14-year-old male character: How discreet or explicit can I be?

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m working on a novel that will follow a teenaged couple from eighth grade through high school graduation. Right now, they’re both only 14.

I’m female, and never had brothers, so I don’t presume to know everything there is to know about how a teenage guy thinks, feels or reacts. What I do know is that I’ve been told, many times and by many different guys, that boys that age never have sex off of their minds: not entirely, anyway. And that when a guy is anywhere within arm’s reach of a girl, particularly one that he’s “interested in”, he is keenly aware of her femininity.

So I’m trying to illustrate that, without being crude, but I’m not sure about a couple of bits that I have so far. In the following excerpt, they’re at the 8th grade dance, slow-dancing for the first time:

Mr. Rilch says, “Any editor would tell you to leave that out.” But maybe I could change the 9/11 reference to something else. My point there is, Ash has to think of something sobering and unpleasant, in order to keep from being…ungentlemanly. Or should I leave out that internal conflict entirely? I could, but I don’t want to, on the grounds that I’ve been told that that’s exactly what happens when a 14-year-old guy gets into “Omigod, we’re touching a woman!” mode. My characters are going to have sex eventually, and as such, I want to show right along that they do have a sex drive, so I can build up gradually to the big event, not just abruptly go from hand-holding to that.

Then there’s this. They’re walking to a pizza parlor while Alexandra tells how her mom has a mail-order business making candles and so forth:

Friend says he’s not sure a 14-year-old would make that association. But wouldn’t just the word “bath”, let alone “bath oil” be enough of a trigger? I was, after all, a 14-year-old girl once, and I well remember the numerous things that made me self-conscious. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think that at that age, anything that the opposite gender does, that your own doesn’t, seems terrifyingly intimate.

So what d’y’all think?

When I was 14, being close to a girl would definitely get my mind spinning, but I don’t think hearing a girl mention bath oil or even talking about taking a bath would have that effect.

I think the 9/11 reference is in rather poor taste (As the South Park episode Jared Has Aides tells us, you have to wait 20 years before you can make fun of tragedy without most of the people within earshot getting out their torches and pitchforks.)

Other than that, looks okay to me.

In a more general sense, I would say be as discreet or explicit as you feel comfortable being.

Ever read Skipped Parts by Tim Sandlin? It’s one of my favorite books. The story centers around sexual relationship between two 13 year olds, with the girl ending up pregnant before she’s even had he first period. The book doesn’t pull any punches in describing their relationship. It’s a very funny book, but also very provacative and though I wsn’t bothered by it, I can see how the subject matter could make some people feel uncomfortable.

Of course, I have no idea how old you plan on your characters being when they finally have sex, and I have no idea if you’re just trying to tell a sweet romantic story or what. The thing about the relationship in Skipped Parts is the girl, whose definately not your typical 13-year-old, initiates the relationship with a boy she’s friends with but not really romantically interested in purely for the sake of experimentation and to gain experience for when she does it “for real”. The boy goes along with it because he thinks he’s in love with her and because, well, he’s a guy.

Speaking as one who was once an oversexed 14-year-old-boy, I noticed any mention of any activity that involved a remotely attractive female getting partially or completely naked. Some particular trigger words include bath, shower, change, and swim. “Oil” in such a context would have immediate implications as well. Incense would have led me to candles. Suffice it to say that an elaborate and erotic fantasy would have flashed into the mind’s-eye before Alexandra finished speaking. I would have probably leaned closer to see if I could smell the heliotrope.

As for your first quote, the 9/11 reference is at least in poor taste, and is not something that a boy would normally try to use this way. I certainly never envisioned, say, the space shuttle explosion for such a purpose. A more likely candidate would be a particularly ugly teacher scowling at him, the boys’ locker room (assuming he’s completely straight), or something of that sort. Something familiar, unpleasant, and easy to visualize, but not something really horrible.

I’d keep the 9/11 reference. It’s funny in a mildly dark way, which seems appropriate for a teenager.

