Where Are the Realistic Male Characters in YA?

The male leads in YA are starting to look strikingly similar to me.  Some may be princes, some “troubled” youths, and some the boy-next-door, but their personality traits are incredibly similar.  Often they are misunderstood or under-appreciated.  Typically they see and value the female lead in ways no one else does.  They pair strength with sensitivity, showing that they are able to cry over a family member but also able to fix a car or fight for their girl’s honor when necessary. All of them appreciate the beauty of the female lead, but in a romantic, respectful, aesthetic sort of way.  You will never catch them looking at a girl’s assets.  In short, they are, every one of them, the “perfect boyfriend.”

These depictions of teenage boys are fascinating because they are so obviously a female fantasy rather than attempts at realism.  The services asked of YA male heroes often seem close to superpowers.  Routinely these teenage boys intuit what a girl is not saying, exhibit endless patience in drawing it out, empathize with her by crafting the perfect response–and then suddenly go hyper-masculine by saving or protecting her with their physical strength or other “manly” skills.  This may be the dream–a man who can read minds, who can be both sensitive and strong–but it is a dream that readers should know is just that, a dream.

Real-life teenage boys are incredibly diverse and not all of them (or none of them?) are going to be the “perfect” boyfriend as depicted in YA books.  They are going to struggle to read minds.  They are going to struggle to come up with the right words.  They may not want to fight anyone.  And, yes, most of them have noticed that girls have chests and butts.  That does not make them dirty.  That makes them human.  And they should be allowed to be so.  They should not have to feel that they will never measure up to the YA fantasy.  They should not have to worry that teenage girls think less of them for being who they are

I would love to see more male authors published in YA and I would love to see them write male protagonists.  Rather than a wealth of female fantasies, I want to see characters like Brandon Sanderson’s lead in Steelheart.  He notices the female body.  He does that because he’s a guy.  As a result, he feels real.  He’s not trying to impress the ladies by being simultaneously all sensitive and hyper-masculine while also pretending he only ever looks at girls’ faces.  He’s just busy being himself.  We need more of that, for the sake of male and female readers alike.

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61 thoughts on “Where Are the Realistic Male Characters in YA?

  1. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    Your point about these characters being female fantasies is interesting because I wrote a paper on this subject for a class, basically arguing that there’s a sort of empowerment in writing male characters as women want men to be – respectful and idealized and practically perfect in every way. It’s true that these characters aren’t really true to life, and probably shouldn’t be portrayed as such, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with writing this kind of character! This was an interesting and thought provoking post – and gave me an excuse to procrastinate on the essay I’m currently writing 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Krysta says:

      If one or two authors did it, I’d probably laugh and move on. But now it’s a trend! I can’t seem to open up a YA book without this happening! Girls don’t enjoy men writing female fantasies of them. I imagine boys don’t like it when it’s done to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Greg says:

    “Typically they see and value the female lead in ways no one else does.” I see this a LOT. The guy appreciates her for who she is, when almost no one else does. Not a bad thing, but kind of a trope at this point? This is an awesome post, and very thought provoking. And yeah we need realism. Guys can be realistic without being assholes (sometimes ha ha) but seriously- teenage guys are not gonna be perfect by any stretch, but they can appreciate the female form and so on and still be good guys.

    Now I will say that maybe these “ideal” YA boys might be useful in that they give guys- I don’t want to say role model because that’s not the right word- but something to aspire too? Again, not that they should have to be perfect, but that they can be respectful of women and so on. I know when I was growing up and impressionable I have no doubt that male protagonists had an effect on my self image or whatever-especially if you read a LOT. I mean I certainly think I would have treated women with respect anyway, but reading about guy heroes who did so certainly reinforced that. Not saying that we need to “teach” guys through YA, just saying that showing guys with mostly good qualities isn’t necessarily bad. Although on balance I agree with you.

    And I haven’t read Sanderson but sounds like he gets it right from your example. I agree- we need more! Guys can be realistic without being jerks!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Oh, I agree! There’s nothing wrong with good, respectful teen guy characters! I was thinking more about this has become a trendy female fantasy sort of thing where the guy always knows exactly what to say, when to push, when to be silent. Give guys a break! They can be sympathetic and respectful without being mind readers! I couldn’t act like this! XD

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    This is interesting because I see the points from other comments that “the guys are showing good qualities like respect for women and listening to what she says, etc.” So, yeah, I guess you could argue it’s a positive portrayal.

