He’s sensitive and quirky, romantic and soulful. But he’s got a dark secret. Or cancer. Or depression. Or … something. Basically, he’s going to die or disappear from the main character’s life all of a sudden and you, the reader, are going to be bereft. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) I’ve been calling him the Sensitive Quirky Tragic Boy. Full disclosure: I read and love a lot of young adult books. My real issue is that these dudes are fairly one-dimensional. They’re there for the heroine, which is great, but they don’t have any real driving desires of their own. They exist to be good looking and soulful, to do thoughtful things for the (mostly) main characters. They have interests, but they often take a backseat to wooing, and if there’s sex in these books, it is seldom the SQTB’s idea. So, what, right? My only big issue with these guys is that they might set girls (who might already be dealing with their own shit) up for potential disappointment.
Here’s a short case study:
Name: Augustus Waters
Novel: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
Quirk: Dangling unlit cigarette from his lips.
Tragic Flaw: Cancer.
Modus Operandi: Augustus meets and falls in love with Hazel Grace. He uses his Make-A-Wish to take her to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. His cancer, which has been in remission for several years, comes back and he dies. Hazel is bereft. Readers sob, stock in Kleenex goes up.
Name: Theodore Finch
Novel: All The Bright Places (Jennifer Niven)
Quirk: Post it notes.
Tragic Flaw: Suicidality/Mental Illness
Modus: Finch and Violet meet accidentally while they’re both considering suicide on top of the bell tower at school. She’s fairly popular; he’s somewhat of an outsider. People assume that she went to the bell tower to talk him down and because Finch mostly exists as a foil for Violet, he never corrects people. They start to hang out after they’re assigned a school project together and fall pretty quickly in beautiful, tragic, teenage love. Finch disappears, and we find out that he has succumbed to the fight against suicide. Cue movie tie in soundtrack full of heartbreaking tracks by trendy artists.
Name: Roman (aka FrozenRobot)
Book: My Heart and Other Black Holes (Jasmine Warga)
Quirk: Suicide Pact
Tragic Flaw: Suicidality/Mental Illness
M.O.: Roman meets Aysel on a website called Suicide Partners where, as you might expect, people team up to commit suicide so they don’t flake out on this commitment they've made to themselves. Both of the characters have suffered major tragedies, and through the course of their planning, Aysel falls in love with Roman. Will he love her back? Will he commit suicide before she can tell him?
Book: Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)
Quirk: Affable good-naturedness, I guess?
Tragic Flaw: Illiterate
M.O.: Poor Levi. He’s such a good guy that he basically waits around for a jillion pages for the main character to realize that he’s into her. Unfortunately Cath assumes that he’s still into her roommate, who Levi dated in high school. Natural misunderstandings happen and as the story develops, he has no real personality beyond being a good time party kind of guy. He drops everything to drive Cath several hours back home to check on her dad. In the end they live well enough ever after.
I'm being a lot more glib about these books than I mean to be. I loved a lot of these books. I consumed them quickly and thought about both the stories and the characters long after I finished them. These are all popular books, important to a lot of people. And that’s AWESOME. But part of loving books is reading them with a critical eye, especially books meant for younger audiences. I want to trust that the people reading these books are competent and smart enough to draw their own conclusions, but you take in lessons from the media you consume. Like it or not, by the time we’re old enough for a training bra, pop culture has convinced us that the natural conclusion to our lives is a fairy tale wedding to a handsome prince who gifted us with true love’s kiss. That isn’t always (or, ever, really) the case, and while there are clear differences between fairy tales and YA lit, the responsibility part doesn’t change.