Jo Talks Books: Where Are All The Single Characters in YA?

Hi everyone! I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these, I’ve been very busy what with being back at Uni and applying for work experience placements for the summer that I haven’t had time to sit down and write another discussion post! I was thrilled with the reaction to my last discussion post, it was something I was a little nervous about writing, so I’m very glad that it seemed to be well received. But anyway, back to the topic at hand, with Valentine’s Day coming up on Tuesday, I thought I’d do a romance themed discussion post…..well ish. I saw a post on BookRiot on this topic last year, and it really made me think, so I decided I wanted to put my own two cents in on the issue. So today I’m going to be talking about being single and particularly the lack of single characters in YA.

We all know that nowadays romance is pretty much a prerequisite of YA books. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of YA books that I’ve read that had no romance in them at all in the last few years. That’s all well and good, after all first romances are a big part of some teens lives. However the key word there is SOME. Not all teens have found their “one” at age 16. Heck most of them haven’t and I think it’s very dangerous to perpetuate the idea that all teens have found love by age 16/17, because it runs the risk of making teens who aren’t in a relationship/have never been kissed/haven’t yet found love feel abnormal.

This is an issue that is quite close to me personally because I was one of those teens. I was single throughout all of my teen years (I still am), I hadn’t even been kissed up until about two years ago and my teenage crushes (on actual people that I knew, not just celebrities) were few and far between. And I would read these books, where all of these teenage characters were falling in love, finding their perfect relationships and I would feel abnormal. Because I hadn’t had any of that. I kept thinking “Is there something wrong with me?”. I didn’t have this perfect ship-worthy relationship. I hadn’t been kissed, I hadn’t even ever been on a date. Don’t get me wrong, I was and still am a huge shipper, but just seeing all of these characters in books that I loved get together made me feel like there was something wrong with my life, because I hadn’t found something that all these characters in books I loved seemed to have found so easily, and I’m sure I’m not the only teen that has felt this way.

By having all YA characters paired up, a huge part of the YA audience is being erased. We talk so much about representation in this community, about race representation, disability representation, sexuality representation, mental illness representation etc but no one ever seems to talk about the lack of single representation. I know that singles are not a marginalised group in the same way that some of the other groups I’ve mentioned are, but we still deserve to be represented don’t we? Why should only people who’ve had relationships get to see themselves in books? Shouldn’t people who are single, whether we be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, aro/ace/demi, pan etc get to see ourselves in books too? I know I certainly get enough people making me feel bad about being single in real life, I don’t need it from my books too.

It’s just not realistic to have every single one of your main characters paired up, that’s not how life works. Not everyone finds true love and that’s okay. It’s unlikely in a group of 6 or 7 teenagers that absolutely every single one of them will be paired up. Is being single as interesting as following a couple through the ups and downs of first love? No probably not. Is it important to show it anyway and show it in a positive light to encourage single teens? Absolutely.

Having single characters in YA would allow more characters to be developed on their own rather than as part of a romance. You can have the same storylines as you would if your character was in a couple, the character discovering who they are, their ambitions, their passions and in fact if you have a single character, you could focus on these things a lot more because your character isn’t being swept away in a romance. I have definitely found when writing my own YA story, I have been able to explore my MC’s ambitions, passions, and show more of her personal growth because I haven’t had to focus on a romance storyline.

I’ve also found that in books where there is a romance, that relationship becomes the main focus and all of the MC’s other relationships seem to get pushed into the background (I’m not saying in all YA books, just some). It would be great if instead of always focusing on romance, we could get some YA books that focus purely on friendship and family relationships without focusing on romances. For me anyway, my family and friends have always been more important to me than boys and it would be great to see this reflected in YA books rather than the constant focus on romance.

