Ages of main characters in YA novels

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Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby saraflower » 12 Jun 2011, 07:13

Maybe this will sound silly. I was wondering, does the main character need to be under 18 for a book to be YA? I always thought so, but I was wondering if there is some kind of guideline on what would make the story YA. For example, the content could be written for teens, but some of the characters might be slightly older than them (i.e. Early 20`s). Would it work?
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby Doug Pardee » 12 Jun 2011, 07:52

There is no "never" or "always" in the creative arts. ;)

That said — and I am not an expert in these matters, not even close — I think the problem with older characters in YA is that they're harder for teens to identify with, because their perspectives and concerns in life are different. College challenges are different from high-school challenges. Work-force challenges are even more different. Being in love starts to carry with it the serious possibility of marriage. Many older characters will be emancipated, living on their own, perhaps with someone else to help pay the rent, and parents aren't such an issue. Money, however, is an issue, which can lead to jobs being an issue. Having sex isn't "should I or shouldn't I", but rather "Whom can/should I do it with?"

A few years ago, St. Martin's Press tried to create a new category for post-teen readers. They called it New Adult, and probably the canonical posting on the matter is this one: http://sjaejones.com/blog/2009/postadol ... t-fiction/ which includes this observation among many:
What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later”. With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.

There's also this more official definition from St. Martin's: http://sjaejones.com/blog/2009/new-adult-shelving/

I haven't seen any indication that New Adult caught on.

Nathan posted his own views on what makes a work YA in the site FAQ: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02 ... ke-ya.html
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby saraflower » 12 Jun 2011, 08:08

Thank you for your thoughts and the helpful links. :) I think I will adjust the ages of the MC.

As I read through my story, it definitely does have more of a YA voice and the characters act more like they are about 17 rather than 20-22. I was initially stubborn because I wanted them to be young adults rather than teens, but now I think that they would actually work better as teens. I heard a bit about the New Adult genre as well, but there still doesn`t seem to be much a market for it yet.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby polymath » 12 Jun 2011, 08:28

Young adult genre ties closely to adolescent years: pre-adult emotional, psychological, physical, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual development of postpubescent minors. Young adults have just begun to independently explore values and social mores' shades of gray independently from their guardians' imposed somewhat black and white values and mores.

Yet minors don't have full responsibilities or privileges. Re: Minimum age of consent in most locales is 16. Minimum age of dropout from most compulsory education programs is 16. Minimum age of full-time employment in most locales is 16. However, minimum age for contractual consent is 18. Minimum age for suffrage is 18. Minimum age for military or government service conscription is 18. Minimum age for consumption of alcoholic beverages is 21, tobacco products 18 but there's a push on to raise the age to 21. And although most jurisdictions set an 18-year-old minimum for adult judicial proceedings, younger ages are commonly tried as adults for heinous crimes.

Puberty onset begins average age girls 10 or 11, boys 12 or 13. Most are in full throes by 14. Middle grade genre has yet to explore puberty onset, though that's the ages when it starts. Puberty usually completes, at least physical changes, by age 15 to 17 for girls, 16 to 18 for boys, though human physical development continues through age 25. Midlife ages 25 to 45, then it's all down hill from there. Uh-huh. Age 18 through 25 reflects the early adult genre category or new adult that's coming on in the marketplace gradually, not surprisingly the ages of technical school, college, university undergrad, graduate, and post graduate study.

Basically, young adult is adolescent genre, but not immature, per se, in the perjorative sense.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby cheekychook » 12 Jun 2011, 11:04

Generally speaking the main character in a YA novel will be high school aged. While there can be significant characters who are either younger or older, the protagonist should be in that age range. If the protagonist is 18 or older and is dealing with things more likely to be encountered by the 18 and over set, odds are the book won't be considered YA any more. There are plenty of novels (commercial and literary) that deal with late adolescence and young adulthood but are by no means YA novel.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby maybegenius » 12 Jun 2011, 11:25

It's very, very rare to find a YA character that is under 14 or over 18. Very rare. It's not something that's never been done, but what the others have said is true: the target audience of YA lit are ages 12-18, so the characters have to be relateable to them in a way that "adult" literature characters are not. YA is about the adolescent experience of coming into your own, achieving independence, experiencing firsts, fighting for what you believe in, etc. Therefore, most YA protagonists aren't coming from a legal or mentally "adult" experience.

There was a YA book that came out just recently where the two MCs were 21 and 20, respectively, but it was the sequel to another book where they were 17 and 18. (I'm talking about Where She Went, the sequel to If I Stay). There are a few others where the MCs are 19 (I Am the Messenger and Hollowland), but I really haven't seen many where they're beyond their teen years.

