Character age in YA novels: How old is too old?

Would being thrown into the Hunger Games have seemed as shocking if Katniss were 21? Would Bella’s romance with Edward have been as intriguing if she were in college?

I’d venture to say that anytime a society delights in a televised fight to the death, it’s going to be appalling, so the story still works. But when there’s the possibility of a 12-year-old in that arena? That carries shock value. That creates a memorable story.

As for Bella being in college, I think that whether you’ve just gotten your driver’s license or are just adjusting to dorm life, you can still have a story of (supernatural) first love. Plus, her being a legal adult from the beginning would make me feel slightly better about her kissing a dude who’s well into his second century.

But these two stories are best-selling young adult books. Putting aside all debates over violence and the “romance” of a man secretly watching a girl sleep, these books are written for and marketed to teenagers. If the protagonists were just a few years older — if they could sign an apartment lease or purchase a six-pack — could the stories still be considered young adult novels?

This question recently came up in a discussion with one of my crit partners who’s struggling with genre issues. Her manuscript has all the makings of a great YA story … but her main character is 20. So that got us thinking: Is there a cutoff age for YA MCs?

Marketability

So much of the debate on this subject seems to come down to whether a YA book is marketable if it features older characters. I’ve read blog posts by writers, agents and editors who say that having a YA character in college is just a tough sell. One writer even said that she was persuaded to change her freshman-in-college characters to seniors-in-boarding-school characters. Now her story is out of that YA gray area, but her characters still have more freedom than they would if they were living under their parents’ roofs.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why we call it young adult literature and not solely teen literature if we should really only write about teenagers. The term “young adult” is nebulous. I was a young adult when I started college, when I first fell in love and even when I got my first “real” job, so why can’t there be more YA books about this age?

Reading up

We’re often told that readers tend to “read up.” Kids as young as fifth-grade might abandon middle-grade reads and pick up their first YA novel; after all, they’re hitting puberty and moving into middle school. Preteens are reading YA novels, too, and looking ahead to high school. Is it really such a stretch then to think that high school students might want to read about an MC who’s starting college, having roommate issues, deciding on a major and wondering if the cute boy/vampire in English 101 is “the one”?

Surely your average high school junior isn’t making the sudden leap from Maureen Johnson to Stieg Larsson. When I think about the books I read in high school (outside of the required Faulkner and Camus), it was a mixture of young adult books (I was obsessed with “Tomorrow, When The War Began”) and “adult” books my mom had lying around — everything from Marry Higgins Clark to Jonathan Kellerman. I was so over The Babysitters Club … but maybe I wouldn’t have been if Claudia Kishi had moved to New York to pursue a fashion degree or Kristy Thomas had found true love on her college softball team. Just saying.

New adult

However, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the “New Adult” genre … and whether all publishers even recognize it. JJ at St. Martin’s defines it like this: New Adult is about young adulthood, when you are an adult but have not established your life as one (career, family, what-have-you).

And according to Kristan Hoffman:

That puts New Adult protagonists in the range of 18 to 26 years old. College, first jobs, first relationships, or marriage…

There’s a lot that can happen when you’re 18-26 because kids and teens focus on the present, while adults draw on their past experience to inform their present and future decisions. New Adults are somewhere in between. As the saying goes: Old enough to know better, but still too young to care. That distinction might seem subtle, but it comes through loud and clear in the voice of New Adult fiction.

Now, obviously there have been protagonists aged 18-26 before. New Adult as a concept is not new, but recognizing and promoting it as a separate category is.

If you’re unsure whether your characters can tell their story as “young” adults or as “new” adults, take a look at your MC’s voice and your voice as a writer. There’s a definite difference when it comes to YA versus NA.

JJ puts it much more eloquently here:

There is a YA voice and an adult one, and even if stories overlap, the adult voice has a sense of scope. 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.

My WIP is decidedly YA: My MC is 16, she lives with her father, and she’s still in school. However, the age of my MC isn’t the only thing that dictates my genre choice. I’m writing a dystopian novel and having a 16-year-old protagonist thrust into a society with very adult expectations is important in terms of world-building … and just generally shocking the reader. It works for me. It works for my characters. I know my genre.

Genre

I think it’s important to write what you want to write — if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy writing it and it’s going to show in your manuscript. However, I think it’s a good idea to keep genre in mind. When you know your genre, it’s easier to know who you’re writing for and what their expectations are as readers, and it also helps determine the appropriate length for your manuscript.

If you’re struggling with meeting YA age “requirements” — if you really can’t take those college students and drop them into a boarding school — then don’t fight it. Why not venture into this New Adult world? I know I’d like to see more of these type of books.

Besides, we hear again and again that it’s the story that matters. Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in worries over genre, marketability, platform building, branding yourself, blah, blah, blah — my crit partner China and I have these freakouts weekly. But what it really comes down to is if your story is good. If it is, an agent will represent it, a publisher will get it on a bookshelf and a reader will buy it.

What’s your take on all this? Can YA books feature characters who are older than 18? Is genre that important? Is age really just a number?

16 thoughts on “Character age in YA novels: How old is too old?

  1. Ah, yes, this is my struggle. Write my story as I want to write it, or write for the market? New/Emerging Adult needs to exist as a bona fide category already!

