YA Fiction: Character Age and Target Audience

21 Apr

I was looking through my list of story projects toady, and I noticed that a large majority of my characters are not only younger than I am, but younger than one of my nephews.  I certainly don’t think of these stories as YA or MG, and I don’t really see myself as a YA/MG author.  Of course, I do read/watch a lot of material that falls into those categories, especially with anime/manga, so that might be influencing me quite a bit.

A perennial question among writers, especially younger writers, is how to decide what age category your work falls into—anywhere from preschool picture books to not-safe-for-under-50.  Especially because the lines between age categories get a little thin at the age when many new writers take their first steps.  For argument’s sake, let’s say this thinning begins at about the 13-year-mark.  That’s where many people start reading up into the adult fiction market, especially as regards the major genres.  Of course, plenty of people start earlier or later or not at all, but we’re looking at the average here for the reading public.

There are many great discussions online about this topic.  So many that I’d never be able to link to them all.  Here’s an article in the other direction on where YA starts and MG ends.  And here’s an article that gives broad coverage of many questions surrounding the genre.  I suppose I could cite this article on io9 as a bad interpretation of the genre.  It seems to take a rather negative view, which while it contains some good points, seems a bit too soap-boxy to address the real issues.   This article appears to be a slightly irritated shot taken by an author who felt unnecessarily “corralled” into the YA genre or the adult fiction market by labels.  While I agree with her in spirit, I think she’s taking the wrong approach to the issue of labeling.

Here’s a disturbingly accurate analysis of a major trend in the YA “genre” today.  And a short but sweet statement by Carrie Ryan on the wonder that is YA fiction.  A lovely treatise on “what is YA?” from the Alien Onion.  And some questions about where we draw the lines between “adult” and “child” themes.

You don’t have to read all of those links to understand this post.  I just wanted to give a small sample of the many, many discussions on this topic that are out there.  (For a sense of scale, all of the links above came from the first page of Google.)  I hope you now understand the enormity of the task of defining the line between YA and A(dult)G(enre) fiction.  It would be impossible for me to discuss every aspect of this conversation in one post.  I just want to touch on a few points as they pertain to writing.

First, you might be a bit miffed by my choice of terms here.  “YA” is “young adult”, obviously, but why “adult genre”?  One of the major differences between YA and adult fiction centers on the issue of genre.  YA is usually considered its own “genre”, based mostly on the similarity in themes and characters.  Yet it contains all of the “genres” of adult fiction.  Sort of begs the question, what’s with this genre thing, anyway?  Well, that’s another pretty common topic, and you’ll find ample reading with a quick google search.  Unfortunately, that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve digressed a bit in this post, but I think what I had to say was important background for the real discussion.  The primary question here is, how do you decide how to present your work to agents and publishers?  I mentioned above that I have a great number of stories with young protagonists, and yet I did not set out to write YA or MG fiction, and I don’t really consider them to fit in those categories.  But do they really fit in AG either?  Could an adult reader relate to a twelve-year-old?  I can think of some examples of such books originally published as adult genre fiction.  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott card comes to mind.  Yet when I read the book, it was in middle school, and it was a new printing with a cover and format that seemed geared towards younger readers.

So should I attempt to submit my twelve-year-old to YA agents and publishers or to those who deal in adult fiction?  Well, let me elaborate a little more about the book, although I can’t be too specific.  There’s a cast of characters, mostly under 14 when the first book opens—yes, it may be part of a series).  It’s multi-pov, with at least four young perspective characters and possibly two more—one another child, the other an adult.   There are some very dark themes in this story.  These characters are not Harry Potter, or Lyra Silvertonuge, or Unico.  It’s a semi-medieval fantasy and the world reflects that.  There won’t  be any gratuitous sex, or much foul language.  But anything else can happen, and does.

Do kids/teenagers mean YA/MG?  Not in GRRMs ASOIAF, they don’t.  “Arranged” marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape.  All trials faced by what we would consider young children today.  But my story won’t have that either.  Does that mean it’s safe for YA?  Plenty of YA has worse.  So what about themes?  YA runs the gamut, and so does my story.

And what about character?  Desires, goals, experience?  Many of the articles I linked to pointed to classic “teenage” themes of independence, discovering your place in the world, knowing who are—and failing to achieve those goals.  But are those themes absent in adult literature?  They’re certainly not primary angles in my story.  I’m looking more at betrayal, character change, corruption, war.  Pretty common themes in adult fiction.  Yet again, are they absent in YA?  Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall deals with the question of change, and it is emphatically YA.  Corruption, betrayal?  Plenty of that in YA.

So where do we draw the line?  Themes?  Doesn’t seem like it.  Character age?  Nope, not a chance.  Audience?  Plenty of adults read YA, and plenty of teenagers read AG.  Marketing?  That’s up to your publisher. 

