[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to welcome author Rachel Lynn Solomon to the site today. She’s exploring what YA romance can learn from adult romance. Take it away, Rachel!]
In Today Tonight Tomorrow, my aspiring romance novelist main character is completely unaware that she’s trapped in a romance novel. Rowan has been competing with her infuriating (and sometimes infuriatingly adorable) rival Neil for all four years of high school, and she spends much of her free time plotting how to destroy him. On the last day of senior year, they’re thrown together one more time as their relationship grows into something neither expected.
My research for this book included something I was already doing plenty of: reading romance novels, which is definitely an all-time favorite research topic! I read more YA and adult romance than any other genre, and I love that YA romcoms are having a bit of a renaissance right now.
Because I’ve been going back and forth between the two, I’ve noticed I usually feel more of the romantic tension when I’m reading adult. There are a lot of factors at play here—I’m an adult reader, many adult couples are settling down and looking for life partners—but when it comes to character and relationship development, I think YA romance could pick up a few tips from adult!
1. Developing characters separately and together
What I crave when I read romance are the deep conversations, the way the characters challenge and bring out the best in each other, the way they grow together. In order to get there, first I need a clear sense of who they are on their own. Each character should feel like a whole person, one with history and ambitions and passions and fears. This is something adult romance tends to excel at: developing characters separately and together so we see what each person wants both in their relationship and outside of it.
Sometimes in YA, a love interest exists solely through the protagonist’s eyes. Their purpose is to help further the protagonist’s story. We only get superficial details about their home life or ambitions, and in the worst cases—though fortunately this doesn’t apply to any books I’ve read lately!—you could replace the love interest with a cardboard cutout of someone cute and not much about the book would change.
One of my favorite bonding moments is what I call Sharing Scary Things. A character’s narrative desire should be accompanied by fear, the dark thing that waits at the back of their mind and asks, what if you don’t get that thing you want? I live for the scenes when characters get vulnerable, and the ones in Today Tonight Tomorrow where we learn more about Neil’s background were incredibly emotional to write. If one character is sharing something scary, the other has to do it at some point too—otherwise the relationship feels off-balance. These scenes bring characters closer together, yes, but they also reveal who the character is at their core as an individual.
A fantastic example of this in YA is in the forthcoming Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest (August 25), in which the female lead is an actress trying to restore her reputation after a viral video, and her love interest is a guy in an indie band who wants to make music professionally. Forest gives each character space to pursue their passions and express their worries about what might happen if they don’t achieve their goal.
2. Power dynamics
In m/f relationships, which are what I write and what I’m primarily focusing on in this piece, the control often lies with the male character. He’s the one who asks the girl out, and she’s the one who waits for it to happen. He’s the one making the first move. He’s the one who wants to go further than she does. He’s the one pushing to have sex. He’s the one who’s sexually experienced. Worse, sometimes it’s stated that of course he’s more experienced because he’s a guy.
All of this is deeply frustrating, and when I was a teen reading YA, it was all I saw. I never saw girls taking charge in fictional relationships, so I assumed it Just Wasn’t Done. When I write YA, I’m often writing to undo the harmful things I read as a teen, and because of this, my female protagonists are always the ones making the first move. They’re in control, even if society still tells them they should be yielding power to their partner.
Adult romance novels are often giving their female protagonists relationship agency. Women seem to make the first move more often in adult, and perhaps most importantly, there is a heavy emphasis on consent. Consent is often associated with sex, and while it’s a crucial component of writing romance, I’d love to see consent implemented in earlier stages of YA relationships. An example: the surprise kiss. It’s tough for me as a reader to get on board with a surprise kiss unless it’s made absolutely clear it’s something the other person wants. In m/f pairings in books, movies, and TV, it’s almost always the man surprise-kissing the woman without consent, and there are almost never any negative consequences, even if the woman’s desires haven’t been shown to us. It completely strips away her agency and reinforces a patriarchal power dynamic.
I think it’s been traditionally viewed as the ultimate romantic gesture for the guy to be making the first move—he’s (sometimes literally) sweeping her off her feet. But it can be just as romantic, sometimes more so, to flip that dynamic. In one of my favorite YA romances, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, the female protagonist initiates the first kiss, and it’s such a wonderful, swoony moment. Girls going after what they want—that’s what I love to see in all kinds of romance.
3. Physical intimacy
I firmly believe not all YA needs romance, and not all YA with romance needs that romance to be physical. That is 100 percent the author’s choice, and I respect whatever decision they make, especially because we’re only just starting to see strides in asexual representation in YA.
When an author does choose to include physical intimacy, I think YA has room to include more sex-positive content. Adult romance, primarily because it’s marketed to women, is very woman-centered in a way most other media isn’t. The orgasm ratio in a m/f adult book always, always favors the woman, which I don’t see as much in YA even when orgasms happen on the page.
I’d love to see more female main characters expressing desire in a positive way, and it’s absolutely possible to do this while keeping the book firmly YA. Sometimes a couple jumps right from kissing to sex without any discussion of their comfort level, and sex is almost always viewed through a heterosexual lens—there’s one definition of it, one way to have it, one end goal, and that end goal is the male character’s orgasm. And in a fade-to-black scene, sometimes I’m left completely confused as a reader. I’ll have no idea whether the characters just kissed or whether they had sex, and occasionally it’s not made clear until a couple chapters later. If we don’t know what happened, it’s tough to know why the characters are reacting the way they are.
I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for graphic sex in YA. In YA just as in adult, a sex scene should be moving the plot forward, and it should be audience appropriate. I choose to include sex in my books because those are significant moments for my characters. When I’m writing a YA sex scene, I’m often focusing more on emotions and reactions. I do this in adult too while also with lingering on physical details and sensations in a way I wouldn’t in YA.
What I want to see are more thoughtful, nuanced explorations of sex. Have a Little Faith in Me by Sonia Hartl is a phenomenal example of this. It contains a thorough exploration of consent that never feels preachy, and the sex scenes are the most female-centered I’ve read in YA.
When it comes to pleasure, I’d love to see more balance between partners, and I’d love to see the definition of sex in YA expanded to encompass the broader range of sexual experiences for straight and queer characters. In healthy relationships, I’m eager to see more relationships that naturally build to physical intimacy, especially if they include conversation, however awkward. I love an awkward sex talk—let characters stumble their way through it because that’s how they learn.
While I didn’t set out to write a romance about romance, I’m so thrilled that’s what Today Tonight Tomorrow became—a love letter to love.
About the Author:
Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, Our Year of Maybe, and Today Tonight Tomorrow. She is a Seattle native who loves rainy days, her tiny dog, tap dancing, old movies, red lipstick, and books with flawed, complicated characters. Learn more at RachelSolomonBooks.com and follow her on twitter at @rlynn_solomon.
Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, out now!
It’s the last day of senior year. Rowan Roth and Neil McNair have been bitter rivals for all of high school, clashing on test scores, student council elections, and even gym class pull-up contests. While Rowan is anxious about the future, she’d love to beat her infuriating nemesis one last time.
When Neil is named valedictorian, Rowan has only one chance at victory: Howl, a senior class game that takes them all over Seattle, a farewell tour of the city she loves. But after learning a group of seniors is out to get them, she and Neil reluctantly decide to team up until they’re the last players left—and then they’ll destroy each other.
As Rowan spends more time with Neil, she realizes he’s much more than the awkward linguistics nerd she’s sparred with for the past four years. And, perhaps, this boy she claims to despise might actually be the boy of her dreams.