Guest Post: Leila Sales

Guest Post: Leila Sales

Author of Past Perfect and Mostly Good Girls


The protagonists in many, many YA novels are girls. Specifically, they are girls who want to kiss boys. So let’s talk for a moment about those boys who they want to kiss.

For authors, the path of least resistance is for the girls’ crushes to be empty vessels, just good-looking sounding boards for whatever the girl wants to talk about. That would be dreamy, right? A hot guy who’s immediately like, “I agree with you on everything”?

But the thing is, boys are people, too. They are usually taller people, and often they are people who are surprisingly entertained by watching their friends drop hammers on their fingers. Nonetheless, they are still people. And that means they are not so simple.

So if you want to write a YA novel about a girl who wants to kiss a boy, here are a few questions you first need to ask yourself about the boy:

Who is he? He lived a whole life—16 or 17 years—before he met our heroine. What did he do in that time? What does he care about? What are his goals? What are his hang-ups? Who’s his family? Who are his friends? Has he dated other people before this girl? If not, why not?

A lot of boys in YA novels are hard-to-read and brooding. And I get that; there is something attractive about inscrutable guys. They seem to hide deep and meaningful secrets. But even if the protagonist can’t decipher anything about the guy, the author must be able to decipher information about him. That is what makes him a whole and complete person instead of just an empty bottle into which the protagonist can pour her affection.

Meanwhile, other love interests come across as so perfect that they might as well be imaginary. They say things like, “Tell me all your problems,” and, “Let me skip video game night with my friends so that I can hold you while you cry.” The reason why they can behave like that is because these dudes have no interests or commitments outside of the main girl character. And that is imaginary.

What does she see in him? This can be a challenging question to answer because in real life the answer is often: I have no idea. It is completely irrational. They share no extracurricular activities in common, and he seems like kind of a dick.

This is why authors sometimes go one of these three routes:

– The girl and the boy have an inescapable, almost otherworldly connection. We don’t need to explain why because we can’t explain why; their love is beyond explanation. Also known as the Twilight model.

– The boy is insanely hot. (This is Part II of the Twilight model.)

– The girl and the boy have been best friends since they were children, so what they see in each other is 16 years of amazing friendship. Then he grows up and becomes hot.

The trick to not falling into one of these ruts is looking at what it is that actually makes a girl have a crush on a boy. Yes, sometimes it’s just that he’s physically attractive and smells good. But look at The Princess Diaries model (one of my favorites): Michael Moscovitz is in a band, and he gets Mia thoughtful presents, and he’s smart and motivated, and he calls Mia out on her bullshit. He balances her. (And also he is physically attractive and smells good.)

Reasons I have had crushes on boys in the past include but are not limited to: because he played guitar, because he laughed at my jokes, because he also liked the Smiths, because he knew how to dance, because he didn’t know how to dance but didn’t care about looking like a fool in front of people anyway, because he dressed up as a character from Wet Hot American Summer for Halloween. Feel free to use any of those in your own YA novel.

In my recent novel, Past Perfect, the protagonist, Chelsea, is trying to get over her ex- boyfriend, Ezra, who broke her heart. The easy conclusion to draw here, because we like Chelsea, is: “Ezra sucks. He is a bad person for hurting her, and I don’t know what she ever saw in him.”

But I know exactly what Chelsea saw in Ezra. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, and he treated her badly, but he had a lot of appealing qualities, too. Like most real people who we date in our lives: there are reasons why the relationship happened, and there are reasons why it’s over.

What does he see in her? There is this trend in YA lit of giving girls extremely low self- esteem. The main characters want you, the reader, to know that they are incredibly plain-looking and klutzy and unremarkable and not even that smart.

At times I feel like this can get overdone. Yes, nearly everyone experiences self-doubt. When you’re a teenage girl, you can experience a lot of self-doubt. But I think you still recognize some of your positive attributes. When I was a teenager, I knew that I wasn’t a very talented gymnast and that most of my classmates had better hair than I did, but I was also fairly certain that I was a good writer with a good sense of humor.

The problem with a protagonist telling you over and over how unappealing she is, is that eventually you start to believe her. So when the tall-hot-smart-athlete-guy asks her out, and she thinks to herself, “How could a lame person like me possibly attract a winner like him?” the reader also feels like, “Yeah, what does he see in her? Okay, I as the reader know that she has witty repartee with her friends and she habitually saves orphaned animals’ lives, but that love interest guy doesn’t know any of that about her. All he sees is that she trips a lot and never knows the answer in history class. Why is he into that?”

But if we see her doing something clever or spunky or cute around him, then we get it. I understand why a guy would like a clever, spunky, cute girl. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Writing secondary characters is hard. We simply don’t know them as well as our protagonists. The trick is to remember that, while these secondary characters are tools to help our main character grow, they aren’t merely tools. They are also their own people, with their own lives, and if we would let them, they would have enough to say that they could star in novels of their own. Okay, their novels might include way too many scenes of people dropping hammers on their fingers and laughing. But still.

About Past Perfect:
All Chelsea wants to do this summer is hang out with her best friend, hone her talents as an ice cream connoisseur, and finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart. But when Chelsea shows up for her summer job at Essex Historical Colonial Village (yes, really), it turns out Ezra’s working there too. Which makes moving on and forgetting Ezra a lot more complicated…even when Chelsea starts falling for someone new.

Maybe Chelsea should have known better than to think that a historical reenactment village could help her escape her past. But with Ezra all too present, and her new crush seeming all too off limits, all Chelsea knows is that she’s got a lot to figure out about love. Because those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it…

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I went to college at the University of Chicago, where I majored in psychology. I also performed in Off-Off Campus (the U of C’s improv and sketch comedy troupe), competed in debate tournaments all over the world, helped judge the world’s largest scavenger hunt, and wrote a humor column for the school paper. And I wrote another unpublished YA novel, for which I was awarded the Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Prize for Fiction Writing.

After graduating, I got a job at a children’s book publishing company in New York City, where I happily remain to this day. My novels are published by Simon Pulse. During the daytime I read other people’s books, and during the nighttime I write my own. What more could I need?


Guest Post: Leila Sales — 6 Comments

  1. Ha! I love the details about hammer-dropping! It’s true–even if the protagonist is having trouble getting to the bottom of the boy, the author should know what makes him tick…so that there *is* something making him tick! Very helpful post, as I spend my weekend revising a WIP with the hopes of drawing out and elaborating on a little baby-romance! :)

  2. This is brilliant. I love this post.

    And that Princess Diaries model? Win. Michael is the studmuffin with brains. He also invented a robotic arm, remember?

    Past Perfect sounds oh-so-awesome. Can’t wait to get that on my shelf.

  3. If this post was a love interest I’d be it’s girlfriend! Gah, this was seriously one of the best guest posts I’ve ever read. Great insight and fantastic personality. Loved.

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