Recently, I've been binge-reading the amazing Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima. These books have everything I like: layered characters, shippity ships, complex world building, magicks, betrayal, and royalty. It also has two main characters who have had very busy and very complicated and very heartbreaking love lives. Their life situations have gone through multiple stages, and as they aged, they found themselves responding to different people at different times. They acted like most people do outside of books, and I realized, as I was reading, how much I love it when characters in YA books don't end up with the first person they liked/kissed/sexed.
I'm not talking about love triangles (although I do not think all love triangles are inherently evil. I have liked quite a few). I'm talking about books that recognize that most of the time, people don't end up with the first boy or girl or werevampmerelf who made awooooga eyes at them.
Sometimes book characters are lucky enough to meet The One first. That's fine. But sometimes characters meet Other Guy first, and they break up, and then The One comes along and it's like WHAT ON EARTH WAS I DOING WITH OTHER GUY? I love that. And sometimes it turns out that Second One isn't The One either. And then things get complicated, and I love complicated. Complicated means real, and real means interesting, and I love reading interesting. Plus it promotes super cool sex positivity and romantic freedom and these are all good things and stuff. Characters, like people, don't KNOW that their great fated love is looming over the horizon, on the approach, zooming towards them on the Happily Ever After Express.
I'm a shipper. I prefer to read books and series that end with my shipping reboarding that HEA train into a sky filled with unicorns and a sunset made of cotton candy. But that doesn't mean that I don't also love when my characters have boarded other trains in the past. In fact, it makes me ship the HEA train even more. (Ship a train?? RIP, metaphor.)
Girl characters are usually shamed or hated for not "saving themselves" for their The One, even if they haven't met him yet or haven't become romantically interested in him or her yet. Guy characters are usually given a lot more leeway, especially if their romantic past happened before the start of the book. But basically, I LOVE when characters have romantic pasts before the start of the book, guys and girls! It's like life! I know not all teenagers have extensive romantic pasts (*thinks about own teenagerhood and crylaughs*), but the teenagers who DO are verrrry under-represented in YA.
We get a lot of wide-eyed girls who didn't know they had loins until Mysterious Loner turned his sky-blue eyes on her and set her aflame, and that's not the only type of person out there. It makes it seem like that's the only type of character YA condones, or that deserves to be a hero or heroine, just by dint of being the most overwhelmingly prevalent. And that's just not true.
More YA characters with complex romantic pasts, is what I'm saying--sexual or non-sexual or triangular or otherwise. Books like the Seven Realms series, 17 First Kisses, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Fire, the Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea series, the Song of the Lioness series, the Georgia Nicolson series, and lots of other spoilery books and series I can't name. Hell, even Harry Potter! Those kids shopped around!
(extra thanks to Christina and Meg for helping me brainstorm this post and coming up with truly wonderful possible titles)