Monday, November 7, 2011

I Need A Hero! Or, the origin of the YA male species.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about how inspiration from our youth shapes our fiction today. I hate to be the contrarian, but I’m here to argue the opposite: how the lack of inspiration from way back when affects what I write now. There, I said it. There’s no turning back. You've got no choice but to ease into your deskchair and hear me out.

First to be clear, I’m not busting on the children’s and young adult cannon of my youth. Those books are wonderful. They provided an amazing escape from a not always happy childhood. Magical, transportive and sometimes empowering, they were my quiet port in a sometimes very turbulent storm.

But in hindsight, I recognize they lack one essential element: Well rounded, squeal-worthy, romantic heros. The kind of guys who populate today's YA literature and who teen readers probably take for granted. These days, you can dream about Edward, Jacob, Damen, Gale, Peeta and Jace, to name a few. It wasn’t always thus, young readers. You don’t know how lucky you are.
Like Bonnie Tyler, I need a hero,
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light.
Don’t believe me? Let’s peruse my childhood and adolescent bibliography and consider some standout heroes:

Ned Nickerson is Nancy Drew's "special friend" or boyfriend, depending on the story and the edition you read. That's him on the cover of The Mystery of the Fire Dragon in the blue suit, next to the culturally insensitive depiction of an Asian man. Ned doesn't show up often in Nancy's amateur sleuthing adventures, but when he does, he frequently rescues her from a life-threatening situation; occasionally she does the same for him. Ned's a great student, an all-around jock, and he sells insurance during the summer. I don't know about you, but nothing says sexy like the title "part-time insurance salesman." Nancy and Ned go on a lot of dates and sometimes travel together to foreign countries, but nothing ever happens between them. No hand holding. Not even a furtive, chaste kiss. Sad face for Nancy. 

But all is not lost. Through the wonders of television, in the late 1970's Nancy Drew Mysteries show, Nancy finally got some off of Rick Springfield--Rick Springfield, people!--in the one and only episode he played Ned. Look at him over there. How cute is he? I bet it only took one kiss from Nancy to forget all about Jessie's Girl.

We can't talk about Nancy Drew without considering her crime-fighting brothers in arms, the Hardy Boys. In case you can't remember, here's how you tell them apart: Frank is the one with dark hair; Joe is blond. Frank's the thinker; Joe's more "impulsive" which I'm guessing is another way of saying "dumb" since they're a year apart but they're both in the same grade. These straight-laced guys know how to rock a pull-over sweater, but when it comes to the ladies, they're not exactly players. The two girls who sometimes help them solve mysteries--Callie and Iola--are their platonic girlfriends.

The Hardy's got a much needed boost to the sexy factor when they moved to television. Seventies icons Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy (David Cassidy's super cutie brother) took on the roles of Frank and Joe, surging Teen Beat sales and teenage girls' hearts. And they pulled off the big collar look with panache. Take a gander at those disco-era hunks. Who wouldn't want to run their fingers through that glorious feathered hair?

Hobbits. Um, well, Bilbo found Smaug's treasure and Frodo saved Middle-earth, but would you want to snuggle up with one of these Shire-dwelling mini-men with oversized, hairy feet? Yeah, me neither.

With reading choices slim, I turned to VC Andrews Flowers in the Attic and its sequels. Dark, creepy and intense, these books yanked me by the neck and never let go. But I never connected with their "hero", Chris Dollanganger, the eldest of four children whose mother and grandmother lock them in an attic for years and eventually poison them with arsenic. Granted, this horrid childhood is likely to mess a guy up, but Chris takes it to a new level. Brilliant, blond and beautiful, he's also a sister-rapist who becomes so obsessed with Cathy he eventually convinces her to live together as a common law couple. Icky ick ick.  

