Boys do like romance in their novels, but they would rather be staked down over an anthill rather than admit it. I mean, even in movies that are absolutely sacred to my brothers in the Church of Testosterone, we do want John McClane to hook back up with his wife at the end of DIE HARD. We want Indiana Jones to get the gal. We want Superman to wind up with Lois Lane.
What we don’t want to hear (or read about) is the day-to-day aspects of those romances. Later, when we’re in our late teens, that will become more important. During college it will become very important to the point of poetic obsession. Brooding may even be involved. After college, it’s all about the hunt for the perfect female.
Give all that, when I sat down to write ROT & RUIN, my first teen novel, I was faced with the realization that I had to write a romance. Sure, there are zombies, and gunfights, and daring escapes, and chases on horseback, and murder and evil bounty hunters. But ROT & RUIN is also about falling in love.
Benny Imura, the fifteen year old protagonist, is maybe a little young for his age. Like I was at that age, he’s a bit dense, more cranky than he needs to be, and incapable of placing value on things close at hand. There is a girl, Nix Riley, who loves him. She’s a little younger, and Benny grew up with her. He CAN’T fall in love with her, even if those feelings are starting to percolate. That way lies madness. Actually, that way lies the quick demise of whatever ‘mystique’ we think we’ve built around ourselves. Guys, you see, want to be slouchy cool and mysterious. It’s impossible to be mysterious with a girl you grew up with. She knows everything about you. That’s half of the problem that Benny faces: no way to be all cool and mysterious and edgy.
The bigger and deeper problem is that of possible rejection and its dire consequences. If Benny decided that he did, after all, have feelings for Nix, what would happen his estimation that she had the hits for him was inaccurate? What if she didn’t love him? What if she rejected him? For Benny that’s the end of the world, at least in terms of his self-worth is concerned, because if the person who truly does know everything about you rejects you…then surely she must be basing that on actual knowledge that you’re just a loser.
I’ve read enough boy-oriented fiction to know that I could have left the romance out of the story…but where would be the fun in that? Especially from the writer’s point of view. It is our goal in life to create as many complications for our characters as possible. A story about happy people on a sunny day where nothing bad happens is booooring. Stir in complications, catastrophes, complexities, conundrums, conflict, clashes (and, apparently a lot of other ‘c’ words), stir vigorously and you have real drama.
So…much as I love poor Benny Imura, I could not leave him in emotional neutral, so just as he starts to get interested in Nix, I introduce the Lost Girl –a mysterious, beautiful ‘older’ girl living wild in the Ruin (oooo—air of mystery!)—and then I have Nix kidnapped.
This allowed me to use the main adventure of the novel as Benny’s pathway toward understanding his feelings for Nix (and for the Lost Girl); and for getting Benny to the point where he has a clearer idea of what romance is, what commitment means, and who he is.
So far….none of the boys have complained that there is romance in the book. With all the zombies and gunplay, some of them haven’t noticed. The girl readers, on the other hand (always a little sharper in my experience) have noticed the romance, and based on the letters I’ve received, they like it quite well.
I just finished the second in the series, DUST & DECAY, in which each character wrestles with personal demons (instead of interpersonal struggles); and we just sold books #3 and #4. I’m already planning how to introduce all those C-words into the lives of Benny, Nix and the Lost Girl. I’m pretty sure the readers will dig it; just as I’m pretty sure the characters are going to want to sic a zombie on me.