Boy Protagonists in YA

Reader Melissa asked this a few weeks ago and it’s one of my pet issues in YA. I talk to a few of my clients about this, and to anyone that asks, really, because it is a mystery, a frustration, a conundrum:

I am hoping you can answer a question for me. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about boy MC’s (YA) being a hard sell, yet many agents request boy books on their websites/blogs. Are boy MC’s a hard sell? My current involves a boy MC but with a romantic element to the story. Is this the same topic or are these two different types of books? To me, it would seem that boy MC books directed at boys alone are very different than boy MC books that have the romantic element so desirable to girls.

When people request “boy books,” I find that they’re more often talking about MG, where boy readers are still more active. In YA, boy readers are almost extinct. They have a) stopped reading or b) moved on to adult sci-fi/thriller/fantasy, etc. In MG, adventure and mystery and especially boy/girl teams of siblings or friends are doing well in the marketplace right now, so editors are looking to add those types of stories to their lists.

Not so much in YA. When I’ve gone on submission with boy YA and boy main characters in YA, I have literally heard from editors, “Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.” That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two boy-centric YA books per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately. As much as editors would like to change the reality of older boys not reading, most have found that putting more and more books out there for them doesn’t necessarily move the needle.

One way that writers with boy MCs in YA can be successful is if they take lots of girl appeal, as Melissa says, and apply liberally. John Green is a really successful test case. He writes boy MCs that girl readers want to date, simple as that. His boy protagonists are quirky, nerdy, in love with a girl, and chasing her with such passion that boys can relate, sure, but girl readers swoon.

Girl readers can easily see themselves in the role of that girl, and they want the geeky, cute, dedicated boyfriend type that populates John’s pages, even if he is a loner or flawed or otherwise damaged. Girls love a good fixer-upper in some cases, not just the blazing-hot romantic hero. Vulnerable boys, not just sparkly ones, really do appeal.

So I think Melissa’s on the right track with the romance element. More than 80% of your readers, even with a male MC or a mixed-gender or gender-neutral tale, will be girls. Give them lots to dig into. And a guy they can dig. Give the boy readers good stuff, too, and a character to relate to who’s not a total girl-pleaser, but know that your core audience will most likely be girls. And if you’re planning a book that’s totally boy-centric, it will be a harder push to get it on publisher’s lists, unless it is just really appealing and awesome for teen boys and you nail the demographic well.

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  1. Candyland’s avatar

    Great post, Mary!

  2. Fawn Neun’s avatar

    I know that both of my sons just moved right into adult fiction around the age of 13 or 14; one into Steven King and one into David Eddings.

  3. Caroline’s avatar

    I’m thrilled by your post today! My mc is a boy but the ms is written for girls. I love the idea of a girl reader getting inside the head of a boy! And I love John Green’s books.

  4. Fleur Bradley’s avatar

    This is the best explanation on the subject I have seen. Honest and clear–thanks for this!

  5. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Boy, I was sweating there for a minute. I thought you were going to say ‘stay away at all costs’, but this works for my MS. It is a double POV, my MC is male, and the other POV is of a girl he is interested in who has a secret. I have always wondered if the romantic element was a mistake (even though I absolutely love it). Thanks for clearing up the waters Mary!

  6. JR’s avatar

    Hey Mary,

    I spoke to one of my local librarians–something I try to do every month or so–and she mentioned that a lot of girls were reading books like “The Lightning Thief” because, as she said, “sometimes they want something more plot driven and less romantic.” I’m sure the same girls read the “Harry Potter” books, too.

    Which brings me to my question; Does the element of sci-fi or fantasy change the equation for YA books with male protagonists? Or is MG fantasy still the way to go?

  7. Krista V.’s avatar

    Sounds like I’m in the same boat as Caroline and Kathryn. I have two POV characters, a boy and a girl, though the boy is definitely the MAIN main character and the girl the secondary. I’ve thought about switching it, but deep down, I really believe the boy is the main MC.

  8. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thank you Mary. I’ve been struggling with this lately and it’s good to know how the market falls. Maybe I can play with a concept or two…

  9. KellieD’s avatar

    There’s been an interesting thread on Verla’s message board along these lines. The consensus there seems to be that boy MC in MG are an easier sell than boy MCs in YA — just as you have described. The other really interesting element to this discussion is female authors writing boy MCs v. male authors writing boy MCs and if there’s a distinction in achieving a “good” boy voice. FLASH BURNOUT was provided by commenters as an example of a boy MC written by a woman (L.K. Madigan) and done well.