Oh yeah, the bath oil thing might be conceivable, but two things:

  1. How smart is this guy? If he’s a horny dumbass, he might not necessarily make the mental connection you’re suggesting.

  2. How horny is this guy? Some teenage boys are hornier than others, and even if he’s a smart guy, if he’s not exceptionally horny he still might not make the connection.

Weird personal quirk: When ever I need to prevent ahem potentially embarrassing physical confirmation of arousal, I find myself picturing gory scenes from horror films and it always works.

I’m a big fan of horror films and I generally find gore funny, but I certainly don’t find it arousing.

That’s just me though. One of those things that makes me uniquely me!

Wow, that was fast!

Badtz: Really?

Fibber: The characters will be 17, almost 18, when they finally have sex. They will be doing it out of love, not for experimentation.

TMI spoiler:

The year before that, they will reach what they think is the perfect solution: oral and digital stimulation. After all, no one can get pregnant without penetration, right? WRONG, says the sex ed teacher, sparking a pregnancy scare that turns out to be unfounded. But it does get them talking seriously about birth control, with both sets of parents weighing in, and the net result will be her going on the pill. I want this to bring them closer together, not drive them apart (he didn’t ditch her the minute she said, “I think…”, for instance).

As for your two questions:

  1. He’s above-average in intelligence, and

  2. I don’t really know how to rate “horniness”, but Ash is a professional actor. Which means that during the early stages of puberty, he was around beautiful, highly sexualized women, noticing their curves and scents and general adult-female characteristics. One of the things that attracts him to Alexandra is that she seems more “womanly” than the giggling, screeching “girly” teenyboppers in their class.

Balance: I thought about that—having him try to sniff the heliotrope—but decided it would be a bit too suggestive.

Fibber, Balance and Miller: I’ll concede the 9/11 reference being in poor taste, but I will substitute something else. Mr. Rilch once told me that he would think “Hitler, Hitler, Hitler!” in such situations. Although, as Miller pointed out, 9/11 is the defining moment for the generation I’m portraying here.

BTW: I just looked up Skipped Parts on Amazon. Is it a satire?

As another reformed 14-year old boy, I’d say a girl talking about bath oils and such would trigger a vivid mental image or brief erotic fantasy of the girl. Maybe taking a bath (perhaps with bubbles) or undressing for one. Although depending on your male character he may not exactly know what bath oils actually are. Most teenage boys, myself included, probably wouldn’t have.

Scents and smells - like perfume - do work on us. Talk of oils and candles would have been arousing, but incense would have made the association with church since I was raised Catholic. Again, no idea what you intend with your characters in that regard.

Your friends were right about sex never far from a teen boy’s mind, and being very aware of a girl’s femininity. I knew a kid in high school who used ask girls what shampoo they used as an excuse to sniff their hair and nuzzle their necks. The girls all said he was a sweet, if bold, flirt. The guys knew the truth, because he bragged about getting away with stuff like that. That’s just one minor example I can think of.

The 9/11 World Trade Center image as a “mood killer” seems a bit much for a teenager, again it would depend on the character. Perhaps he could use a memory of roadkill or seeing the dead body of a beloved relative or even a pet. I know thinking about the first body I saw in an open casket (a family friend I had known as far back as I could remember) would have killed the mood for me. It seems more personal and focused on oneself, and we all know how self-involved teenagers are - and therefore more “real” - as well as dodging the tastelessness question.

It depends hugely on who this book this for, how you plan to sell it (whether you are going to a regular publisher of young adult books or self-publishing or any of the other myriad routes), and the general tone you are trying to establish.

If you trying the standard publishing route, the simplest thing is to read other books of the type you are trying to write by similar publishers and see how far they go. Some publishers tend to be extremely chaste, others very explicit. Most will vary according to type of book it is - a Judy Blume problem novel gets different standards than a Sweetwater High formula book.

New writers tend to forget this, but researching publishers is just as important as researching the subjects of their books.

I would also tend to leave out the 9/11 reference. I agree with Miller that that would come quickly to mind for a modern teenager, it’s too recent for most of your contemporary readers and too topical for later ones. If I may be so bold, and if you want to go for broad humor, one way to play it would be something like:

And, I wouldn’t have know exactly what bath oils meant at 14, but the association of “bath” and “naked female” is direct enough.

