The other day I decided to take advantage of the crisp wintery weather (nearly spring!) and went for a walk in the woods near my house. It’s quite a deep wood and there’s places where you can’t see the sky because the tangle of branches above you are so thick.
Anyway, I was just pulling myself back up off the floor (what? Like you’ve never fallen over before) and I was plucking twigs out of my bra when there was a noise in front of me. Now, I wasn’t scared… not really. It was probably a bird or a fox or that rambler I’d met earlier who had to help me over that stile.
I cocked my head to the side and listened again. It was closer this time.
And it was voices.
I crept forward towards a rather thick thatch of foliage and pulled them aside. And let me tell you, I was shocked.
It looked like there was a group of around ten boys sitting around a campfire in a clearing. They were all aged about seventeen but… I don’t know, they just seemed so… wise. As I clattered through the branches, they all stood up as one, peering through the smoke.
“Who is it?” one asked, wheezing slightly.
“Um.. it’s Jo? I’m a… book reviewer,” I called, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. Why was there so much smoke?
“Jo from Wear the Old Coat? False alarm boys, it’s just a book blogger,” the one who I guessed was the leader said. He was tall and his shoulders were broad, his eyes heavy lidded and his smile lazy. “We thought you were someone special.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, pushing a bit of tree out of the way and staggering through the gap. It actually was a clearing full of boys. I blinked, wondering if I was hallucinating because of the effects of the fire. Speaking of… “What’s with the fire?”
As if on cue, someone dumped a load of twigs onto the flames. A cloud of smoke engulfed us once more. I coughed so harshly, I thought I was going to bring up a lung.
“Wait… you look familiar. Do I know you?” I stared at the self-imposed leader.
He rubbed his neck and looked a bit shifty. “Um… no. I don’t think so.”
“I do know you! You’re in a book I read last year,” I replied, clicking my fingers in his face.“What the hell was it called? That was you, right?”
“What the hell was it called? That was you, right?”
“Are you River?”
“River? What kind of stupid name is that?” he said, his lovely eyebrows pulling together. “No, my name is Ryver.”
I was about to ask what the difference was but decided against it. “What is this place?”
“Where young adult love interests go to wait,” a boy in the corner. He’s also tall, but with golden hair, and sea-green eyes. He leans against a tree, his arms across his broad chest.
“Yes, wait. Wait to be called on by a writer who needs a mysterious love interest.”
I let this digest for moment.
“And what’s with the fire?”
“Oh, girls like it when boys smell of woodsmoke.”
“And sea salt.”
“What does sea salt smell of?” I asked completely perplexed.
“And dirt, sometimes,” said Ryver, nodding his glorious head but completely ignoring me.
“So what do you do here? Apart from make sure you smell of barbecue,” I started to laugh but none of the lads do. My snort echoes in the trees.
“We practice what every true you adult heroine wants,” said Ryver.
“Like how to play instruments,” says the guy with the guitar, his calloused hands plucking at the strings.
“We revise the cool bands that no one has ever heard of… just in case the heroine discovered them when she was up all night on YouTube because she couldn’t sleep because she was thinking of me.”
“Oh and how to make your past sound more mysterious than it actually is,” piped in another one.
“And what are they doing over there?” I asked, pointing towards two guys talking intently to each other.
“Oh they’re swapping… stories.”
“Of their experiences.”
“Is there an echo in here?” Ryver scowled at me but he even looked gorgeous when he did that. I motioned for him to continue and planned the name of our first child. “Sexual experience.”
“Well, girls hate it when the guys they have a crush on haven’t had lots of other previous partners.”
“Um, that’s not really true…” I began.
“Yes it is,” snapped Ryver. “How else are they supposed to take charge?”
Before I could open my mouth, a siren roared above me. I jumped and fell back, treading on the toe of a boy who was practicing his smile in a compact mirror. If you asked me, it looked a bit lopsided, but no one asked me.
