40 Comments

Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction?

Guest Blogger: Kessie Carroll

YA heroinesWhat’s on the cover of men’s magazines? Hot women.

What’s on the cover of women’s magazines? Hot women.

Who are the protagonists of most YA novels? Hot teen women.

Am I the only one seeing a pattern here?

I’ve been churning out YA urban fantasy books with male protagonists, because I like male protagonists. More on that later. They say to read the sort of thing you’re writing, so I’ve been trying to find YA urban fantasy with male protagonists.

…then I had to broaden my search to YA fantasy with male protagonists.

…then it was YA with male protagonists.

My search across the internet and Goodreads has turned up about 25 books. A handful of authors: John Green. Alex Flinn. Scott Westerfield. Rowling. Riordan. Christopher Golden. People aren’t ashamed to throw older titles in there, too, like Heinlein’s juvie fiction books.

Male protagonists are very common in Middle Grade. In fact, I see more male protags in MG than female–or even a male/female protag pair, like a brother and sister. There’s a lot of crossover in these lists, too, as people sneak some MG titles into their YA to flesh out the list.

According to the buzz around the web, boys and girls read Middle Grade as they’re growing up. But as soon as they become teens, boys go off and read adult books–fantasy, sci-fi, or even (horrors!) non-fiction.

The only ones still reading YA are girls, so publishers market aggressively to them. They don’t care that girls will read male or female protags. We’re back to marketing Hot Women to women.

I personally get tired of the female point of view, being one myself. Sometimes it’s refreshing to climb into a guy’s head and think about practical things like fast cars, karate, beating down monsters, and cool new videogames.

I thought I was weird until I started reading discussion threads on Goodreads and other places. Girls pleading for male protagonists who weren’t just romance-fodder for the Hot Teen Girl. (A male protag who chases a hot girl is okay, as long as she doesn’t take over the story.)

But apparently there’s this idea that girls only relate to girls, and only want to read about girls–even though most teen girls I know are fascinated by men. Not just chasing them, but learning how they think. C’mon, we’re women. We’re the original psycho-analysis freaks. “He just looked at me! What does that mean? Does he like my new makeup?”

While the guy is thinking, “Did I put gas in my car?”

I think it’s time we start writing strong male protagonists and market them to this niche (possibly a very big niche) of girls who want to read about boys. Who knows? Maybe we could rope some boys into reading them, too!

Kessie CarrollAn artist and speculative fiction writer, Kessie Carroll was NAF’s top commenter in 2012, so we gave her this opportunity to take center stage. She blogs about art, writing, and life at http://netraptor.org/blog/.

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40 comments on “Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction?

  1. I always write about guys in my fiction, which I suppose is YA. I’m not really sure though, since most of my protagonists are commandos, mercenaries, bounty hunters, etc. But my fantasy novel is definitely YA with a guy protagonist.
    I have enough trouble comprehending girls thought processes that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write a girl protag.

  2. I just read…actually tried to read, didn’t finish….a book with a male protag that was such a disappointment. All the guy thought about was hot girls and his car. I got so sick of it. The odd thing–it was written by a female author. I know most books with guy protags aren’t like that, but it makes me wonder if maybe part of the problem is an overload of female authors in YA who can’t get inside a guy’s head. I have noticed that most *good* YA books with male protags seem to be written by guys.

    • Oh, that’s always my biggest fear — that my male characters won’t be male enough. That’s why it’s great to have opposite-gender crit partners!

      • I worry about my female characters not being female enough – for about five seconds at a time. Then I solve the problem the way I solve every other problem in writing: “you can observe a lot just by watching” (Yogi Berra). ;)

        But like you, I do best when I have a partner or an editor of the opposite gender, as in fact I usually do. They’re good at pointing out when I don’t flesh out a female’s POV well enough or put it forward aptly.

        If I ever do YA fiction of any kind, it will have a male protagonist. Why not – all my other spec-fic does. :D Well, come to think of it, one of my best short stories was from the POV of an ENFP female trying to push some envelopes in her life and as so many of that Myers-Briggs type preference of either gender do, finds herself in deeper than she bargained for.

    • I think female authors are afraid to learn how a guy thinks, so they fall back on cliches. According to my research, guys are a _lot like girls on the inside_. They have feelings, too. They just don’t talk about them as much. I love writing guys.

      • Wait, what? Girls actually aren’t that different from us? Wow. That’s… shocking.
        Except I’m quite certain we really aren’t quite that similar.

