A Call for Protagonists My Age

Photo by Kate Williams on Unsplash


There have been rumblings in the publishing sphere recently, supported by some very thoughtful conversations on Twitter. Since this discussion is directly related to what I do as a writer, I thought I might weigh in with my two cents.

The discussion has been about how books are sorted into age categories and specifically how the system needs to change. So let’s get to it!


What are age categories?

NOTE: This is not the same thing as genres. Genres are Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Contemporary, Historical, etc. Sub-genres are things like High Fantasy, Contemporary Romance, Dystopian Sci-Fi, and the like.

Age categories were designed to pinpoint a target audience by age, and are usually best defined by the age of the Main Character (MC). My library has a kids’ section, a teens’ section, and an adult section, and those are the basic age categories:

Kids/Juvenile

This can be further broken down into picture and board books for small children, chapter books for intermediate readers up to age 10, and then Middle Grade (MG).

For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing on Middle Grade.

From an industry standpoint, the target audience age range for MG is 8-12. Examples of true MG books (meaning they fit snuggly in this age range and the characters don’t age up into teens *cough*HarryPotter*cough*) would be the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins and works by Katie DiCamillo (Because of Winn Dixie)and Kelly Barnhill (The Witch’s Boy).

MG books tend to explore themes of friendship, adventure and discovery, introductions to danger, and self-definition.

Teen/Young Adult (YA)

Originally designed for, y’know, teenagers, the average YA reader these days is upwards of 25. YA is still my favorite age category because adult books tend to explore topics that don’t interest me or that I can’t relate to, and I’m at the age where I don’t have much interest in MG books. (“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”)

The technical target audience for YA books is 12/13-18. Examples of true YA books, meaning the characters and themes are settled snugly within the age range, are A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, the Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente, and many books by Shannon Hale.

Young Adult books have themes related to first love and friendship and family drama and school and protagonists who somehow, despite being inexperienced sixteen-year-olds, are chosen by completely rational adults to lead the resistance against injustice.

Young Adult is very inward-focused. Even when the scope is world-wide, it very much centers on the internal conflict of the main characters.

Back when I was getting some feedback on Soar after Pitch Wars, I was advised to take a look at the manuscript and decide if I wanted it to be more Adult or YA. If YA was the answer, it was suggested that I add more internal monologue and emotion so my MS “fit” as a YA novel.

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Adult

Ah, the bane of every young reader: the adult books. Rife with weird romance, a distinct lack of adventure, and aging protagonists with boring concerns like careers and providing for families and their own children, the Adult category is an imposing entity and making the transition to it is often difficult. This age category caters to a wildly different reader than the one buried in YA books.

I’m doing a really poor job of doing this category justice; after all, it is the oldest (though the argument could be made that traditional oral storytelling was designed for younger audiences). And I don’t think I really have to give examples of Adult books, but I will, because I don’t read many and I’m proud that I read any at all. So you have:

Circe by Madeline Miller, Dark Run by Mike Brooks, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.

Tada!

Like real adults and young adults, the YA and Adult categories give the impression of being very strictly divided, and there’s a good deal of sneering on both sides.

But now we come to the issue at hand: categories shouldn’t skip from YA to Adult.

These days, YA has been further divided into sub-categories: Upper YA (the more popular, with older protagonists and more mature themes) and Lower YA (closer to what YA was originally intended to be). Upper YA tends to cater not only to teens but to young adults in the secular, non-publishing sense of the term: these books feature protagonists in their last years of high school, obsessed with their appearances, overcome with relationship drama, and consumed by a desperate need to kiss everyone. Constantly. (Hello, Illuminae Files.) Newer teens, and especially those who are fresh out of MG and aren’t looking for books thick with romance, are getting left behind, and even older teens are being crowded out by the demands of adults who, sorry, have their own books. Some books categorized as YA are so in MC age only, and then only barely.

Age category is obviously a fluid concept, especially with series. Harry Potter crosses over from MG to YA. Anne of Green Gables, from YA to A, goes from a story about a hapless, adorable girl to a married adult woman. But there’s such an increase in YA/A cross-over that readers and writers alike are starting to get frustrated.

Because, while they might want to stay separate, the line between YA and A has started to blur. There’s a demand for a new category to fill the gap, but it’s a hard fight.

