Age difference in relationships is a bit of a taboo, even in the fictional ones. Especially when the younger of the two characters is still underage. Such relationships are almost never depicted in young adult media. It’s a can of worms no one really wants to open. But then, there is fandom.
Fandom rarely feels limited by such constraints. Whenever there is fanfiction written from a universe centred primarily on teenagers, you can bet there are going to be ships there where one of the characters is underage… And the other isn’t.
Of course, to be fair, sometimes this happens in original media too. Almost always, though, the fact is concealed in some way. Take Twilight, where Edward might be ninety, but he looks seventeen and attends high school. That’s apparently enough to make it all fine. Vampire Diaries, the same. Many shows and books that include supernatural characters, in fact.
But whether we’re in fanon or canon, the fact is, depicting a relationship where one character is underage and one is an adult is a minefield. Many creators don’t manage to cross it without setting off a problematic bomb or two.
As someone who had my share of relationships with significant age differences when I was relatively young, I find myself somewhat sensitive to these bombs. Glorifying the frequently unhealthy dynamics these relationships can have, or pretending there are no problems involved, makes me intensely uncomfortable. As always, fiction has power. For one, waving this away is not good writing. But it can also be harmful to actual people going through similar situations. So, with that in mind, let’s look at what are the most common problems with this kind of relationships, from my point of view.
I’ll start with a few advance notices. For one, I won’t be specifying what exactly I mean by “underage” and “adult” here. The laws are different in every country. Sometimes even in every state. With this go different cultural sensibilities. But whatever your personal setting, the fact is, you probably have some age or age difference when you think “ew, these two characters together? That’s problematic.” It’s not because you think one of the characters is too young to have sex in general. That is whole different level of wrong, and I won’t be talking about it here. It’s simply because the discrepancy in age and experience between the two characters is such that it makes us think that it needs special handling.
Secondly, I know some people believe that adult/teenager relationships are always wrong. I’d like to point out that even if we accept that, there is a very material difference between relationships where the age difference is acknowledged and allowances are made for it, and where it’s ignored or, worse, abused. Even if you think relationships with this kind of age difference are always unacceptable, it’s useful, I think, to differentiate. I have experience with both kinds, and let me tell you, it’s one hell of a gap between them.
Thirdly, I won’t be writing about stories that are simple porn, with no or minimal plot. I’m not worried about these. It’s the ones that purport to present us with a love story for the ages that make me concerned about how exactly the relationships with a significant age difference are depicted there. I think there is a higher risk of harm there. Besides, I have more expectations from them than I have from porn.
And lastly, while I come across these problems very often in fanfiction, I’m not going to call out individual stories as bad examples. Fanfic writers do it for free, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to cite them in such a way. Fortunately, there is enough original media to work with. So, let’s get started.
Ignoring the Age Difference
This is by far the most frequent problem, and it’s the route Vampire Diaries go, among others. Everyone pretends the vastly different amounts of life experience are not an issue. Stefan doesn’t hesitate to do his best to charm Elena, even though he is over a century and half old. He is sorry that he complicated her life by dragging her into all the vampire business. The question of age difference itself, however, is nonexistent. It’s a fair point that compared to problems like “my brother is a murderer,” it’s a minor thing. But I still find it frustrating that it’s just completely breezed over. As if being a vampire somehow magically made all the issues with power imbalance in a relationship go away. Instead of, you know, making them so much more serious.
Now, this problem can occur when your worldview and the worldview of the creator differs, too. You read something that seems problematic to you. To them, on the other hand, this kind of age difference seems completely normal. But it very often happens in cases where it’s obviously not this. See Vampire Diaries again. We all know they would be uncomfortable with what it was depicting if Stefan actually looked over a hundred. It’s these cases I’m talking about.
Writing about a relationship with an age difference you’d consider big if it was in real life and ignoring it isn’t a good approach. For one, as I said, fiction has power. If you don’t think it’s not a big deal in real life, you shouldn’t depict it as not a big deal. For another, it’s bad characterization. Age and experience are crucial in influencing how your characters act. If their behaviour doesn’t reflect this, there’s something wrong. Of course, it gets difficult when the older of the two characters is older than the creators of the story. It’s not always easy to write someone with more life experience than we have. Who can really imagine what a hundred and sixty year old vampire would feel like? But ‘probably not like a seventeen year old teenager’ is an answer most people should feel comfortable giving.