  10. Nicholas Rose’s avatar

    Thanks for the post, Mary! I always try to think of ways to attract interest from both girl and boy readers, but it looks like it’s good to keep in mind there will probably be more girl readers.

  11. Sophie Playle’s avatar

    Thanks for the post.

    Looks like I made the right choice in making my YA MC a girl!

    JR, the point you make about girls reading ‘The Lightning Thief’ and ‘Harry Potter’ I feel may be slightly wrong. Surely most people are reading these books because of the films, merchandise and high press they have? (Not saying that the plot driven element to it isn’t there, of course.)

    My YA novel is a fantasy, but my girl MC is strong and quite masculine. I was a bit of a tom-boy growing up and I wanted to appeal to all the YA girls who don’t want to read books about kissing boys…!

    So that’s an interesting point, JR, about the gender of a sci-fi/fantasy book. I made my female MC masculine. Wonder if that says something about the genre!

  12. Susan James’s avatar

    Great post though I’m coming at it from a totally different angle. Not as an author but as the mother of an 11 yr old son who used to rarely be without a book in his hand. Now, I comb libraries trying to find something to interest him (while he plays Zelda and the Twilight Princess for hours)

    He LOVED Suzanne Collins Overlander series but won’t touch Hunger Games with a ten foot pole. He’s not a little sexist. He fully believes female Jedi’s and Siths are tough as nails. He and his big sister are total buds and he gets along great with all her friends, but the idea of romance in a book makes him roll his eyes.

    Here’s my probelm-I wish there were more books between Percy Jackson and JRR Martin. He’s not quite ready for graphic sex, rape and violence. I myself read Tolkien and Stewart at this age, but to him the writing seems dated.

    So, please write those boy MCs, but if your goal is romance, boys most likely won’t be reading them.

  13. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    We were fortunate enough to have the brilliant Bruce Coville speak at our last annual meeting in KC. He said that books either have a masculine energy or a feminine energy, regardless of the sex of the protagonist. Books with masculine energy are more action oriented, and books with feminine energy are more emotion oriented.

    So a story that’s more about feelings and emotion, and definately romance would have a feminine energy, regardless of the sex of the MC.

    And wouldn’t you know, just like with pants vs skirts. Generally boys will read books with masculine energy but not femenine energy, but girls will read both. Again, that’s a total generalization, but I think it makes a lot of sense. I’m also summarizing what Bruce said, not quoting him directly, but this is the upshot of what he said about masculine vs femenine energy.

  14. KinDallas’s avatar

    Susan — I agree with you. As the mother of a nearly 10 year-old boy who’s nowhere near ready for adult fiction, but closing in on YA, I’d love to see more boy MCs in YA. Partly why I wrote one….(although I will admit, because JR will bust me if I don’t, I have a romantic subplot and a strong big sister in the mix).

    That aside, I read a great article in February that asked whether or not the “13 year old boys don’t read” lament isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some boys aren’t interested in adult lit (and the graphic sex/rape/violence can be an issue). By not having more YA fiction geared toward them, maybe we’re partially encourgaing good readers NOT to read anymore. Or more to the point, while there are boy books, they aren’t marketed the same as “girl” books.

    And I like the question about fantasy/sci fi/adventure…some of the more successful “boy” books have those types of scenarios (Pendragon, Percy Jackson, Alex Rider, etc). Does that really make a difference?

    Here’s the article if anyone’s interested:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-36817-Albany-Young-Adult-Fiction-Examiner~y2010m2d4-Gender-issues-in-young-adult-fiction

  15. JR’s avatar

    I see JR is getting a lot of attention today. This almost makes me miss Bongo and Bliss–they attracted all the attention! Where are all the lightning rods?

    My librarian’s point was that girls were reading popular “boy books” even before they were made into movies. Having read a lot of girl YA and MG myself, I’m amazed at how little adventure there is from a girl’s POV. Romance always seems to pop up, but I’m sure there are a lot of girls between 10 and 13 who just want a little fun and adventure. What happened to boys having cooties? Because they do!

  16. KellieD’s avatar

    JR. . . Indiana Jane?