“Emergency!” said Ryver, pressing his finger into his ear. It’s then I realised that he had an earpiece in. Wow, this was organised! “An author’s just started planning a story about a girl who has just started a new school. We need a guy to be sitting on the back of a bus when she gets on to watch her and say something mysterious to her when they get off at the same stop. Oh! Oh! OK, new information. They’ll be neighbours and he’ll have a dark secret. Something to do with his family. Who’s up for it?”
All the boys in the clearing stood up eagerly. Once more Ryver pressed his finger into his ear, listening intently for a few moments.
“OK, right, they need someone in a leather jacket. Hunter,” he said, clicking at a boy with a leather jacket and messy hair over his pewter almond-shaped eyes. “You’re up. At ease, boys.”
“Um, I think I’d better go,” I said, starting to walk away.
“Wait, we’ll get someone to walk you home.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary, you’re obviously busy.”
They all started laughing, even Lopsy with the compact mirror.
“Don’t worry, we won’t be walking you home. Our conversation is perfect and edgy and we don’t like to waste it,” said Ryver. I frowned. “One of them will walk you home.”
He pointed at a group of boys who were sitting as far away as the fire as they could. They all had blonde hair and rosy cheeks but I couldn’t help but notice that they all looked really miserable and rejected.
“We call them the Love Triangle Losers. They’re not allowed near the wood smoke in case the heroines get confused. One of them will walk with you. They have nothing better to do.”
You may have guessed from that totally true introduction (it happened, OK?) was a rather thinly veiled ribbing of YA lover boys. I often get my keck in a twist over love interests (OK, so just in this post when I say ‘love interest’ I mean boys. I know, I know girls can be love interests but hey! They’re getting their own post) and I have a feeling it’s not in the way that authors tend to want me to.
As an avid reader of young adult fiction, I’ve met my fair share of YA love interests that have left me bored, cold, eye-rolly and on the rare occasion, full of rage. Because seriously? Some of them are atrocious.
One of the most interesting things about my On Writing feature is that it’s encouraging me to look at YA books from the perspective of a writer. When you’re writing a YA book, it’s difficult not to compare and contrast your stuff for the stuff that’s being published. After all they’re your contemporaries and, perhaps if you’re lucky, your competition.
Love interests have always been a tricky thing for me because I am always so conscious that they’re going to be crap. Love interests, to me anyway, can be the make or break of a YA story.
So, after possibly the longest introduction in the history of introductions, let’s talk about the YA love interest, shall we?
Oh, before I properly start I feel I have to say that I’m naming no specific examples in this post and I’m going to try and stay as general as possible.
The book I’m writing at the moment is a contemporary story set in Manchester. It’s kind of a love story but it’s also kind of what happens after the love story. One of my main characters is called Frasier and he’s twenty-going-on-twenty-one. My story is told from two perspectives, one Frasier’s and one Gemma’s, so even though he’s one of the protagonists… he’s also the love interest.
And boy, am I struggling getting a grasp on him.
OK, so I’ve set the scene. I want to focus in on one word there which I think is important: contemporary.
This is my genre of choice and this is what I’m going to focus on in this post. Hopefully if you write other genres, you might be able to find some common ground but if not please leave me a comment and get a discussion going!
I understand how tempting it is to write a love interest that ticks all the boxes. Gorgeous? Yep. Intelligent? Yep. Masculine? Oh yes. Mysterious? Yes. Cultured? Of course, darling. Goes against the mainstream? Definitely.
Who in their right mind wouldn’t fancy him?
But what I don’t understand is why, when you’re writing a contemporary book, do you want to write a love interest who is an unattainable and hideously unrealistic fantasy?
YA books are packed full of boys who listen to The Smiths (omg, what a coincidence! So does the heroine!) and fix up vintage cars and wear clothes that everyone wants their boyfriend to wear (plaid, scarves, skinny jeans, Converse, etc etc). They’ll lounge around reading Catcher in the Rye and they’ll think that girls who love The Bell Jar are absolutely the best girls in the entire world.