The Lost Category: New Adult

There didn’t used to be a YA category. It was kids vs adults in the book world, with little cross-over and no doubt as to which stories belonged where. Then came the demand for something of a middle ground, and YA was born. And we can all agree it was necessary, and so many good books have come into the world as a result.

But there’s still a need. Folk all across the publishing spectrum, from bloggers to editors to writers and agents, are calling for publishers to recognize this need and to let this category shoulder its way onto shelves. YA deserves to be given back to its young readers, and Adult deserves the right to keep its stodgy or mature or world-wise protagonists without letting some upstart with mature themes take up room who really ought to be over there.

What are New Adult books?

I daresay the age range for NA could be anywhere from 17 to 30, though 17 to 25 is probably more reasonable. (Hey, look at me, about to age out of another reading category!) The protagonists are older, but still young. They’ve graduated high school, possibly (hopefully) no longer live with their parents, have lives and adult relationships and jobs…but they aren’t settled into themselves quite like Adult protagonists. They’re still finding their footing – a highly relateable situation for today’s 20-something.

And people read to relate.

If readers can’t find a protagonist they relate to, they’ll demand one; what what if all of those protagonists are being forcefully aged up or aged down before the books hit the shelves to make them fit where they don’t quite belong? I still read YA over Adult because I relate more to YA protagonists than to Adult, and that in turn is because people like me have demanded older YA characters who feel more familiar.

Somewhere in the gray areas and on the fringes, New Adult (NA) books exist, incorrectly categorized and lost in the muddle, but deserving of their own place on the shelves and with plenty of comrades to keep them company.

Examples of New Adult stories:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. I daresay The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden could be counted as a New Adult book, with an 18/19 year old protagonist facing arrange marriages and adult responsibilities. It’s been sorted as an Adult book because of its subject matter and themes. Even my beloved Digger by Ursula Vernon is a New Adult book, with a mature protagonist who had a promising career and who had moved out of her parents’ house before magic and dead gods swept her up into the chaos of the storyworld.

These are the stories I crave right now: characters my age, facing the same questions and issues I’m facing (or would be if I happened to live in their world), moved beyond such cares as school and clothes and teenage drama and into the wider world and business casual and workplace hysterics.

These are the stories I want to write. Saeunn in Undersong is a New Adult protagonist: 22, married, with a steady job and a life of her own, away from her eccentric father and very bossy ghost of a mother. Saeunn isn’t an adult yet, because she’s still “finding herself” as it were; still settling into her skin.

But if I were to try and publish Undersong now (this assuming I’d actually written and revised and edited this story), it would be a struggle, and there’d be a very good chance that someone or other would suggest I change Saeunn’s age or other aspects of her character to make her fit.

But Saeunn already fits. This is who she is. This is her story. And I believe there are people out there who want to read it just the way it is.

What Happens Without a New Adult Category?

It’s a problem for readers

As mentioned above, readers who crave stories set on that middle ground between adolescence and adulthood aren’t finding those books. At the least it’s frustrating, and to go beyond that it can been embarassing, still perusing the YA shelves with teens looking on because they’ve already raided the Adult section for anything that looks partway decent.

Should we just grow up? Well, maybe, but that’s won’t solve all our problems. The fact remains that we just want books to read: books we connect with, and to connect often requires protagonists who are familiar to us.

Lately, we aren’t getting that, and I guess we’re coping, but we’re still readers and we’re still setting trends. Publishers, taking notice of this, are acquiring YA books with older protagonists. Or perhaps they find books that straddle the YA/A line and nudge the protagonist over that line so they can sit with the big folk but still appeal to younger readers. And, again, that’s a problem for the younger readers who still need those younger protagonists who haven’t been tricked out as mature characters crammed into teen bodies.

Because it isn’t, in my humble and ill-educated opinion, a solution. When you get right down to it, it’s plain frustrating.

It’s a problem for writers

Without at least pretending to follow the guidelines of one genre and category or another, no one would know where to put your book on the shelf, which means it might not get to its intended audience. Good, fine, that makes sense.

And we want our books to be read. But usually, when a writer sets out to pen a new story, they have a pretty good idea what kind of story they’re setting out to write (ok, like 50% of the time…) and that includes who’s telling the story. Look at Saeunn again. She needs to be a 20-something to tell this story; in part because, no offense Katniss, I want just one story where the fate of the world isn’t put into the hands of a sixteen-year-old. I’m not really a self-insert writer or reader, but I’m a 20-something gal and I want to see someone my age taking matters into her own hands and fixing things.