  17. KinDallas’s avatar

    We love you, JR! I agree–Harry Potter was a huge literary sensation before the movies came out. The exposure from the films didn’t hurt, but it was there, being devoured by tons of girls, boys and adults alike prior to the film.

    And where is Bongo? Was it something we said?

  18. Erinn Manack’s avatar

    Yep, I’ve seen this trend. I teach middle school and most of my boys read action/adventure books (The Eagon series was to boys as Twilight was to girls) or they read sports books, or non-fiction.

    I find it odd because most of the books both my girls and boys read have male protags. Schooled as a prime example.

    John Green does write a books where female readers want to date the main characters, his main characters are a lot like himself, and seriously who wouldn’t want to date John Green. He’s funny, awesome, geeky, hangs out with cancer patients and hates unicorns.

    On a personal note, this post has made me realize that my book will NEVER be sold. It’s not about vampires or any other supernatural creatures, and no one dies. *slams head on desk*

    If anyone wants to know about the mind of a teenage boy, with 10 years experience working with them I can tell you this,
    They like sports, action, gaming, music and girls. No wait, they don’t like girls, they like boobs– sorry about that. If your book is about any of those five topics you MIGHT stand a chance with grabbing a boy’s interest.

  19. Bongo’s avatar

    Did someone mention Bongo? Bongo is very busy trying not to be deported. End up on a terrorist watch list (by mistake) and they can’t wait to get rid of you.

    To Erinn: Yes, Bongo likes boobs.

    To KinDalls: Are you single and busty?

  20. Mandy P.’s avatar

    Susan,

    I’m not a boy, but I did start reading adult fiction when I was 10. This was like a year before Harry Potter came out, so the MG section was boring as all get out and the YA section was all sappy romance. I hated it and dove into adult books.

    I would recommend the Belgariad by David Eddings for your son. It’s sold as an “adult” book but the MC is 14. Also, I started reading The Wheel of Time when I was 11 and had no problems with it. It has romance – but the first shall we saw PG-13 scene isn’t until the 4th book and even then its very PG-13. They kiss…we close the door…

    And if your son hasn’t read Ender’s Game – he should. No middle school boy should be without a copy.

    Also – this might mark me as an uber geek – but I transitioned from kid books to adult books via Star Wars books. If your son has any interest in Star Wars, tell him to check out Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy (first book Heir to the Empire). I read it when I was 10. If he likes that – he’ll also probably like the X-Wing series.

    Star Wars books are great for younger readers. I have several other friends who found refuge in the middle school years via Star Wars books. They were books we could read without being patronized or traumatized.

  21. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    While I agree with you on the state of publishing regarding “boy” books, I think it’s this kind of fatalism that’s making boys run from YA in droves.

    The problem is a vicious cycle that someone has to break. Writers don’t write books that appeal to teenage boys because agents don’t want to rep them. Agents don’t want to rep them because publishers aren’t interested in acquiring them. Publishers aren’t interested in acquiring them because when they do, they don’t know what to do with them in terms or marketing and such, therefore boys don’t know the books are out there and the book fails. Which leads everyone to declare that boys don’t read YA.

    But if you’ve spent any time in a bookstore at all, then you know that the YA section is a scary place for a teen boy. The shelves are filled with paranormals and vampires and romances and books with covers they wouldn’t be caught dead with. For example: The Demon’s Lexicon was a fantastic book that I think boys would really get into. However the cover looked like a romance novel. Sure, it was appealing to girls, but not too many guys would pick it up.

    I think by telling people that boys in YA are almost extinct, it’s creating an even more hostile environment for boy books. YA is huge right now. And yes, I agree that YA was a wasteland for boys for a long time, but right now we have a chance to win them back. But we have to prove to boys that we’re just as willing to go after them as we are to go after girl readership. And that means taking chances.

    I know that publishers have to make money. Everything is a business. But if we can’t win back boy readers now, then it’s our own fault.

  22. KellieD’s avatar

    If I were a publisher and I knew there was part of the market needing to be captured, I’d be doing focus group after focus group to figure out what kind of books YA guys want. . .

    Who does market research for the publishing industry?

  23. KinDallas’s avatar

    Shaun — Amen.

    Erinn – LOL. Whew — I have four of those five things in my adventure novel, along with a male MC. Thanks for the insight : )

    Bongo — sorry , honey, I’m neither : ) But it’s nice to know you have standards….