Having more single characters in YA would also allow for more male/female platonic relationships to be explored, which are sorely lacking in my opinion. Why can we not just have a single guy and a single girl who are just great friends? Oh I forgot, because singledom is the devil! Can we not have two happy, single, platonic girl/guy friends? Is it too much to ask for? So many great potential m/f platonic relationships have been ruined by romance and again it sends a bad message to teens. It makes it seem like if you can’t be just friends with a guy, which is obviously totally untrue. Obviously characters in a relationship can also have platonic girl/guy friends, but that’s another topic for another time!

So overall, I just want to see singleness normalized in YA fiction. To show teens that it’s okay not to have found your special someone in your teen years. That you’re not strange or unlovable if you don’t have someone. I’d love to see YA characters discovering themselves and who they are before jumping into a romantic relationship with someone. To see characters who are single by choice and happy about it. To see aromantic, asexual and demisexual characters. To see singleness portrayed as a good thing, not as something to be avoided at all costs. Single characters are sadly mostly invisible in YA fiction and that’s not a good thing. They need to be seen. So that teens like I was, who hadn’t had a boyfriend or even been on a date or had a kiss don’t feel abnormal. So that they can see themselves in the books they read. Isn’t that what all of us want? To be able to see ourselves in what we read? By not showing single teens, a significant proportion of teens are not being represented, this is not right or fair. We should embrace singleness as part of the teen experience as much, if not more, than we embrace the first love narrative. Just because it may not seem as “exciting” as the romance storyline, doesn’t mean that singleness should be erased altogether.

I have another Jo Talks post in the works which I’m very excited about, but I’m going to keep it under my hat for now, so you’ll have to wait until I post it to see what it’s all about! In the meantime however, I will have a review of my newest read, The Crown’s Game and a new Top Ten Tuesday post for you in the next few days, so stay tuned for those!


34 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: Where Are All The Single Characters in YA?

  1. lmtomlinson 13/02/2017 / 12:36 am

    You make so many good points. I can’t think of one YA book that I’ve read where the main character is single. Do you think writers think that they won’t have enough of a plot without a love interest (even though you pointed out some areas that could be expanded on) or do you think plain and simple that romance is hot right now and it’s what sells?

    • iloveheartlandx 13/02/2017 / 3:01 pm

      Thanks! I know of a few that have no romance, but they are few and far between. I reckon it’s probably more of the latter, publishers have figured out that romance sells and so authors put more of it in their books in order to get published. It’s a vicious circle!

  2. anna @ herding cats & burning soup 13/02/2017 / 4:07 am

    I think that was one of my issues with YA and why it never settled with me. The idea that forever was found at 15-17. I mean, yes, totally possible. There are two couples I know from high school that are now married and happy 15 years later, but rare, I think. Definitely missing something when every one is coupled up,I think.

    • iloveheartlandx 13/02/2017 / 3:05 pm

      It’s a totally valid issue and one I’ve always had too, I think I just love the stories so much that the romance stuff seems less important. Oh yeah, definitely rare to stay with your first love (I assume). I totally agree!

  3. Briana 13/02/2017 / 7:35 am

    I never dated in high school, but I admit that I liked romance in books and never thought the relative absence of single characters was some type of commentary or judgment on my life. That said, I like variety in books, and I think you have a point that there’s room for more YA books that don’t have a romance. I know sometimes editors recommend authors add romance, because it will help the book sell better, but I’m not sure the resulting product is always the best. (A few years ago I had an internship with a major publisher. I’d read one of their books during my free time and was discussing it with an editor, when I casually mentioned the romance didn’t really work for me and it seemed a bit forced. She then revealed the book hadn’t had a romance when submitted…and she personally had told the author to add one in. So that was awkward. But it did reinforce my idea that no all books need a romance.) I believe I’ve read a couple YA books without romance, but usually I recommend OCD, the Dude, and Me. I know Tamora Pierce also said she wanted to write the Protector of the Small series without the protagonist ending up with a guy, to reflect that fact that not all teens find “the one.”