Which we are by the way.
I guess my issue with this wonderful perfect love interest lurching onto the scene is that it’s so easy! Of course the heroine is going to fall in love with the guy who loves and gets everything she loves but not every couple fits together so conveniently.
I think, as a writer, I like to challenge myself with my love interest. I’m interested in these differences between the heroine and the boy, the bits that are a bit messy and don’t fit so easily together. Because this is where the interesting conversations and character developments come into it.
Let’s play a game. Which of the following would you be more interested in reading?
“I love The Ramones!” she says.
“Oh me too! How brilliant we both love the same things!” he says.
Now, how about this one?
“I love Take That!” she says.
“Holy shit, are you kidding? Wow that’s…. ridiculous.” He says.
Both of those are love stories, which one would you rather read?
I like to think that I write the latter because I want to use my relationships to explore and flesh out both of their characters.
Now, I know that I’m sounding pretty smug right now. I’m sitting on my Queen of the Writing World throne, looking down on all the crap lazy writers because my love interests are the best YA love interests in aaaaall the land.
They’re not, I assure you.
They’re always physically attractive. They’re always funny and completely charming. They’re always a bit of an outcast. They’re always a bit geeky.
But I’m trying to practice what I preach.
One of my (many) faults as a writer is that I’m so tempted to make them the cool kid who I’d fancy if I met him. Because then I can understand why the heroine fancies him… and, like I said before, it’s easy. But why not have a guy who is really interested in… I dunno, painting model airplanes? Or playing Fifa? Or who likes sitting around on the streets with his best friends? Or who enjoys school? Or someone who can’t wait to start their apprenticeship in plumbing?
Boys at YA age in real life are such fantastic fodder for writing. The conversations they have. The situations they find themselves in at this time in their life. Their relationships with their family, their peers, girls, boys! Of course there’ll be exceptions, but when a girl is having life troubles she can ring up her friends and have a good rant, but can boys? Yeah, I guess, but most of the boys I know wouldn’t do that, even less so when they were young adults. There’s all this tangled mess that they have to sort through and that’s where the stories come into it.
Who said that guys who are serious all the time and who protect the heroines (don’t even get me started on the alarming trend I’ve noticed creep into a lot of YA books recently. Newsflash: there are other ways of showing a boy is masculine and strong without being intimidating and frightening to the heroine) are the epitome of greatness?
Let’s hear it for the real boys who fart and burp, who say the wrong things, who make immature jokes, who have lots of friends, who love spending Saturdays watching footie games, who like rap music, who don’t even know who Morrissey is, who get spots, who can’t grow facial hair, who grow too much facial hair, who wear jeans that fall down round their bums, who wear trackies, who can’t afford a real leather jacket, who work in McDonalds (and enjoy it!), who aren’t interested in finding themselves on a roadtrip, who’s only time of picking up an instrument is learning Three Blind Mice on a recorder in primary school, who only like films that star Jason Statham, who listens to his music too loudly on public transport, who would rather read a Dan Brown book than a Virginia Woolf one. Let’s hear it for the boys that wolf whistle at you when you cross the road, or the ones who’d stand up and let an old lady sit down on the bus, and the ones who squabble with their siblings. And, of course, the guys who wouldn’t know where to start writing a song for the girl they’re seeing so they’d probably get a few of their mates, a few Fosters and sing this song at them.
Where are those stories? Those are the ones I want to write. Whether you’d want to read them is another matter….
So what do you think? How do you go about writing love interests? What role do you think male love interests have in YA books? Should they have their own personalities or are they simply there to illuminate something in the heroine? Do you think there’s room for realistic guys in contemporary YA or will they always be overshadowed by the perfect boys?
And like I mentioned before, are you writing a historical, fantasy, dystopian etc etc… what challenges have you found? Let me know in the comments!