Storyville: Young Protagonists—MG vs. YA vs. Adult
When it comes to your writing, a young protagonist can be part of the teen landscape or an adult novel. How do you tell the difference? How can you as an author write to either or both with authority? Here are some tips.
When I think about young protagonists in adult novels, I always think about It by Stephen King. Which usually triggers memories of other books he wrote with main characters that are teenagers, or younger—The Long Walk, for instance, as well as The Body, his novella (filmed as Stand By Me). There’s also The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Trisha McFarland, 9) and The Eyes of the Dragon, as well. And don’t forget Firestarter (Charlie McGee, 10). Many of his other books feature young characters, including The Gunslinger (Jake Chambers, 11), Salem’s Lot (Mark Petrie, teen), Pet Sematary (Cage Creed, toddler), and The Shining (Danny Torrance, 6).
So, which of these books have I let my kids read already? (They’re 13 years old, twins, boy and girl.) Not all of them, that’s for sure.
For books geared towards teens and pre-teens, most protagonists fall into the same age range as their readers. So for middle-grade (MG) that’s 8-12, and Young Adult (YA) 13-18. So does that mean if you have a protagonist or main character in a novel in those age ranges it’s for kids? NO! God, no. But it’s a start. If you are writing TO those genres, keep in mind those ages. Kids want to read about characters that are their age, or close to it.
PLACE AND TIME
If you are writing MG or YA, you want to be IN the time and age that’s appropriate. So that means we’re talking about that coming-of-age story, the protagonist in grade school, or junior high, or high school. And they can’t age out. If it’s an adult novel with young characters, they are most likely looking back on a memory, with nostalgia, or horror.
In YA and MG, the adults are secondary characters. They are present, but the POV, and the focus in on the children, the kids, and what they are up to, what they see, and how they handle the problems.
With YA and MG you have to be very careful about the subjects you write about, the content, and the focus. First of all, you don’t want to have a graphic sex scene in a book for kids. (That’s why It is a novel for adults, same with Pet Sematary.) It’s just not appropriate. Secondly, it’s not accurate—MG books with characters in the 8-12 age range have most likely not had sex, and don’t have much interest in it (yet). Yes, when I was in grade school I chased girls around, and I was 10-11 years old. But I had no idea what I was doing, it was more about the thrill of the chase and the girls laughing and squealing as we flirted and played the game. It was innocent. Junior high? 7th-8th grade? I knew people who were having sex (believe it or not). I lost my virginity in high school, at a pretty young age, 14. Shocking, right? So as we get into YA you can talk about it, but I wouldn’t focus on it, or show it in great detail. The same goes for other subjects—death, divorce, politics, religion, etc. In MG I’d avoid excessive violence, but I’ve for sure seen YA books that were pretty intense—such as the Skinjacker Trilogy by Neal Shusterman (which my son read at the age of 11). There was gore, but it was kept to a minimum, not a constant onslaught. MG focuses on friendship and belonging, not sex and love. YA taps into that coming-of-age content we mentioned earlier—first kiss, first boy/girlfriend, bullying, virginity/sexuality, first use of drugs/alcohol, etc., as far as the most intense content. Adult novels obviously run the gamut.
With MG and YA most of the endings are filled with hope and optimism, showing a way forward, if the conflict has not been fully resolved. Adult novels can be more tragic and complicated, not just leaving things unresolved, open-ended, but showing that sometimes things don’t work out. The endings are darker and less hopeful.
When I think of crossovers the first books that come to mind are the Harry Potter titles. I loved reading them as an adult, and I had a great time reading them to my kids, too. Rowling really does a great job of appealing to both adults and children. The main characters are teens, who go out into the wizarding world where they solve many of their problems on their own. But there are also some important adult characters as well—Dumbledore plays a key role, as does Snape, Hagrid, and McGonagall (as well as Voldemort!). There are many interesting monsters in the book, which appeal to both kids and adults—boggarts and dementors, trolls and basilisks, goblins and elves, ghosts and banshees. Not to mention all of the complicated spells and magic, sporting events and challenges, and supernatural locations. While there is death throughout the novels, it’s handled well (yes, I cried about Dumbledore), and as Rowling has said, the theme of the books was more about the choice between what is right and what is easy, "because that…is how tyranny is started, with people being apathetic and taking the easy route and suddenly finding themselves in deep trouble."
So, if you want to write MG or YA, look at the age of your protagonist, and the subject matter (and how it’s handled) and write to that audience. With adult novels, you can pull out all the stops.
(PS: What King books HAVE my kids read? They’re 13 now, and have read The Long Walk, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Eyes of the Dragon, Firestarter, The Gunslinger, The Talisman, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Running Man, Christine, Needful Things, and The Green Mile. I do research on these books before they start, and we talk about the books when they’re done. So far, so good!)
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