One of my favorite hobbies is arguing with people on the internet about young adult fantasy; what makes them young adult compared to their adult counterparts, and why they shouldn’t be dismissed as infantile.
I’ve been a member of writing communities for years and both arguments spring up with alarming regularity. New fantasy writers are confused by the differences between adult and YA categories, and more bafflingly, they are terrified that their work could be misconstrued as young adult, as if writing a YA book is somehow lesser and doesn’t hold the same human complexity as an adult book.
They’re wrong of course.
The same statements appear time and again:
- “But my book has dark themes and violence! It’s too mature for YA.”
- “But my story has swearing and drugs and rock and roll! You can’t talk about these in YA.”
- “But my story has complex language! Only adults read complex books.”
- “My story has a teenage protagonist, but that doesn’t mean it’s YA, does it?”
And then I roll my eyes and explain that yes, YA can have all of these things, and that no, having a teen protagonist doesn’t automatically make your story YA. There are other elements which combine to identify a story as YA.
Young adult fantasy is MY genre. I’ve been reading YA fantasy before the YA category was even a thing, before Harry Potter came along and thrust YA into the mainstream and everyone realized that children still love reading and can actually handle reading books of considerable length and complexity. Children and teens can handle dark themes. Darkness is the basis of all our fairy tales. One reason I absolutely love YA fantasy is because these stories are full of hope in dark times, and feature teens taking on the horrors of their world to save it. If the growing political climate of the world has taught us anything, it’s that teens have always been and will continue to be on the front lines of revolution and change.
Why wouldn’t you want to write books that capture this energy and speak to literally the most modern and diverse audience?
Why Write YA?
When I started writing my own book, I didn’t think about the target audience at all. I wanted to write a fantasy story for myself, first and foremost. Once a few drafts were completed I began to question who this book was for; adults or young adults? As mentioned above, I’m not the only one to agonize over this decision, but not because I didn’t love the genre. If I was writing YA, then I wanted to get it right.
Often this decision is quite an arbitrary one and it comes down to which market the publisher believes the book will thrive in. Young adult books are still flying off the shelves, but even publishers become confused by which category a book fit into. Many adult fantasy books are mistaken for young adult, like The Poppy War, for example. Many more are balanced between the two and try to hit that cross-over audience of actual teens and adult readers of YA. And then we have the nebulous New Adult category which no one knows what to do with, and so many books aimed at college-aged teens or actual “young” adults are aged down for YA and slapped with explicit content warnings. Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses comes to mind.
I’ve listened to authors discuss how the label of adult or young adult means little to them because their book would be the exact same book regardless of whether it was marketed for adults or young adults. And whilst I like this philosophy in theory, I think it’s also important to know your audience and know your genre. If you’re writing a YA book for teens, then write for teens.
Like those fearful writers who felt their work blurred the lines between adult and young adult, I asked that all-important question about my own book; was this adult or YA?
At the time, I’d thrown my draft at beta readers and solicited feedback because honestly? I still wasn’t sure. My book did feature mature themes and violence, but it was also a coming of age story about a girl being a hero whilst experiencing many firsts. What had me scratching my head is that the story originally started with the main character aged twelve and growing into her teen years. I and my beta readers all agreed that a twelve-year-old protagonist was too young for a YA reader to relate to.
Also, and this was a personal failing of mine, but my story was too long! The word count crossed the threshold of what was acceptable for the genre, especially as a debut, and it was teetering over the edge of adult fantasy.
I felt that the core story was a YA story, a story of hope, and that if I wanted it to be a YA fantasy, I needed to make adjustments and tailor my book to that target audience. It took some trial and error, but this is what I did:
How to Write YA
First, I aged the main character up from twelve to sixteen. It seems like such an obvious solution now, but at the time I was worried I would need to cut the character’s childhood chapters entirely. Instead, I just re-wrote them for an older character. One of the biggest differences between adult and YA is that YA needs to have a teenage protagonist, but adult stories do not. Teens want to read about characters they can relate to, and typically, they read up, so a thirteen-year-old reader may be more interested in reading about someone who is a few years older. The sweet spot for YA ages is between fifteen-seventeen. Any older than that, and your characters are entering New Adult or adult territory, and you may want to age them down if you’re writing for a YA audience. Of course, you can still have a young protagonist when writing adult fantasy. Having a teen main character doesn’t automatically make a story YA.
Which brings me to my next point. Character voice. I re-wrote my story to bring out the character voice. One beta reader pointed out that I didn’t spend enough time in the main character’s head to give the reader an insight into what the character was feeling, especially during critical scenes. Character voice is arguably the most important aspect of writing YA. Readers want to connect to characters their own age, and they want to connect with them emotionally. Having a close perspective is how you achieve this. There’s a reason why so many YA stories are written from a first-person perspective, and that’s because this point of view is the closest. I’ve always preferred third-person, and so I write in third-person limited, which is more of an over-the-shoulder view.
When I re-wrote my draft, I focused on my character’s voice and perspective to make sure it was her thoughts and feelings coming through, and that the reader would see the world through her eyes and experience it with her.
With these two things established, I already knew I ticked the other YA trope boxes; fast pace, a story of conflict and hope, a teen character with teen friends and adult characters who aren’t necessarily in charge. My coming-of-age story also features many firsts, which is a common stable of the YA genre; the first day at school, first friend, first rival, first kiss, first experience with alcohol. It also explores more mature themes such as dealing with loss, handling peer pressure, and bullying. Whilst many of these tropes make up YA and appeal to a teen audience, these are also things that can appear in adult stories. Thus, I do believe it is character representation and voice which really sticks out in a YA readers mind.
So many writers think they must shy away from violence, death or sex in YA because of the younger audience, but these are all issues that teens face in the real world. YA fiction allows them to explore these topics. With the rise of #OwnVoices, teen readers have more ways to explore what their culture or gender identity or sexuality means to them. They can use fantasy to understand where they fit in the world.
Nothing is off limits for YA.
I love reading and writing YA fantasy because it is diverse, and fresh, and daring in a world that is often dark, and oppressive, and changing in ways we can’t control. YA fantasy allows us to become the heroes of our own tales. To dismiss the complexity of teen experiences, emotions, and issues is to dismiss hope. And isn’t that what fantasy is all about?
I’m proud to write YA fantasy. The thought of writing YA shouldn’t scare you, or embarrass you. It should thrill you.