Posted On October 29, 2010 by Print This Post

Writing for Boys

Today’s topic is different from any Anatomy of the Male Mind session we’ve hosted in the past. If you’re considering writing Young Adult (or even Middle Grade), you should read this lecture from top to bottom and back again. Debut author B.A. Binns is here to enlighten us on how to write for boys, and it’s an eye opener! Even if you write fiction for adults, you’ll get some insight into your male characters.

In February 2009, I stepped away from writing for adults to try a young adult novel after attending a meeting where students, teachers and librarians discussed reluctant (insert young male) readers. The average male teen isn’t interested in books about kick-ass heroines who defeat the bad guys without assistance and score a date to the prom in the process. He doesn’t want to read about her relationship angst over problems with her mother, sister, best friend, etc., or about boys who act like wimps. Reaching guys requires books populated with realistic boys facing issues they relate to.

The teenage phenomena

At no time in our lives do we experience greater feelings of passion and power than during our teen years. Teens form and break social bonds almost daily, and yet make unbreakable, lifelong friendships. They think themselves superior to most adults although they secretly ache for validation from the grownups in their lives. They care how their peers perceive them and long to attract the attention of the opposite sex. They want to show-off their mastery of the world even as they struggle with self-doubt, raging hormones and self-esteem issues.

And that’s only the guys.

Boys and girls have more in common with each other than either has with adults of the same gender. But changing gender isn’t as simple as changing a name from “Jane” to “Jim” and using a few masculine pronouns. When my daughter started day care she came home and told me she was a boy—the creatures who ran around, shouted, climbed and built things while girls sat politely and played with dolls. I had to tell her that wishing would not make it so. Decades later I found myself using mind over matter to make myself a boy, at least temporarily.

Boys are NOT girls with a few anatomical differences

I studied my subjects like an anthropologist. Read books and talked to male friends and sought out social workers, teachers, and counselors; all to learn which of my pre-conceptions were real and which based on T.V. and Hollywood. Mostly I stalked teenaged boys. I haunted high schools, attended sporting events and hung out at concerts. My first observation was that no one can ignore the unwanted like a teenage male. The old lady in the corner taking notes was accepted as part of the scenery.

Second, I learned that he is VERY interested in sex. I was told by adult males that no matter how much I had my teen male character think about sex I would never approach reality. His brain isn’t used to surging testosterone levels and struggles for control. Teen girls may get hot and tingly around boys; your average teen boy deals with ten or more erections a day. Imagine finding yourself aroused, discomforted, confused and distressed simultaneously AND in public.

They may not admit it, but friendships are as important to boys as girls. They usually don’t talk about feelings except around girls (because thanks to that testosterone thing he’ll even say the mushy stuff to gain her attention) but he wants friends. Turns out guys really can bond via an argument or even a fight, and body-boxing is one of their favorite ways to show they care.

Sight is the important sense for teenaged boys; almost every other sense is ignorable. This is no problem for him, but it is for an author trying to describe the sensory setting from his POV. My adult male beta readers unanimously nixed the idea that a male high school athlete would describe locker room scents. If the boy even noticed the smell he’d be branded a wimp by readers. Add in an ability to exclude any distraction and teen males become nightmare POV characters to work with. Yet female readers expect these descriptions, so compromises with reality have to be made.

Speech is another problem area for us as writers. Our readers want dialog, yet the typical teenaged boy believes in short, clipped sentences, and won’t use two words if one will do. And most act like they get double points for using gestures instead of words. When they do speak, profanity is often a major part of their vocabulary.

The Goal-Motivation-Conflict paradigm provides additional issues. Impulse control, planning and foresight are still works-in-progress. Surging testosterone levels combine with a belief in his own invulnerability and a brain that seldom considers the possibility that anything might go wrong. The idea that many young men act first and think about reasons why later—if at all—doesn’t bother scientists who point to the forebrain and talk about myelination rates and maturation. It sometimes doesn’t even bother the boy involved. But their impulsivity means trouble for authors trying to write believable scenarios for readers who need to know Why did he do that?

Putting it all together

Sometimes I had to bend realism to keep girls from being turned off by the thoughts going on inside the hero’s head. But that’s what writers do—manipulate reality to provide the reader with an extraordinary and enjoyable experience. My compromises aren’t critical to recreating the boy world, my teen male Voice remains rough at the edges. My hero is a composite of countless guys who joke and argue and remain fiercely loyal to friends and family members; who show off when girls are around and then lay back and become themselves again once they are alone. Boys aren’t clones or stereotypes, no one is solely the jock or only the geek or just the bad guy. Each must be written so they are as unique and three-dimensional as any female character.

***

BIO:

B. A. Binns is the pseudonym of Barbara Binns, a Chicago Area author who writes to attract and inspire both male and female readers with stories of “real boys growing into real men…and the people who love them.”  She is a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America), SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association). She finds writing an exercise in self discipline, and the perfect follow-up to her life as an adoptive parent and a cancer survivor.

PULL, her debut YA novel published by WestSide books, chronicles a young man’s journey from guilt and the fear that biology forces him to repeat his father’s violence, to the realization that his future lies in his own hands.

