Reading any novel is a journey, like passing through a fantastical world on a train going 100 miles per hour. You sit in a window seat, settle in with a cup of tea, and the only other fellow passengers are the characters themselves. Each trip, you get to know these characters, living with them through every moment, uncovering their intelligence or good will or courage. In a way solely possible through novels, you form a relationship with them, however one-sided it may be, that enriches and can even consume the reading experience. However, how do these fictional relationships affect our real lives?
When I read The Lightning Thief in the fifth grade, I was infatuated with protagonist Percy Jackson, a charming hero who spends the novel fighting off mythical creatures on an epic quest to return a bolt of lightning to Zeus. I imagined myself having adventures alongside him and his friends, Annabeth and Grover. My literary crush for him was just as real as any schoolyard crush, and perhaps even more intense because my idea of him would never be ruined by an awkward in-person interaction or a real human flaw. I idolized him the way some teens idolize boy band members or celebrities. Looking back now, it was likely the sense of importance, the adventure, that I wanted more than anything else, but nonetheless it was his name I scribbled in a heart on the margin of my notebooks. Indeed, his character went on to inform my innocent expectations of both myself and a romantic partner. Fortunately, these expectations were largely positive, since Jackson was caring, respectful, and loyal.
This is not always the case for YA characters. For many novels, protagonists and romantic interests in novels not only exhibit characteristics you wouldn’t want to have, but ones that become abusive in a romantic relationship. For instance, Twilight portrays controlling and neurotic behaviors in Edward Cullen as something to be cherished, not something to avoid. Additionally, in The Mortal Instruments Jace’s bad-boy behavior often swings into being plainly verbally abusive, but this is rarely seen as being unforgivable. What would have happened if I’d picked up those books, chose those characters as my literary crushes instead? As impressionable as I was, would they have become my standard for real-life relationships?
This is not to suggest that only perfect characters can be written into YA novels. Such a scenario would be both bland and insincere to the human experience. However, writers should aim to show those behaviors as negative, as flaws, rather than as endearing qualities that make a better person or partner. Moreover, YA writers should take particular caution, since there are many like me whose first experiences with romance and crushes came from reading YA books.
Now that I’ve grown, my literary crushes lie much more in crushes for authors who have done just that. My thoughts immediately go to Augustus Waters (The Fault in Our Stars), Starr Carter and Chris (The Hate U Give), Jacinda and Will (Firelight Series). Their romances and personalities, while far from perfect, exude equality, empathy, and care. They’re characters I’d be glad to spend the journey of their novels with.
Who are your literary crushes? Which authors do you think wonderfully portray their characters? Let us know in a comment below!