  24. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    I don’t know why I forgot to mention it, but I’m reading a great work of YA fiction, that definately has male energy. The story is told from multiple POV’s, some teenage boys and some teenage girls, but it’s all about gaming, and teens connecting via the gaming community to start a world-wide labor revolution. It’s definately something that a boy in mid-teens would like. 10-11 might be a little young, because some of the content is a little advanced. They talk a lot about economics, for instance. Nothing even remotely steamy yet. But it’s a very good book.

    It’s called “For The Win” by Cory Doctorow, and at least at my library it’s clasified as YA, but it has an undeniable “masculine energy”

  25. Susan James’s avatar

    Thank you, Mandy! I will look into those. We have read the Jedi Apprentice Series aloud as a family. So, you don’t sound like a geek to me. I was a tomboy and now, I guess I’m a tommom. Totally in to Star Wars. Couldn’t get into Twilight.

  26. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    I don’t have anything brilliant to add to this conversation, but it did remind me of something sort of funny that happened with my kids the other day. I have a son who just turned 15 and a daughter who is 11. Both are avid readers (although the boy is probably the more avid). My daughter tends to read the same books over and over, so one day I made a typical mom comment to try to get her to expand her reading horizons. My son jumped on the idea (you know, can’t pass the chance to dis the sis). Before I knew it, they had made a pact to create a reading list for each other – 10 books to finish this summer.

    Brother’s list was like a syllabus for a course in epic adventure: Eragon, The Lightning Thief, The Book Thief, The Hobbit. Sister’s list was full of princesses: Princess Academy, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest. They each started on the reading challenge that night, he with Fairest, she with The Lightning Thief.

    Long story short – she finished Lightning Thief in a day and a half and asked for a reprieve from the rest of the list so she can finish the series. He, on the other hand, complained the entire time he was reading Fairest, and quit the challenge altogether halfway through Two Princesses of Bamarre.

    He was complaining about the characters in the books and how “weak” they were, which opened the door for a conversation about gender expectations and different types of strength. He at least pretended to listen. : )

  27. Bongo’s avatar

    Greta, perhaps you could give Mary permission to stick your children in a lab so she could study them further. The usual wavers regarding vivisection could be signed.

  28. DHE’s avatar

    So, would Harry Potter be considered as having a masculine or feminine energy? I see that Percy Jackson is very masculine (very few emotions in that book with lots of action) and that Twilight would be feminine (all emotions, little action), but Harry Potter strikes a pretty even balance between action and emotion, leaning one way or the other depending on the scene or even the book. Maybe that’s why the series is so universally appealing?

  29. Stina’s avatar

    I recently won two John Green books, but haven’t read them yet because I assumed they would be more boy orientated. Not my kind of YA book. But after reading this post, I can’t wait to read them. :D

  30. Emily Hainsworth’s avatar

    I can’t believe nobody here has mentioned BEAUTIFUL CREATURES by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Yes, it falls into the romantic boy MC category, AND it would classify as paranormal, but the book has done amazingly well. and its authors are both female.

    I think you can boil boy MCs down to the same thing as so many other elements of YA fiction…if you do it WELL, it just might sell.

  31. Mary’s avatar

    DHE — Analyzing HARRY POTTER is a great exercise. Jo Rowling went to great lengths to make it as universal as possible. I would not say it has one kind of energy or the other.

  32. Susan James’s avatar

    FYI- HP starts out pretty boy oriented MG- potty/boogie humor and all. At Book 4 it morphs into YA with dances/snogging and the crushes on Cho and Ginny. My son lost interest after Book 4 (he already know the story, I’d read it aloud to him when he was younger.)

  33. Susan James’s avatar

    Forgot to say- Greta, I’m cracking up. Great story.

  34. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Whew. What a relief to know I don’t have to stop working on my boy MC YA project!

    And finally, I can justify all those hours of reading John Green and Barry Lyga books!!!

  35. M Clement Hall’s avatar

    Chicken or egg?
    Are boys not reading YA because the available books are not to their taste?
    Or are there no books because boys (youths) won’t read them?
    Hard to believe the world has changed so much. Youths used to read adventure type stories and sci-fi, or are what used to be books for youths now considered “adult”?