      • It’s a pity that in our American culture, males are encouraged to confuse emotion (a reaction to stimuli) with sentiment (an attitude of mind connected with value judgment) and to suppress both. (I call this “the Vulcan fallacy”, one of the worst things about STAR TREK in my opinion.) When I visited Mexico City, Barbados, Jerusalem and even London, I learned firsthand this fallacy is by no means universal. (I knew this already but it was edifying to experience it so vividly.)

        But it’s true that more F-types are females and T-types are males (I speak of Myers-Briggs codes summarizing Jung’s Feeling and Thinking preferences). This distinction affects how sentimental a person of either gender is. Emotions? We all have them regardless of cognitive preferences and so males aren’t naturally less emotive than females – just conditioned, in some cultures, to express them less. But again, type bias has some gender links and this affects what *style* of emotions one has, as expressed in one’s interaction or social style. Some styles are more “internal”, some more “external”, in how they affect one’s body language.

        I have a cognitive preference and a social style, and therefore a style of emotion expressed especially in body language, which is far more common among women than among men. In our society this combination often has been treated as a disadvantage among men. It shouldn’t be. It isn’t in many societies around the world.

  3. Eddie Jones, the best new writer for young adult boys since Samuel Clemens gave up journalism and riverboats.
    http://www.captainlafoote.com/

  4. I love a strong male protagonist. And also a strong male love interest. Something that drives me crazy in all these YA heroine-driven stories are the random guys shoved at the main character in order to have a love story or worse yet, a love triangle. *groans* I say a love story is only as compelling as BOTH of the parties involved–just throwing in a Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious or a Mr. Cute, Friendly, and Mischievous is a cop-out and annoying. My current novel has a love story, but I have worked hard to make sure both my male and female main characters are strong, well-written, and compelling.

    But I digress. I’ve also been told I think more like a guy than a girl most of the time (according to cultural gender stereotypes), so for whatever that’s worth.

    • Yes, Janeen! It is every bit as important that the hero and heroine be equally matched as it is for the protagonist and antagonist to be equally matched. If you think about it, it’s no better when the hero is strong and smart and brave and the heroine is feeble and stupid and cowardly.

    • Good for you! Are you writing YA, MG or adult? Girls and guys are both awesome, but they’re also different. Those differences are where we stumble–making the guy too emotional or the girl too masculine. (Masculine females: see any woman written by Michael Crichton, ever.)

      • I write YA and adult fiction. I agree, Michael Crichton definitely didn’t have a way with women. Ted Dekker too–I know his wife looks over things for him, but it still doesn’t feel right.

        One thing that I think hinders writing good feminine and masculine characters is how mired we are in Western gender roles. Female writers sometimes rely on stereotypes to write guys, like how they’re all into fast cars and hot girls and don’t care about emotions. They write a character based on the general role our culture assigns to men.When I studied and worked in the intercultural field, I was floored by how different things could be. In some Middle Eastern cultures, being passionate and emotional is seen as a masculine trait, and men who are friends will hold hands in public and argue vehemently over issues. Females are seen as more logical and practical and level-headed–more humdrum. Now, if I’m writing for a Western audience, I’ll want to use gender roles they’re familiar with–but it gave me more confidence in pushing boundaries.

        Another thing that helped a lot was the MBTI typology profiles. Say what you want about the efficacy of personality tests, but the one thing the MBTI profiles show is how men and women who have the same personality traits (for instance, perceiving things emotionally) might manifest those different ways according to their cultural roles. Plus, God simply didn’t make all men and all women like little cookie-cutters who react to situations in line with their assigned gender role.

        That helped shake up my little “gender box” and made me bolder in how I write characters. Instead of saying “oh, well all guys are less sensitive and more take-charge”, if I want to write a more sensitive male character, I’ll research how a guy would manifest that within the Western gender roles that tell him he should repress that side of himself. Yes, I head-shrink and rigorously interview all of my characters–it makes it easier to write as them.

        My personal experiences help too. My husband and my own personalities are flip-flopped in terms of gender roles. He’s emotionally-charged, sensitive, caring, sweet, and ridiculously empathic. I don’t understand or enjoy dealing with my own feelings most of the time, much less someone else’s, and I’m much more intellectually intuitive, pragmatic, problem-solving, and ironic/sarcastic. It makes for sometimes awkward situations at small group when I make a comment and most of the men in the room are nodding their heads in agreement, but oh well, it works for us!

