By Cynthia T. Toney
This question often comes up in writers groups I belong to. And there’s nothing wrong with writing a good, clean or Christian adult novel that can also be read by teenagers. But before you think that having a young protagonist between the ages of 14 and 18 will allow your novel to fly as YA (Young Adult), consider the following differences. This short list is the result of reading hundreds of novels for teens, writing a few, and hearing what other YA authors and editors have to say on the subject. If your adult novel has some of these characteristics, maybe it could be—or should be—YA.
1. Voice. Not only should the voice in a YA novel not sound adult, but it also must sound like the age of the protagonist, and that differs greatly between ages 14 and 18. It can be the difference between the voice of a beginning high school freshman and a graduating senior. In any instance, sentences tend to be shorter than in an adult novel and often incomplete or phrases, just as a teenager speaks. Note: In spite of trends in secular YA, Christian YA does not usually contain profanity.
2. POV. Most good YA novels are told from a single point of view. Teens typically want to place themselves inside the head of the protagonist and stay there. Rarely do I see POV in a teen novel switch to a parent or other adult, even an antagonist, and then it often detracts from the story. If there is a second POV, it’s usually that of a love interest or a teen antagonist.
3. Not as much religion. I’ve read many good Christian YA novels, but morals and life lessons are most often conveyed to the reader through the teen characters’ words and actions, especially how they deal with their struggles and overcome their mistakes. Unless a priest or preacher character is important to the plot, teen readers will likely view a scripture reading, sermon, or religious discussion coming from a religious leader—or any adult—as an intrusion. In YA, teen characters are supposed to find their own way and solve their own problems as much as possible. Good examples demonstrated by adult characters, along with a small amount of verbal guidance when necessary, go a long way. Christian teen characters pray, read their bibles, attend church, etc. but young readers want to learn the teens’ perspectives on religious or moral matters, not those of fictional church leaders.
4. More narrative, lots of angst. Most teens worry about everything in spite of their faith. They sometimes forget to rely on faith until the going gets really rough. They must think through a lot of choices that adult experience has eliminated for the rest of us, although sometimes teens forget to think when we want them to. Dialogue shouldn’t outweigh the narrative containing their thoughts, which can include non-vocal communication with the Lord. Note: Let your teen protagonist express his emotions, even inappropriately, and more inappropriately than an angry Christian adult would.
5. Focus on specifically teenage problems. Many more such problems exist than when I was a teen, and YA authors must pick and choose those to address in fiction. For example, I don’t want to write about self-mutilation such as cutting. It happens, and some teens want to read about it, but my personal feeling is that if I knew of a teen engaged in cutting, I’d notify her parents immediately, if not call an ambulance. And that would kill the story. So far, I haven’t encountered any YA Christian novel that addresses confusion over gender identity, although the rate that topic appears in secular YA seems greater than the rate it appears in society. The topic of teen sex and pregnancy, if handled well in Christian YA fiction, can benefit readers. Fortunately, YA authors can still write entertaining stories about timeless subjects of first love, innocent dating, cliques, school problems, planning for college, and understanding oneself.
A book that taught me early on some of the characteristics of YA is Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley. Other such guides exist that can help.
If your story is too mature for YA, look into New Adult (NA) to see if it would be a better fit. Living independently, forging a career, and getting engaged or thinking about marriage are topics in NA, a relatively new category in fiction with possibilities for all the genres we enjoy. Protagonists are in their early twenties.
About the Author
Learn more about Cynthia at her author page at the Write Integrity Press website.