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Good Guys: More Than Just A Mirror

While YA lit doesn't need romance or a romantic subplot, I'm finding that YA readers are most often expecting one and looking for it. Sure, there are plenty of great YAs that don't have romance as a core feature, but for the sake of argument let's just assume that most do (and, I would argue, most do). There's also been lots of discussion about our female protagonists: what makes a "strong" female protagonist, is she weak or strong in her budding relationship, where does sex play into it versus marriage and children and/or independence and self-reliance? There's been quite a bit to talk about one side (or, when talking about gay relationships, one character), but I'd like to take a moment and ask a few questions about the guys.

The male love interests seem to have one thing in common: they're hot. I won't bother to speculate about what "hot" means to individual readers, but let's all agree that he's nice on the eyes. Okay. What else?

No, seriously: what else?

I'm having a heck of a time pining down exactly what else is part of the makeup of the "great guy" in books without him merely reflecting something about the girl. For example, he's great because he saves the girl, protects the girl, watches the girl from afar, lets the girl call the shots, lets the girl be herself, listens with a kind ear or challenges her as an equal; he's funny or a friend first or they have a lot in common, but it's all dependent on her. This is not wholly surprising as most stories are written in the girl's POV so, naturally, her tastes are paramount, but I don't know if it's over-glossy to admit that the males are getting kinda "whitewashed"; not racially (although we can dive down that rabbit hole someday), but emotionally/individually. Guys don't sound like individuals with opinions and characteristics of their own. This reminds me of the whole Prince Charming problem: that if a guy *really* loves you, he'll just know everything that we want/what to do/what to say without you needing to tell him because that would be cheating. If it's just fantasy-wish-fulfilment, fine, I can get down with that. Or if it's the pendulum swinging back from the traditional power dynamic, that's fine too. And while I can name a bunch of great guy characters who are, outside their hotness, people who seem real in their own right with flaws and opinions that have nothing to do with their love's fascination of them, it's not easy (and a lot tougher when there's not something paranormalish about them to begin with). Maybe it's the fact that I *can* name these characters -- like Melissa Marr's Seth or Maggie Stiefvater's James, for example -- that sets them apart because they read like individuals who I can believe for their own sakes: their voices are strong enough on their own without being part of a chorus or in harmony with their love-interest counterpart.

What makes our lead guys great? I'm not talking about their Tragic Past or their Immortal Longing, the more-than-a-friend question or their promise to support their girl no matter what; but something of their own that sets them up to be a good, solid "Guy" independent of the pretty, rose-colored, heart-shaped glasses.


Maybe it's just me, but I want my man to be more than just a mirror. Comments welcome.


May. 20th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
Great post!

I always think romances are the most convincing when two very distinct characters fall in love. Isn't that the best? Yet sometimes romances in YA can read as a one way street: one character doesn't seem to exist outside the other. S/he doesn't seem to have a life outside the other. Why? Where is the delight in that, when love is already taken for granted and the only obstacles are one's insecurity and/or external plot devices?

My favourite male characters are the ones I feel I can pluck off the page. Except they aren't often the Love Interest. Simon from THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS and Jacob from TWILIGHT, for example. Why? Is it because they're not "hot?" (They're both described as good-looking.) Or is it because they're not tortured enough?
May. 20th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
Yes! Exactly. Two people = much stronger bond and a more interesting relationship/story.

I often feel that secondary characters can be more interesting in unexpected ways than the primary, but I always thought it was because there was more leeway for our minds to play, with less said, we can speculate more and make them more interesting in our own opinion.
May. 20th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
Sounds familiar
This sounds and awful lot like what I as a male author go through when trying to write good female characters to bounce off my male lead, weather they be romantic interests or just my MC's right hand/best friend. In male dominated action stories, the female love interest often becomes someone the MC rescues, or who takes care of the MC between adventures, and, just as you've stated here, reflects the MC's interests or character traits. But, as MissJJ above me stated, the best characters, the ones we remember, are the ones that have conflict with our MC. Romance is more fulfilling as a reader when there's conflict between the two romantic partners than when it's just a given. Give your "guy" some interests or personal beliefs that directly conflict with your MC, and watch the sparks fly. He'll become a more interesting character, with tings that define him outside her, and their relationship becomes more realistic at the same time.

-@BlanchardAuthor from Twitter
May. 20th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Sounds familiar
Beautifully said! (And "sparks fly" makes me think of old Moonlighting episodes.) Good to know this is a dynamic that can be worked on both sides of the fence! Thanks so much for your insights. This rocks!
May. 20th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
I think it's hard for authors to define why a person is the love interest because it's difficult for us in the real world to explain why we love someone. Love is just one of those things that sneaks up and saps away all reason, which is why so many relationships don't last once the warm glow disappears. Love needs no reasoning, but a long lasting, fulfilling relationship has to be built on more than that.

