One of the most difficult things about writing for young adults is handling relationships. Teens have emotions just as strong as adults, and possibly stronger. As YA authors, we don’t dare come across as trivializing their emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Unfortunately, realism in your novel can bring about the necessity of dealing with uncomfortable topics such as sex and teen pregnancy. How do you handle these subjects without coming across as preaching or worse, disregarding the difficult realities of what teens face?
This is something I think about every time I look at my YA works. Did this character act in a realistic manner? Is this too preachy and will cause the reader to lose interest? Can teens identify with my characters thoughts and emotions in a meaningful way? Yes, I’m writing to entertain, but I also know that my writing will have some influence on the reader. Whether good or bad, big or small, my writing will have an effect on the reader. That’s where the responsibility comes in. It would be so easy to say, “I wrote it, but it’s not my problem what the reader takes away from it.” Actually, by writing it and putting it out there for teens to read, it is my problem. Yes, there will be unintended reactions. I can’t predict what everyone will get from my book. But I can be responsible in how I write and do my best to keep from influencing the reader in a bad way. My goal as an author is to uplift the reader. Sometimes I do that with bad things happening to good characters and the characters coming through changed but still good; other times, bad characters are influenced by good characters and becoming good characters themselves by the end of the story. Either way, the point is to show the reader that regardless of what happens there is hope.
One trend I’ve noticed in YA novels is sex. Whether it’s the main character being promiscuous or making the decision to have sex for the first time, or another character in the same situation that gets the MC thinking about sex and relationships, it’s a subject that permeates the genre. I recently read a fairly long thread on a message board for YA writers about teen sex. What troubled me was that the writers all seemed to think that it’s a necessary topic to cover in their books, but not one of them mentioned abstinence as a legitimate way to handle the subject. They were more concerned with showing the characters having safe sex, dealing with the consequences if they didn’t, what kind of emotional impact teen sex has on a girl, etc. That got me thinking about two things: Is a secular YA novel with characters who abstain from sex marketable? And what does teen sex do to a guy’s perceptions of women?
The first question is one I’m sure I’ll learn through my own journey to publication. Abstinence opens up a whole world of possibilities for conflict, both internal and external. There is a lot of pressure for teens to “fit in” and a lot of them feel that having sex is the only way to be popular. I want to show them that abstinence gains respect from others and can actually make a girl more valued by the guys. There are some who would disagree, but from my own experiences as a teen, and what I’ve observed since then, girls who won’t let a guy sleep with them tend to be more respected than the girls who will do anything a guy asks.
The answer to my second question is a little more difficult and complex. I’m not sure there is any one answer for it. The best I can come up with at the moment is that it could teach guys to objectify women, to see them as being on the planet for the guy’s personal pleasure. I’m sure that’s not the case for all males who engage in teen sex, but it is one possibility. This is a subject I’ll have to do more research on before I can say anything with certainty.
All of this ties into another theme that is involved in my YA writings: romance. A lot of teenage girls are romantics to some degree. But do they understand that romance and sex are two completely different things? You can have romance without sex, and sex without romance. I want to show girls what romance is; sweet, innocent romance that makes girls value themselves as much as any guy they date should value them. Holding hands for the first time, the tension leading up to the first kiss, a guy giving a girl a single rose…these are the things we should be showing teens. These are the things that are romantic and meaningful in young relationships. I believe that we as writers should show kids being kids, not encouraging them to engage in adult relationships while they’re still teens. Let them enjoy innocence as long as they can, and show them that innocence is something to value.
Our writing influences our readers, whether we want to admit it or not. Will your writing have a good influence on them or a bad one? Teen romances rarely last long, but the choices made during those brief interludes can affect the teen for the rest of their lives. Write responsibly, and be aware that your words could be the only mentor a teen has.