    However, all these “perfect” guys in YA (and they’re definitely also all “hot” with defined abs and cedar wood scents) also just seem like a different version of something readers often complain about: men who write fantasized female characters. It’s just that these are women writing fantasized male characters. And even if the fantasies are mostly showing good qualities, I think the lack of realism and lack of flaws could be detrimental or at least unwelcoming to male readers. I’ve had male friends who’ve read YA express as much. They think Rhys from ACOTAR is as ridiculous as some male author describing a female character with a soft mouth, nubile body, and penchant for cooking her man delicious meals as soon as he’s home from work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to get at. This is female fantasy. There is nothing wrong with a man who listens, obviously! But the trend is more that these guys are PERFECT. They always listen just the right way. They always know when to push and when to give space. They always know exactly what to say. Sorry, but the average person, man or woman, doesn’t typically read minds that way.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Greg says:

      Don’t forget high cheekbones! There are always high cheekbones (and often eyes flecked w. gold or whatever). My question is- does anyone in YA NOT have high cheekbones? Are there… low cheekbones?

      Sorry, carry on. 🙂

      Like

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        The cheekbones thing always bother me because I’m not 100% sure I know the difference between high and low cheekbones. Does anyone I know have high cheekbones??? I have no idea! I’m now going to Google and see if I can get comparison photos of celebrities or something….

        Like

  4. ireadthatinabook says:

    That sounds like a boring and unhelpful trend. I just wondered, when you describe the lack of a male sexual gaze in these texts, is there usually a female sexual gaze? I’m not meaning from the author’s or reader’s perspective because if they are all hot there definitely is, but from the female lead’s perspective. Is it usual to read about the female lead ogling her boyfriends ass or similar? I don’t read much YA but I get the impression that many of the US ones carefully avoid anything sexual not to risk being labelled NA. So I wonder if there might not be two problems, the perfect boyfriend-trope and the “YA must not acknowledge that teenagers may actually want to have sex”-trope?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Well, I don’t think it has to be explicitly about sex. Just a character describing someone like, “She was wearing a low-cut top” or “She had a great body.” I don’t know! It can be vague like in Steelheart, the protagonist looks at the girl’s chest once. Or in Miles Morales, he mentions that his mother probably thinks he’s in the bathroom having “alone time.” (Both are written by male authors, incidentally.) It just feels realistic to me that the guys aren’t only gazing longingly into eyes, even if they also do that.

      After all, YA has always dealt with sex. It just tends to be less explicit than what I imagine you’d find in NA or an adult book.

      Liked by 2 people

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        I didn’t mean that they had to be explicit, I wouldn’t trust many YA writers to write explicitly about sex in a non-cringe-worthy and age-appropriate manner. However, you give good examples of how teenage boys sexual interest can be acknowledged in a less explicit way. But teenage girls usually have some sexual interest too and I’m not sure if that is acknowledged either. Or is it? Is it more common to find references like the ones you gave where the female protagonist is the one showing a sexual interest? That would make sense if modern YA primarily caters to a female audience.

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        • Krysta says:

          Oh, I didn’t mean YOU thought it had to be! I was just working out my thoughts! 😀

          I’m trying to think of female characters and what they do. I think sometimes they do gaze at guys’ abs or chests and that sort of thing, though I can’t name a specific character at this point. But usually I would say that it might be more like…they think the guy smells good or is strong and they reflect on how their hands fit perfectly together? Which does sound a lot more like the women I know. Usually when a shirtless guy runs by someone yells, “Put a shirt one!” Not “He’s so hot!” So that does seem like a female focus to me–all the stereotypically romantic things versus the male body.

          But I think that if you had a male protagonist, he would definitely notice a girl’s body, not just think about how nice her eyes are, which is typically how women will write them. I don’t think the guy even has to think a lot about her body. I just think the average guy would notice she has one!

          Liked by 1 person

          • ireadthatinabook says:

            It doesn’t have have to be someone going shirtless, I agree that women often focus on other things. I would count appreciating someone’s smell or admiring their strength as noticing someone’s body. Assuming that we really see the protagonist admire it, sometimes I feel that the admiration is left to the reader while the protagonist is supposed to remain above such concerns…

            But if YA is letting their female leads appreciate the bodies of their chosen but not the other way around that it is really ridiculous.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              Yeah, I can see that. Noticing someone’s smell or strength WOULD go along with their body! XD I mean, the average person doesn’t go around smelling everyone else, right?!

              I kind of wonder if women just don’t think about it? Like it’s actually normal for me to focus almost exclusively on people’s faces. But when I’m with guys, they’ll just casually mention something looking at people’s butts and I’ll be there like, “Wait? I’m pretty sure I’ve never really looked?” It’s not like they’re being lewd. They just notice and I don’t! And if I did notice, I apparently immediately forgot about it!