Michael Wagner is the hero in Forever. I love me some Judy Blume. With sprinkles and a cherry on top. So you can imagine how exhilarated I was to learn, at the tender age of eleven, that Ms. Judy had written a book about *sex* which included detailed sexy times on the page. My friend Kim and I forged a note from her mom giving us permission to take it out of the local library and immediately scanned the pages for some boom chicka wow wow. We found it, but those scenes were sparse. Surrounding them was a whole lot of blah blah blah about feelings, being ready, and getting on the pill. Blech. Okay, that’s what I thought as an eleven year old. Now, as a mother of three, I’m like, “Hell ya, Judy, sing it!” Michael is a mother's dream. And that’s the point. He's is a wonderful, respectful, thoughtful and deliberate guy, the perfect character to share a respectful, thoughtful and deliberate first time with. But that’s not what I was looking for as a reader. I wanted him to excite me too, make me fall in love with him. I didn’t. 

So, what's a girl to do when she can't find a hero? Write her own. I've tried to create heroes who are well rounded, complex guys who also happen to be romantic and super, duper hot. Hey, why not create a perfect package? 

In my book, The Hoodoo Apprentice, Cooper Beaumont is the sole heir to his family's vast fortune, but he's not a rich douchebag. Instead, largely due to his tragic past, he's kind and compassionate, plus he's got bulging biceps and an awesome six pack. His best friend, Emma Guthrie has secretly loved him for a year but is too afraid to act on her feelings lest it impact their friendship. But Cooper's got some secret feelings of his own, which he longs to share with her. With the help of a little Gullah hoodoo magic spell, he finally finds the nerve. Happy faces for both Emma and Cooper.


Lea Nolan can be found at her website, on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads.  She is represented by the astonishingly fantastic Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency.  

So what about you, blog readers? Who are the heroes you remember reading back in the day? Which of today's heroes get your heart pumping? Do you agree there's a difference between the heroes of yesteryear and the ones featured in today's novels? I can't wait to hear what you think!


Melissa Landers said...

Great post, Lea! But I can't read a "Forever" reference without cringing in remembrance of Ralph. OMG, what kind of tool names his tallywacker Ralph???

Now back to the topic at hand. In OUTWORLDERS, my sci-fi romance for young adults, I created my ultimate fantasy character. He's a tall, buff, and sexy alien with the ability to share sensations with his mind. Just imagine how that enhances a make-out session! Plus, he's highly-evolved with dreamy, silver eyes. What's not to love?

Cooper sounds pretty frickin' awesome, too. Can't wait to get a peek of him on the page.

kindle-aholic said...

I have to agree that a lot of the male leads lacked an edge "back in the day." ;)

However, I did have Tamora Pierce's excellent Alanna books - now those were some leading men (I do believe she had 3 pretty freaking great love interests).

Lea Nolan said...

@Mel, Exactly - Ralph? For real? Of all the potential name candidates for a Thing, that's one of the worst. I can't wait to read your alien! Silver eyes, mmmm, dreamy!

@Kindle, Tamora's Pierce's books rock for sure, but by the time the Alanna books came out (mid-late 80s) I'd already moved on to adult books - Stephen King and Anne Rice. Of course they provided some interesting male heroes too, but they were grown ups.

Lorie Langdon said...

Lea – Great post! But I must ask if you missed the whole ‘Sweet Valley High’ series? Yes, they were clich├ęd and predictable, but as a twelve year old, those little romances gave me hope that boys would not always be throwing spitballs or pushing girls down on the playground to get their attention.
That’s not to say the boys in those novels were even in the same league with Will Herondale or Han Alister (two of my recent favorite YA heroes).
But one character I’d put up next to any of today’s YA heroes is Ponyboy Curtis from THE OUTSIDERS. I must have read that book ten times and I eat up every moment of Ponyboy’s unrequited crush on Cherry Valance. I agree that strong literary heroes were few and far between in my youth, but I might propose their rarity made them all the more memorable. :-)

Lea Nolan said...

Lori, you know I did miss the Sweet Valley High books, I think I was a little too old for them. I remember seeing them when I was a babysitter, one of the young girls I used to watch had them, but by then I was way too mature and sophisticated for such fare *snort*

The Outsiders - I never read the book but totally loved that movie. My friends and I used to go around saying, "Do it for Johnny!" And I agree, rarity=memorable!

Jo Ramsey said...

I've never read Forever, even though I was about the same age as you, Lea, when it came out. It just didn't interest me.