All that said, it IS always possible to break the rules if you do it well, of course. You have to be careful if you're going to break a big YA rule by having a 20+-year old MC. If you're not careful, agents and publishers will view it as a sign that you don't really know the genre, so you'd better make sure that they're over 18 for a very good reason.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby Falls Apart » 12 Jun 2011, 13:37

Of course, there is a distinction between characters and main characters. Significant, recurring characters over 18 are perfectly acceptable, but the protagonist should usually be a teenager. I remember my younger sister reading a (definitely YA) series of quick romance books with main characters in college or the workforce, but on the whole, I'd say it's pretty rare. The inverse, a teenager being the MC in an adult book, is still pretty uncommon, but still done enough that it's not difficult to think of such books.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby sierramcconnell » 13 Jun 2011, 06:30

Which is confusing to me, because age is a number, not a mentality. I was seven when I was cooking, cleaning, and keeping house. I could do laundry for gosh sakes. So if you have a "insert age here" doing "YA" things, why couldn't it be a YA book? I mean, after all, if there are plenty of adult novels with teenage characters, why can't there be the adverse?
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby polymath » 13 Jun 2011, 07:00

For the sake of audience rapport's strong potential for closing narrative distance with young adult readers, age appropriate central characters are taken as a given. Though not an absolute, age appropriate central characters share young adult reader life complications. I don't see a young adult reader having much personal interest in the life complications of a lonely old fisherman down on his luck struggling to prove he's still got some useful life left in him.

I persuaded a fourteen-year-old reluctant reader to read Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea by telling him it was the greatest fishing story ever told. I sowed the seed, as it were, when my nephew was eleven. Why read that boring old story, he asked. It's second best to actually going fishing. In a dull time when he wanted more than anything to go fishing and couldn't, he picked up the novella and read it, thus preparing him for literature and young adult reading and writing coursework. He's reading regularly now and building skills for college. He's still fishing regularly too, creek fishing, bank fishing, pier fishing, bay fishing, deep sea fishing. He completed beginner dive certification this week. He might just come out all right in spite of himself.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby Sommer Leigh » 13 Jun 2011, 10:24

I don't really have anything to add that hasn't already been said, so I'll just add my support. :-) I can only think of one YA book that had over 20 year old characters - The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta, and it is a companion novel to the book Saving Francesca which had the same characters when they were teenagers, so I don't think that counts exactly.

I think that it's not exactly the AGE that matters, its the specific events of a person's life that occur during this age group. Its the coming of age, the struggle for individuality and self-empowerment. It's the first loves, first heartbreaks, first breakups, first time you ever learn to hate someone. It's the meat grinder part of your life and then afterwards, you get to see what is left . It's the first time you realize your parents are old and can get sick, it's the first time you understand real sadness and depression and that people who are supposed to help you can hurt you. I think that when you take the characters out of these important moments in a young adult's life, you lose the essence of what it is to be YA literature. If your MC is 21 and has already gone through all this, your teen audience will have a more difficult time relating.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby ShadowFlame » 13 Jun 2011, 11:22

This is just my opinion and i'm only a tween(but very almost a teen)
I mainly read YA books and i usaully like MCs to be 12-16 if the MC was 20 i doubt i would read the book(the only exception is Eragon because he must be 19 or 20 now but that had recommendation from my step dad and dragons was a topic i was intrested in)
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby sierramcconnell » 13 Jun 2011, 12:11

My MCs are 12, 17, and early twenties, though it's Sci-Fi and that's around the time of his 'fading' (he's a tree, and they don't live as long as humans do). He's still young, has goals he wants to accomplish, but is interrupted by the knowledge that he's dying.

I haven't written that one yet, but since everything else I plan out to be one thing ends up YA, I'm sure that'll be tagged as such, too. :lol:
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby GKJeyasingham » 13 Jun 2011, 17:34

Firstly: Hi everyone! I've been lurking around this forum for quite a while now, but I've finally decided to post something. :D

Anyway, the point of this post: I noticed that some of you use 12-year-olds for YA novels, but would it be possible to use them for MG novels? This is something that's been bothering me for a while now, as my WIP has a 12-year-old protagonist - to me, it's as if it straddles the line between MG and YA. In terms of the plot, I think my WIP would fall into an "upper middle grade fantasy" area (it's in the outlining stages ATM) - there's no blood or sex or swearing, but there may be some creepy elements. I don't want to say it's dark, but it's not completely light-hearted either. It's like a mix of both.

The reason I'm using a 12-year-old is because there's a certain level of introspection I want to implement, and I'm not sure an 11-year-old would cut it. But the situations and plot wouldn't exactly be up there in the YA area. Again, more like "upper middle grade" - though I'm not sure if that's even a valid classification according to the publishing world.

Has anyone else run into this problem before?
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby polymath » 13 Jun 2011, 18:05

A 12-year-old protagonist seems about right for middle grade because most readers read up in age, 9-, 10-, 11-, or 12-year old middle grade readers.

I'd be looking for circumstances that suit the age stage though. I'd want to know it in the opening. It's the age of initiation and indoctrination into somewhat independent actions. What's the age appropriate main dramatic complication that the protagonist wants to resolve?

Middle grade convention complications involve contentions with somewhat grayish viewpoints different from parentally imposed ones. It's the age when youngsters realize the world isn't black and white. And frequently middle grade settings take place in a learning environment like school, boarding school, foster home, orphanage, street life, or not far from a home sanctuary.
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Re: Ages of main characters in YA novels

Postby maybegenius » 13 Jun 2011, 22:10

A 12-year old is 100% okay for a MG novel. With kidlit, the target audience of readers is a little different than the ages of the protagonists. Generally speaking, protagonists are usually a little older than their target audience. So, YA target audiences are 12-18 for the entire genre, but you won't find very many MCs that are under 14. There's also a wide variety of content in there, some of which is intended more for 15+, some of which is targeted at younger teens.

Anyway, yes, you are absolutely okay with a 12-year old protag for a MG novel. MG protagonists tend to range from 10-14, so you are definitely in the right range.
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