Last week I posted two articles on things that don’t work  in YA romances. As such, I also want to take a moment to highlight a YA series that handled its relationships exceptionally well. Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle presents two well developed relationships, and we could learn a lot from opening these up to look at what makes them work.

There are some spoilers below the fold. If you don’t want to find out who ends up together, go read the books first. If you’re okay with spoilers, read this article and then go read the books. They’re one of the best series I’ve read in a while.

Gansey and Blue:

They don’t start out in love.

Rather, they begin to notice things about each other as time goes on, and to slowly develop a more complicated understanding of each other. By the time that they get together, they have a complete, nuanced picture of the other person. More so, they recognize each other’s flaws. This doesn’t mean “You’re so perfect that even your flaws are perfect.” Stiefvater does an excellent job of playing this off as more of a “Your boat shoes are unforgivably ugly and you come off as condescending sometimes, but it’s part of the package” kind of situation. And it works. Even after they’re together, they occasionally find themselves at odds.

The slow build towards the relationship makes it feel real. It gives room for more complicated emotions, while also leaving enough space for readers to want the relationship before it happens. It also creates a sense of tension without introducing arbitrary roadblocks. The main limiting factor on their relationship is not that they can’t kiss (for plot reasons) but that before they can be in love, they actually need to fall in love with each other.

They include one another in their lives.

Neither one of these characters is a satellite love interest. They meet each other’s families. They’re both important parts of the quest. They bring each other into major plot-driving decisions and, even though Blue entered the group as someone’s love interest, she quickly becomes incorporated into the team.

This makes it easier to imagine them as a couple in the long term. By the time that they get together, they already know how to work together, and they’re already deeply intertwined in the other person’s life. Having seen them solve problems together and overcome obstacles—both personal and plot related—its much easier for readers to imagine them sticking together after the story ends. There’s more between them than physical attraction.

Their relationship does not consume the plot.

Even though its important to how the characters interact, there’s a lot going on outside of them. Stiefvater recognized that readers have better things to do than worry about whether or not two teenagers are going to make out with each other, and built up a substantial plot outside the relationship. The fact that both of them are embroiled in the search for the secret resting place of a Welsh king gives them something to focus on while their relationship forms in the background. It enables them to have meaningful conversations and gives them something to bond over. It also adds urgency to their relationship that comes from somewhere outside of ordinary interpersonal drama.

Adam and Ronan

Before I move into analysis, let’s take a moment to appreciate that the re are well developed queer characters who actually get a happy ending. And they don’t have to spend the whole time expounding on what it means to be queer or dealing with hate crimes. They’re just two dudes living their lives and making out in vivid, imaginatively rendered prose. This is something that needs to happen more in YA. And books in general. And life.

They both worked as individuals.

Before they got together, each one was fleshed out with their own sets of complicated wants and needs. They had their own internal conflicts that were not solved by entering a relationship. When they did get together the relationship was used to develop and play off of their personalities, rather than taking something away from them. In other words, they were interesting together because they had been (and continued to be) interesting apart.

Their relationship was occasionally awkward and lopsided.

It did not start out as true-love-forever. They spend a lot of time exchanging glances and just kind of looking at each other. Neither one is articulate about their feelings. Ronan likes Adam first, and Adam has to figure out if he’s into it or if he’s just stringing Ronan along to feel wanted. The awkwardness makes it feel real, and captures the uncertainty of first relationships while also generating tension and subtext. 

The relationship is built up through small gestures and observations.

Like Gansey and Blue, their relationship is predicated on something more than initial attraction and it takes a while for them to actually come together. A lot of the groundwork for Adam and Ronan’s relationship is laid through Stiefvater’s use of detail—the two express their affection through targeted acts of kindness, moments of understanding, and a visible effort to be present for one another. Rather than playing off of dramatic, romantic cliches, she demonstrates that they pay attention to each other. This shows a more genuine, deeper rooted affection.

The takeaway

  • Both parties should be individually interesting.
  • Develop chemistry between your characters and show that they can be a part of each other’s lives.
  • Give them something to do besides falling in love with each other.
  • Trade sweeping romantic gestures for displays of genuine understanding.
  • Stop making all the gay stuff subtext. The results can be glorious.