Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Guest Author Sherry Thomas: The Writing of Boys

By Sherry Thomas

I'd like to welcome Sherry Thomas to the blog today. Her post is timely for me since I'm currently writing a boy point of view, and I'm always happy to hear tips and how to make him sound more like a real boy. (Even if it's just to confirm, yes I'm on the right track). But her tips on making the most of your characters work for all sexes, so even if you aren't writing a boy, you'll find some benefit from her advice.

Sherry burst onto the scene with PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a Publisher Weekly Best Book of 2008. Her sophomore book, DELICIOUS, is a Library Journal Best Romance of 2008. Her next two books, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND and HIS AT NIGHT, are back-to-back winners of Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA® Award for Best Historical Romance in 2010 and 2011. Lisa Kleypas calls her "the most powerfully original historical romance author working today."

English is Sherry's second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger's SWEET SAVAGE LOVE with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.

The first book of Sherry’s as-yet untitled YA fantasy trilogy will be released Fall 2013. In the meanwhile, she has a historical romance trilogy coming out in 2012, starting with BEGUILING THE BEAUTY, is available today, so check it out.

Take it away Sherry...

I recently sold a young adult fantasy trilogy to Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Publishing. The story is something of a reverse-Harry Potter, young mages attending a Muggle school—in this case, Eton College, that old English standby—and plotting to overthrow the dark lord from there.

One of the main protagonists is a girl who is pursued by all the forces the dark lord can unleash. She cross-dresses as a boy to hide at the all-male Eton. All her classmates are, of course, boys. When I met my new YA editor a few days ago, she complimented me on characters who came across like real boys.

I’d never given the matter much conscious attention before. But after my editor’s comments, I asked myself if there were anything I did to ensure that my boy characters felt authentic. I came to a few conclusions.

1) I do not approach boy characters any differently from how I approach any other characters, young, old, female, or male. No two boys are the same in real life. Authenticity does not come from generalizations of how boys speak and behave, but from what is specific and unique to that particular boy you are writing about.

Your boy can be honest and straightforward or utterly Machiavellian, young for his age or an old soul, garrulous or silent, but he must be him, not a prop you put in because you need someone to do something to move the plot along, or because your heroine needs a love interest.

2) Boys—and later men—tend to be less confessional than girls about their feelings. And when they do talk about their problems, they are more likely to lay out the facts of the matter, rather than their emotional reactions.

So it is all the more important, as writers, to show, rather than tell, in order to convey what he is not saying out loud. Does he say, “Nah, she’s not that hot,” but then stares after the girl he’d just judged not that hot? Does he swallow before he answers, “No problem”?

(Of course, showing is how you should go for your female characters too.)

3) One of my favorite instances of the formation of male friendship is from the O.C., when Ryan, a poor kid from a troubled background, spends a night at his new foster parents’ posh Newport Beach home, and wakes up to the sight of Seth, his surrogate brother, playing video game. They say hi rather awkwardly, then Seth asks, “You wanna play?”

They play. Seth talks nonstop about the happenings on screen, Ryan says nothing—but we understand that 1) they are okay with each other and 2) Seth talks more when he’s uncomfortable and Ryan becomes even more taciturn.

If you write largely from the heroine’s first-person POV, you might not ever describe moments when boys are among boys. But I still think it is very helpful pay attention to realistic—or at least real-seeming--depictions of how boys act when they are with only other boys, since that’s how many boys spend a great deal of their time. And here you are in luck: there are whole canons of literature, TV, and movies at your disposal—assuming you are female and cannot enter into a real-life all-boys scenario without altering the situation.

4) Yes, they really do think about it all the time after a certain age. You needn’t show them thinking about it all the time, but never underestimate the sex drive in an adolescent boy.

About Beguiling the Beauty

When the Duke of Lexington meets the mysterious Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg aboard a transatlantic ocean liner, he is fascinated. She is exactly what he has been searching for—a beautiful woman who interests and entices him. He falls hard and fast—and soon proposes marriage. 

And then she disappears without a trace… 

For in reality, the “baroness” is Venetia Easterbrook—a proper young widow who had her own vengeful reasons for instigating an affair with the duke. But the plan has backfired. Venetia has fallen in love with the man she despised—and there’s no telling what might happen when she is finally unmasked…


  1. I follow the same ideas, I think, when it comes to my male characters. What you say is true, it is very important the way they interact with other boys.

  2. These are all great tips! Thanks so much Janice and Sherry!

    My current WIP has male and female protags and I split the POV between them each chapter. I have so much fun getting into each one's head as they go through the same experience with completely different reactions.

    I totally agree with the "less confessional" feel for male characters. This is my male characters (and my husband).

  3. Hah! Number 4 is so key, but we can't pretend it isn't true, just because we're writing for young people. Great post!

  4. Teenage boys also enjoy bathroom humor much more than girls. If you're with a few teenage boys, they are laughing hysterically at any potty jokes, whereas the girls are rolling their eyes.


  5. Love this post! I can't stand it when the male characters get all emotional and whiney. I've never known any guy (over the age of...12) to act like that. They do come out and say how their feeling...sometimes...but it's normally only after their actions (and lack of openness) have been royally misinterpreted and they are trying to clean up the mess.

  6. Thanks!! This was very helpful. We appreciate the fact that you've shared some great tips here!

  7. I'll try to keep those points in mind when writing the boys and men (and girls and women as well). Number 2 is probably going to be the hardest for me to remember and write out the most authentically.

  8. I wish you would have provided more content in this post, but the little content you provided us is welcoming.

    Enough with these "strong female characters". How about the boys?

  9. Maybe I should go on a little more.

    I like points two and four the best, since they're less vague in nature. Being a boy myself, I'm about the whole "not being as open about my emotions". In my experience, such moments are covered up mostly by nervous and somewhat immature laughter.

    And number four? I think it should apply more for both genders in YA. It's sort of bewildering if you go the entire book with a narrator without a single thought about...that.

    I mean, I'm curious about sex's role in the Matched world. Where is it, and at what kind of level? Had Cassia, Ky, or Xander ever thought of it, considering they're all 16/17?

    The closest it gets toward the entire issue is in the first book, when Xander mentions to Cassia (the narrator) that they're now allowed to have acts of affection toward each other, but they both dismiss the topic, so I bet it doesn't have to do with anything beyond kissing.

    I sort of meandered off-topic, but...

    Yes, we do think of it all the time. And some boys tend to express their thoughts in a vulgar way.

  10. Wonderful and logical tips. Thank you so much and good luck on all your upcoming projects! :-)

  11. Sherry, this is very timely for me as I finish editing a middle grade adventure novel with boy leads. I love your example in #3, I can testify to this through my son's activities. I consider myself lucky my son talks about how he feels about things quite a bit, and hope that continues for him when he starts dating! Great advice here.

  12. Great comments, everyone.

    I have to agree with Chihuahua Zero, in that there is sometimes a lot of asexuality in the more plot/action driven or dystopian YA.

    Me too, I've wondered that the heroines/heroes don't ever seem to have intense feelings toward/preoccupation with members of the opposite sex.