young adult readers = young adult characters?

I think sometimes about the genre demands that are made on books these days. Some genres have been around for a while (mysteries, science fiction, romance, fantasy, etc.), and some seem to be less fashionable than they used to be (sea stories, searches for lost civilizations).

But now there are also all the age-specific ones (young adult, middle grade, new adult, etc.). There has always been classification of books for different ages (children's books, books for teenagers, etc.), but now this seems to extend to the characters as well. In other words, when I was growing up the Dr. Dolittle books were classified as children's books, because they were for children to read. But the early books in the series had no young characters at all, and when the later books added a boy named Tommy Stubbins (probably for reader identification) he was a complete dud.

But with "young adult" books these days, there seems to be the assumption that the characters need to be "young adult" as well. I know somebody who just had a book rejected partly because the characters were supposedly the wrong age (by just a couple of years) to appeal to the intended audience.

I would not have liked this when I was young. Back then I read all sorts of books, mostly about adults. Mysteries, science fiction, etc. Robert Heinlein wrote a series of "juvenile" science fiction books, with young protagonists, but they were pretty thin compared to his other books.

On the other hand, I'm older now, and I still enjoy stories about young people if the stories are well done. For example, in recent movies I've enjoyed Hugo and Let the Right One In, and I never wished that the characters were older so I could identify with them better. Stevie One is about a young adult, but I've never classified it as YA since it's not particularly directed toward young readers. Coming-of-age stories have been around for a long tiime, and they've been enjoyed by readers of all ages, not just young ones. Good stories are good stories.

I read a lot about the lack of diversity in YA, but it's never about age-diversity. 🙂


The other thing that is driven by marketing rather than art is the emphasis on protagonists being likable and "relatable." This was one of the network's many complaints about the original pilot for Firefly, for example, that Mal needed to be lightened up. Whedon was able to steer things a bit in that direction without messing up the whole project, but it was a dumb idea to begun with.

Is Stephen Dedalus likable? (Hell, no). Is King Lear relatable? (Nope). And don't even get me started on the Westerns (Rooster Cogburn, Thomas Dunson, Ethan Edwards, etc.). Is Lisbeth Salander likable and relatable? Sherlock Holmes? Wolverine? Macbeth? Eve Harrington? Humbert Humbert? Charles Foster Kane?

I'm not advising against characters being likable and relatable. Write a good story, about characters who are interesting, facing interesting situations. Let the rest take care of itself.

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6 Responses to young adult readers = young adult characters?

  1. Hmm. Thinky-worthy stuff, there.

  2. Tiyana says:

    Wow, that would suck to have your book turned down because of the protagonist’s age. I’d be like, “Eff you guys!”

    Privately, of course. 😉

    I don’t write YA fic, though, and wouldn’t necessarily “understand” it from that perspective, so I trust the people who heard in prospective new books and series have their reasons (good ones, I hope) for doing this.

    Now, when I think of “likable,” though, I don’t necessarily equate that with “having generally pleasant, socially-accepted qualities.” There are antagonists who I find more “likable” than some protagonists who aren’t always pleasant or socially-acceptable. As far as “relatable” goes…I’m assuming, in marketing terms, that just means “human” or “having issues a human could relate to.” But maybe that’s not the case…

    Anyway, why these traits are associated with certain personality types and not others is beyond me–as both, imo, can be broadly interpreted.

  3. Tiyana says:

    *heard = herd; gotta love those homonyms!

  4. Stephen: Thanks.

    Tiyana: There is a pull, in large corporations, for picking the safe choice (“Nobody ever got fired for picking IBM,” as the phrase used to go). I don’t know much about the publishing industry from first-hand experience, but I would imagine that this is true there, too. I have heard that publishers want first-time authors to be able to say which popular books their work most resembles.

    I agree about “likable” — it is not just the same as “pleasant.” Thinking about this, Robert Downey Jr. came to mind. His characters are usually not “likable,” meaning that if they were real people you wouldn’t want to hang out with them. But they’re great to watch on screen. I can think of at least five or six characters or his where this is true.

    But that’s still very far in the “likability” spectrum from some of the characters I mentioned who are frankly monsters and not at all “fun” to watch, not the way Downey usually is. But, even so, they can be very compelling.

  5. Maggie says:

    I’ve always thought that some YA books felt almost “dumbed down” to be appropriate for a teen audience… and that’s a shame. When I was a teenager, I didn’t read much YA — I read mostly adult books — but I think that YA is slowly becoming a genre that’s not “dumbed down” and just for teens; a lot of adults read YA these days. I feel like teens can relate to a lot more types of characters than just those who are their own age. And of course, adults can also relate to teen characters… I think it’s all about the strength of the writing.

    • I remember when I was writing Stevie One and I described it on the yaindie.com website (a teenage girl runs away from home, falls in with bad companions, learns about herself, learns about life, etc.). People said, “Hey, you could make that into a YA book.”

      I (politely) declined. It is, as it says in the subtitle, an adventure, and (like everything I do these days) it is a mystery, but I think it would make some people uncomfortable if I classified it as “YA,” because it has a lot of elements that some people don’t want in their “young adult” fiction: adult sexuality, violence, cursing, smoking. Some amount of social drinking. Nudity. Gay people.

      I think it is a pretty wholesome book in its way, and the teenage protag herself doesn’t engage in any of the activities I just listed (except for the violence), but I really don’t want to limit the aspects of life that I deal with because of the age of my readers.

      Especially because any teenage readers are almost certainly aware of all of those things already. 🙂

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