The word “mate” in relatively new in YA fiction, but the soulmate trope certainly isn’t.
While not my favorite trope to write, I don’t actually mind reading about it. I think we all like the idea of knowing there is someone out there who’s your perfect other half.
However, having read a lot of these books I’ve noticed couple of themes and writing flaws that often go hand-in-hand with this trend. I’d like to discuss the two main hangups, and how it plays into the romantic tension and character growth.
Important disclaimer: Though I’m about to get critical, there’s nothing wrong with using this trope! It’s a lot of fun to play around with. This post is simply highlighting some flaws and inconsistencies that I’ve noticed that bring the writing down. Consider this a post to help you think, not to discourage you from using it.
Sections of this post:
+ Why Do We Write Soulmates?
+ Expectations Before Emotional Investment
+ Redemption Through the Relationship
+ Independent Character Arcs
Spoilers: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
Why Do We Write Soulmates?
This was something I was thinking about while writing this post, and I feel it important to add (even as I’m about to rip apart the soulmate trope).
Thanks to Sarah J. Maas, the term “mates” was popularized in young adult and new adult fiction, though the concept has been around long before that.
When I was younger and reading stories on Wattpad and Quotev (who remembers Quotev??) it was characterized usually in stories about werewolves and vampires. But it wasn’t just in the early 2000s that soulmates became featured in stories.
Even all way in the Classical period of Ancient Greece, Plato and Aristophanes had some very interesting quotes about soulmates and love which were based in Greek mythology.
What is it about soulmates that we’re so drawn to?
I rather like Victor Hugo’s quote (pictured above) which reads: “The greatest happiness of life is that conviction that we are loved — loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”
We all have things about ourselves that we don’t like, and we all go through phases where you just don’t love yourself. Often these phases are in your teens, but not always (maybe a reason why so many teens resonate with this…?) And sometimes when you’re in these phases, it feels reassuring to know that is someone who gets you. Whether it be platonic or romantic.
Many people look down on the soulmates trope in young adult fiction.
Probably because it’s always in fashion to hate what is seemingly made for teen girls. But whether you do or not, you can’t deny that sometimes it’s nice to think that there’s someone out there who is your other half, and will just understand you through-and-through/
And that’s why I really believe that there’s nothing wrong with this trope as a whole. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need. And sometime’s it’s just a lot of fun.
Now that I got the semi-boring part out of the way, let’s talk about writing fulfilling soulmate relationships.
Expectations Before Emotional Investment
Part of writing an engaging relationship is building an emotional investment with the reader. If you set up your expectations too early, you have the potential to lose your reader.
I’ve noticed a number of books that introduce the soulmate \ love interest and then immediately drop heavy-handed hints that they’re mates, before I’m even invested in the characters or their relationship.
After we know they’re mates, are we really worried they’re not going to end up together?
In this scenario, it ruins the romantic tension completely. I’m not attached to them as a couple, and now that I know they’ll end up together I’m not waiting on the edge of my seat. I’m not as invested in getting to know them, and I’m not engaged in their will they \ won’t they.
There is no perfect amount of build up with a love interest. It really depends on your writing style – some authors hook me right away, and some take their time and build it up. Having your characters meet and chapter one and start dating in chapter three isn’t automatically bad.
But’s it’s absolutely key to have your reader curious and invested in your characters first. They don’t need to know everything – they just need to know enough about each character to want to know more.
An excellent example of good build up is ACOMAF by Sarah J. Maas:
ACOMAF is 700+ pages, and the fact that Feyre and Rhys are mates wasn’t revealed until the last third of the book. Before that, even though there were some hints, there was a lot of emotional build up. This includes bonding scenes, scenes of personal growth, backstory revealed, and sexual \ romantic tension.
By the time we reach the last third of the book – the will they \ won’t they part – we’re so invested in the characters that it only adds to that romantic tension to have the soulmate fact revealed.
Redemption Through the Relationship
This is going to be a short section, as it deals in many bigger themes – the toxic male love interest, how to write redemption arcs – and both of those can be their own post.
Particularly in YA and NA, there is a pattern of truly awful and toxic behavior justified solely because the two characters are soulmates. I don’t see this all the time, but there are a few instances that completely ruined the relationship aspect for me. Red flag behavior is red flag behavior, no matter what kind of connection you have (that pertains to all relationships, not just the romantic ones).
When writing a redemption arc, it’s very important to center the character as their own person with their own flaws. Being loved in spite of your flaws is the dream, but sometimes just being in a relationship doesn’t erase all your past actions.
A douche who is trying to be better will be way more empathetic then a douche who tries to forgive and forget.
that’s my wisdom of the day
I can’t emphasize this enough: this section is only for characters with toxic traits. Your Love Interest doesn’t have to be perfect to get together with the MC.
Nobody is perfect and flaws ≠ toxic love interest.
Independent Character Arcs
In my Creating Engaging Romances post, I put emphasis on the fact that your characters should still be individuals, as well as a couple. It’s one of the main hangups I see in romantic relationships, and it’s so easily fixed!
The goal is growth. Even after the romantic arc is complete, you still want to see their arc play out. If they’ve done something messed up, let them face the consequences and learn from that.
Likewise if they have a defining trait or fatal flaw – like stubbornness, for example – that doesn’t go away just because they have a partner. Don’t let your Love Interest’s or MC’s character arc flatline once they’re together.
It’s okay if the MC supports the Love Interest through this character arc, but remember to let your characters make independent decisions based on their core character. Sometimes that means they’re on the same page, and sometimes it doesn’t. But nothing takes you out of a story more than an out-of-character action or decision.
I know this is probably a polarizing post. I’d love to hear your thoughts about mates in YA fiction!
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