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Love Interest a Must in YA?

Heart Girl and BoyI recently read a YA fantasy manuscript that had a great premise and great writing but no love interest.  Not even a possible love interest.  I went through more than half the novel expecting one to pop up before resigning myself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen.  By the end, I was pretty disappointed.  And rather than thinking about the awesome world building or lovely prose, I was mentally working in a love interest, wondering if the writer knew how much stronger, more marketable, and compelling the story would be with one. 

That got me thinking.  Does a YA novel need to have a love interest, even just an inkling of one, to really shine?

With issue-oriented novels, it's not so black and white.  But with fantasy and standard contemporary, I think yes.

In the least, with any YA novel, I feel the main character needs to have an awareness of this dynamic.  I don't know about you, but when I was a teen I was always conscious of attraction and chemistry even if I wasn't inclined to date anyone, was too caught up in other life stuff, or was just plain avoiding such things.  The adolescent years are when we really start exploring love and sexuality (often to the point of preoccupation), and I think you're only hurting yourself if you completely avoid it in your YA novel. 

What do you think?  Can you think of any YA novels that are successful without a love interest or hint of one?


Tahereh said...

if i could write EXACTLY what you just wrote, i would.

i know there are other writers who disagree with this, but i absolutely, undoubtedly, wholeheartedly AGREE.

love interests are a HUGE element of being a young adult. the lack of a chemical attraction in any story just seems fake to me. it has to be there. it's what i ached for growing up, devouring books, and it's still what i look for in everything i read. i love the gushy, feel-good stuff. even the most boring fantastical adventures i've read have involved (even obliquely) some kind of love interest.

in fact, it's one of the first questions i ask before i choose to read a book. (is there a love story?) call me a silly hopeless romantic, but i love it.

another stellar post, bestie. thank you for bringing this up.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

That's a really tough one, Casey. One would think if the writing is good enough, captivating enough that the answer would be no; however, what 14-16 year old isn't interested in love or the art/war of relationships? I would have to say there at least needs to be a tease. Just my humble opinion.

Candyland said...

I can't fall in love with a book that has no love interest whatsoever. And like you said, if there isn't one, I at least want protag to be aware.

Casey Something said...

I agree Tahereh. I'm ALWAYS hoping for a love story. I've certainly never stopped to think, "God, I hope this isn't another romance." LOL. Maybe it's cause we're female.

I can't speak for male readers but the adult women I've converted to YA are always asking me for titles with romance. And, like you, some of them won't read a novel if I can't convince them it has a strong love story.

And I think teens (especially the girls) are looking for that, too.

Sheri, I wish I could say that's the case and I think it is with some middle grade. But with YA? I think it needs to be present, whether it be integral to the story or very subtle.

Thanks for adding to the discussion Candyland! I think that's how most YA readers will feel. Though, I am curious about male readers (teen and adult). We need to drag some over here to comment!

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks for sharing Casey, I think you make a really good point. We certainly thought about not much else at that age (at least I did) but it's odd because it's a little boring for me to read YA novels with too much romance (like Twilight for example, I'm not saying it's bad, it's not, just not written with grown men in mind).

I have a minor romance/love interest plotline in my YA fantasy MS and you've just made me realize I need to expand on it.

Thanks for that!

Shameless promotion for all your other reader/followers:

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This one is pure query/submission gold folks in which she shares the ACTUAL query that landed her an agent and the correspondence that ensued.

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Casey Something said...

Yay Matthew! A male opinion. I think it's understandable that a lot of boys wouldn't be as interested in heavy romances like Twilight, but, like you said, it's definitely on their mind and I think it's expected to some degree even in boy fiction.

You (and everyone else) are always welcome to plug your blog on mine (unless it's spam/advertising, of course). Love writing/reading related stuff! I'll definitely stop by. Thank you!

Vicki Tremper said...

I can't think of any YA novels off the top of my head that worked without a love interest, but I don't see why it can't work. The story would have to be compelling enough without it. Or at least some explanation of why there isn't one. It might not be lack of a love interest that keeps a book from working.

Thanks for opening the discussion!

Kathleen said...

I personally think a YA title can shine and be compelling without it or (as in The Blue Girl or even the Harry Potter series) the love interest plays a very minor part. However, I do acknowledge that romance plays a huge role in saleability-- especially for a debut.

I actually did a massive revise and resubmit on one of my projects because the feedback I was getting from agents was that it would be an easier sell with more romance.

Natalie Aguirre said...

With the tween/YA area merging, I think it depends on the age of the characters. If they are younger and it's really plot oriented, I think a fantasy can work without romance. Like Harry Potter, where there wasn't that much romance until later books. Even then, I heard from my daughter and her friends disappointment that so much of the last Harry Potter movie focused on romance rather than action. As the characters get older, there probably has to be some romantic tension, but I don't think it has to be a huge element if the plot otherwise works. In fact, to appeal to boys too, perhaps they might be more interested if it is downplayed.

