While we love writing unapologetic, unconventional girls—flirtatious, forward Megan and cutting Cameron—we don’t often discuss the other half of the romance equation in our YA rom-coms: the guys. We love our male leads, and we’re excited to unpack them in the context of important conversations in and outside YA on male stereotypes and masculinity.
Our co-writing relationship is half male, with Austin providing the guy’s perspective on interiority and realism for our love interests. It’s important when we’re writing guys who counter male stereotypes of overconfidence and possessiveness, which we do. They’re the opposite reflection of our heroines, who fight expectations for female characters—we want our guys unconventional in their gentleness. They’re “soft boys,” in YA lingo. Cinnamon rolls, if you will.
First and foremost, we want our male characters to rewrite harmful and outdated images of masculinity in YA. The genre had an unfortunate early history of romanticizing detrimental male figures—the possessive “bad boy,” the brooding guy whose emotional ups and downs preoccupy the heroine. These boys are fun (okay, they’re very fun) to read about, but a nightmare in real life. We felt like contemporary YA offered us a unique chance as writers to show the opposite of the bad boy getting the girl (or whomever) without typical “alpha male” behavior. Because in real life, Emily has never liked the boy who made her feel like an object that needed to be claimed.
Of course, it’s not only in YA where images of masculinity need reimagining. Austin works in law and finance, in male-dominated offices in male-dominated industries, when he’s not writing YA rom-coms. He’s experienced the ways ideas of what defines “real men” persist—the pressures to conform to problematic male patterns or be “wrong” or “lesser.” In times of toxic masculinity, they’re hard to escape. Our male leads wrestle with these pressures themselves—whether they’re too quiet, too thoughtful, too “sweet.”
We want to write guys who reflect other images of maleness and masculinity. We want readers of If I’m Being Honest and Always Never Yours to read Owen, with his notebook and his love for Romeo and Juliet, and Brendan, with his nerdy references and his introversion—and their devotion for the girls they fall for—and find guys who love lovingly, who respect being respectful, who don’t shy from shyness.
However, we feel it’s important our male leads’ gentleness is not their only defining quality. We don’t want readers to equate our guys’ kindness with not having personality, or confidence, or strength. We hope more guys read YA, and we don’t want them writing off “soft” male characters as unrealistic or uninteresting.
What we hope with our male characters is to dismantle the false connection of kind, respectful men with weak, incapable, romantically uninteresting ones. We’ve worked to write male romantic interests who come off quiet or gentle, yet who exert confidence—and who flirt charmingly!—when it counts. We want readers to understand charisma in men doesn’t need to come with the negative qualities of disrespect or dominance. Conversely, we want male readers to understand gentleness or reserve doesn’t mean giving up their confidence or romantic appeal.
It’s possible to be “soft boys” and “real men.” Just ask Owen and Brendan.