the moral complexity of fictional cheating and storytelling

(I’m going to start by saying “out loud” that nothing I say below is meant to come across as pro-cheating. This is about fiction, devices, and ways to define as well as assassinate characters.)

I am loose when it comes to fictional infidelity. When it comes to fiction cheating serves almost exclusively as a plot device

as something for a relationship to overcome or be destroyed by

OR as a way to prove the cheating couple is meant to be

OR it serves to destroy a particular character


What I believe about the cheating in any given story is what the POV character tells me. So…

If the cheating is proof of true love, okay.

If the cheating is character assassination, sure thing!

If that character wants to move through the forgiveness process, I’m in. Just convince me.

(For the record this is all I want from any story. I will follow you anywhere, just sell me and sell me well.)


Now, when it comes to YA lit, my stance on cheating can feel problematic. Because I don’t automatically judge the cheating or the cheaters (especially if the cheaters are likable, believable characters.) Because as I see YA, there is a certain exploration of relationships, sexuality, morality. Young people aren’t necessarily seeing absolutes. It all plays into the idea that for me all YA is moral complex because young adulthood is where those decisions start to become real.

So when I read YA as an adult, “I” don’t see the permanency of anything a 17 year old does, even if I believe the happily-ever-after. I get a 40 year old nobly sticking with a partner, but I have a hard time getting upset when a high school junior strays, especially when the cheating couple is the couple. I’d rather see the couple break up with their respective boy/girlfriends and deal.

I read YA this last year where the couple tried to stay with their respective other and fight the HEA, and one where he made himself available to her and the relationship. I liked the second better, but that was more the point of the story, the coming together so that be why. In the book where the couple was fighting their attraction, cheated and tried to go back to their others, it felt more like a stall to build tension to the end, which can always be tricky for me. If it feels like a stall, I probably don’t like it no matter that it is.


The other side of this is when the cheating it hurts a prominent, likable character and that hurt, near PTSD is part of the romantic hurdle.

Once again, it comes down to how well the story is told and how believable the cheating element is used. I read this gambit twice this year, in one I thought it worked really well because of the cheating situation and its ripples for the character both physical and emotional. In the other story it was used from the non-POV love interest’s side, where it felt like more of an arbitrary roadblock, but I think that was because I was really, really mad at him for turning so quickly and hurting her when she really needed him.

Also, I like the pace of the resolution in the first example better than almost any other romantic resolution I can think of right now, and I know that plays into how I see the romantic obstacles.

Like a lot of other tropes, I need to write young adult cheating to really know how I feel about it. I’m particularly interested in writing about it from the POV of the boy who’s hurt.  I have a thing about male vulnerability and recovery.

I do have a story idea with a girl who’s boyfriend cheated on her a lot, but there’s a lot more to that story that I need to figure out. Like the whole rest of her life.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. They’re complicated, possibly inconsistent and maybe disturbing, but the beauty of YA to me is being able to explore the moral complexities of relationship both large and small.


(I took out all of the book titles so avoid spoilers. If you want to know which books I’m talking about, let me know.)







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