        And yes, in my first novel, I took the easy way out and wrote much of the male character off my personality. In my second novel, I’m trying for a more passionate, emotional guy–and it’s throwing me for a bit of a tailspin, but I’m enjoying the challenge.

        • Janeen: That is fascinating stuff! I love it! Every man I know (hubby, brothers, cousins, etc) are all very emotional beings. They just also have the male ego to deal with, some in bigger helpings than others. Some of them aren’t as good as articulating their emotions, too. And you’re right that our Western culture really likes to stereotype people, and label them, too.

          I know lots of women who are very logical and not too emotional, which is the reverse of the stereotype. But these same women are basically managers in their day job–running a household and raising kids requires a lot of organization and logic.

          I love that observation–men being more emotional and expressive and women being more humdrum. Reminds me of my observation of chickens–flamboyant roosters, humdrum hens.

        • While the MBTI has been much abused (it was only meant to give “straws in the wind” and by its own user’s manual it reveals your “core type” correctly 70% of the time at best), the theory underlying it is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever run across. And yet, the eight cognitive processes it deals with in theory correspond only to what underlies the last eight Beatitudes. The first shows how the ego needs to submit to God – but this is another subject!

          Anyway, I’m glad you’re using personality type theory to help you and your writing – used properly it can only benefit both. Jeff Gerke at Marcher Lord Press recommends such typology as an aid for plot-driven writers to build realistic characters. As a character-driven writer, I use it to illustrate the characters (notably my ENFP or Ne’fi male protagonist, but also males and females he knows or encounters).

    • I suspect you run into “cultural gender stereotypes” because of your personality type, which most people haven’t been trained to distinguish from the effects of gender. One reason for the bias is that two of the four human temperaments are mediated by the same hormones which are considered the sex hormones. Most people in our society don’t know what to do with a woman whose primary temperament is mediated by testosterone, no more than many know what to do with a man like me whose primary temperament is mediated by estrogen. :D

  5. Ha….oops! Guilty as charged. Great post. I hadn’t really thought about the lack of the male protagonist in YA novels, and you make a really good point. Every story I’ve written, outlined, etc features a female protagonist except one. I write what comes to me, and I don’t plan to try to make me write a male protagonist, although, more power to those out there who do. Perhaps the world is waiting for your novels, Kessie. ;-)

  6. I love writing guys. Currently I have two books I’ve been working on. One is 70% female and the other is 85% male and frankly it seems like the male book has less pov issues. Having confidence that the men are “man enough” is there, but from what I can discern, I think I’ve done fine. I’ve seen some men written by females that at least I really struggled with. I certainly will read both sides of the coin.

    For what it’s worth, I actually seem to be struggling with female MCs. I am great with female supporting cast, but when I put a female as the driver, it’s like I can’t resist letting them be passive. Considering the aggressive secondary females I write, it’s ironic really.

    So, if my stuff ends up going for YA, maybe I can help contribute to the male heroes. Sounds fun.

  7. Yeah, it’s tricky to strike a balance. Diana Wynne Jones went years before she was confident enough to write a female protagonist. I’ll be interested to read your male characters someday.

  8. Personally, I tend to gravitate toward males more than females… Most of my major characters are male. And to think I thought I was actually following the crowd by having too many male characters.

    It really is about balance though. My male characters have to balance out the female characters, and vice versa. And there’s different kinds of male characters too. Matt is a little more feminine because he was basically raised around all females. Trecheon is a lot more masculine because he was forced to grow up really early (he was enlisted and put to war).

    It is pretty sad that we don’t have more male protags. Hopefully your novel gets out there and you can fix that! =D

  9. Love the post Kessie :) I recently realized that one of my works-in-progress needed a regular female PoV character. I hesitated because I’d never really done that before. It’s definitely out of my comfort zone and I found it tempting to fall back on a stereotype when I wasn’t sure how to write a scene.

    I once asked my wife why certain commercials for a product or service that obviously pertained to women more than men contained women that would grab a man’s attention physically. A man wouldn’t be interested in that product or service. She said that those commercials appealed not to men, but to women who want to be viewed or seen like the women in the commercials.

    Conceptions of beauty depend on personal taste and current culture throughout history, however it seems to me that many teen girls seek to find their identity or worth in whether or not their physical appearance matches our cultures current conception of physical beauty. Very often that self-worth is also attached to romantic relationships as well. It seems that the trend of “hot girl” emphasis might be along those same lines.