    • iloveheartlandx 13/02/2017 / 3:09 pm

      I suppose it depends on the person, for me it was something that bugged me, but obviously not all single teens will feel that way. Yes, there is definitely more room for YA books that don’t have romance. Wow that’s really interesting, I didn’t know that (I mean I figured that romance was a feature in most YA books because publishers think it sells but I’d never heard of them adding it in there before!). I’ve read a few as well, I think my favourite is Code Name Verity because it’s so female friendship focused. Wow that’s really cool!

    • Leona 01/03/2017 / 12:49 pm

      This sounds awful, but sometimes publishers for female epic fantasy authors to add romance. Janny Wurts has talked about it quite often and I ranted about this a bit in a blog post I wrote a while back you can read it here

      I can’t stand romance in my fantasy fiction, unless it’s something very minor or it ends in a tragedy or doesn’t work out. All this insta-love and first crush is the one and then happily ever after cliche is unrealistic and incredibly irritating. Luckily I read more epic fantasy and grimdark fantasy and not much YA, and there is a healthy amount of single characters in most books I read. Especially the dark fantasy books, there is either no romance or messed up romance shattering into pieces, which is hell of a lot more realistic.

      • iloveheartlandx 20/03/2017 / 12:31 pm

        That’s terrible! I don’t mind romance in fantasy but it has to be a subplot, I can’t stand it when the whole book ends up being about the MC’s love interest.

  4. chucklesthescot 13/02/2017 / 11:31 am

    My whole group of friends went through high school without boyfriends. In fact hardly anyone in my year was in a relationship never mind the soulmate stuff. I stopped reading YA because every one was stuffed with dumb romance and instaluv soulmates and love triangles and love quads. Countless good books were ruined by the non stop angst and hormonal stuff and most of it wasn’t even well written. Now I don’t look at YA paranormal and dystopia at all because I’m sick of the tropes!

    • iloveheartlandx 13/02/2017 / 3:11 pm

      Same actually! I still love YA but I have to admit, I do tire of the romance stuff πŸ™‚

  5. Jolien @ The Fictional Reader 13/02/2017 / 12:15 pm

    I couldn’t agree more! I’ve always liked reading romance, but I would really like to see a single teenager or adult. I’m 22, and single. Sometimes, that makes me feel a bit sad. But most of the time, I’m really happy being single. And I’d like to see that in books too. Like you said, when focusing on the romance they often make that the reason for character development, and friendship/family is sometimes put to the side. I want more books about epic friendships.

    Such a great post! πŸ™‚

    • iloveheartlandx 13/02/2017 / 3:14 pm

      Thanks! I’m not a big fan of romance in general anyway, I do like my ships, but I wish not every YA book had to have a romance. I only occasionally get sad about being single, most of the time I love my life and my independence and I agree, it would be nice to see that in books. YES to that. I would love to read more books about epic friendships!

    • Leona 01/03/2017 / 12:55 pm

      Epic friendships are awesome. I am no fan of romance, but a huge fan of epic friendships. Some of the best were in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and >I was ecstatic to find an amazing YA all-girl martial arts and magic school with no romance and amazing friendships (like the trio in Harry Potter) in an e-ARC I read recently (Red SIster by Mark Lawrence, coming up this April.)

      Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A: Salvatore is a classic of fantasy when it comes to epic friendships too. I think one of the reasons I love the Drizzt books so much is that element. Also Riftwar Saga as an oldie but goodie (I think it can be considered as YA pretty much)

      I hope there will be more books like that.

      • iloveheartlandx 20/03/2017 / 12:32 pm

        Yes they are! The books you describe sound amazing, I’ll have to try and check them out πŸ™‚

      • Leona 21/03/2017 / 9:07 pm

        Red Sister is getting rave reviews all over the place, check them on GR! And the others, too, all such fantastic reads!