              Liked by 1 person

            • ireadthatinabook says:

              Yeah, noticing the body of someone you are attracted to is normal but all focus seems to be on chests and butts. I’m not sure why that would be fundamentally different from appreciating someone’s smell, or hair, or posture or smile assuming that you are not ogling? I certainly notice those things on my partner. But perhaps women are on average better at not thinking of it in situations were it isn’t relevant?

              In normal interactions I wouldn’t notice either but if I’m romantically interested in someone I will notice their body too. Same in situations when watching is natural, such as when seeing a movie. I just finished The Avengers and while the plot was ok I believe that it would have suffered significantly if none of the actors had been attractive. Afterall they do spend a substantial part of the movie basically posing in various cool ways…

              Like

            • Krysta says:

              Well, I’m all for male characters noticing smell, too. It’s just that I typically hear guys talking about more visual things. But Jason Reynolds has Miles Morales notice his crush’s perfume, so that can be a thing! I just think if a female had written it, he’d probably write her a note about her eyes and how he noticed her dress matched them or something, when usually the women I know remember details about clothes more than guys. Though that’s a generalization, obviously. I’m not sure I could tell you what I personally wore yesterday, much less anyone else. ;b

              Yeah…I can see it in a movie. I’m just thinking of all the guys I’ve heard who just seem to notice everything, like people walking by. I don’t know what people walking by look like. Just…like people walking by?? I might notice if they had an unusual outfit on. That’s about it.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

    While I agree with your point of view, getting male writers in is not a great solution because they will fail to create good female Ya leads themselves. I see it all the time, these girls who are just as much of a male fantasy as the guys in YA are.

    So yeah, the problem goes both ways. I think it’s better to just try and educate themselves about the opposite sex/people in real life in general and draw inspiration from that.

    Great discussion! 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Well, I’d like to think that a really good writer of any gender could write a convincing character of any gender! But I see what you mean, with the “manic pixie dream girl” trend and all that. And stuff like that does make me think, well, maybe it would be good to have all sorts of perspectives going on here to try to eliminate stuff like that. Girls wouldn’t like it if the vast majority of YA were male characters written by men. Why is it fair to boys to have primarily female characters written by women?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

        I know, I’d love for that to happen too but more and more it feels hard to find one like it, you know?
        That’s why collabs are usually pretty cool, especially if the authors are of the opposite sex. I don’t know whether they take turns writing or if they write one specific character but it feels refreshing to read a good quality collab. Sometimes it’s disastrous though hahaha
        That’s true but unlike other industries, women do sort of monopolize YA (and literature in general) so yeah… Not saying it’s bad, just saying it would be nice if we could get realistic guys and girls for once!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Kelly Brigid says:

    I absolutely agree with this post. It’s a shame how male authors in the YA genre are so scarce, and how female authors tend to make male leads unrealistic (I actually have an upcoming discussion post about this subject, publishing soon!). Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of the protagonist for the Steelheart trilogy, I definitely appreciated how genuine he felt.

    Lovely post! ❤️

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      It’s probably a cyclical problem. Not as many guys read YA, so less is published for them, leading guys to not read as much YA…. Someone just needs to be the one to start the change–though I’ve been informed by a friend that maybe publishers won’t because they’re afraid they’ll lose money.

      Ah, well, his habit of coming up with bad similes was more annoying than funny. I’ll give you that. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. thebookwormdrinketh says:

    I wouldn’t say that it’s only YA that this happens in… I feel that all books with romance don’t usually fall into the realistic category… Even books where the lead male character is a dick, he’s usually a dick in almost a lovable way… A Mr. Darcy kind of way. You want to slap him… But, then kiss him. In real life when my man’s a dick I just want to slap him and walk away. It’s not very charming. 😉😂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Maybe it seems more pronounced to me because girls are disproportionately the protagonist in YA books, so the guy leads usually end up being the romantic lead? Not just a guy character in YA?

      Haha! You’re too funny!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. looloolooweez says:

    If you’d like to try some Dudes According to Dudes YA (other than SF/F), check out Sherman Alexie, John Green, David Levithan, Mike Lupica, or Andrew Smith. I know some of those names might sound obvious, but those are some popular authors that fit what you’re calling for in this post, and just the sorts of books I’d rec to many young men when I worked with teens in a previous career.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I love that! “Dudes According to Dudes.” Is this a real designation I’ve somehow missed out on!