Casey Something said...

Vicki, I want to agree that it can work but, like you said, there would have to be a reason it's not present and I think that would fall into there being an awareness. Hard to say.

Kathleen, I agree that romance can play just a minor role in a successful YA novel, but it's still there, if subtly.

Do you guys think it's important that a writer set a romantic tone/expectation in the first quarter of the book? For example, if there's no real potential for it in the beginning, perhaps we won't feel disappointed (or as disappointed) if it doesn't develop.

Natalie, the HP series is interesting because the it spans MG, tween, and YA. However, can you imagine the last three books without the romance elements? I can't, and I think readers would have been extremely disappointed if the books hadn't gone there in the appropriate years like they did.

Have you read any HP fan fiction? I've noticed A LOT of it expands and upplays the romance.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi! I popped over from Candyland's blog to say hi and congrats on your award. You have a great blog here - I look forward to reading more. :-)

Chris Ing said...

Honestly, one of the last YA novels I read (from a very high-profile author) tacked in a romantic element to two characters that I didn't feel have enough interaction, and it sorta felt out of place to me.

Truthfully, I think the issue for YA readers is less about ROMANCE and more about simple interaction with the opposite sex. For some teens, this is the first time they spend any amount of time with someone not of their own gender. So I think at the very least there should be communication between a boy and a girl as characters.

Many might feel that this is simply teasing a possibility of romance, and in fact it might go there. But I think to say that all YA has to have a romance is a bit too far.

Perhaps I'm a little touchy; my last novel I wrote had a lot of build up between the two protagonists, but they didn't end up as a couple by the end. I guess I prefer a "will they won't they" approach.

Martina Boone said...

Hi Casey,

Great question! And I agree with you completely. I recently blogged about the ingredients for a winning novel after finishing reading Albert Zuckerman's ingredients for a Blockbuster and a couple of different blog posts on the same. When it comes to YA, it seems to me the books that do especially well not only contain a love interest, but also a complicated love interest--something forbidden or at least with a lot of barriers. I love it when even a mostly background romance, like in Heist Society, involves sacrifice or uncommon devotion. I wonder if this element strikes me as especially poignant because in involves someone young, or whether young adult authors just do this kind of love especially well?

Thanks for the great post! Martina

Unknown said...

Most of my teen buddies aren't into romance, even though they enjoy it in a story, they reject it as a genre.

As Samm and I said previously, it should be in the book. It just shouldn't BE the story, or a major part of the plot.

Empress Awesome said...

None come to mind at the moment... probably because they don't exist. Humans need love to survive, especially teenagers, so not having it in a YA book is like blasphemy. I'm sure a YA book without love would not be any good.

Tanya said...

As a bookseller and reviewer, I have been reading YA books nonstop for the last 15 years and see a definite dividing line between the YA section and the teen section when it comes to romance. The books I mention are all in the "Young Reader" section of the Barnes & Noble where I work, not the teen section, which is, without a doubt, lousy with books have a love interest. But, I think these qualify as YA book that are successful despite the lack of romance:

Siobhan Dowd's "London Eye Mystery" is selling really well at the Barnes & Noble where I work and it has no romance in it. I usually recommend it for kids 12+. "The Mysterious Benedict Society" is another one with no romance and a hefty plot. Oooh - and the TUNNELS series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams - very complex and adult but no romance, despite the presence of two 14 year old boys and a slightly older girl whom they both fancy.

I think that the world and girls would be a better place if the market weren't flooded with books that have romance as a plot element. I understand that adolescence is the age when girls and boys begin to see each other in this way and that reading books about other people's experiences is an important part of learning how the world works, but the books on the shelves in a chain bookstore do not really teach girls the reality of dating and relationships, they teach them the fantasy. In addition to that, when I have to help a teenage boy find a book to read, the pickings are VERY slim if he wants to read a book with a male protagonist who is not a gang member, drug addict, WWII soldier or teenage spy. It is frustrating to see how the teen market is pigeon holed into a few stereotypical categories. I have worked as a bookseller for 15 years and seen the teen section increase exponentially in size and sales, even before Stephenie Meyer hit the shelves. I know I am speaking to an audience of writers and I am begging you to please write something out of the box for these reading kids!!!

Karen Strong said...

This is an interesting question you pose Casey and I've enjoyed reading all of the comments.

As a teen, I actually avoided heavy romance plots in books. Instead I read horror and science fiction. However, those some of those books did have a love interest or a little romance.

I could see how the majority of the market would like to read a YA novel with romance or a love interest but there may be others who want a book where it isn't the focus.

