Over the years that would fit into the Young Adult section of the bookshelf of my life, I received most of my drama from my platonic relationships. Friendships blooming, crashing, tearing themselves apart from within and being hacked to pieces by outside forces formed the basis of the emotional plot of my pre-teen and adolescent years, much more so, in any case, than the stories created by crushes and romantic entanglements. I have little doubt that this is true for a lot of people, too—which is why I find it strange that so many stories aimed at the YA market choose to completely avoid friendship as a source material.
Most books have a romantic element, this much is true—the addition of a love story intertwined with (or shoehorned into) whatever other plot that is going on adds a more human and emotional element to the story, giving the readers more opportunity to empathise with the characters at hand and add the wonder of how their relationship is going to end up to their emotional hook to the story.
Now, this is all well and good on its own, but there seems to be a recurring trend where these love stories are the only relationship-based plotlines for the main characters. Which is odd. How many people can say that their boyfriend or girlfriend is the only major relationship in their life? What about their families, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters? There’s plenty of room for growth and plot there. And most prominently, what about their friends?
The urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre is particularly guilty of this, though fiction set in the real world is not immune. It may not be noticeable at first glance, but upon reflection the reader begins to wonder: why don’t these people have any purely platonic friends hanging around?
Much as I hate to drag out the Twilight example (again), it’s just such a good case in point for so many issues that occur in teen fiction (thanks, Ms Meyer!). The main character, Bella, moves to a new town at the beginning of the series. This is a common device that by no means is a slight on its own—it’s a legitimate way of having the character be a blank slate, as it were, and form all their relationships with characters they meet at the same time as the reader, giving both of them ample time to get close to them. However, suspicions do arise when these new kids make absolutely no mention of old friends in their previous hometown, nobody they’re keeping in touch with or have fond memories of… though that could be cut out to save time and space. It can be overlooked.
What really gets this into iffy territory, however, is when Bella, with all her opportunities to make friends, ignores all human contact in favour of her sexy, mysterious love interest, Edward “I Can’t Be With You or I’ll Hurt You Oh Never Mind Let’s Go Out Anyway” Cullen. Bella has a few social interactions with the non-vampiric at the start of the series, but as it goes on all platonic relationships take a very blatant backseat to the sparkly love affair at hand.
Even when she did have a swarm of potential buddies around her, most of whom seemed like genuinely decent ordinary people, the problem was still evident: Bella seemed to think that the girls were trivial, demonstrated to the full when she ditches their prom dress shopping to go look at books because she is clearly more of a grounded intellectual being, and in the case of the boys, most of them were interested in her as girlfriend material.
These are the two big problems YA runs into when it comes to friendship. Firstly, any non-romantic relationship with the opposite sex is considered impossible, and a lot of them become the “Nice Guy” or the “Sweet Childhood Friend” point on the love triangle at hand—see Simon from The Mortal Instruments, Gale from The Hunger Games, and the token childhood friend character in any harem anime or dating sim you may come across. This is implausible for two reasons—while it can happen, of course, it’s also important to acknowledge that boys and girls can actually be friends without one of them falling in love with the other at some point. Studies have also shown that people who grew up together from young ages will build a family psychology, mentally cancelling out any long-standing member of the pack as a potential mate as nature’s way of trying to prevent incest. Yeah. That whole “I’ve thought of you as a brother since we were kids” thing is never a cute start to a romance.
The second problem is the erasure of female friendships. Often, when YA heroines do have friends before the start of their big adventure and they meet their all-encompassing love interest, said friend will be of the opposite sex, possibly for the gender dynamics and possibly to create the above situation, and possibly both. Female heroines have female companions shockingly rarely. This could be to afflict the character with “I’m Not Like Other Girls” Syndrome and enforce that she is special and different, somehow above other girls in her age group who are obviously inferior and wrong for whatever reason, be it that they like to read instead of go shopping or go shopping instead of read. Or maybe they have boyfriends while the heroine’s lily white innocence and purity stands out. Gasp!
This overall aversion to friendship is troubling. Firstly, the writers are throwing away a great big world of potential plotlines, character development and emotional drama. Secondly, it discredits every relationship that isn’t going to involve sexiness at some point. A lot of YA involving older teenagers seems to assume that at a certain point friendships become lower priority to the opportunity for romance, and they become trivialised or non-existent.
How is an asexual person meant to feel, for instance, or a single person or someone with no interest in a relationship, reading these books and wondering why everything revolves around sex and romance? They’re going to feel left out, that’s what, and after enough exposure and repetition of this message that platonic relationships are somehow less important and exciting, they may feel as though there’s something wrong with them.
Now you know what I really want to read? A platonic love story.
It would have all the same conventions as a romance: the characters meet, they realise shared interests, they get to know each other’s weaknesses and flaws and scars, they grow and develop as people, something threatens to keep them apart, and in the end they end up happy together having a great time… but just as friends.
I mean, why shouldn’t something like this exist? Friendship is something everyone is involved with and thus something everyone can relate to, making it perfect for a story. There’s plenty of potential for comedy and warm fuzziness, mixed in with drama and emotion. And it would acknowledge, a diamond in the rough, that the love between friends is no less powerful, if in a slightly different and less passionate way, as the love between romantic partners.
You could even have one be a sparkly vampire! Lord knows they need a buddy to confide in with everything they have to deal with. Maybe it would make them less angst-ridden, and solve a lot of people’s problems before they begin.
UPDATE – But it’s not all doom and gloom and abs: Here is a list of YA books that do feature friendships done right—authors I find that also treat it with the proper respect include Jacqueline Wilson (especially in her books for slightly younger teenagers/kids), David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, John Green and Melina Marchetta (also double mention to Libba Bray because, well, Libba Bray). If anyone can add any more to this list, especially in the world of YA paranormal fiction, I would be very interested to know.