I don't really remember reading any romantic heroes in books aimed at teens when I was a teen. That doesn't mean there weren't any, but if there were, they weren't memorable enough to stick with me...

I create male characters like the guys I had crushes on in high school, mostly. So they're romantic to me, but others might disagree.

Joya said...

Great post, Lea, and thanks for bringing back so many great memories from my youth. Hardy Boys and Rick Springfield. Ahhhh! :)

Haddayr said...

Seriously? No good male heroes from the past? We read very different books. My favorite: Calvin O'Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time. Awkward, brilliant, loving, empathetic, athletic, deeply insightful and kind. Red hair! Freckles! Come ON. He helped his girl to rescue her father and then stepped back to let her save her brother, knowing she was the best one for the job. He kicks Edward's ass and HARD. Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper, from the Chronicles of Prydain. Foolish, indiscriminate, ridiculous, hardworking, passionate and brave brave brave. Saved the world multiple times while tripping over his sword. Not born to be effortlessly superior like Harry Potter. Earned every bit of strength and wisdom he got through hard work, humiliation, and life lessons.

Bria Quinlan said...

Hayddyar and I are on the same page, Calvin, Taran, add... Peter from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe...he was just so... dependable.

My friends always laugh at that one, but when you grow up in a home with no dependable people, someone who is and always is looking to do the right thing is a draw.

And yes to all the Pierce heroes too!


Anonymous said...

I had a huge crush on BJ. Yes, that's right, BJ from BJ and the Bear . . . the guy with the monkey. The damn theme song still plays in my head. I know you were looking for literary characters, but if you can talk Dynasty, I can talk BJ (hee, hee). As far as a real literary character? Hmmm,Sydney Carton from The Tales of Two Cities based on personality and self-sacrifice, still no BJ, but . . . I crushed on Tom Sawyer, I thought we could have fun going off on adventures together. Now, my crush is on Aric Connor, my protagonsist's werewolf lover, Adam Hauptman, Mercy Thompson's werewolf lover, and the guy who plays the werewolf on True Blood. Do you sense a theme here? Cecy

Lea Nolan said...

@Jo - if your guys are similar to the boys you liked in HS, I'm sure others will love them too!

@Joya - Thanks, girl! Wasn't Shaun just the cutest?

Lea Nolan said...

@Cecy - Um, let me guess? You're into werewolves? Just a shot in the dark. :) And BJ, well, I'm just going to leave the jokes about his name unsaid.

Darynda said...

"...nothing says sexy like the title "part-time insurance salesman."

ROFL!!! What a fantastic post! I have to say, I think that is why I didn't like "juvenile" (LOL) literature as a kid as much as I should have. I was boy crazy at 5. I kid you not. I fell in love with Captain Kirk, David Cassidy (I'm totally dating myself) and several others like there was no tomorrow. So while Nancy Drew's stories were interesting enough, I needed a hero to die for!

I think that is why I love YA so much today. I started my first YA when I was in high school, and let me tell you, my hero was hot. That's what I craved. That's what I wanted to read.

You nailed it with this post! ~D~

shery Kaleo said...


I was a very late bloomer. So my childhood was filled with horror and sci-fi stories. Interviews with any vampires were too scary to be romantic. But thank goodness for TV heartthrobs--talk about feathered hair and images come to mind of Leif Garrett. :D

Fun blog!

Lea Nolan said...

@Haddayr - Uh oh, it seems I've stoked your ire! Hee her! I didn't say there were no good male heroes from the past, just that they weren't exactly the hottest. Okay, I'll admit you Calvin's character is awesome, but I read him in like 4th grade. I wasn't looking for a guy to crush on back then, and if I was, I'm sorry but the red hair and freckles would have stopped me in my tracks. And he might have kicked Edward's ass, but that's only because Edward is a romantic pacifist who'd rather play piano and pine for Bella then kill people and drink their blood. He might not have saved the world, but he took down the Volturi. Their red eyes are *scary*.

@Bria - Yes, Peter was full of awesome in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in my mind, the ultimate hero in that book is really Aslan - hello, he DIES for their salvation. I bawled when he was killed and was so happy when he came back. But in the end, as sweet and cuddly as he looks, I didn't want to snuggle up with him.

