers have gotten the idea that jerks are good tension-setters. So they fill their heroes with these guys that American men are supposed to identify with.

    I don’t.

    I wish these guys an all a stag trip to an island filled with casinos, bare-breasted women, and plenty of food and liquor, preceded by an airplane crash that wipes them all out.

  5. I agree with BK Johnson on the involvement of parents or other adults in the young adult’s life to be involved with their entertainment choices whether it is movies, books, or video games. Some can handle the darker subjects better than others, which a parent or guardian can determine. I would prefer that to a ban or censorship.

    Very interesting discussion.

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