On Writing: The Boy is Mine.

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.

“Wait?”

“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.”

I blinked.

“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.”

“Stories?”

“Of their experiences.”

“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.”

“What!?”

“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.”

So……

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?

Yes, I have the handwriting of a 5 year old.

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.

Heh heh.

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!

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25 thoughts on “On Writing: The Boy is Mine.

  1. This. Is. Rad. I love this post, Jo.

    After a while, it can start to feel like every love interest comes off the same character conveyor belt. Broody? Check. Chiseled featured? Check. Scent of leather and woodsmoke? Check. Arrogant? Check. Ugh. No.

    Cookie-cutter love interests are really starting to bug me. It’s not as if everyone finds the same traits attractive in real life, so why are love interests all starting to seem so homogeneous?

    I like love interests that read like real people. Like someone I could potentially see on the streets of Melbourne. (Then again, we do have Wolfboy and Ed, so maybe I’m setting the bar a little high). I’d read the heck out of a book with a love interest who listened to Take That, because I’d want to know what he loved about them. Whereas as soon as someone drops “the Smiths” the cynical part of me thinks it’s just author shorthand for so “I’m so sensitive and deep”.

    I should also say that I adore Frasier, just by the way.

    (Also, Ryver is totally mine, so hands off.)

    • Thank Rey!
      And yes, I know exactly what you mean. Every time I’m reading a book and a chap with a leather jacket gets involved I just know he’s going to be the love interest. I don’t know ANY guy with a leather jacket! Those things are expensive!

      I completely get you about the real people thing, especially with a contemporary story. There are so many times I get cranky and roll my eyes and say “Yes, because boys are totally like that…”

      This needs to stop.

      And you’re so lovely… ;)

      And Ryver is yours. As long as I can have Ryder.

  2. This is an absolutely fantastic post! I’ve always felt that I want to write about different kinds of boys, same as I like writing about different types of girls. It’d be boring to just keep writing the same character over and over again. That said, in my current project, the love interest does fit some of the stereotypes (no The Smiths though! The story is allll about terrible pop). But he’s also genuinely a bit of a shit. Not in the fake ‘bad boy’ way where they were naughty UNTIL they met the protagonist, and now they’re good because she’s so perfect for them. He has to struggle with his previous bad habits and make a choice. I’ve been writing this book for over four years, but even now I wonder whether they should end up together, whether it’s a realistic choice for my heroine to make.

    My pet hate is love interests who get in fights or threaten people to defend the girl’s honour. My most recently reviewed book was ‘Spellbound’, by Cara Lynn Shultz, and although I did enjoy the book and like some things about the love interest, the violence, though some of it was necessary to the story, didn’t serve to make the love interest more attractive to me, though I’m sure it was meant to. I hate violence, and would never date somebody who who gets in fights all the time, therefore I would never ever write a love interest like that.

    • Thanks Julianne! It’s so interesting to read about other writer’s experiences with writing characters.

      I hate the love interest who gets into fights and is a general aggressive sod but oh, oh it’s OK because he’s doing it for the girl. I think it puts BOTH characters in a bad light… the heroine because she’s always getting into those situations where she needs to be ‘saved’ and the boy who thinks the only way of getting out of these situations is with his fists. Urgh.

      I hate violence too and I would never, ever find it “attractive” for a boy to show his strength or masculinity by intimidating or scaring me. It makes no sense.

      • Sorry I only just revisited this post (I’m including it in my Monday Amusements link post this Monday), but I wanted to comment again to say EXACTLY, it does make them both look bad, you’re right!

  3. The introduction was perfect and hilarious. It totally captures what love interest are becoming now.
    I do like the occasional “dark and mysterious” love interest but I prefer a love interest that is awkward and often disagrees with the girl. (Interest-wise not how the girl wants to live her life-wise.) There was this one book I read in which the guy loved all these badly made movies awhile the heroine hated them. Sure, it was a disagreement but I thought that the little detail made the romance more realistic :)

    • Thanks Lottie Eve. No, I get you! I don’t hate the “dark and mysterious” guy completely, I think I just hate how it’s become a pre-requisite for the YA love interest. How the only option the heroine seems to be the mysterious/serious loner guy or the wimpy nice guy.

