There’s definitely something going ’round the Young Adult writing world these days–the notion that the “ideal” YA male character (particularly the “love interest” or hero) is a “bad boy.” You know, the super-hot boy with a smokin’ body and a bad attitude. If you read a lot of YA, you’ve seen these YA heroes everywhere. Rock-hard abs, smoldering gaze, maybe some tattoos or piercings or a motorcycle. Naturally, a bad reputation and a snarky attitude are required. Of course, secretly he has a heart of gold–one that only our young adult heroine can discover. He probably calls the protagonist by a patronizing nickname, and he’s overly fond of smirking. Yeah, you know the guy. By extension, he’s populating the ranks of New Adult (NA) books, as well.
YA and NA writers seem convinced that this is the only kind of guy that readers will swoon over. But the thing is, they’re wrong. Some of YA literature’s most beloved boys are actually what I’d call “good guys.” No smirks. No snarky attitude. No belittling nicknames for the heroine. They may or may not have rock-hard abs, but if they do, they probably don’t make a habit of showing them off. And yet…somehow…readers still swoon over them. Don’t believe me? I give you the following YA heroes: Peeta (HUNGER GAMES series). And Augustus (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). And Park (ELEANOR & PARK). And Levi (FANGIRL). And both St. Clair and Cricket (ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS and LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR). I could go on–believe it or not, there are plenty more. But you know what’s interesting about this short list? These nice guys “star” in books that were successful–some of them wildly successful.
Here’s my theory–the “bad boy,” for the most part, is straight out of central casting. Those things I mentioned–super hot, smokin’ body, bad attitude–pretty much define these YA heroes (and okay, I admit, as a mother of girls, I often think “are these really the defining male characteristics that we want young, female readers to idealize?!”). But here’s the thing about Peeta and Augustus and St. Clair and all the rest of the “good guys” I mentioned–they are way harder to define. Way more nuanced. Let’s look at Peeta, for starters. Peeta isn’t brooding or snarky; he’s kind and soft-hearted and generous. He doesn’t smirk; he smiles. He likes to decorate cakes, of all things. I’m pretty sure he’s got a hot body–you know, lifting all those huge bags of flour and whatnot–but he’s not showing it off. He’s not physically and mentally tough like Katniss is, but he isn’t weak, either. When it comes to protecting Katniss, he’s tenacious. At the end of the trilogy, he fights a valiant fight against his own mind to reclaim himself. He makes readers swoon, not by uttering lines like “Come here, sweetheart. I’ll show you a good time…” but with lines like “If you die and I live, there’s nothing for me back in District 12. You’re my whole life…” It’s almost impossible to sum up Peeta in just a few words.
Same with another of my favorites, St. Clair. He’s short. A little goofy. Funny and quick-witted. There is that little problem of him falling for Anna while he’s still got a girlfriend, but hey, he’s not perfect. He’s just a little confused. I find it almost impossible to sum up what I like about St. Clair because he’s such a complicated character. But he’s definitely a good guy–that, I’m sure of. But he’s not just a good guy, and that’s key. The author, Stephanie Perkins, crafted a fully-fleshed-out, three-dimensional YA hero who is the sum of his parts. That takes work.
So here’s my challenge to you (and to myself, as well!)–work harder when crafting your male “love interest” characters in YA and NA novels. Create YA heroes who take more than a few cliche phrases to describe. Consider writing a “good guy”–don’t believe the hype that readers really want that hot guy with a bad attitude. Sure, some do–but plenty don’t.
I’d love to hear about some of your favorite “good guy” YA heroes in the comments!
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.