Your Audience: Boys vs.Girls

Sparked by a thread over at Absolute Write, I thought it might be interesting to look at what hooks a boy reader vs. a girl reader in the Chapter Book/Middle Grade category. As a writer of what may be classified as ‘boy books,’ I strive hard to cross the gender line and create stories that will appeal to girls as well. This is a challenge I know many writers face, because marketability is first and foremost in a publisher’s mind when accepting a manuscript. Having a wide market for your book might make the difference between a ‘No’ and a ‘Yes.’

Here’s how I see it (based on what I’ve observed in the classrooms I’ve visited):

- Girls seem to be bigger readers than boys on average
- Girls may favor girl protagonists, but they will read books with boy protagonists
- Boys are harder to hook into reading, but once they are, they become voracious readers
- Boys want to read about boy characters for the most part


What Girls Want in a Book:

- A strong character who is smart, compelling & relatable
- A character who has to face hard challenges and can think for themselves
- A character who thinks of creative solutions to problems
- A story that has some emotional depth (tough choices, dealing with fear/emotions, the ups and downs of friendship)
- Some humor, adventure
- A satisfying, upbeat ending

What Boys Want in a Book:

- Action/Danger/Adventure
- A character with a funny/sarcastic outlook who cracks jokes
- A villain who they dislike and will want to see the MC destroy/defeat
- A main character who they can identify with, relate to and admire
- A main character to root for and who will win
- Plots with a competitive element and/or risks
- Plots with strong humor (and yes, potty humor gets a thumbs up)


I think two common elements that both genders gravitate to are characters they can relate to (feel similar things, face similar challenges related to age) and a unique storyline that transports them away from the everyday. For some this might mean fantasy or sci-fi elements, or a story that provides a look inside a world the reader doesn’t belong to but longs to experience (the adrenaline rush of pro hockey, the thrill of being a rock star or famous person).

Girl readers are willing to read about boy protagonists as long as the character draws them in and the story is compelling. The harder fit is encouraging boys to read about girl protagonists. I think for this to happen, a girl character has to have several things:

- To be interested in the same things a boy would be
- To not ‘act’ like a girly-girl (no giggling, no girl chat, no love of horses, etc)
- To be a strong character with a realistic goal that a boy might have
- To be competitive and driven
- To be adventurous, takes risks, and does cool stuff that a boy would want to do if he could
- To have a best friends who is a boy or to have a boy sidekick

What are your thoughts on how to cross the gender gap and write books that reach a wide audience? Do you write books that have a firm gender audience in mind, or are you trying to reach both?

8 comments:

Mary Witzl said...

This is interesting!

One of the nicest things I've ever seen is a friend's boy, sitting and devouring books. He had no interest at all in reading until he discovered Goosebumps. Once he'd found those, a whole new world opened up to him.

As a child, I would never have read a book with a boy protagonist, but my daughters frequently do. And oddly, though I didn't like boy protagonists, I hated girly-girl stories as a kid, and my daughters absolutely loathe these (after a mercifully short flirtation with the Babysitters and Sweet Valley Twins series).

I aspire to write for both boys and girls. I have an MG with a boy protagonist and a girl villain and an MG/YA with a girl protagonist and two boy villains. For some reason, as an adult, I prefer YA and MG stories for boys.

courtney said...

I'm probably a bad writer, but as soon as I start thinking about the audience I try to please EVERYONE and then it all ends very sadly. I did at one point, get twisted up trying to figure out how to have something for all genders (it consumed me) and it just... aaah. *flashbacks* Sometimes I think reaching a wide audience, both genders, etc., is luck of the draw. I do the best I can while trying not to think about it. ;)

Bish Denham said...

I would love to write for both and have two novels I'm working on that may be a bridge cross this gulf. The option I'm using to hopefully get both genders interested is to have a "dynamic duo" boy/girl team who are the protags.

I was very much the tomboy as a kid so I liked adventure stories, like "Kidnapped," "Treasure Island," "Tom Sawyer," "Huck Finn," and wolf-dog stories instead of those "sissy" :) collie-dog stories.

AES said...

I've never really considered most of the things on this list before, but it all makes sense. Thinking back on my "middle grade" years, I can remember most of this stuff being the case--particularly boys only reading about boy characters.

Angela said...

I love books with boy or girl protags, but when I was a kid, I favored girl protags, especially in darker books about werewolves, haunted ouija boards and witches.

My current WIP is a girl book, really off the charts for me. It's fun, but difficult for me to write. Will it cross genres? I don't know. Probably not.

I think Courtney's right--it's best not to force anything. If you can make something work for both sides of the fence, great. But if not, then not--you don't want the story to lose its edge in order to attempt a wider audience appeal.

The dynamic duo is definitely a good way to walk both sides. I actually have brought in a female protag into a series of mine (two boys, one girl) on the advice of my agent for this very reason.

Angela said...

*laughs* I will admit to reading a few of those Sweet Valley High ones, way back when. Oh the secret lives of cheerleaders...

Becca said...

Oh my gosh. I was a tomboy, too, but I remember falling into that Sweet Valley High series one summer. How weird ;).

Angela, this is a great summary of what makes "boy" books and "girl" books. My personal opinion is that trying to force the audience is usually as successful as trying to force a moral, or theme, or even writing for a certain "successful" market that may not be your personal forte.

Angela, in the case of your series, I think it makes sense to add a girl character. But not every book can or should have a tag-team approach. My two cents.

Donna said...

I just write. If I'll have both genders picking up my book, yay! If it appeals to just females then that's fine too. The audience is a minimal thing in my mind when I write. Considering the shift my writing took, I do need to be aware of situations like I wasn't before but I'm not writing for this gender or that.

My current WIP has a female MC with constant male cast inserts and she's the one having the adventures so I'd like to think it'd be more appealing to both sexes. My second WIP is pure female. At the moment it's kind of chick lit for younger girls with fantasy elements. The other two I'm outlining, one is going to be from a young teen boy's POV but what he goes through he'll go through with his older teen sister and the other, the way it's spinning now I'm seeing as something like Goosebumps, where each book is a self contained story that alternates characters except this one the place is constant, unlike Goosebumps.

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