Laura Kaye said...

I'm with you, Lea! I can't really remember reading any specifically youth-targeted romance, or any younger characters I found romantic. The first thing I really remember reading was Stephen King and then Anne Rice. And once you've had Lestat, there's no going back...

Fun post! Careful people, don't drink while reading!

perisquire30 said...

I didn't spend a LOT of time reading in the YA world when I was younger---I quickly went from Judy Blume (and yes, I was another 11 yo who manipulated in order to read Forever. "Ralph" became a running joke in my gaggle of 7th grade pals immediately afterwards) to Stephen King, John James, and Jackie Collins.
I was also too "cool" and "mature" for Sweet Valley High, so I missed those.
I DO remember swooning over the hero in the "Waiting Games" books---rocker and guitar teacher Michael. Wasn't it Phoebe Cates and Rex Smith who played the roles in the movie???

Thanks for the fun walk down memory lane!

Loved it!!

~Roni Lynne
YA Adventures in the Paranormal...and Beyond!

Micki Gibson said...

Oh, I loved Shaun Cassidy. I'd even settle for Partridge Family reruns just for any of that Cassidy DNA if I couldn't get my Hardy Boy fix. I'm quite sure there were some ugly knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling fourth grade fights over who was the cuter Hardy Boy. These were the precursors to the "Who's the hottest member of Duran Duran" arguments of my high school days. (Totally John Taylor, by the way.)

As for those Hobbits...yeah, awesome characters. Swoon-worthy? I'm not sure there's enough hot wax in the world for those hairy feet.

Bria Quinlan said...

LOL Lea!

Yes, dying for our salvation pretty much trumps everything!!

Vicky said...

Now I know why I didn't spend much time reading teen lit when I was a teen (the sixties). I jumped immediately into adult lit by the time I was 12 or 13. In fact, I remember Mom taking away the copy of Gone with the Wind I found on her bookshelf, saying "you're too young." So I waited a few months and then sneaked it back into my room. Rhett Butler, now there was a hot hero. I also discovered sex out of marriage through James Mitchner's Hawaii. Teen books? Too tame!

Lea Nolan said...

@Darynda - Thanks so much! I appreciate the blog love :) And there's no shame in crushing on Captain Kirk, he was hot. And David "I think I love you" Cassidy *swoon*

@Sheryl - Lief Garret! I loved his curly hair :)

@Laura - I know you love yourself some Lestat, but I just couldn't get over what he did to Claudia. Sad face for little girls changed into tiny vampires.

Haddayr said...

Oh, Peter! How could I forget Peter? I do not know what to say to you about your lack of appreciation for red hair and freckles. I am shocked, saddened, and horrified. :-P

Ally Broadfield said...

Great blog, Lea! There was another Madeleine L'Engle series about the Austen family that was aimed at teens. Though I had long sense moved on to adult books, I still devowered that series when I was in high school. I was so in love with Adam Eddington from Arm of the Starfish and A Ring of Endless Light.

Lea Nolan said...

@Roni - I was the same way, plowed through MG books, chewed through some younger teen stuff, got bored and jump into Stephen King and Anne Rice. Way too adult to be reading as a kid, but it's all that was around in those dark, ancient days :)

@Micki - I LOL'd at the Hobbits and hot wax. You always make me chuckle. And Duran Duran, that's a whole other topic!

Lea Nolan said...

@Vicky - wow, Gone with the Wind? Had you already seen the movie and drooled over Clark Gabel? He was a might fine looking man. And James Mitchner - talk about some heavy reading, literally. Those books would hurt if you got hit with one!

@Ally, Madeline L'Engle. A literary goddess if there ever was one!

CareyCorp said...

Hi Lea. Great post! Sadly, I didn't read age appropriate material. In sixth grade, I read THE THORN BIRDS, twice. The hero is a priest - yep, a priest. (I just threw up a little in my mouth.) But then I discovered Victor Hugo and Jane Austen. *Sigh*

I grinned all the way through your post. I had a HUGE crush on Shaun Cassidy and now find myself wanting to listen to Da Doo Run Run. :)

Come on- sing along w/me!