  2. Hmmm, you raise some good points now and I’m wondering if my novel series ventures into this new genre because my characters start out 17 but are very adult in their world. They also grow older with the books. I’ve sort of been thinking of them as straddling the line between YA and Adult Science-Fiction but maybe it’s really in New Adult territory. The question is, do we actively market (to agents) as New Adult or do we let other determine if our books fall into this category?

  3. I thought my story was YA but my characters have graduated from high school. I wasn’t sure if that would work in the genre but maybe it works as new-emerging adult. It’s something to think about.

  4. Maybe you guys can help make this genre a more bona fide one! As far as pitching it to agents that way, I’m not sure. I think you could safely submit as YA if the characters start in that age and get older. If you look at Harry Potter, those books definitely started as MG and aged with the characters into a very mature YA read. Luckily, an agent or publisher would know exactly how to pitch or market your stories in the best way. But I think the New Adult genre is definitely going to grow and change because there’s a market for it now and the books are already there — just not everyone is recognizing that.

  5. This is a really interesting post!!! I’m writing a YA story right now in which my MC is 18 and is in her first semester of college. I haven’t heard of this “new adult” category, though I think it’s interesting. I wonder if it will really take off in the future. There’s a big void there in the market IMHO. I’m in college and know a lot of people who would like to read this kind of book, once in which the character is going through similar things we are. I still love (and write) YA but sometimes would prefer a protag who isn’t quite so angsty, you know? lol

  6. I was told recently that my MC was too old for YA. She is 19 and serving in Afghanistan. I felt the book was timely and had a place in our current world. However it isn’t a book I could see my mom reading. It definitely is YA. But will it find a place? What really gets me is I think we are cheating when we make a sixteen year old character live for 100 yrs. I’m sorry, but aging and your age are two different things. The character is 116 and that is way out of the parameters of a YA. But it I understand it gives us as authors the ability to write with more maturity. However the question remains…Why can’t they just be older?

  7. I think there’s definitely a place in the market for both of your books, Connie and KM! If it’s not YA, maybe it’s New Adult. I’d really like to see that genre take off.

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  9. Hm…this is tough.
    I completely agree: I think a big deciding factor in marketing a story as YA is the “voice” rather than just the age of the characters. For example, stories sometimes use children’s perspectives but are marketed as Science fiction or fantasy or contemporary fiction, or at least are cross over-y. Children of Dune, Ender’s Game, and most classic scifi/fantasy come to mind.
    I know it’s not currently a “marketing trend” to market books as New Adult, but as a reader, I would be interested in that category, especially since Contemporary Fiction is SUCH a broad (i.e. meaningless) category that covers James Patterson to Sophie Kinsella to Jodie Picoult. Maybe it’s the name of the label that’s tripping publishing companies up? Regardless, we all know that the publishing industry isn’t the quickest to change, so readers need to speak up a little louder to support the books they want to see on the shelves.

  10. I am struggling with this in a new way; I have a protagonist who had to grow up FAST. She’s practically raised her bipolar mother and was the one to find her dead father at age 8. She’s attempted suicide and is now in a hospital being treated for depression. While I try to give her some teenage concerns, the truth is, the voice is a more mature, sarcastic teen. My writing group keeps saying she’s too young to think that way, but I’m hoping once they read the entire story and understand her backstory, they’ll see she’s a mature teen with issues.

    Also, I don’t want to confuse literary YA with New Adult. When we talk about voice, sometimes I think we mean simplistic and boring and really spelling it out for a reader versus intelligent prose. YA should work toward the latter. Teens are quick.

  11. Great post, happy to have found it!! Answered my questions regarding YA vs NA
    thanks!

  12. Whenever I start writing, I feel like I raise more questions than answer them, but I’m so glad this helped. Thanks, Dawn!

  13. Thanks for linking to me way back when — and for letting me know about it now! Great post. :)

    “I was so over The Babysitters Club … but maybe I wouldn’t have been if Claudia Kishi had moved to New York to pursue a fashion degree or Kristy Thomas had found true love on her college softball team. Just saying.”

    SO TRUE. (PS: I also loved Mary Higgins Clark!) I really do think there’s a market for New Adult stories — and NOT just the erotica ones that are hitting the big time lately. (Ugh.) I think the 20s of today are different from the 20s of eras before, and those of us wading through them are searching for stories we can identify with and maybe hold onto as we muck our way through.

    And especially since we’ve caught the YA boom, there’s a transitional voice that we are familiar with, but that can be played with, to engage a New Adult audience and make them feel comfortable while also showing them a new stage. (That wasn’t nearly as eloquent as I’d like it to be, but since it’s 2 AM, I’m going to let it stand…)

    Anyhoot. New Adult. Let’s make it happen, both as writers and readers!

  14. Thought provoking stuff.

    I’m struggling with age issues for my characters. For instance, one of them, my protagonist, has the mentality of a 20-something and due to magic, there’s a reason he seems younger, though he is much older than he appears (and not in a sparkly Edward sort of way). The other main character is 18.

    While the themes are universal in many ways: life, love, loss, and even learning how to become an adult, the content doesn’t seem to mesh with your typical YA lit, I feel like the voice is young enough–and that’s really the audience I’m shooting for. Or at least the 16+ age group anyway.

    I’m beginning to wonder if New Adult is really where it fits… I really don’t like the idea that all YA fic must be about teen protagonists, and it’s true, that kids and teens do, and will, read up.

    Thanks for these thoughts. :)

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