No one will know if the 150 years old vampire isn’t depicted realistically. No one apart from all the vampires watching the show, anyway. They’re unlikely to complain. But everyone will see if he acts like just another teenager. Some people might believe that as long as he frequents a high school, as they all seem to love doing for some reason, the age difference can be ignored. But to me, it just breaks the suspension of disbelief. Plus, it sends a weird message. As long as vaguely creepy older guys pretend to actually be high schoolers, everything’s fine, apparently.
And speaking of creepy…
Becoming a Creepy Uncle/Aunt
This is a very specific thing that sometimes happens. The older of the people in the relationship begins to act markedly older – and markedly paternal, or maternal. It’s a dynamic that does happen in real life, too, so it can’t be blamed for lack of realism. But if it’s meant to depict a healthy romantic relationship, then it misses by a mile.
It can seem like a thin line. I just demanded that the age differences show, after all. Now I protest when a character acts like they are older? But there is a difference. On one hand, there are characters knowing what they are doing, being more comfortable in their sexuality and so on. On the other hand, there’s being condescending to their partner. The creepy uncle dynamic I have in mind has the older character always taking the lead, always directing the relationship, and not taking the other’s opinions or feelings seriously. It has them being condescending a lot of the time. The entire relationship becomes one big pat on the head.
I don’t necessarily mean in sex, either. Actually, that is often a department where the authors are more careful. So we have a partner who is very considerate of their younger boy/girlfriend in bed. But then, they will “just want to take care of” their partner in all the other aspects of the relationship. They will act as if the younger person is incapable of making their own choices. Because they are underage, you see? But somehow, making the choice to sleep with them was OK. They were old enough for that, but not old enough to have control of their own life, really.
This sort of unhealthy dynamic often goes hand in hand with one-sided endearments like “sweetheart” and “princess.” In fact, the whole thing is a lot like unacknowledged daddy kink. Only sort of inverted. People who write daddy kink are usually self-aware enough that they keep it to the bedroom. They take care to have their characters behave like equals out of it. The authors of this kind of problematic thing, on the other hand, do the exact opposite.
Twilight is my example for this, since Edward’s behavior towards Bella is a textbook case. Of course, Twilight could be used as an example in every single one of these little no-no points, but I didn’t want to repeat myself too much. It’s also obvious that gender dynamics plays a part there as well, not just age. It simply combines into an especially deadly cocktail. But then, I see plenty of this in slash fiction as well, though perhaps not so extreme, so clearly, the gender dimension is not necessary. It just adds flavour.
Edward condescends to Bella, tries to control her life, acts as if she is incapable of handling herself in basic situations…the whole nine yards. Here, have a citation:
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, outraged. He was gripping a fistful of my jacket in one hand. (…)
He was towing me toward his car now, pulling me by my jacket. It was all I could do to keep from falling backward. He’d probably just drag me along anyway if I did.
“Let go!” I insisted. He ignored me. I staggered along sideways across the wet sidewalk until we reached the Volvo. (…)
He lowered the automatic window and leaned toward me across the seat. “Get in, Bella.”
I didn’t answer. I was mentally calculating my chances of reaching the truck before he could catch me. I had to admit, they weren’t good.
“I’ll just drag you back,” he threatened, guessing my plan.
It just drips romance, doesn’t it? If Bella was a toddler, perhaps it would be appropriate.
Manipulating the Younger Character
Now this is where this article touches the one I wrote about female villains. Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, especially, would be a good fit for this one as well. Her relationship with Tommen is clearly romanticized there, at least to a degree. And yet what she does to him…
This point goes to all the characters who use their better understanding of any situation to direct the relationship. They differ from the above category because they’re not overt above it. Nr. 2 acts condescending, while nr. 3 appears to treat their partner perfectly fairly. Only then you realize they arranged everything in the relationship according to their own preferences. The younger one in the couple just goes along with it because they are too inexperienced to notice what is happening. Sometimes, it feels like the creators themselves don’t notice what is happening either.