So what about your own goals, you might ask?  What if you want to be a YA author—or not?  Well, that’s up to you.  Personally, I find it a bit limiting to label myself like that.  I don’t have a problem writing for either market.  But I do have stories that more clearly fall in both the YA and AG categories.  So it’s not that simple for me.  Which I think is more of a feature than a bug.  But if it doesn’t apply to you, you might reach a different conclusion.  Just like any other area of writing, there’s more than one right answer to this question.

But you’ve got to have some answer.  Any thoughts?


Posted by on April 21, 2010 in atsiko, Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

8 responses to “YA Fiction: Character Age and Target Audience

  1. Kristen L-M

    April 21, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    I think what makes YA so special and so different from adult literature is that it’s OK to have happy endings. Seriously. It’s OK to end on a hopeful note, a lesson learned, a way to turn the mc’s life around. We expect our young hero to make it through OK. To do otherwise is simply cruel.

    Adult literature is riddled with bodies, wasted lives, and broken dreams. Adults, they don’t change. But kids — hey, man, they do. Or they can. Or they should. And that’s what we want to see.

    Hey, I’m all for realism but I like me some happiness at the end. YA is about shaping a hopeful future in whatever form it takes. I’d say that makes it better by far and it’s why I love writing it.

  2. atsiko

    April 21, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    That’s certainly one of the conceptualizations I’ve seen of the subject. Of course, plenty of adult literature has happy or even HEA endings, and not just in Romance.

    I’m not really trying to argue with anybody, but it seems to me that–as with many other topics–there’s not one single answer that defines a book as properly YA, but rather a whole gelatinous lump that depends on reaching critical mass to land within the genre.

    Having read your post “Resistence is Ironic”, I find it a tad ironic that for the longest time recently I’ve been telling myself, “This story will not have young MCs dammit! It will be Adult Genre Literature!” It took me thirty story ideas to get an MC over 20, because I just can’t write a story in a way it doesn’t want to be written, and to be honest, I love a lot of stuff in various mediums that would fall under the YA umbrella, so that’s what I wrote.

    Of course, character age has only limited relevance to a story being YA or not, and some of the younger characters are in stories that look to be quite lovely tragedies, while some of the older ones have very bright and sugary finales in store for them. And I have no plans to sideline any of the stories with younger characters just because they have younger characters.

    But is has made for a lot of thought on how I’m going to pitch some of these stories, and that’s where this post came from.

  3. Nicola

    April 22, 2010 at 7:46 AM

    Its an interesting thing and your right – i think YA contains nearly everything. I think what changes are the way its written. A lot of YA is fantasy contained within reality. Its lives that you want to live but can’t. Take Alex Rider – he’s a schoolboy spy. The reason i think its YA is because being a spy is every boys dream and to do it in school is even better.

    Or lets take the latest craze for wizards and vampires again its written in a way for kids that aren’t quite adult but yet still its fantastical. Harry Potter is a wizard amongst many ordinary people and the same with vampires, they’re fantasy hiding in real life. i think it sparks the imagination and curiosity of young adult readers.

    • atsiko

      April 22, 2010 at 3:35 PM

      There’s some secondary world fantasy in YA, but I do agree that there’s a lot more urban, and it probably does play into some people’s fantasies. Same with a lot of spy books. But to an extent, all fiction contains these sort of elements.

  4. Kate

    April 22, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    I have to agree that a lot of YA is about a lesson and a happy ending. I just finished a really great new YA book, Her Mother’s Diary, that had a lot of very adult subjects – homelessness, drugs, ect..- but it ended with redemption, after a lot of hard work. Adults seem to have a hard time with the notion that good deeds are rewarded.

    • atsiko

      April 22, 2010 at 5:59 PM

      A problem? I was thinking more like a realistic view. 😉

      I guess that is a pretty common YA trend, though.

  5. Bill New

    July 12, 2010 at 12:32 AM

    I think I like YA novels (and young adults their own selves, being a father and teacher) for most of the same reasons I like rock’n’roll — right now, my Already Gone station on Pandora — because of the hope combined with the possibilities for the deepest disappointment and dismay. That’s the recipe for love songs, right? Next year I’m teaching a course for college students called, “How kids saved the world” focused on British fantasy like Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling. That’s what I like to see in YA fiction, the saving of a world, even if the world is small and tawdry, and the redemption only lasts a day (until the next chapter) — the song now is “Your Lying Eyes.”

  6. sarahrebecca58

    June 11, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    Well actually I don’t specifically avoid writing MG, YA, or NA. Or shoot for it either. More often than not when I write automatically, they almost always just end up being in that age group.

    On the note on hope though, I’ve always preferred to write YA stories that seem to lack hope. Its just always been an odd quirk.O_o


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