      I mean, come on! That can’t be our only option, can it?

      If you can do dark and mysterious and keep it fresh and different then I am all ears…. or, um… eyes!

      That book sounds great, can you remember which one it was? :)

      • Fairy Tale Fail by Mina Esguerra :) I am becoming a fan of her cute romance novels. Oh, and her books are not YA but they do have some crossover appeal. Just wanted to tell you that!
        It is true that the “dark and mysterious” and the “nice guy” love interests is getting overused. It is getting to the point where I roll my eyes whenever I read about them. Be creative, people! :P

  4. What a fab posting. Couldn’t agree more! When I read YA I much prefer a guy that’s not perfect; you end up with a much better character. I am a sucker for a lazy smile though… & woodsmoke. Great writing, looking forward to more. :-)

    • Ha, thanks Franny!

      I think I’m the only girl who dislikes the lazy smile thing.. I don’t know why. I think it’s because whenever I picture it I always manage to picture it as the hero having a bit of indigestion. ;)

  5. You’re hilarious. That. Was the best introduction. Ever. And I almost feel like it should be real.

    I haven’t read much YA lately simply because of those types of love-interests and the ‘typical’ romance that revolves around them.

    But there are some redeeming YA books out there, I think, with much more ‘everyday’ guys. Perhaps not enough, but they are there. And if publishers chose more of those types of books I think they’d be surprised how popular they would be. It’s a writer’s job to make the ordinary extraordinary, after all, and this is definitely one of the ways for them to do that.

    Btw, have you read “Eleanor & Park”? It’s by a writer called Rainbow Rowell, who i think is Austrlian. (Though I can’t be sure.) But, if you want a YA boy who’s normal but different? Then you’d love that story.

    • Ha, thanks LD!

      I know what you mean about the publisher thing. I’ve had so many conversations with readers/bloggers who have been like “WHYYYY?” about these stereotypical love interests but it seems no one is listening or reading the reviews because the same things keep getting churned out!

      The mind boggles.

      And no, actually, I haven’t read Eleanor and Park though I’ve heard that it’s brilliant. It’s definitely on my TBR list and I think you’ve just shuftied it up a few places!

  6. Love it!!! It drives me crazy when the heroine falls in love with the hottest boy in the school or wherever, the one that all the girls want. It’s even worse when said hot boy is immediately taken with the heroine, especially if she’s described as being sort of awkward, or slightly nerdy, or [fill in the flaw here]. I just can’t buy it.

    My favorite love stories are when two people don’t get along at first, but love grows through the course of the book. I’m even okay with some instant attraction, as long as it’s not full-blown “we were made for each other…I knew we were soulmates the moment our eyes met” silliness. So yes, I would definitely want to read your stories. :)

    • Thank you! :D

      I know. I think the phrase “inexplicably attracted” needs to be expunged from YA books. Urrrrgh. And yes, the flawed/shy/bookish girl attracting the smouldering gaze of the sporty/musical/popular guy… urgh. No.

      It’s so silly. Not saying that it doesn’t/shouldn’t happen but the delivery is always so eye-rolly, isn’t it?

  7. Three words: This is FAB! I laughed so much at that intro, love your writing :) I totally agree with this and what is with agressive love interests – it’s not cool, it’s creepy! I also have another pet peeve about boys who are friends with the heroine suddenly confessing their love and fantasies to her – based on personal experience I find that creepy, not cute.

    To me, the ‘love interest’ should be more than that – I mean there should be an actual relationship, not just love…unless of course that is the point ;) It does make me reconsider my own writing – am I making him like a particular band because it’s quirky, or because I love that band in real life and can write something about them? So much to consider!

