Quirkiness, Dry Humor, and the Lovable Rogue

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In my last post, I said that I especially enjoy writing romantic chemistry between my characters. I’d like to elaborate on what I think makes good chemistry. Last week, I finished listening to the audiobook version of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. While I loved this book for many reasons, the chemistry between the two main characters, Peter and Lara Jean, really catapulted it towards the top of my list of favorite young adult books. (Side note: When I was a teenager, I used to read books like Wuthering Heights and Far From the Madding Crowd for fun, but now that I’m an adult, I read books for teens. Ironic, no?)

Here is my secret for writing good romantic chemistry:

Make one character regularly say or do ridiculous things and make the other character regularly respond with eye-rolling to these things while secretly enjoying them.

You see this kind of chemistry everywhere. One character is the manic pixie dream girl/guy and the other character is the sour puss with the dry sense of humor. Think Luke and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls. Their chemistry works so well because she is sweet and quirky, and he always responds with dry remarks, but we all know deep down that he adores Lorelai’s quirkiness. There’s something so lovable about that type of chemistry. We want to see the quirky, cute one melt the “heart of stone” of the sarcastic, cynical one. Usually, the male is the dry one and the female is the quirky one, but it can be the other way around. For example, in The Big Bang Theory, Leonard is the lovable nerd while Penny responds to him with sarcasm.

In To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Peter tends to have a flirty, ridiculous sense of humor that Lara Jean pretends to be annoyed by, although the reader knows she secretly enjoys it. Because romances are usually marketed toward women, getting the male lead right is often more important than getting the female lead right. While women want a female lead who is kind, relatable, and funny, we read the book or watch the show for the romance and chemistry generated by the male lead. So, it is important to make him fascinating.

The most popular trope for a fascinating love interest is the lovable rogue. Think Han Solo. Or Mr. Darcy. The lovable rogue defies social conventions, speaks his mind, and thinks more highly of himself than he ought. As much as I hate to say it, it helps to write a bad boy. But the bad boy has to actually be a good guy—we just don’t know that until we get to know him more, usually towards the end of the story. Over time, it must become apparent that he has qualities that cause the reader/watcher to feel empathy towards him. Peter definitely falls in this category. He is an arrogant, popular high school jock; everyone loves him and he milks it. Yet, as the story progresses, we learn that he has a sensitive side—that he is extremely loyal—and that there is more to him than meets the eye. This is a powerful theme in general for a novel because it is so true in real life. We often judge people and overlook them rather than take the time to get to know them and learn who they really are.

As important as it is to create romantic chemistry between characters, it’s also important to create non-romantic chemistry. For example, in Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson, Lightsong fulfills the lovable rogue trope. While there is romantic chemistry between him and Blushweaver, who perpetually rolls her eyes at him, there is also platonic chemistry between Lightsong and his priest, Larimar. Lightsong speaks his mind and whines a lot while Larimar is perpetually patient towards him. Lightsong tries to provoke Larimar, but he rarely can. Every now and then, Larimar reacts, albeit just a tad, to something Lightsong says or does, and the chemistry between them is beyond precious.

 

Writing for Teens

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The greatest difficulty in writing for teens is making the characters sound authentic. Because a few of my writer friends also write young adult lit, I thought it’d be fun to interview my 15-year-old sister, Sarah, to give us insight into the mind of a teenager. Some questions are silly, and some are serious. Enjoy!

What makes a good story? I like what you like. A lot of comedy and romance stuff. I feel like the characters’ personalities [are most important.]

Do you have a favorite catchphrase? Wack.  It means that things are weird.

Would you say deer are cute or beautiful? I’d say more cute. Yeah, they’re beautiful, but you think of them more like a cute way like Bambi.

What advice would you give to an adult trying to write a book for teenagers? Just spend a week with teenagers. Have some teenagers be rude and some be lonely, and then there are lazy people and all these athletic people.

What is your opinion on vases? I use them. I mean—they’re something that’s just there when you need your flowers not to die. I mean—I’d rather plant flowers in a pot, but if somebody buys you flowers in a package, you can’t plant them. So, vases are all right.

Yanny or Laurel? Laurel. I mostly heard Laurel, but I sometimes heard Yanny when I was far away.

What is it like to be a teenager in today’s world? I like the clothes. The people are rude. All you hear about at school are the people who vape and drink. 15-year-olds and 13-year-olds.

Any idea why you’re so snarky? I like to have fun and laugh a lot. And being snarky is the only thing I’m good at.

What are your favorite smells? I like a lot of fall scents, so like pumpkin… I like cranberry scents. I like vanilla cupcake a lot. And beach scents like the ocean. I like the smell of Pensacola beach. I do not like lilac. Blah. It’s my least favorite. And I like the smell of pizza.

Insights/Applications:

  1. Don’t overuse slang. Sometimes authors try to pump up the slang in their books to make them more relevant to teens, but Sarah honestly doesn’t use much slang. Plus, it dates your book. Although Sarah said it is her catchphrase, I wouldn’t use the word “wack” in my novel. Even if all the kids are using it now, likely no one will know what it means in five years.
  2. Teens aren’t dumb. Some people think writing like a teenager means dumbing down your writing. That’s not true. I didn’t include this in my interview because I don’t want to get political on my blog, but Sarah and I had a good discussion about current political/social issues. A word of caution, though. Make sure that the teens in your book don’t sound overly formal/precocious. While The Fault in Our Stars is my favorite young adult book (ALL THE FEELS!!!), my one complaint is that many of the teenagers sound so overly sophisticated/eloquent that it negatively affects the believability of the store world.
  3. Add some sass/sarcasm. Both my little sister and I tend to be sarcastic, but I would say she’s more sarcastic than me. So, I jokingly asked her a question about why she is so snarky. While too much sarcasm is bad both in fiction and real life, including a consistently sarcastic character in your book is a surefire way to please teens. I am currently listening to a young adult audiobook, The Distance Between Us by Kasie West. I read it a few years ago and liked it and thought I would listen to it again while I’m working on my own YA novel for inspiration. I wanted to know what teens liked about the book, and so I read the reviews on Amazon. By far, the most-mentioned element out of all the reviews was the readers’ love of the protagonist’s sarcastic voice. I knew teens like sarcasm, but I was surprised by how much. In my opinion, here’s why Kasie West’s sarcasm worked well for her book:
  • The sarcasm is non-disparaging – Sarcasm isn’t cool when it makes fun of a people group.
  • The sarcasm is incredibly witty – If you’re going to use a lot of sarcasm, make it funny; otherwise, it’s annoying.
  • The sarcasm has a purpose – The protagonist uses sarcasm to avoid talking about her real feelings and realizes this as the story progresses.

Writing for teens isn’t easy. But writing for people just on the cusp of adulthood—when they’re deciding the values and beliefs by which they will live the rest of their lives—is worthwhile.