      And, yes, I admit to never having read a John Green novel. *runs away*

      Like

  9. jenchaos76 says:

    Having books like that would help people like me with teenage sons understand their thinking. Teenage boys are VERY VERY different animals than girls. They don’t want to talk on the phone. They never want to be home. They are intensely private and they never do anything in front of their mothers. (Or anyone for all I know). If I had a book to understand teenage boys, then I wouldn’t think that something was wrong with mine.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      This is only funny because I strongly suspect you are not the only one completely baffled by teenage boys. Of course, everything they do makes perfect sense to them! But sometimes girls and women need a little help understanding their perspective!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    DUDE I COMPLETELY AGREE! I have been wondering for years now where the male protagonists are in YA. Teen guys need perspectives as well as girls and I feel like there’s too many female books. This discussion is something I am SO happy you did 🙂 And I love that you mentioned David from Steelheart lol; he’s such a funny and realistic kid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I remember saying telling me that boys tend to skip from MG to adult books. And it makes a lot of sense. They don’t see themselves in a lot of YA. And, honestly, it can be hard to sell a lot of YA to teenage boys. “Well, it’s about a girl who goes abroad and falls in love. No? You don’t want that? Um…okay. How about this book where a girl goes to space and falls in love? Wait. Where’d you go?”

      Liked by 2 people

  11. CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

    I agree 110%!! While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having amazing boy characters, like you said. But we’ve raised these boys to levels of perfection that do not exist, and they’ve become a standard that isn’t possible. Sure, some guys might be able to sense when we’re upset or know what to say, but not all of these things at the same time. And the problem is, many girls (myself included) expect real life guys to be like that, when it’s just not going to happen. I think it’s okay to have amazing guys in books, but I think we need to realize that that isn’t realistic.

    Boys MCs in YA especially are becoming so scarce, and I hate it! As a writer, I feel pressure especially from feminists and media to focus on the girls rather than boys, and that writing boys is bad because for some reason?? Never figured out why XD But I really want to see more boys, and more than anything, more realistic boys. In my own books, I’ve written guys who or awkward or aren’t good with words. It’s not the swoon-worthy boy of our teenage dreams, but it’s more realistic, and I enjoy writing that way. 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah… No one minds a sweet hero! I’m all for Gilbert Blythe and such! But Gilbert is also somewhat stubborn just like Anne and they have miscommunications. He doesn’t magically read her mind and solve all their problems within the space of a few days. He’s realistic! He was snubbed, he got the idea, moved on. Then tried again years later when Anne had apparently changed. And he had to have a real conversation with her to figure out what she was thinking. I can believe someone could find a real-life Gilbert because he’s not a female fantasy of perfection.

      I think there was a push to focus on women because publishing can be male-dominated. But it depends on which part of publishing. Like romance is primarily women and male writers sometimes write under female pseudonyms if they want a romance published! YA is also female-dominated. But, for me, I’m not sure the answer is to swing the pendulum completely the other way. Maybe there were more male characters in the past, but I think we can attempt to achieve some sort of balance, rather than just stop writing about boys!

      Liked by 1 person

      • CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

        Gilbert is a great example! He’s definitely a swoon-worthy boy, yet he’s far from perfect. I also love Peeta from The Hunger Games. Although he’s good with words and is so sweet and kind toward Katniss, he has his faults. The two argue a lot and face a lot of struggles together. Peeta is amazing (!!!), but he’s definitely not a perfect boy.

        For sure! I love seeing more females in literature, and I agree that a balance is needed. I love bookish boys and girls, and I don’t want to see just one or the other. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  12. La La in the Library says:

    It gets me that the same people who scream “it’s science” when it comes to climate change totally ignore that hormones color how boys (and girls) act and react. That’s science, too. Ha ha. That’s why I loved the blog post you did on how visually stimulated males are normally. I have been wanting to do a post about how girls will be complaining about boys actions on Twitter, but also applauding when someone is going through hormone therapy and says they have started feeling more aggressive and less emotional. It’s like you have to have been female previously for it to be okay to act male. Also the people who support a boy’s right to dress like a princess, but who also scold girls for wanting to be princesses. It makes no sense.

    This is like what my ex said about one of his co-workers who watched porn all the time. The guy went through girlfriends like water because he was delusional that women can achieve being perfectly coiffed, waxed, and with make-up on 24/7, and want sex 24/7. No one ever lived up to what he had come to think as normal. All these girls are going to be waiting for this perfect mind-reading boyfriend and they will never find him.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed just from personal observation that there seem to be behavior differences, as stereotypical as it may sound. And we do know from science that hormones can affect that! And yet sometimes I think women aren’t very understanding of boys, like you mentioned. I think that they may sometimes come across as abrupt or aggressive–but they don’t mean to. That’s just their normal communication style for whatever reason. And, sure, maybe it would be beneficial for them to learn to change their communication style for different audiences and circumstances. But in the meantime I’m not going to get my feathers ruffled. I think sometimes the best way to approach communication is simply to assume that the other person intended the best.