  36. Susan James’s avatar

    Guess what!? While I was typing all these comments, my reluctant-YA son was at soccer camp. He just got back. His roomate had a copy of Hunger Games that went unopened until…my son picked it up and read the whole thing! He told me all about it when he came home. I’m way more proud of that then the goals he scored. (See, Mandy, I told you I was a geek)

  37. Rose’s avatar

    If boys skip from MG fantasy/adventure to adult fantasy/SF/adventure, hm…doesn’t that say something about what kind of boy YA novels we are lacking?

    My own boys (10 and 12) love to read, but they have short patience with internal monologue slice of life books–even when they are highly praised books with male MCs. Instead they are always on the lookout for funny books where Stuff Happens. Think of video games marketed to boys–they aren’t about The Meaning of Life. They’re about putting the boy in a situation where his wits/courage/powers are needed to win against terrible odds. I can’t help but think that we’re overlooking some of the basic things boys look for in books. Also, sometimes there are books that fit this category–but the covers are definitely girl covers.

    I am really hoping for more boy books in the near future–I really don’t want my boys’ reading options to dry up!

  38. hannah moskowitz’s avatar

    It frustrates me to no end how many boys I see whining that “all YA books are for girls.”

    As a writer who writes (and successfully sells, for what it’s worth) YA books with male main characters, I’ll admit that even though my publisher pushed BREAK as a boy book, 95% of the letters I get are from girls.

    It’s frustrating.

    When my MG with a boy MC went on sub, also, I heard a lot how excited several publishers were at the prospect of a boy-centered MG…apparently they want more. But I never had any trouble subbing boy YA, either.

    This comment makes me sound like a jerk, I think. I promise I’m not.

  39. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    Followup to my earlier post – My daughter is now on the third book of the Percy Jackson series, and yesterday she kept reading and commenting on certain sections. Guess what all those sections were about? Relationships, not action. Whether she was trying to sort out who has a crush on Percy or who is the subject of Percy’s affections, or whether she mentioned the relationship between characters and their parents, for her the most important parts of the story are the relationships between the characters. I guarantee you that would not be the case with my son. Definitely girls and boys look for different things in books. I guess the trick to bridging the gap is to include action boys will relish and relationships they will tolerate; girls will tolerate action as long as there is at least one relationship they can follow. When I watch Deadliest Catch with my husband, it’s not because I’m interested in the fishing totals; I watch it because I am intrigued by the issues between fathers and sons and crewmates.

    And Bongo, at this point in summer vacation, I would be willing to let Mary borrow my children for lab research for a week…or two. : )

  40. Remilda Graystone’s avatar

    I have to say, this post was very insightful and the comments were just as enlightening. This topic interests me greatly, and I’m glad I got to read everyone’s thoughts on it. I hope in the future there are more YA boy books.

  41. Megan Little’s avatar

    I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation immensely and definitely learned some things. I’ve also just noticed that this conversation happened a year ago… but, oh well. I feel like adding a comment anyways.

    I wonder if anyone else is interested in the difference in categories between books and movies. It seems to me that the main category that’s in movies but missing in books is “Family” and the main one missing in from movies is “YA.” I wonder why this is? Because reading tends to be more a solo venture, not done by the whole family at once?

    I wish that there were a prominent “Family” category in books.

    Some reasons I think this would be good:
    a) Families might find themselves more inspired to read books together for mutual enjoyment. In our disjointed society I think that families (whatever form they take) could use a bit more social expectation for bonding time. We still talk about “Family Movie Nights” why not “Family Reading Nights”.
    My family read together every night when I was growing up. (This was one of the best parts of my childhood.)

    b) Even if these books were not read out loud together, the book buyer in the house could get something which would then be passed around to multiple members of the household. My family all really enjoyed the “Artemis Fowl” series, (which is a romping children’s series with masculine energy, for anyone looking for that sort of thing). When the library got a new one, we’d all eagerly take turns reading it.

    c) This category could give writers a broader scope for character ages and themes in books. I’m sure a lot of kids are dealing with a huge range of issues vicariously through the adults in their lives anyways.

    Please note: I’m not against YA or anything. Also, I’m aware that there are obvious problems with this: such as, um, the issue of inventing a new book genera in the first place.
    And then trying to write to please everyone’s tastes? Probably not possible (although, yes, JK Rowling has giving it a good go).

    -Megan

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