  6. Maraia 15/02/2017 / 10:52 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this! I relate SO MUCH to what you said. I was single all throughout high school and college (okay, until last year, well past college, lol), and even though I loved reading YA books with romances because it gave me a chance to swoon and feel all warm and fuzzy inside, they also made me feel bad about myself. They DID make me feel as if there was something wrong with me. Even the quiet, shy, weird MCs in YA novels find a guys who see them for who they really are and fall in love with them and tell them how beautiful they are, blah blah blah. I loved reading about that and hoping it would happen to me one day, but it didn’t when I was a teen. Now I’m okay with it, and my boyfriend was more than worth the wait, but it certainly didn’t feel like it when everyone around me was in a relationship and I wasn’t. I would have really loved to read some books where the shy, quiet, weird, but awesome MC has a great adventure, makes a lot of friends, and doesn’t get the guy in the end. I’d like an exploration of how that made her feel. I’d like books where the MC doesn’t have time for or interest in dating at that stage in her life. I’d like to see an MC who wouldn’t mind being in a relationship one day but is totally okay and comfortable with being single, and maybe even enjoys it. And I totally agree that, not only do we need waaay more female friendships in YA, but we also need more platonic male/female friendships. I know plenty of people who believe they aren’t possible. TV and movies certainly try to make us believe that. Ugh.

    Okay, I have to ask, and ignore me if this is too prying, but who’s in your profile picture? I always assumed it was your husband, but based on your third paragraph, I guess not.

    • iloveheartlandx 16/02/2017 / 12:37 am

      I’m so glad! That was exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote this, that it would resonate with people who felt a similar way to me when they were teens. I would have loved to have seen all those things in books when I was a teen as well. Oh I know! It’s so ridiculous. Of course it’s possible to just be friends with a guy and we need to see that more.
      My profile picture isn’t actually me! It’s from the TV show Heartland, the main characters Amy and Ty at their wedding. I didn’t want to use an actual photo of me, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to see my actual face when I started this blog! If you want to see what I actually look like though, there are pictures of me under the Quarterly Rewind tab!

      • Maraia 16/02/2017 / 3:11 pm

        It seems as if more and more readers are calling for this, so I wish authors would take note! Or maybe it’s the publishers who should take note, since I know from an author friend that they make people add romance to their manuscripts. *rolls eyes*

        Omg, I feel really embarrassed. πŸ™ˆ I’ve never seen that show, so I didn’t recognize the couple. I can understand that, though. It’s scary putting yourself out there on the internet!

      • iloveheartlandx 16/02/2017 / 11:21 pm

        I’ve heard that too! I think it’s awful. You don’t need romance to sell books, in fact I’m more inclined to buy books without it!
        No don’t worry about it, you’re not the first person to make that mistake. Yeah it is πŸ™‚

  7. emilymbird 16/02/2017 / 7:03 am

    I LOVE this post! As someone who was also single throughout all of high school, this resonates with me a lot. I think it’s important to show that YA characters and the people they represent can be happy and fulfilled without a relationship. Relationships are great too (and I also love my shipping) but it’s not the only path to happiness! And also for some characters maybe relationships are not their number one priority! (Especially considering so many YA characters have other world-ending problems to focus on!) This is a great post. I can’t wait to see more of your discussion posts!

    • iloveheartlandx 16/02/2017 / 10:43 am

      Thank you! I’m glad, that was my aim with this post, that hopefully it would resonate with people who felt the same way I did as a teen. I totally agree. I know right, you would think some YA characters would be more focused on their possible world ending problems than their s/o’s. Aww thanks. I should hopefully have another one up at the end of the month πŸ™‚

  8. justanothercreativewriter 16/02/2017 / 7:24 pm

    I agree with this a hundred percent, I am another one of those teens and I would call myself happily single, I’m not exactly needing or looking for a relationship. However all the characters in books that are single find themselves in a relationship pretty quickly. It’s unrealistic and although it can be cute to read often it seems unnecessary in the actual plot of the story. I am also enjoying writing a YA novel without romance because there are so many great friendships my characters have developed.

    Another thing I want to point out is that in middle grade books despite there not necessarily being a romance often there are scenes with romantic tension or a bunch of characters flirting with/ obviously attracted to our main character (at least this is what I’ve found in some of the ones I’ve read) and I think it’s absurd. That’s setting up unrealistic expectations right from the get go, ten year old kids are hardly going to be flirting with each other and there aren’t going to be four separate guys attracted to you and actually making moves (even if they are minor ones).

