What is Young Adult Fantasy?
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction lately. And I’ve been doing so primarily because I didn’t know the answer to that question. I mean, honestly, what is young adult fantasy?
It’s the kind of question that sounds like it should have an obvious, simple answer…until you start looking at it closely.
You might be inclined to say that YA fantasy novels are fantasy novels about young adults. Simple, right? Except…there are countless adult fantasy novels about young adults. The Name of the Wind, for example. Also, there are books with characters that are a bit older than teenagers that are considered Young Adult anyway. So that doesn’t seem to be it.
Okay, so we might say that YA fantasy novels are fantasy novels that are for young adults. Except, of course, there are tons of adult readers who love and devour YA novels. And the best of the genre—like the best of most genres—is written to engage and appeal to all ages. One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, a book that was certainly not written exclusively for a young audience (not to mention that the titular character is in his 20s), and yet it was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and is generally considered YA.
Okay, okay, so we might say that YA fantasy novels are fantasy novels that are appropriate for young adult readers. But is that so? I’ve read adult fantasy novels that are far cleaner than, say, many of Sarah J. Maas’s books. Perhaps there are extremes that you won’t find in the young adult section, but there is plenty of foul language, sex, and violence in the genre. I would not consider the YA label any kind of guarantee of PG content.
So—if young adult fantasy isn’t any of the above, if it isn’t necessarily about or for teens (at least not exclusively so)—then…what is it?
This is what I set out to discover. The reason I felt as if I needed an answer was simple: I am an adult author writing about adult characters with a primarily adult readership, and yet the vast majority of my reviewers call my books “YA.” For a long time I just shrugged at this as a kind of inexplicable oddity and went about my business.
That is, until Bookbub turned me down for their fantasy list but said they’d be willing to take me on for their Teen & YA list. (For those of you unfamiliar: Bookbub is the best available advertising opportunity for authors. Any success I’ve had is due to their newsletters. For indies like myself, it’s a huuuuge deal to be accepted.) I did a cartwheel and said “yes please,” and am happy I did so (it was pretty sweet cartwheel). But in that moment I had recategorized myself in a way that I didn’t fully understand. Thus, my need to get the bottom of this question.
Like most things in life, “Young Adult” doesn’t seem to have hard and fast rules. Yes, the characters are younger, but that line is blurry. It seems to reach into the twenties, which surprised me. Yes, it is less explicit than the most explicit adult fiction, but it’s a good bit dirtier and bloodier than I might have guessed. That being said, I have noticed some overarching trends and tropes in YA that do seem to distinguish it from adult fantasy, ones that have little to do with age.
Young Adult Fiction tends to…
1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.
There are exceptions to every rule of course, and I’ve read a fair amount of character driven adult fantasy as well. But I think, in general, YA fantasy is much more inclined to focus on the characters—their pains, their growth, and their relationships—than its adult counterpart.
YA fiction wants you to really invest in the main cast of characters. (And fans of the genre do: they ship their favorite couples, they create fan fiction and fan art. They bleed along with the protagonist and shed tears at significant deaths). Because of this focus on character, I’ve seen novels in this genre succeed despite leaning heavily into familiar tropes and plot devices. These readers don’t mind a collect-the-McGuffins plot arch, as long as the characters are distinct, strongly rendered, and lovable.
2.) be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.
I have read some tome-ish adult fantasy novels, and across the board the reason for their doorstopper length is due to extremely detailed world building. Great adult fantasy is so often about creating a deep and textured world that readers can move into—one that is wide and historied.
But as I mentioned above, YA readers like to focus on character. As such, spending a lot of time on world building would be deemed not-so-exciting. In general, the YA fantasy I’ve read (and by now, I’ve read quite a lot of it), tends to give us only as much word building as we need to tell the story. Long deviations to fill in world information will feel like a major slow down. When done well, YA worlds feel large without a lot of time dithered on actually making them large. When done poorly, they’re a bit spare.