And even the characters that you point out, Seth and James, are still presented to the reader as suitable matches because of how they affect the MC. While fully fleshed out characters, their suitability and dreaminess stems directly from their willingness and ability to protect/help the MC. Like the reliable best friend, they exist to bolster and support the heroine, and maybe sneak in some super hot kissing on the side.

But isn't that reality? Don't we choose the people we want to be with because of how they make us *feel*? The excitement of the "bad boy", the stability of the "nice guy", we choose our partners in real life because of how their character reflects back onto us (I chose my husband because he made me laugh). Why should we expect any different from our main characters?
May. 20th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
Oh no, I agree whole-heartedly and that glow of love fades when we begin to see that there's more to the person than just the reflection of what we found fascinating by ourselves; but that's reality, too: people are more than their first impressions or initial Perfection as seen by attraction and I don't know that the care being shown female characters in YA is being showered on the menfolk as well to create three-dimensional people.

It's certainly not always necessary, but it was recently striking me how often we're calling out female protags but allowing guys to be the "everyman" hottie. ;-)
May. 20th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
I think it's important to recognize that men and women think differently. They might come to the same conclusions, but it may be through very different paths. And sometimes those paths aren't necessarily ones the female lead might like. I know that it's rather eye-opening to have my husband or other male writers read my stuff and comment on the thinking processes of my male characters. Sometimes the motive for doing something (that looks cool/admirable) might be just "it seemed like a good thing to do" to a guy, whereas it's a little more considered and pondered by a girl. Um, I'm not trying to stereotype! And I think that it's a principle that can extend beyond male leads to just any character difference whatever the gender. People aren't always thinking what we think they're thinking. :)

One book I love for showing these differences is Wendelin van Draanen's FLIPPED. Two cool, growing characters who often misinterpret each other's actions through a more (or less) glorified filter than is the truth.
May. 20th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I think it's intelligent to point out that ANY two people have different thought processes and ways they might do the same things differently -- no stereotyping. People are different with different sets of experiences that shape different sets of opinions that lead us to do things...um...differently!

i.e. What you said! :-)

I studied hermeneutics which is basically like saying "interpretational reality" -- that there is no "truth" because everything is shaped by perspective. Knowing that, it's amazing how ANY communication happens and that 99.9% of interaction is based on misinterpretation so keep THAT in mind the next time you get into an argument! HAHAHA!

Hurts the head, doesn't it? ;-)
(no subject) - olmue - May. 20th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf - May. 21st, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 20th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree that this is pretty much mirroring the gender dynamics in traditionally 'male genres' like action/mystery/etc. In both cases, it bothers me a lot. A relationship doesn't work on its own; you need two people to come together for it to be real, and for that, you'll need two people first and foremost. I can't believe in a relationship if I don't believe in the characters.

Basically, if I don't have a good idea of what the blank-slate love interest is like when not talking to the protagonist, it doesn't work for me. What are they like with other people? What do they do for fun? Dreams, aspirations? Even a hormonal teenager hopelessly, head-over-heels in love has parts of their day that don't revolve around the object of their affection.

And as for me, I find characters who have a life and talents of their own a million times more attractive than when they just exist to fawn over the protagonist. I mean, that's just creepy. Give me someone who's doing their own thing and offers the protag a brief smile before moving on, and I'm sold. Give me someone who buys the protag coffee and interrogates her about her life all afternoon long, or who saves her from some unspeakable danger and is smolderingly hot and then whisks off into the night again, and I just go "bleh".
May. 20th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
and for that, you'll need two people first and foremost.

This says it better than anything I ever could. Brava!

I agree with you on all counts -- in fact, I like the character to grow having met the person in question. Expanding our boundaries, learning something new from one another, changing Who We Are is the BEST part of growing up, growing old and growing closer with our fellow human beings. (And if we love one another, bonus!)
(no subject) - corinneduyvis - May. 20th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf - May. 21st, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 20th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
...waitaminute, I think that's MY generation! (That would explain a lot.) ;-)

where you turn a person into an idea rather than a living creature with hopes and fears and ideals and flaws.

YES! This is exactly it. You hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to say: I want to have fleshed-out *people* not just pretty ideas walking around in tight jeans and nice shoes. You're certainly right that it's not easy -- no relationship is -- and certainly the ones on paper aren't either.

I am intrigued what you've said about folks having difficulty connecting with each other in our modern society...I just spoke on it at NESCBWI talking about all the technology for communication and everyone STILL feels all alone and ignored, wanting to be part of something, acknowledged and loved.


I think there may be a future post on this...


(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf - May. 20th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
I always go for tortured souls (let me clarify: in books). Guess that's why I'm a shrink, LOL!

Great post!!!!
May. 20th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
Oh I am a total slave of the Tragic Hero. *guilty as charged*
May. 20th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
In my revision letter for Chasing Brooklyn, my editor said - we need to see WHY these two fall for each other. It really made me think, and my book is better for it.

I was able to think about what they each brought out in the other. You know that old saying "they bring out the best of each other"? I think that's what we need to think about, and show what those things ARE.
May. 20th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
Your editor is clearly a genius.

