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So, recently I started reading Stolen by Lucy Christopher. (Ignore the side-bar that says I'm reading Chime. I will get back to it. Someday...) Anyway, in it the main character, Gemma, is kidnapped by a man named Ty and brought to Australia. Throughout the book, despite the fact that Ty is a kidnapper, has serious mood-swings, and does some pretty shifty things, I was rooting for him. I loved Ty. He wasn't a villain to me.
So why do I have such a problem with other characters (most usually love interests) who show similar traits?
Let's back up a step here. The problem I want to talk today is abusive/unhealthy relationships sometimes portrayed in YA. It's most noticeable in urban fantasy/paranormal. It's easy to take a character who is humanity-impaired and made him "sexy" and "dangerous." Push it a little further and he (Sorry ladies, most of the time it's the male love interest!) may get her "hurt" and needs to "protect" her.
Our target audience is teenagers 12-17. And let's face it, most of our readers are girls. (Something that needs to be improved, but that's another rant for another day.) Teenage girls, for the most part, love that element of danger. Of mystic. Of intrigue. Danger only adds to the romance. It adds tension and it's hot. Just take a look at the shelves of your YA section. Girls like dangerous bad boys.
But there's an invisible line that I think a lot of authors don't pay attention to.
That line goes from protecting to stalking.
From trying to keep someone safe to isolating them from friends and family.
From sexy and dangerous to mood swings and fights.
Abuse doesn't always take the form of some scary man punching the poor, defenseless girl. It takes other forms, quieter forms that we sometimes miss in real life and in fiction. It takes the form of verbal abuse (Ever heard the one where he insults her to keep her away?) to mental manipulation ("I was just trying to protect you! You know I love you.") to over-protecting, stalking and possessive behaviors. ("I saw you go out with him. What do you think you were doing?!")
I love dark and angsty boys as much as the next person, but in urban fantasy and paranormal it seems easy to call behavior that we would never tolerate in real life "protecting." It's easy when the MC's friends and parents get concerned for the guy to grit his teeth, obviously in turmoil, and say, "I'm dangerous. There are things after me. I was just trying to protect you!"
This is dangerous, because it paints an image of how relationships should be to teens who have little to no experience with relationships. The last thing you want is for girls to think that a guy who mentally manipulates her, calls her stupid, and tries to keep her away from her friends or other boys is the way it "should" be.
Despite all this, I love unhealthy relationships. I love the strange, the different, the twisted. I loved the Marbury Lens and I can direct you to my post all about Cartman from South Park. But the thing about these unhealthy relationships in urban fantasy and paranormal (And other genres, yes, but these are the most prevalent) is that the author portrays these actions as normal. Worse, they portray them as healthy.
I have no problem with unhealthy relationships, but honestly authors, be honest. If you're going to write about an unhealthy relationship, then don't hide it. Be proud of it. The reason I loved Stolen and the relationship between Ty and Gemma is that there was no attempt to hide the fact that it was screwed up and completely unhealthy. If the author, or the characters admit, or however you want to make it apparent, I will stand behind the unhealthy relationship. You could go the traditional route where the guy and girl literally beat each other and I could still support it, so long as you don't try to make it seem right.
Abusive relationships should be explored in YA. Nothing should be off-limits for YA (and if you write it right, nothing is.) But when you lie to your readers and say "This is normal" that is NOT acceptable.
You wouldn't show a girl killing herself because she's obese and portray it as normal, and that anyone fitting these characteristics should kill themselves. So don't do it with abusive relationships.
If you write any genre, you need to take a look at your characters and their actions. You need to think about what aspect of life your characters are portraying. In my book that's currently on sub, the girl stabs the guy she ends up with, but by no means do I portray it as normal. My male character acknowledges that this is screwed up, and he's screwed up for still wanting her after she stabbed him.
There's dark and sexy in YA. Then there's assholes. Then just plain abuse. There's nothing wrong with writing darkness, just please authors, don't try to lie about what you're writing, otherwise, you're as deluded as the victim in your abusive relationships.