Milestones are important to relationships. Most of us are familiar with the stepping stones in a conventional relationship. The first look, first kiss, the increasing sexual tension that usually leads to a sexual encounter. As readers, we enjoy experiencing these things over and over again through characters we love. Young Adult is FULL of conventional relationships. To quote Caroline from The Vampire Diaries (TV version), “Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Sex.”
But what about an unconventional relationship? What about relationships where there is a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in one or both partners? Things may not unfold so smoothly. As a writer, I think it’s important that these relationships get just as much attention as their “normal” counterparts. Just because they don’t fall into a perfect mold doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
Case in point: Callie from my Reflection Pond series.
Early on, I knew that Callie would struggle with relationships, not only because she has a rocky past with the foster system, but also because she doesn’t know how to trust people. “Normal” is something she sees other people do. Something she attempts, and fails, to imitate. Think back to your younger days. How many times did you give into pressure and do something you didn’t want to do? And how many times did you regret it?
In the initial scene in Reflection Pond (Listen HERE), Callie stands up for herself by walking away from her boyfriend’s grabby hands. This can be interpreted in many ways depending on a reader’s experience and opinions (And I hope it is!). To me, this is Callie standing up for herself in the only way she knows how, by running away from things she can’t handle. This is a relationship milestone for her—only the first of many she’ll encounter as the story progresses.
But things are never going to be “normal” for Callie, no matter how many attempts she makes. She can kiss a boy and hate it. She can kiss a boy and maybe like it. That’s the beauty of attempting things. Callie is too inexperienced to know her own limitations, so she often finds herself emulating what she thinks others want her to do. She is a work in progress, as all characters should be. If she started out strong and perfect, it wouldn’t be a very exciting or rewarding journey.
Callie is a broken girl. Even so, broken things can be beautiful. As a writer, it’s so important for me to give her the room she needs to breathe and grow, and that may come at a pace that’s frustrating, for me, for readers, and for the other characters in the book. In the end, I’m going to make decisions based on what’s best and true for Callie as a character. She isn’t always going to make the right decision, or even the one that will make me (the writer) or you (the reader) happy. She’s frustrating. I’ll give her that, and she’s going to make mistakes.
What I hope in the deepest part of my writer heart is that readers take away the absolute uniqueness of Callie’s relationships, and realize that while they’re unconventional, they are still beautiful and exactly as they should be. They may not be what I (as a person) or you (as a person) would do, because not all of us have traveled the road Callie’s on, but I refuse to force Callie into a situation that she isn’t comfortable with for the sake of being labeled as traditional “romance”. That wouldn’t be fair to her as a character, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to all of the women who’ve suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, who are expected to do things they simply can’t. Despite popular belief, a man isn’t going to “erase your past” or “heal your scars” by having sex with you. Sorry Hollywood and sorry men.
You can like or not like Callie. I get a lot of in between opinions on her character. A reader has every right to make any judgment they want. But Callie will always hold a special place in my heart because her journey is so important to me and I want to do her (and the millions of women and girls like her) justice. She’s been the subject of many conversations with my critique group, both positive and negative. It’s not my job to make sure everyone likes a character—it’s my job to offer an experience that may differ from your own, and I’m so proud of Callie’s story. I think it makes people uncomfortable when I talk about things like abuse. They can’t relate to or understand Callie’s experience, so they hate her instead. And that’s totally okay. If writing doesn’t make us feel (something, anything), then what good is it?
I’ll end by saying that Callie’s relationships will continue to be unconventional, but I hope beyond hope that you’ll still find beauty and love in them, because everyone deserves to be loved for who they are. Even if they’re fucked up. Even if they’re abused. Even if they’ll never fall into any sort of “normal” category. Even if they can’t be categorized. Flaws are what make us special, and if I can help even one person see that, then this has all been worth it.
All the best,