    My bride and I personally did not care for the Twilight series because it seemed to glorify unhealthy and co-dependent behavior that I’ve found too often in struggling teen girls. Sales tend to drive content. If this is what teen girls think they should be (or want to be), perhaps that’s why these books are selling, and hence why agents and publishing houses are picking them up instead of other submissions.

    Just some random thoughts – Your post got me thinking heh.

    • > I once asked my wife why certain commercials for a product or service that obviously pertained to women more than men contained women that would grab a man’s attention physically. A man wouldn’t be interested in that product or service. She said that those commercials appealed not to men, but to women who want to be viewed or seen like the women in the commercials.

      Duuuude, that is *insightful. Tell your wife so for me. :D

  10. [...] Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction? (newauthors.wordpress.com) [...]

  11. [...] Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction? [...]

  12. I prefer to write about a male character myself, but after my eyes burned over a rejection saying “The market is now selling for strong female characters. Your female character must have a much more prevalent role.”

    I was stunned. Here I was, trying to write something that I though my son would enjoy, with a really strong male lead with a brain in his head — and they were worried about the girl.

    I think about Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Why can’t there be more? Percy Jackson is huge, so there must be room for male characters — if only the publishers would be willing to give them a chance.

    • Jennifer, I sometimes think agents and editors say lame things like that because they have to winnow down the submissions somehow, so they glom onto the first thing that comes to mind. It seems to me that “The market is now selling for X” seems like a lousy reason to write.

      Writing something your son would enjoy is a great reason to write. Trust your instincts.

  13. [...] Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction? (I’m adding this just because I tripped on it and I totally related)(newauthors.wordpress.com) [...]

  14. […] who writes male protags into her stories, posted an article with similar sentiments to mine, Where are the Male Protagonists in YA Fiction?   “I thought I was weird until I started reading discussion threads on Goodreads and other […]

  15. Nice to see from the comments that there are a number of people writing male protagonists!

    I gravitate towards male characters for my storylines, and like Janeen I’ve been told I think more like a guy than a girl at times. I’m hoping that translates well to my guy characters (feedback has been positive so far).

    Glad to see people talking about this — thanks for bringing it up, Kessie! I’d guess the demand for strong female protagonists is part of a pendulum effect because of the decades (centuries?) of lacking such. It’s good to see more/better female main characters happening… but let’s not leave the guys behind! :-)

  16. Hey now, Kessie. Boys’ brains race at 1,000mph too. It’s not all “fast cars, karate, beating down monsters, and cool new videogames.” In my debut novel Zero Fade, the narrator is male, 13 years old and African-American, and the main conflict is him overcoming his own homophobia as his beloved uncle comes out of the closet. Have a look: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Fade-Chris-L-Terry/dp/0988480433

  17. […] who writes male protags into her stories, posted an article with similar sentiments to mine, Where are the Male Protagonists in YA Fiction?   “I thought I was weird until I started reading discussion threads on Goodreads and other […]

  18. […] Where are the male protagonists in YA fiction? (newauthors.wordpress.com) […]

  19. […] face that boys simply want to read about other boys, not about girls.  Some even think that there aren’t enough good MG/YA books being marketed to boy readers.  Some have told me that a boy who carries a book […]

  20. Male protagonists in YA fiction? Anybody think of Alex Rider, the young protagonist of a very successful series of books? (Does his age, fifteen, qualify as YA? I still find what he does fascinating at 54.)

  21. Reblogged this on Tales of the Undying Singer and commented:
    How about the internationally famous Alex Rider? How about my own, infinitely less famous Alain Harper the Undying Singer? :D

  22. I’ve been warring with myself over which gender my protagonist should be for months now. Reading this article and the comments bellow has reasurred me that their are female readers out there who want a male protagonist. A truth I should have known, but I do few things without evevidence beforehand . Thank you for such a well written and thought out article.

  23. One thing to consider is that young men, all of them, ages 12 to 18 to 62, want to be men. Whatever there culture tells them a man is, they will go for that. And young women want boys, ages 12 to 18 to 62, to be men as well. I think this is where we have a chance to really grab our culture and make a difference, especially as Christians. If we can show a character really sinking his teeth into the meat of self sacrifice, self control, and courage, we will win our audience of either gender, and just possibly give our young men something to reach for and our young women something to hold out for.

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