I always find it refreshing when I read a YA novel where there is a protagonist who is striving for a goal besides getting the girl/boy but who may still find romance along the way.

Casey Something said...

Shannon, thanks for coming by! I hope you'll keep coming back. : )

Chris, I'm not saying YA has to have straight up romance, but there needs to be an element somewhere. Even if it's just a tease or slim possibility. That awareness and interaction really adds, I think. Your novel sounds fine to me. You have the element I'm looking for. The characters don't have to end up together.

Martina, thanks for your great thoughts! It does seem like the biggest YA hits have a love story to tell, even if it's buried in bigger plots.

Love your thoughts as well, Cipherqueen!

I agree, Empress Awesome. Though, the more I think about it, the more I could see a story working without a love interest if it has another thing to really bond us to the story (like family love).

What great thoughts Tanya!!! I love that you took the time to argue the point and give examples. Is the Young Reader section and the Teen section divided for readership age? Because I do find that younger tween and MG novels have far less (if any) romance. Interest in love isn't as solid in the 9-12 age range, so there's more freedom to avoid it. With older teens, I think it's a large part of life and is naturally present, which then translates into novels for that readership.

I think you'll be happy to hear that, while there's a love interest in my YA, it's not the plot and doesn't paint an unrealistic picture for girls.

We hear you!

Thank you for chiming in, Karen. I appreciate your input. I think we can all agree that YA doesn't have to have a heavy romance plot (though I do love those), but I still argue that there needs to be some kind of boy-girl (or girl-girl, boy-boy) dynamic. But if others don't agree, I'm happy to call it a preference.

Great comments everyone! I think WINTERGIRLS is a good example of what I'm trying to say. Being issue-oriented, there's no real "love interest," per say, but the boy-girl dynamic is still there and it definitely adds to the story, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

For me, being a teen was about boys. Wondering about them, watching them, wishing they'd go out with me/notice me/talk to me, or avoiding them entirely.

It's the time when those feelings are the most intense, and the most new. I just can't imagine being a teen without it being a huge part of your day.

So, a YA book without at least some hint of that feels wrong to me. Of course, it's the genre I write in and there's always romance in mine, so I'm biased!

Carrie said...

I struggled a lot with this while writing my first draft. I felt the need to address my protagonist's age and the inevitable chemistry of that age. At the same time, my story takes place over a short time span in the immediate aftermath of a murder. It is a dramatic whodunnit, and the action (hopefully) moves pretty fast.

And, you know, nothin' says lovin' like dealing with the aftermath of murder. :D

Ultimately, my story has no love interest angle. Nothing would make me happier than to write a second story about my mc and this time give her a love interest.

But for this ms anyway, I didn't find a love interest waiting for me as the story unfolded.

Perhaps, in a way, my story has some things in common with an issue oriented novel.

Rebecca Gomez said...

I don't think YA absolutely HAS to have romance, but stories that leave their (female) readers speculating about possibilities will be more popular in general. Would that be considered a hint of romance? Not sure.

My daughter says that she always looks for romance in the story she reads and is disappointed when there is none. But she also said that the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud has NO romance at all and it wasn't at all disappointing.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think I agree with you. Mostly. :-)

Stina said...

YA books don't need to have romance. But don't expect me to buy (read) it if it doesn't have even a hint of one. I loved romances when I was a teen, and I still love them. I agree what you said 100% (as does my inner teen). :D

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Well, I'm of the "Journeys end in lovers meeting" school of things. So, I certainly prefer love-interests. I don't know if I'd consider them to be absolutely essential, but I'd really rather they were there.

Ryan said...

While there are some adults that may not have romance be a large part of their lives, I defy you to find a teenager who doesn't want/think about/have romance in their lives--and thus, I think YA books just don't seem real without a little romance.

Romance is also an easy way to add tension to your plot. YA books have to keep teens reading, and a little romance can do wonders in keeping them reading. The only book I can think of off hand (and I could be wrong) that doesn't have any romance is Cut by Patricia McCromick. Certain books (problem books as you said) just can't have it in them--but all the others really need it.

Emily Cross said...

Like others have said, I think its essential and expected. I would be the same as you Casey, I would be searching the book for the love element.

Now, I don't like romance books but I do like a book with a little romance, even if it's unrequited.

On the cynical side, if your trying to sell YA, you need to have romance in it/ or even a hint of it.

Donna Gambale said...

Love this post! I don't think a love interest ... or even the hint of one ... is absolutely required. Because the moment I said it, a chemistry-free YA would become a #1 bestseller. But as a reader, I've always wanted one. You're much more likely to find an adult novel with no love interest.... which is why I prefer YA!

On the flipside, I loathe when a love story overpowers the actual plot. I don't mind if it's a small subplot. I just like the chemistry, the idea of a romance!