    • Thanks Maree! I’m really glad you liked this post.

      And YES! It IS creepy and such a horrifying trend, especially in YA fiction. Teenagers don’t need that kind of thing being written as sexy or attractive. It’s not ‘edgy’.. it’s worrying.

      I’m a bit of a sucker for childhood friends/neighbours/that sort of thing falling in love…. I don’t know why!

      But yes, I definitely agree there should be a relationship. If we as the reader aren’t given a reason for them to be together apart from omghe’ssohot then why should we care?

      There IS so much to consider, isn’t there? This writing business is hard work! But worth it. ;)

  8. Pingback: Under the Covers || All the Guys… | weartheoldcoat

  9. Oh how I wish that this was the book you were writing – a satirical look at YA but as a YA contemp novel – do it, Jo! Please? For me? I will love you forever*

    While it is so easy for us to fall in love the perfect love interests, I do prefer reading about the not-so-perfect ones, the ones that make mistakes, and say the wrong thing, and aren’t the coolest boy in school and I am sick of forking leather jackets (note to people who wear them – you never, ever look cool.)

    Also, I love your curly haired boy face drawing!

    *I will love you forever regardless ;)

    • Ha, gosh! Pressure, Mandee. I’ll see what I can do. ;)

      Hahahaa, I love your hatred of leather jackets. I’ve never seen a guy in a leather jacket and thought “HELLO!”

      And thank you! If this writery malarky fails to take off, I may become an illustrator.

  10. Love, love, love this post!
    Your intro is brilliant. And I completely agree. I’m so sick of seeing the same old tired tropes in YA love interests. Give me realistic boys any day! I think that’s why I love MM’s boys so much – like all her characters, they’re flawed, but strong in a realistic, every day kinda way.

    • Thanks gorgeous.
      Yes to MM’s boys, they are definitely my favourite YA love interests to read. So complex and three dimensional in the way that they’re actually characters themselves, not just to dote on the heroine.

  11. Have I told you lately that I love you? And Ryver too, obviously. I can’t wait to see what comes out of that fantastical brain of yours.

    Lili Wilkinson always cracks me up with her YA boys. I mean, she has a LARPer as one! If you’ve never YouTube’d LARPing, you are in for a TREAT.

  12. Pingback: On Writing || People write YA books about girls like you… | weartheoldcoat

  13. I’m late to the party, but as both a YA writer and a member of the target audience (I’m 19) I just wanted to chip in. :) When reading, I like the heroines’ love interests to be cheerful. I am SO over the dark, arrogant, broody guy, because who would be happy with someone like that? A relationship isn’t about staring wistfully into one another’s eyes forever and ever. If I’ve come to care about the heroine, I want her to be with someone who will be cheerful and tease her and banter with her and make her laugh.

    When I write YA, the romance is never the primary plot. This kind of restricts what I can do with the love interest (male or female) because they’re automatically cast in a supportive role. The one love interest crime I can honestly say I’ve never been guilty of is ‘the arrogant bad boy.’ I suppose that’s because I, personally, do not like especially arrogant people, or people with no interest in treating others decently, so I don’t think I could write convincingly about a character who fell for someone like that. :P

    In the end, I think it’s about striking a balance. If the story isn’t primarily about the romance, the couple has to have a certain amount of accord, or they’ll never be able to accomplish the goals they’ve been set by the story. However, cookie-cutter characters are no fun to write or read.

    • Hi Kristen! Thanks for your comment. I completely agree…I don’t understand how anyone can find it sexy to fall in love with these brooding characters (especially when brooding is seemingly synonymous with abusive nowadays)… This is why I stay way clear of New Adult.

      I’m in my early twenties and I know I’d never fall for a guy who treats me like something he’s stepped in!

      And I definitely prefer it when romance takes the backseat. ;)

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