For more information visit http://www.babinns.com.

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Discussion

15 Responses to “Writing for Boys”

  1. B.A.,

    Thanks so much for joining us today! I think it’s funny that your male beta readers said a boy would be branded a wimp if he described locker room scents. I used to work with a crew of guys and they seemed to have an opinion or snarky comment about everything. And they say women are gossipy!

    Thanks again,
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 29, 2010, 5:28 am
  2. Hi Barbara!
    Your book sounds wonderful! I have a 16-year-old son. His is definitely a reluctant reader. When he has an English project due we search Amazon and/or the library to try to find an appropriate book that interests him. So far they’ve all been about boys his age, and mostly focused on sports. I plan to buy your book for him so next reading assignment we’ll be ready! 10 or more erections a day, huh? Some things I’d rather not know!

    Posted by Wendy S Marcus | October 29, 2010, 7:05 am
    • I know, a lot of this was TMI for me, too. Especially when the doctor told me the ten figure was “a minimum” not an average. I*’ve actually begun to understand the idea of single-sex schools. Both genders may need a rest from each other while the hormones surge.

      Posted by B. A. Binns | October 29, 2010, 1:59 pm
  3. Morning Barbara!

    I’ve got an MG on the back burner at the moment….and I got a few not-so-nice looks when I asked friends of mine with boys that age various questions. Hey! I’m writing a book! Sure…….=) Research can be tricky…lol……I’ve also got a YA on the back burner (yes, my oven is full!) but the male is 16 and a bit of an alien, so I figure I can make him a little less/more than “normal”.

    Great article, you can be sure I’ll revisit it again when I get one of those manuscripts back out again!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 29, 2010, 8:31 am
    • Try grandparents. I think parents would have given me that same look if I had asked them for details about their sons. By observing the boys in the absence of their parents I think I learned more than I could have from questioning parents. Grandparents they may be a little more open.

      Just reemmber, as writer you are in control of your world. You can make any character do anything beleivably if you give them the right backstory.

      Posted by B. A. Binns | October 29, 2010, 2:07 pm
  4. B.A. –

    Thanks so much for being at RU today! I was fascinated by your research. My son is 10 and still primarily in middle grade books (Sorry, Wendy, I have to admit mine is an insatiable reader), but he shops in the YA section too. We try to shop together so I can make sure he’s reading maturity appropriate books.

    Boys truly are another species, aren’t they?
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 29, 2010, 9:37 am
  5. Hi, Barbara. Thank you for being here today. I have a young son and I am amazed at how I simply cannot communicate with him about certain things. I’ll talk and talk and talk and he’ll get that glazed over look before I finally give up. At that point, I will typically look at my husband and say, “This one is yours.” Their brains are wired so differently.

    Great article. Thanks!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 29, 2010, 10:17 am
  6. Hi Barbara,

    Like the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, I have no sons. But I have brothers and nephews. Talk in clipped sentences? Try code. Boys are all about body language. Hungry, bored, mad, happy are written all over them. I have been punched in the arm as a way of friendly greeting and receive grunts at family functions. Conversation is short and to the point.

    Mary Jo Burke

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 29, 2010, 2:48 pm
    • I had to learn, punches = love. And the short conversations, my editor and I went through rounds of edits over real vs. interesting to reader. They really are hard characters to use from their POV. But the more I learned, the more I realized they can be really deep thinkers. They just don’t talk about it.

      Talking is a girl thing.

      Posted by B. A. Binns | October 29, 2010, 4:25 pm
  7. Very interesting! Thanks so much for sharing!

    Posted by Martha Ramirez | October 29, 2010, 4:08 pm
  8. Hello Barbara…

    Wow! Thank you for the amazing post. I loved your “mastery of the world” segment. So true, so true!

    Thanks so much for being on RU.

    Posted by jennifer tanner | October 29, 2010, 6:22 pm
  9. What a great post! I don’t write YA/MG, but I have two boys, one in MS and one in HS. They have such different personalities, but at their core, they both fit in with a lot of what you said.

    It’s funny how with me, they talk, and with my husband they wrestle, box, and insult (usually instigated by him). I was feeling bad that they don’t talk to him as much, but he probably doesn’t want that anyway. What great insight.

    I’ll definitely check out your book!

    Posted by Gwen Hernandez | October 29, 2010, 10:02 pm
    • Ah yes, that’s the whole father/mother difference. Kids quickly learn to give each what they expect. Having one to talk to and one to tussle with probably meets the boys needs too. Isn’t it great knowing you have three great guys who would defend you to the death?

      Posted by B. A. Binns | October 30, 2010, 9:53 am
  10. I’m always on the lookout for stories that might appeal to my 15yo son. I may have my head in the sand, but I think I’m going to have to read this one first. He hasn’t shown any strong interest in girls and sex yet and turns the TV channel when shows get a bit too racy. He’s more focused on athletics. So I’m not trying to introduce him to words that will fill his head with more than he’s ready for.

    But I agree wholeheartedly that what works for a girl is not what will work for a boy.

    Posted by PatriciaW | November 4, 2010, 10:03 am

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