    • iloveheartlandx 16/02/2017 / 11:13 pm

      Thank you! I’m with you on that, also happily single and not needing or looking for a relationship. Yes exactly! It is so unrealistic and often unecessary. High five for romance free YA novels! Yes it’s great isn’t it? I’ve had the chance to develop my MC and her friendships so much more because there’s no relationship angle and it’s been wonderful. Really? That’s crazy!

  9. Amy @ Pages of Starlight 16/02/2017 / 7:30 pm

    Thank you! Seriously, just thank you. I totally agree and you’ve said it better than I could have. I actively avoided all romance-y stories as a teen – and HATED it when a romance took over the story – which left me not reading YA. I was single all through my teen years, and even now I’ve never been kissed or dated. And this is entirely by my choice. I’m not interested in romance – thinking it’s way too much work for me – and would much rather focus on friendship or (as selfish as this may sound) myself. I would love it if YA books steered away from the ‘all teens must have/want romance’ because there are so many of them that don’t/didn’t.

    On a less personal note, I definitely feel that romance being such a huge part of (nearly) all YA stories perpetuates the unhealthy idea that any teen crush is THE ONE. Maybe this is my non-romantic side coming out again, but I don’t think many (most, truthfully) teen romances end in a ‘happily-ever-after’ – and I really think that all these YA books that portray romance as the be all end all do actual harm.

    • iloveheartlandx 16/02/2017 / 11:09 pm

      No problem! I’m glad that this post resonated with you, it was exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote it, that people would relate. I definitely tried to avoid romance as much as possible as a teen too, which was quite difficult when I loved YA! It doesn’t sound selfish, I totally agree, at this point in my life, I’d rather focus on my friends and my life than on a relationship. I would also love that. Oh I completely agree on that! It’s giving teens false hope that any crush they have is the one and that’s not right or healthy.

    • Leona 01/03/2017 / 1:03 pm

      Amy, I totally agree with you. I read adult fiction when I was a teen cause I didn’t want the unrealistic fluffy teen romance. Some of the books I’ve read had romance, but not in the teen crush form and a lot of them ended in some sort of tragedy or went south cause of the difficulties of life, which was great for realistic character development and also so much closer to what happens in real life.

      Also conditioning the young readers to make finding love/romance their sole purpose of life is unhealthy.

  10. Leona 01/03/2017 / 12:15 pm

    YA beiong dominated by romance centered books is a huge pet peeve of mine.
    Talking about diversity, why aren’t there asexual characters who aren’t interested in romance and sex? I am not a fan of romance as a main theme (as an epic fantasy and dark fantasy reader) and this is one of the reasons I am not too keen on YA. I try my best to find romance-free, love drama-free YA books, cause I really enjoy reading good YA.

    • iloveheartlandx 01/03/2017 / 2:02 pm

      It is a pet peeve of mine as well! I have no idea, I would love to see more asexual characters. I’m not either, but I love YA so I guess I sometimes just have to deal with it!

      • Leona 01/03/2017 / 2:22 pm

        I am working on my first book, which has no romance, no relationships, a few asexuals and most of them single. It’s not YA, though. I hope no one complains about lack of romance, but if I get a publisher and they tell me to put romance in it I will say no and if inserting romance is the only way to get it traditionally published, I will just go indie πŸ™‚

        When I read fantasy, I want to read epic adventures, battles, political intrigue, magic, wizards, dragons, not romance drama. I’d pick up a romance book if I wanted to read romance. Romance as a minor subplot is ok so long it’s not sappy.

      • iloveheartlandx 20/03/2017 / 12:27 pm

        It sounds great, I hope it goes well for you! It seems from the responses to this post that people want more singleness in YA, so I’m sure you’ll find lots of people who are happy with a romance-less book! Awesome, stick to your guns on that. Exactly! That’s what everyone reads fantasy for, not the romance drama. I totally agree.

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