Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why YA? Are Teens Just Better at Saving the World?

In response to my post about character transformations, Julie commented that, more often than not, the characters she sees featured in epic fantasy novels are teens. She also asked several good questions:
Obviously writing about teenagers has a lot of merit as far as all the physical/emotional/maturity changes people face at that stage in life, but can character transformations be just as effective when the character is older? And is it the same for someone in their 20s-30s as it might be for someone who is 40-50 or 60-70? Is there something else that makes adolescence such a special (and popular) time to showcase in a novel of epic proportions? Is this a recent trend?

It's possible that this seems like a recent trend because (1) Young Adult (or YA) fiction is a relatively new thing in and of itself, with publishers having only started to market specifically to teenagers in the last 40 or so years, and the genre has been growing ever since, leading us to (2), the fact that the Young Adult market is booming right now, while a lot of other markets for fiction remain somewhat stagnant due to the recession, changes in the industry and other miscellaneous Doom and Gloom. But I don't think the trend Julie noticed is a fluke—there are some very real advantages to featuring teenage characters in your novel, and/or to marketing it to teens.

I do think that character transformations can and often are handled extremely well in novels intended for and about adults. The Kite Runner is a great example. Though a good portion of the novel is narrated in retrospect and some of its most important moments feature Amir and Hassan as children, Amir’s transformation does not occur in childhood. In fact, he very deliberately avoids it until well into his adulthood. Having lived with and loathed his cowardice and selfishness for years, it is the adult Amir who finally transforms into a man willing to accept the personal cost of standing up for others. Despite that, I think that the emotional journey of that novel is every bit as effective as that of a well-written YA novel.

But I do think that YA as a genre has its inherent benefits when it comes to staging an important character transformation or an epic journey. I often see novels for adults, like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, taking advantage of those benefits by allowing a childhood story of transformation to be narrated by an older character who looks back on his or her youth. In both books, the narratives allow their readers to feel the immediacy of the characters’ growth the adulthood, but the ever-present knowledge that the tales are being related by characters who have had the opportunity to reflect on these experiences keeps them solidly in the realm of adult fiction.

So what are YA’s inherent advantages when it comes to building change?

Julie nailed one of the major ones, which is that, quite simply, teenagers are already changing drastically. On top of changing physically and emotionally with puberty, teens find themselves outside of the supervision of adults for the first time ever and begin discovering their own power to act independently. This is one of the defining characteristics of YA literature in comparison with books for younger readers. Often Middle Grade novels focus on conflicts which are confined, like the characters themselves, to a family unit—or, in the case of Middle Grade novels in which the characters do go on an epic quest, like Gregor the Overlander or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the adventure cannot begin until the adults are out of the picture. Teens, however, are typically given more freedom and are quick to begin pushing boundaries.

Secondly, it’s a fascinating time to write about, because when faced with a problem teens don’t have the benefit of experience to draw upon. As a character in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas says, “Bein' young ain't easy 'cos ev'rythin' you're puzzlin'n'anxin' you're puzzlin'n'anxin' it for the first time.” Teens experience failure after failure and, for the first time in their lives, they aren’t protected from it. And whereas adults often have the experience to recognize plans that are doomed to fail, and enough cynicism not to pin all their hopes to their next plan of attack, teens are passionate, often impulsive, and extraordinarily resilient—so with each new approach to an obstacle, they throw themselves into the fight, certain that this new approach will change everything. All those idealistic forward motions and devastating failures are incredible devices for building tension, and teenagers’ transformations are usually all the more intense for the fervor with which they approach every challenge.

With all that boundary-pushing and newfound independence, teens are also discovering the consequences—both good and bad—of their actions. They keenly feel the importance of everything they do, from how they dress to where they sit in the cafeteria. Plunged into a social hierarchy which is quick to remind them of any trespasses, most teens become hyper-aware of their every action as a choice made within and critiqued by that hierarchy. And every action and emotion within that environment is heightened, dramatic. Maybe the teenage years seem like such an ideal setting for an epic adventure because they are a time at which every challenge we face really does seem epic, every love feels like true love, and every obstacle seems like it could be the last.

And I think the realization of a social hierarchy, coupled with that newfound independence, does something else powerful—it awakens in teens a constant awareness of a world that is larger than them. Up until their teenage years, almost all of their choices and actions are filtered through the adults around them before reaching the outside world. With their newfound freedoms, teens are just discovering that their choices can create change in the world around them, and they take to that like wildfire. Every teen seems to be an activist.

So teens aren’t just changing themselves—they’re changing the worlds around themselves, they’re actively looking for change (and they fervently believe in it), and they’re molded by each of their endeavors. These are juicy, defining years, ripe for transformation. How we deal with the conflicts, challenges and heartbreaks we face as teens determines the adults we become—and who doesn’t want to take part in recreating that experience?

Questions? Have your own theories as to why this trend exists? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Great post! I've been thinking about this subject a lot, and you succinctly put into words some of the reasons YA and epic quests work so well together.

  2. People mature and learn, some a whole lot and some practically not at all. Character never changes, though. That said, if anyone will change the world for the better, it will be the young. If anything is clear, it's that we adults will never address the major problems.

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  3. Excellent post! I wonder too whether YA isn't strengthened by the greater sense of idealism of the young--and the sense that they really can change the world. For those of us who write and/or read YA, it's easy to slip into remembering that sense of "We can do this! We need only the will and desire!"

    And yet, as you point out, in the KITE RUNNER, the fact that Amir doesn't transform until much later in life makes it all the more heartrending. After all, the teen is already in the process of transformation. But for Amir, it was a conscious choice...

  4. Thanks for addressing my questions. I was kind of stunned when I began reading and then saw my name. I also appreciate that you mentioned some books with transformations occurring in older characters. I still have not read The Kite Runner and now I will have to put it on my ever-growing list. As exciting and idealistic as the young are, I hope that with the trend of YA epics, people don't lose hope in what us older folk are capable of (even those of us in our twenties). Anyway, thank you for the thought you put into your response!

  5. I think you nailed it about teenagers already being in flux as a catalyst for a transformation story arc, but I also think it isn't the whole story. Adults are also capable of change. Why is an adult transformation less satisfying? If anything, it could embody more tension within a narrative.

    To me, what defines teenagers as the world-changing transformation junkies is the immediacy of everything. Not just the intensity of their beliefs and their propensity for failure, but the speed with which change can be affected. How many teenagers find out about cruelty to animals and instantly go vegetarian? I'd be willing to bet the number is higher than the number of adults, not because adults care less, but because adults take into consideration the ramifications of a change like altering diet and nutritional requirements and extra cost and budgeting. For a teenager, those things are almost entirely unconsidered, allowing for a major, hugely impacting change in the span of a chapter, if necessary. The revelatory moment is more intense and less gradual. It allows for a plot to be more immediate and to have unforeseen twists because the character doesn't consider those things in the moment of deciding.

    I agree that their passions and intensity are part of the reason, but I feel it's less because of the passion itself and more because of what it allows the author to do. I'm not sure how coherent that was. Essentially I agree with your conclusions but differ on the why.