Anonymous said...

Great post, brought back some fond memories. My fave hero when I was a young girl was Michael Skye from Sooner or Later. I thought it was awesome Michael was a rocker who Jessie nabbed at thirteen! It gave my ten-year-old heart hope that Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick would marry me. LOL.

Maybe that's why I always crushed on rock stars instead of TV and movie actors? I wanted to be Jessie and have a rock star to call my own.

Jen J. Danna said...

Wow... now that was a walk through my childhood! Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Forever... they were all party of my child/teen years. And Rick Springfield... my god, he's so baby faced as Ned!

I have to agree with Bria about Peter from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. But this just reminds me why I started reading adult books as early as I did. We just didn't have the heroes that teens have now, darn it!

Athena Grayson said...

Totally devoured my way through MG and YA when I was a 'tween, but by the time I read "Waiting Games" I was reading Johanna Lyndsays pilfered from my friend's mom's bookshelf and Michael was "meh" compared to the Fabio-alikes on those covers.

However, even before then, none of the YA classic heroes could hold a candle to Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows...except maybe Jaxom of Ruatha and his white dragon of Pern.

Come on...the boy had a dragon.

Lea Nolan said...

@Carey - Thornbirds! Coming from a pretty strict Catholic home, that book, and later the miniseries, were "scandalous" And remember how everyone drooled over Richard Chamberlain?

@Maggie - Cheap Trick, oh my gosh! Rockers are appealing aren't they?

@Jen - See that, besides agency sisters, we read and saw the same stuff!

@Athena - Totally, if you were looking for sexy, you had to swipe a book from and adult. The old boys just didn't hit the high hotness rating of today's YA guys. But, a dragon? Nice. :)

Kimberly said...

I was in exactly the same boat. Dreaming of a teen hero that could make me "swoon."
I never read the Sweet Valley High series. Not one.
I jumped straight to adult books as soon as I could. I, like Carey, devoured The Thornbirds and cried every time I read it. And I read it many times. When I watched the mini-series with Richard Chamberlain, I was a bit outraged that things were different than the book. :-)

I'm not sure who made the comment about Pony Boy and Cherry, but I'm right there with them. When he talks about seeing the same sunsets from different side of the tracks...ohhhh. Loved me my Pony Boy!

I think the difference in the comments to this post is that the true heroes back ALL THOSE MANY YEARS AGO were more literary than I wanted. I wanted steamy and hot and totally love-oriented. So I gravitated--very strongly--to the Harlequins and Silhouettes. Then, I went to Danielle Steele. And those could make a teen girl cry like nobody's business. Not as an adult today, but back then.

Anyway, I love the heroes in YA today. Even more so than in adult fiction, and I think that's why I love reading it as an adult. Love the guys from Perfect Chemistry. Loved both Peeta and Gale. Love too many to mention. LOL.

Shana Norris said...

Great post! I grew up in the Sweet Valley era and so I always wanted a sweet, cute, perfect boyfriend like Todd Wilkins. Although he was a bit too goody two shoes sometimes. But then there was Bruce Patman to spice things up, lol. ;)

The teens today have so many great heroes to crush on. I'm very jealous of all the hot guys in teen lit now!

Why were all the couples in VC Andrews books incestuous? I remember the girls in several different books falling in love with their brothers, uncles, cousins. (And yet, I still kept reading them...)

Louisa Bacio said...


I started reading Stephen King around 11 or so. Thinking about it, oh boy ... not so great of a hero, eh? Though, Freddie from Scooby-Doo has always been pretty cute.

Sarah Shade said...

Hey! I totally had a crush on Frodo for YEARS! I still cry every time I watch the movie version of LotR and he goes off into the West. I also had a painful infatuation with Menion from "The Sword of Shannara." I actually used to playact him coming to rescue me on my bed at night.
As for TV boys from the seventies, I was a Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett girl all the way! Posters and everything! Yet somehow I ended up with a David Cassidy look-alike. I sing "I think I love You" to my sweetie whenever he accidentally channels Keith Partridge. Wish I could poster a pic of him for you - I'll put one on my FB page just for kicks and grins.