But you know what happens?

At every step along the way, trying to publish this story with this protagonist would set me up against opposition. Do I sell it as a YA with NA crossover potential, or as a straight-up Adult book even though the themes don’t quite fit? Would any agent even want to pick it up, such a risky debut, or do I keep it in reserve and wait to offer it after a more compliant of my manuscripts has had its shot?

Should we even be making an issue out of this?

Are we all simply too demanding? Are we making trouble where no trouble needs to be made? Should we just buck up and draw the line between YA and Adult and leave it at that?

I say “No”, and there are readers and writers and agents and editors who agree, but the argument is far from won. We might be slogging through this for years to come, and meanwhile Undersong and Dark And Deep will be staring at each other across the YA/A divide, missing their sibling terribly.

And I’ll still be here, dramatically discussing my opinion on the matter.


Let’s hear it!

What are your thoughts on the need for a New Adult age category? Is it something you’ve noticed, or do you think things seem pretty decent the way they are? If you think it’s an issue, would you ever talk about it or fight for it, or do you prefer to wait and see how it plays out? What about the shift in YA books toward older, weirdly-sexualized MC’s? Do you tend to read mostly Adult or mostly YA, with little cross-over, and, if so, why? Writers, have you ever faced criticism for your MC’s age, or been told that they don’t quite “fit”?

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4 thoughts on “A Call for Protagonists My Age

  1. I’d really like the New Adult category to become more prominent. Though I feel like some books shouldn’t be considered a particular age category if they have a distinct genre and could appeal to a wide variety of people. Some books need the distinction and some need to be allowed to overlap.

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  2. Book age groups seriously confuse me. On the one hand, I am a huge proponent of New Adult. I absolutely love the idea of 20-something protagonists having their own spot, especially since I’m currently teetering on the edge of teenage years, myself. And characters who are apparently sixteen but are straight up 23 in their heads are ANNOYING, and I’m starting to get a little sick of them.

    On the other, however, genres above YA typically scare me to death, because I’m terrified of the content I’ll find within them. (Although I HAVE noticed that more and more YA books are getting kind of icky and gross, and it is WEIRDING ME OUT HELP. I DON’T LIKE IT.) When I go to read a book, it doesn’t matter how old the character is, I don’t want to be smacked over the face with scenes I don’t want to read. This–and literally this alone–is why I have never, nor do I think I will ever read an Adult book. (Unless we’re talking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Jane Austen, which I guess could be classified as Adult when you look at the character ages?) And it’s this fear of opening doors towards unpleasant content that has me concerned for NA if it ever does come to be. Because I would LOVE to have NA stories–protagonists struggling with becoming an adult, characters who reflect my age–but I’m afraid that since it’s higher than YA on the age scale and leaning more towards Adult, that it will quickly get filled with a lot of the junk that Adult books are being filled with. (On a side note, am I wrong in assuming that Adult books have a lot of junk in them? I could be completely wrong on this…)

    But taking that completely out of the equation, yes. I do believe that we need more characters who are true to their age (not 22-year-olds trapped in 16-year-old bodies) and in order to do that, we need a section for New Adult. There has to be some sort of bridge between the gap, because the more YA books we cater towards the upper tier of teens, the more books we are literally ripping away from younger teens–the teens who should be just freshly finding YA after coming from MG, the teens who should be finding themselves reflected in the YA books they’re reading, yet are instead being bombarded with much heavier and mature themes in the books that are supposedly YA.

    It’s just annoying. I personally read a lot of MG and YA, and I am perfectly happy with this. It’s kind of where my readerly heart finds the most joy. (Although if NA WERE a category, I’m rather certain EV would fit into it…) But the more I learn about the publishing process and all the inside information, the more I’m beginning to get the feeling that there are a lot of boxes, and not a lot of room to be unique with a story. It’s like we’re not allowed to write the stories as they’re supposed to be, simply so that they can be squared off and stuffed into a generic box. I don’t know… I have a lot of confusing thoughts on this topic and it’s hard to whittle down my thoughts… I also think I just wrote you a small novella. 😂 Oops.

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