It’s satirical, but not at the expense of exploring important issues like the inevitable connections between sexuality and emotion and the importance of family.

paperbackwriter: LOL!

Good suggestions, all!

I would lose the 9/11 reference. “People jumping out of the world trade center. That’s right…” is not the kind of thought that would occur to any male, especially a 14 year old. I have always gone with a more direct approach: Pinch myself very hard in my arm to try to get the blood going somewhere else, and picture something unattractive or gory (which brings up the point that, being more visual, a boy is more likely to picture something than to think about an event).

As for the bath oil… it just doesn’t ring true that he would have such a strong reaction because she said the words “bath oil” in that context. If she said “I’m going to take a bath now” that would cause a reaction. But if “I get a discount, and heliotrope is my favorite” causes tremors, then this kid is probably shaking all day long. I’m surprised he can even walk in his condition.

Uh…heh…He was picturing something: he was picturing one of the inescapable photos of people jumping that we all saw in September of 2001.

I am going to drop the 9/11 reference in this context, but only because I’m going make another one later. Bear with me on this. As I said, he’s an actor, but he likes to draw: he needs that one outlet for expression on which he doesn’t get judged. So it will be a bonding moment when he finally shows Alexandra his “etchings”: she’s the first person who’s seen more than one sketch, and almost the only person who’s seen any of them.

9/11 happened before they got to know each other, when they were both 13. I firmly believe that that’s old enough to be aware, young enough to be traumatized, but also too young to reconcile the event the way adults did. Kids do get fixated on horrible things like that. I was 9 when a KLM 747 and a Pan Am 747 collided on a runway in Tenerife: the worst air disaster ever until 9/11. I saw the lower photo on this page, in Newsweek* but larger and in more detail, and couldn’t get it off my mind for days. I couldn’t get past the idea that there were people on that plane, you know? As evidenced by what appeared to be torn clothing and shredded luggage…

So Ash saw the images of people jumping and the towers collapsing and people running for their lives—I mean, come on, everybody saw them—and they gnawed away at his mind, until he had to let off steam by drawing a graphic-novel style depiction of what it would have been like to be in Tower 1 when the first plane hit.

This may seem alien to you…but you weren’t 13 when it happened. For many kids that age, it was the first truly bad thing that happened in their lifetime. Hard to get past.

*No, I didn’t read Newsweek when I was 9, but my mother foolishly left the magazine where I could see it, open to that page. Thanks, mom!

Rilchiam (excellent nick, as soon as I saw it I came galumphing over :wink: ), it’s perfectly true that young-adolescent males are exceptionally horny. I well remember a funny paperback I read back in the early Seventies. It was called Onward Virgins and was all about the desperate attempts of a rising-fifteen to get laid. In an early chapter, he has actually managed to get in a clinch with an equally young girl. He has only hearsay to go on - “Jason Hopkins says their nipples go hard like pencil rubbers” - but is doing his best:

“I squeeze her breast and she groans. Oh, that noise! It’s like someone pressing a Start button behind my balls. I have to think about Gran’s bedsocks to keep myself from creaming my jeans.” A more appropriate image than 9/11 or any global-consciousness disaster, I think: something gross and close to home would be more on a young lad’s mind, and it’ll be less offensive to the reader.

I can’t [poor me] give you much comment on what it’s really like for a fourteen-year-old in close proximity to the opposite sex, though, as I never found out [/poor me].

Man, I thought the 9-11 bit was hilarious. So darkly comedic.

Except, at first I misread it as: Whoa, they are soft…NO! 9/11, 9/11. People jumping out of the World Trade Center. That’s not right!

I.e feeling guilt at his shameful way of distracting himself.

The bath oils bit lost me, and I’m 19. I’d lose it.

Heehee!

**

It’s officially out. That is, she’ll still mention soap and bath oil and heliotrope, because it’s part of the conversation, but I’m leaving out his reaction.

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!