This is something than can happen even when both partners are in the same age group, of course, and then it’s often gender dynamics that decides who gets to direct the relationship…but especially in gay ships, that role is often taken on by the older characters.
Also, particularly in supernatural settings, this often goes hand in hand with withholding information. That is a manipulatory tactic par excellence, and non-human romantic interests often employ it. They know so much more about this strange world the human has just encountered, of course it should be them making all the decisions! Instead of, you know, maybe telling their partner everything relevant and then deciding together. Because that would be boring, right?
Waiting to be Legal
I can’t actually recall any original media going this way, but it’s a relatively common solution in fanfiction. The characters date, but they don’t have sex until the younger one is legal.
Now, this needs a disclaimer, so please let me first state unequivocally: if you’re in a relationship with someone underage, always wait until they are legal. If only because it’s not worth it having your life ruined just because you couldn’t wait.
But talking about fiction… We all know that the legal age of consent is a construct created because you have to put the line somewhere. It’s not a magical barrier that, once crossed, will make you all grown-up and ready for anything. Unless that’s a thing in the universe you’re writing in, I guess. So thinking that simply waiting until one of the characters is legal solves all of the problems inherent in underage relationships is an illusion. It creates the impression that the legal formalities are the only reason why it’s problematic, instead of the very real issues behind them.
Don’t get me wrong. If both characters talk about it and decide they very much want to avoid prison, and so waiting seems like a good idea, good for them. If, that is, the dynamic is explored in the other areas of the relationship. Then by all means have them wait. Great idea. But not if everyone pretends there’s nothing potentially unequal about the relationship at all as long as their genitals don’t touch.
‘Respecting’ the younger character
This is a sort of combination of nr. 2 and 4. A specific subset of stories where the older character insists they won’t have sex because the younger one is too young for it. Even though the younger one claims they are more than ready. And it’s presented as being a gesture of respect to the younger person in the relationship, not simple regard for law or self-preservation on the part of the older character. It sounds reasonable, but it is actually problematic.
To make talking about this easier, let’s imagine an entirely hypothetical fanfiction with Ginny and Tonks dating. Now, Ginny insists that she is ready to have sex. It’s possible she might be claiming that because she fears Tonks would leave her otherwise, or because she wants to appear tough, or something similarly unhealthy. But if she does… Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? It means she doesn’t feel truly secure in the relationship, or she is not entirely comfortable with her sexuality. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and not just by Tonks overriding her with her adult wisdom and saying ‘no, you’re not ready’. If she does, she is fulfilling nr. 2.
If Ginny tells Tonks she is ready to have sex, Tonks can do a few things. She can say ‘that’s nice, but I’d much prefer to wait until you’re legal, because I prefer to respect the law’. Or ‘I’m uncomfortable sleeping with you when you’re this young’. And that’s fine. Or she can say ‘are you sure? Because it seems to me you’re still kind of nervous even when we’re just making out’. Then Ginny will perhaps admit that she is not so sure after all, and they will discuss why she felt compelled to say so. But if Tonks says ‘no, you’re not’, it just makes her an asshole who doesn’t take Ginny seriously. If she says ‘but I respect you too much to sleep with you right now,’ it makes her a hypocrite to boot.
And if Ginny actually wasn’t ready, but said she was, the problem doesn’t disappear. It’s a problem inherent in the relationship that needs to be solved. In a real life relationship, such a situation should be addressed. That means it should be addressed in fiction as well. Every time I see a character insist that their younger partner is too young and they’re respecting them in direct contrast to their wishes, I flinch. I think that either they actually don’t take their partner seriously at all, or there is something very wrong in that relationship and they’re avoiding facing it. As I said above, age difference doesn’t and shouldn’t exclude mutual healthy respect, it just gets trickier to write.
(Though let me reiterate I’m talking about characters that we consider in principle capable of consenting to sex, just vulnerable to older people because of their youth. If an outright child tells you they’re ready for sex, it has about as much relevance as if they told you they were ready to fly unaided. But then, an adult has absolutely no business being in a relationship with an actual child, so anything beyond that is irrelevant, really.)
