Still the fastest growing genre in literary fiction, young adult (YA) fiction as a genre offers a lot of room for cross over. In a YA novel, you can have a mystery that is also sci-fi. You can have a romance that is also an urban fantasy. But what makes a novel strictly, YA?
It’s all about the main character.
In order for a book to be considered YA, the protagonist should:
1. Be aged between 15 to 18 years old.
In most YA fiction, the target reader is in their teens (aged 13-19). The idea is that teens like to read about slightly older teens, so the protagonist in YA fiction should be about two years older than the target reader, with the maximum age being 18**. The main character should be high-school aged and not yet in college or university. I’ve even heard that, while you can continue the story into high school graduation, the story shouldn’t start there.
(**Though the target age of the reader is 13-18, readers of young adult fiction are all ages now.)
2. Be autonomous from his or her parents.
Unlike middle grade or children’s fiction, in YA, protagonists must figure things out on their own with minimal adult intervention. While some adults can be guides or mentors, parents never fill this role in a story. In order to achieve this, you’ll notice that either the parent is absent, or dead, or not in the picture because of a disagreement with protagonist — all to make the protagonist more independent.
3. Embark on a journey which has to do with coming of age or some sort of rite of passage.
See my post on the Heroes Journey for more information on the whole structure of the journey a protagonist goes through. While it’s not the only structure, it is certainly applicable to many stories.
4. Learn something about who he or she is.
Identity is a key component in YA fiction where the protagonist asks him or herself – who am I right now? (The main character has to overcome an obstacle to find out who they are) with a high sense of importance placed on character’s peer group – it’s about self and society.
5. Have a ‘voice’ that readers can relate to.
Voice is important in this genre. Readers need to feel they can relate to the characters without being talked down to, and without the main character sounding too whiny.
I’d like to know what you think. As readers and writers, have you encountered any exceptions to this? Did I miss anything?