Laura Pauling said...

Definitely not a full blown out love story. But chemistry. Even if it's the opposite of a love story. But those high emotion feelings are why I read YA. And as long as it doesn't suck away from the plot, then it totally adds to it.

Anonymous said...

I am a romantic at heart, so yes, I agree with everything you've written! No, not all YA need to have romance. However, when I myself read a book (especially one within the YA genre), I expect there to be a smattering of romance. It doesn't have to be the focus of the book, but the tension, the potential needs to be there. Recently, I just read a book that doesn't have romance; however, there is friendship that could be the beginning of a romance, and that, too, is enough for me. :]

Lisa Nowak said...

Wow, that's something I'd have to think on. It seems like there are lots of YA novels in which the love interest is way in the background but I can't think of many where it's none-existent. Naturally the more layers a book has, the more interesting it will be, so it stands to reason that adding a love interest is going to help.

B Dub said...

Hi Casey. Another opinion from a male: I agree with you that in most cases, there should be some inkling of romance when writing about teenagers. I think it boils down to creating believable, three-dimensional characters. The biggest part of being a teenager is becoming aware of your sexual identity. The main characters should at the very least notice the opposite sex (or same sex, as the case may be), even if it's just a passing mention that they think someone is cute or smells nice or looks good in their jeans, etc.

Love and sexuality can be included in age-appropriate ways (such as in The Penderwicks where the oldest girl has an innocent crush on the gardner-boy). In my opinion, when an author completely avoids love and sexuality, it is glaringly obvious and strange.

As you said, there are always exceptions to the rule (such as issue-oriented novels), but I think in most cases, you can't write about teenagers without addressing love and sexuality in some way, even if it's to say that a character is suppressing their feelings on purpose for some reason or another.

Lindsay said...

I think YA novels need a love interest unless they are issue-orientated.
Being a teenager - and all the things that go with it - is all about experiencing that rush of lov/lust/crushes etc. Not to have it is like pretending teens don't feel those things.

Yvonne Osborne said...

A love interest is necessary. I do agree with you.

Christina Farley said...

Personally, I get bored with a book without the love interest. They are just too much fun without! So I'm all for love interest. It can really add tension too.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree. YA is all about thinking about the opposite sex (or same sex, depending on your inclination). I have a feeling that some people shy away because it's not their strong point or they're scared of getting into the thorny issue of sex.

PJ Hoover said...

i've been wondering this same thing. Have you read INCARCERON? Is has little to no love interest (very very little that never plays out to anything) yet it's been a bestseller since it came out.
But you know, it felt more adult to me when I read it.

Lindsay said...

Hey Casey. Just wanted to let you know I gave you an award on my blog:)

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think you're right. It's such a preoccupation at that age that it doesn't feel right if it's not included. Maybe that's why I write middle grade :)

Annalisa said...

I think it depends on your audience. A girl audience absolutely has to have a love interest or at least an explanation why there isn't one (I can't think how , but I'm sure there could be a way to excuse it and it be okay), but I think it's different with boys. To be real, boys need talk about girls, sex, whatever, but there doesn't need to be a love interest. As long as there's male bonding and some good action, it doesn't mater.

TheWeirdGirl said...

I don't think that a YA fiction story needs a love interest, or an excuse for not having one. I just finished a really great YA book, )Her Mother’s Diary (http://hermothersdiary.com/, that focused on a female character. It was about her personal journey, and overcoming obstacles. No male required for this book. I think you only NEED a love interest if your story is thin.

Melissa said...

Thanks for the post! I also agree that it really depends upon your audience. But personally, I love the love interest topic in a book.

I found an article on Tips on writing for YA books, here: TIPS

TheWeirdGirl said...

It looks like my link didn't work. For anyone interested in the book here it is again Her Mother’s Diary thanks!

Casey Something said...

Thank you for the great comments, everyone! I haven't had time to come back and respond to everyone individually. I've enjoyed all your thoughts and opinions though.

Kate, it looks like Her Mother's Diary is self-published. I'm generally hesitant to purchase self-publisheded books. Was it very good? And what about this line on the website, "Her Mother’s Diary combines suspense and romance in a tightly woven, fast-paced story that you won’t want to put down."

Are you sure it doesn't have some kind of love interest?! Still, thank you for the recommendation. I'll add it to my to-be-read pile.

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Donner said...

As a teenager myself, I think that romance is such a large component of a teenager's life that to leave it out of a young adult novel is a huge oversight. it gives the story realism and depth and a young adult story without even a hint of romance seems false.
Romance may not even be the right word for it. It doesn't need to be strong enough to be 'romance' and the dry explanation of 'interaction between two characters, with an element of sexual tension' is more apt.

Casey McCormick said...

Great explanation, Donner! I love it! Thank you for adding your insight.