      Also, yeah, I don’t have a problem with girls who like princesses. I like princesses! To me, feminism is supposed to be about letting women and girls embrace themselves and their interests, whatever they are. It’s not “better” to take on traditionally masculine traits and hobbies.

      But it is interesting that you’ve noticed that traits traditionally associated with either gender are being celebrated only when taken on by someone else.

      And, definitely, media can affect us! I do know a woman who almost ruined her relationship because she thought her boyfriend was supposed to act like the hero of a rom com. We have to be able to differentiate from fantasy and reality!

      Like

  13. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’m actually in a conversation right now, on Twitter, because I just watched that Jenny Han movie on Netflix, and I’m taking about how Peter is more like a very well-adjust twenty-something than any teen boy I ever met. I mean, he’d have to have professors as parents and lots of money to travel and build schools in Uganda during the summer, thus becoming well-rounded and kind, for him to convince me he’s a teen.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t read the book or seen the Netflix adaptation. But I think teens are often written in such a way that they seem more mature? Of course, some teens ARE more mature. But I was talking to someone the other day and she mentioned, too, that sometimes it’s easy to forget teens are still maturing because of how they talk. They can be very knowledgeable and present themselves in a very mature manner. But they are actually still growing up. They still need some guidance sometimes.

      Like

  14. Enobong Essien says:

    This is so true and I hadn’t even noticed it until now. I never realised how much I had suspended my reality in reading male lead in YA fiction. I also realised that I spent my teenage years expecting guys to read my mind. So much time wasted!

    Like

  15. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    All of this! So much yes! Also, David is a treasure, and I love the way Sanderson paired him with Megan while still letting him just be his own character. Anyway. We already all know Sanderson is brilliant. xD

    Sometimes I really have to stop and think about some of these YA male characters and just … ugh. I think it’s a matter of perspective, and writers have to remember that the way they, as female teenagers and then female adults, perceive a male isn’t necessarily the truth. It makes me wonder if they’re actually listening to male beta readers on their opinions of how male teens act?

    This always makes me think of hubby and I, because, funny story, our experience of our dating goes very differently. Surprise. Mine is a lot more romantic and his is … well, frustratingly mundane.

    My version: I knew in 10th grade I wanted to marry him, but he never asked me out, so eventually, I asked him out in 12th grade. He had started growing his hair long right before I asked him, and I thought, surely, it’s because he knew I liked guys with long hair. I started taking my sister’s advice on what to wear to get his attention and figured surely he appreciated the cute dresses/skirts and all the effort.

    His version: Yeah, he liked me, but he wasn’t really looking for a relationship but since I asked, why not? There were other girls he was interested in, but I was the one who was determined and took the initiative. He grew his hair out because his barber had passed away and he didn’t want to look for another one because that was a hassle. Also, he apparently never even noticed the short skirts and pretty dresses. Like, not a one.

    It just always makes me laugh, because I’m like BUT WASN’T THIS ROMANTIC? And he quickly shuts it down with his perspective. We’ve come to a truce now, though. We don’t talk about our courtship, and I don’t divorce him. xD

    Wow this was long. But all this to say I would LOVE more books with teenage boys like this. Obviously, all teens (male and female) are different, and I just want them to sound less similar in every book, I guess?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I wonder, too, if writers forget that teenage guys are different from grown men. They don’t have it all figured out yet! And that’s totally okay!

      But, yes!! I would totally read a story about your romance! It’s realistic, it’s humorous, and, you know what, I still think it’s romantic!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Samantha Duffy says:

    I was JUST thinking about this the other day! Three boys this week came into the library asking for book recommendations and I was having a really hard time finding really great male reps in the YA collection! You’re right, most often the guys described in YA books especially, all look pretty much the same! They rarely resemble realistic guys and that is super off putting. We need better written guy characters and more YA books with realistic male main characters.

    Like

  17. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot. The idealization of boys in YA is often crazy—no teen boy will ever live up to this fantasy! We either get bad boys with a heart of gold or just pictures of perfection. They all have amazing abs and perfect hygiene and always know exactly what to say in every situation. I agree that it would be nice to have more male authors in YA to balance that out a bit.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I read these perfect teenage boy characters and I feel bad for teenage boys because I don’t have the ability to do half of what they do! I am definitely not the person who always knows what to say and do! I’d like to believe that my fellow humans will give me the benefit of the doubt and understand I care and am trying, anyway.

      Like

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