You can’t read many online reviews of YA fiction without certain terms cropping up again and again (particularly in critical reviews). Mary-Sue is one. Love triangle is another. Instalove is a third. They kind of pop up as catch-all critical terms, and it’s easy to see why, as they’re all overused tropes in YA fiction.
Many bloggers have had their say on these topics (particularly the first one) and you could write a whole PhD thesis on the Mary-Sue and whether she really exists, or if the term is mainly a form of condescending misogyny against (mainly) female protagonists (and writers).
However I don’t have time for a PhD thesis, so I thought I’d say a little something about instalove, particularly as it’s a topic very pertinent to my debut novel A Witch in Winter.
(Instalove, in case you don’t know, is where the hero and heroine meet on page 2 and are professing eternal love by page 3, usually without any interaction other than having brushed forearms in the canteen. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, particularly in paranormal YA, and yes, I’ve had it levelled against me in critical reviews. It crops up in everything from Twilight to Romeo and Juliet.)
Though I’d never heard of the term when I started to write it, my own book is, in a way, a deconstruction of the phenomenon of instalove. My heroine, Anna, meets a guy, Seth, and is strongly attracted to him in a purely fancies-the-pants-off-a-stranger type way. She knows nothing about him, apart from the fact that he’s pretty. It’s not love – nothing like it – and she knows it. During a sleepover she and some friends experiment with a spell book and Anna casts a love spell over Seth for a joke. To her shock and horror it works – and he turns up at school declaring his undying love. At first it’s clearly bogus – he can’t be in love with Anna; he knows nothing about her and he’s acting like a crazy person anyway. But as time goes on the lines become more blurred and Anna starts to question what’s really going on.
The questions Anna asks herself are at the heart of the instalove phenomenon. Is this love? Does a feeling based on nothing but blind hormonal impulse count as love? How long do you have to know someone before you can truly call it love? What is love anyway?
And after writing the book, and reading a fair bit of paranormal romance, I am none the wiser to the answers. Does instalove exist in real life? Well, it depends what you call love. A strong, instant attraction – yes. I think we’ve probably had that feeling of locking eyes with a stranger and wanting to jump their bones. It’s not love – but it could be the start of love. But none of us are psychic (well, no-one I’ve ever met, anyway) so whatever it kindles, that initial spark can’t be based on anything more than physical attraction. You can’t love someone for who they are when you don’t know who they are.
So is that what instalove is really – is it actually instalust? Well, yes and no, because one of the hallmarks of instalove is the declarations of eternal undying adoration – the insistence by the characters that they do know each others’ heart and soul, that this is love, even though by all the known laws of the universe it can’t be really. But is there a rule about how long a couple should know each other in order for it to be real love? Days? Weeks? Months?
I know when I was a teen I fell in love – or thought I did. And I didn’t have to be going out with someone for long to have fallen head over heels. Time moves faster as a teen – and in a school environment you spend a lot of time with someone in an intense way. I mean, I live with my husband, and I don’t spend as many waking hours with him as I did with my schoolfriends.
But perhaps most importantly, as teens, we haven’t been burnt. We haven’t learned not to trust ourselves. If our heart says it’s love, we’re prepared to believe that. And as a writer, I’m telling you what my characters believe – not what I believe, or what’s true.
Do teens fall head over heels and consider themselves in love after a few short weeks? Yes. I think they do. I did.
But are they actually in love? Is it real love? That, I don’t know. Like a character says in A Witch in Winter, there’s no diagnostic test – you can’t pee on a stick and get one line for bogus or two lines for love. Let’s face it, if we all knew the true nature of true love, there’d be a lot fewer divorces in the world and a lot less heartache. My characters may cast spells and invoke demons but they still inhabit the real world – in the real world things are messy, people jump the gun, they make mistakes, they say what they want to believe and believe what they want to be true.
Just because one of my characters says something, it doesn’t make it true. And it doesn’t mean it’s what I believe. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter what I believe. As readers, you have to decide that for yourself.
If nothing else, the instalove phenomenon has got us asking questions about love, about what love means and how you define it – which is a pretty important philosophical question in life. If instalove can accomplish that, it’s no bad thing in my book.
A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton is out now with Hodder Children’s Books.
Book two in the Winter Trilogy, A Witch in Love comes out July 2012.