Now that I’ve outlined all the ways this can go wrong, do I actually think a relationship where one character is underage can be written in such a way that it’s not just romanticizing abuse?
Yes, I do.
Establish your Younger Character is Capable of their own Choices
This, for me, is the basic condition. Saying that age is just a number is dangerous in context of discussing underage sex, but to a degree, it’s true. At least in the sense that there are very big differences between people who are the same age on paper, as every teacher will tell you. So the first condition of writing a romance with significant age difference that won’t give off the creepy vibe is, to me, showing that your character does in fact have the emotional maturity to make this choice for themselves.
That means having them act responsibly, but it obviously doesn’t mean they have to be perfect. They can even have a childish moment here and there, since many adults do. But knowing what they want in the relationship, not being afraid to stand up to their partner, understanding consequences, all of these are things that indicate they would probably be able to hold their own in a relationship with someone older.
As a good example for this, let me cite a Severus/Hermione fanfiction. I’m sure that pairing is a complete anathema to many of you, but Chasing the Sun by Loten shows very thoroughly and carefully that Hermione is an adult in every way but the Muggle legal one. More so, in fact, than many actual adults in the story. This fic also spends almost two years, in-universe, establishing that before any actual romantic contact between the two begins. The result is that I never felt any hint of creepiness when the couple finally does get together, something that I certainly can’t always say.
Explore the Differences
At the same time, as I said at the beginning, pretending there is no difference in experience between the characters is bad writing. So show where they are different. It’s simple when the younger character has never had sex before, but there are other ways than sex to do this. In fact, they should be explored, too. Otherwise, it creates the impression that sex is the only problematic part. Knowing how to handle relationships in general is one option. Or knowing how to deal with arguments and miscommunication. There are so many things adults usually know their way around better than teenagers. Show them.
As a positive example for this, I’ll use a story that doesn’t actually deal with any underage relationships, but explores this aspect of the dynamics very well in one relationship where the younger character is nineteen and the older is his mid-twenties: Curufin and Finrod in a modern AU of The Silmarillion, Dancing With My Punchlines by LiveOakWithMoss. It even includes Finrod messing up quite substantially at the start, illustrating my point about the characters not always having to be perfect. In their interactions, and not just the sexual ones, it always shows that Finrod knows what he is doing much better than Curufin does, and yet it never slips into unhealthy dynamics.
Have the Younger Character Direct the Relationship
If the older person in the couple is responsible and at least vaguely self-aware, they will realize the advantage they have. They will want to allow the younger character to direct the pace to avoid any unintentional pushing or manipulation. So show that.
As a good example for that, I give you KouriArashi’s Searching Ceremonies series. It’s a a Derek/Stiles fanfiction which is very careful to fulfil this point. Here, too, Derek messes up at the beginning, but then is very careful to leave things up to Stiles, while at the same time taking care to show his interest to make sure Stiles doesn’t feel his lack of pushing in any direction is because it’s all the same to him. He asks permission for even such basic things as holding his hand, and tries not to push in any way.
Taking the Age Difference into Account Doesn’t Mean Unequal Treatment
As I said above, characters can be aware of a degree of imbalance in their relationship without treating each other unfairly. To present you with a good example from some non-fanfic source, I’d cite Lydia Martin and Jordan Parrish from Teen Wolf for this one, even thought the show avoided them having an actual relationship. They weren’t shy about the potential for such between the two either. And in each and every one of their interactions, it’s very clear that Parrish takes Lydia seriously while fully realizing that she is younger and he has to behave accordingly. He is a policeman, after all. Still, there is never any hint of inequality there no matter that she is seventeen and he must me at least twenty-five.
All of these things, of course, are assuming the author actually wants to depict a healthy relationship. As I said elsewhere, that doesn’t have to always be the goal. It’s also important that the relationship doesn’t have to be like that from the very beginning. Love stories are often about how the relationship grows and develops into a more mature, healthy one. That can be explored very well when the age difference dynamics plays a part. There is room for messing up. Just be careful that there are not some issues in the beginning that it would be very questionable to simply overlook later. But more on that in another article…