3.) be fast paced
The main plot of a YA novel usually starts much sooner than in its adult fiction equivalent. It takes Rand and the gang foreeeever to leave their home in the first book of the Wheel of Time novels. That wouldn’t fly in a contemporary YA story—they tend to get moving faster, and continue with lots of action and tension along the way. Generally the chapters are shorter, the endings of those chapters hookier, and the plot packs a lot of bumps in the road.
4.) ease you in
Often the first chapter of an adult fantasy novel is jarring—deliberately so. It throws you, the reader, into the deep end of the pool with its strange jargon and character names and magic. You’re expected to figure it out, and figure it out quickly, because you already feel like you’re in the middle of things.
YA is much more likely to slip you slowly into the world. There’s a little more hand-holding and a little less sink-or-swim. There is much less likely to be a ton of strange words on page 1 in a YA novel.
5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!
Young Adult novels usually set out to pluck at your heart strings. You’re meant to laugh and “awwww” and cry.
For example, the grim-dark trend in fantasy, which is popular in both adult and YA fiction, is used to different effect for these two audiences. In an adult novel, grim-dark makes you feel uncomfortable in the world, and it makes you less certain of the fate of the characters, since anyone can die. In Game of Thrones, character deaths serve to constantly upset our notions about where the story is going, and to reaffirm the darkness of the world. The “anyone can die” idea, when used in YA, tends to be more for emotional manipulation (she said, knowing she’s entirely guilty of this). That author wants to rip the heart from your chest. Usually when they imply that anyone can die, they really mean that the most lovable secondary character is DEFINITELY going to die—and it’s probably the MC’s brother. (Seriously, don’t be anyone’s most likable brother in these books).
6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.
While a YA novel isn’t going to bog you down with world-building, it will be more inclined to add tension through troubled character relationships. These books are rife with betrayals, love-triangles (and other manner of romantic difficulties), family issues, tested friendships, and power struggles. Because the characters are younger, these dramas often feel more life-or-death. First loves, after all, hurt the most. Generally these are subplots to a larger overarching plot, but they are often devoted a fair amount of page time.
7.) feature dramatic character growth.
Character growth is important to just about all fiction, but in YA fantasy the journey is usually more remarkable. Because the characters are young, they often have the opportunity to change more dramatically. You see this with young characters in adult fiction too, but it’s more of a necessary ingredient in YA. Take a book like The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson for an example: the transformation of the protagonist in this story is so significant that she is hardly recognizable by the end, and the ability to watch that journey is precisely what makes the series so successful. Ditto with The Remnant Chronicles or Red Rising.
8.) be anachronistic.
Readability trumps accuracy in these books, so characters are much more likely to speak like a modern youth no matter the setting. Adult Fantasy usually tries harder to put old-timey speech into the mouths of its characters in order to help with the world building. But in YA, relatable characters and an approachable style are more important than period-accurate dialogue.
9.) have some unexpected twists.
Not every YA fantasy has a plot twist, and certainly plenty of non-YA books do. However, I think this audience is particularly in love with the unexpected twist: the betrayal we never saw coming; the hero who is actually a villain; the villain who isn’t so bad after all; dead characters who—surprise!—aren’t actually dead; and accepted truths that are false. These types of plot devices play so well in YA because they help push the characters toward the dramatic transformations I talked about in point 7.
10.) have pretty covers.
Let’s be real. The YA section of the bookstore is the prettiest.
All in all, YA fantasy just has its own vibe. It has a slightly different way of achieving its goal, pacing its narrative, and keeping its readers engaged. It prioritizes differently.
And I found that the more of it I read, the more I understood why readers should think my Marked Series is young adult, even despite the characters being in their mid-twenties. I definitely used most of the above tools in creating my books, though I did so unconsciously.
So, there you have it. That is what I think distinguishes young adult fantasy. I’ve seen some adult readers of YA be criticized for their reading tastes, or accused of peter-pan-syndrome, a failure to grow up. But I think this is an unfair characterization. So much of what distinguishes YA fiction has nothing to do with the age of the characters, and everything to do with pacing, focal points, and style. And I see nothing inherently childish about any of the above.chuttersnap