You know that old saying "they bring out the best of each other"? I think that's what we need to think about, and show what those things ARE.

And I think *THAT* is something dearly missing from lots of YA: that the love need not be tragic from the outset, but there's this blissful "honeymoon" time of gleefully, joyfully, daringly doing no wrong. All is right with the world and this person is PERFECT! Happiness is outre, I guess, in the face of good ol' fashioned angst, but I kinda miss it. It's something I really appreciated in Ann Brashares' THE LAST SUMMER (OF YOU AND ME).
May. 20th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
When people get to talking about great guys in YA it seems like Scarlett's brother from Maureen Johnson's books always comes up. Even though he's not the love interest (obviously!), yeah, that's a lot of what I want a guy in a book to be like. He cares about his sister a lot but he's not overinvolved in her personal life. He's a genuinely great guy. But more than anything, he's passionately involved in the world. He's passionately involved in his own life and his dream of being an actor. It's the same thing with the boy in Cecil Castellucci's Boy Proof. It's a big world out there and he wants to be involved in it.

I watched a wonderful movie last weekend, an anime called "Whisper of the Heart." It's about a girl of 14 or so who's filled with a great sense of longing and loneliness that she doesn't know what to do with... she notices a boy whose name is in the checkout card of every book she checks out from the library, and she dreams that he could be her prince charming. Well, they meet, and they get off to such a rocky start that she's HORRIFIED he's the "Amasawa Seiji" she's been dreaming about meeting, but eventually he lets her see the violins he's been learning how to make, and he tells her about his dream to become a violin maker. After much persuasion, his father lets him take a violin making apprenticeship in Italy for two months. The girl is devastated, heartbroken. But it's her loneliness, and her love, and her longing for Seiji's sense of purpose, that pushes her to grab hold of her own dreams and write a novel.

Antoine de St. Exupery said that real love isn't staring into each other's eyes, it's facing the same direction together. That's what I really want to see in YA that has a romance plot - characters who don't spend the whole novel just staring into each others eyes, but who are busy using each other and their relationship to discover who they are, who they want to be, what they want to do.
May. 20th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
I love Whisper of the Heart SOOO much. I play the soundtrack a lot when I'm writing to remind me what a good YA romance should be!!
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf - May. 20th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
This is one reason that I love multi-POV books -- because we get to see into the heart of that elusive 'hot' guy. Both Seth and Jamie have scenes in their POV, and it makes such a difference. I'm wondering if you can think of any books with a well-developed romantic character who doesn't have his own POV?...because nothing is coming to my mind. Right now I'm reading LIES, by Michael Grant -- and one of the things I really enjoy about this story is the many POVs that he shares, especially Sam's. Sam is the hero, but we get to hear his fears and worries, and it makes him so much more sympathetic and attractive as a character.
May. 20th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
That is such a good point, Robin. I think Olivia and Alfred was worlds better when I added Alfred's POV because it was so much less of a struggle for me to portray Alfred as he really is and not try to show him through the filter of Olivia. In THAT case, he was a character outside of her from other stories already, so there was another side of him I wanted to show that she would never see. Now I should look at every love interest like that...what is their other side?
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May. 20th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
I always loved Howl of Howl's Moving Castle. He knows himself well, he's witty, and he's endlessly patient - not just with Sophie's issues, but with his apprentice and his work. He's emotional and melodramatic in contrast to practical Sophie. They're a good example of a relationship as two people who care about each other and express this in their own ways, rather than one glommed-together starry-eyed amoeba of romance.
May. 20th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
YES! Excellent!

BTW, "one glommed-together starry-eyed amoeba of romance" = LOL!
John Rea-Hedrick [myopenid.com]
May. 20th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Great post, Dawn!

I've posted my own thoughts in reply.

May. 21st, 2010 12:51 am (UTC)
Nicely done! Thanks for the link. :-)
May. 21st, 2010 12:13 am (UTC)
I'm considerably under-read in YA compared to the rest of your readership, so I'm not going to point to this book or that book with examples. I did give this question lots of thought for my own work, though--both the adult and the YA.

For the YA, I've made sure that the boy in question has lots of his own stuff going on--passions, interests, friends, a job. All things that he is deeply and (I'll use the word again) passionately engrossed in before Megan ever enters his life. She sees him in the context of these things, as well as in the context of her life (and so do the readers) and that's why she falls in love with him.
May. 21st, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
And that, Renee, I think is the mark of a GOOD "guy" so kudos, baby, you're on it! :-)
May. 21st, 2010 01:28 am (UTC)
I agree totally. In fact, I don't think every story needs to be reduced to a romance, although I know many readers look for that. But either way, I'd like all the characters to be fully fleshed out and realized as people, not just as a mirror. Mirrors are good to learn from, but that's about it.
May. 21st, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
Right on! Mirrors are excellent as foils, anecdotes & points of reflection (pardon the pun) -- I like "meatier" characters and relationships.

Strange how my main character is a skeleton... <:-)