Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There’s an argument to be made that young adult fiction is the most important genre in literature. In terms of practical use you may claim that children’s books do more for their readers; in terms of entertainment you might think that murder mysteries pull their weight; in terms of social impact you could make a strong case for sci-fi; but in terms of how much a group of readers need their genre of choice, young adult fiction is at the front of the line.
So why do young adults – occupying a hotly debated age range of around thirteen to around twenty – need this genre so badly? It’s because adolescence is the most uniformly difficult part of life, the point at which we begin to ask the big questions and find answers we don’t like. YA fiction is an important part of this process.
That’s why in this article, I’ll be exploring the three golden rules of writing YA fiction, looking at the role it has in its readers’ lives and the implications this has for writers. And, as is so often the case, it’s a journey that starts off in another language.
‘Bildungsroman’ is a German term meaning ‘novel of formation’ or a coming-of-age story. It’s a type of fiction that often documents a character’s journey into adulthood, but also offers itself as a tool in the reader’s own cultural and personal development. This is the responsibility YA fiction authors take on when they embrace the genre.
YA fiction acts as a vital questioning tool, equipping its readers to tackle times of great upheaval. It’s little wonder that so many of our modern classics, from Lord of the Flies to Harry Potter, speak primarily to the young. The questions they address never really leave us.
Because YA fiction addresses a seething swarm of questions and emotions, it is by nature a busy genre. While one treasured book might be all you need to get you through a stressful time in your life, adolescents go through such books like woodchippers. There will always be a huge market for YA fiction, and as with any great number of things, some examples are going to be better than others.
The key to producing the best YA fiction, and therefore the best novel of formation, is to embrace the unique qualities of both the genre and the readership. That’s why the first golden rule of writing YA fiction is…
Rule #1 – Write only for your reader
Censorship looms large over YA fiction. The formative aspect of the genre means that parents, usually the ones actually paying for the books, are often on the lookout for subjects and themes they don’t want their children to encounter.
This can exert a lot of psychological pressure on the YA writer, steering them away from producing the best form of their story, and from giving their readers the tools they need to grow.
That’s not to say that you have to dive headfirst into adult topics, just that your only thought when writing YA fiction should be what will work for the reader. Where topics like sex, violence or depression are broached they should be broached in a way that serves the reader, regardless of any outside pressure.
There’s a long tradition of introducing complex themes in YA fiction. The popular Hunger Games trilogy delves deeply into the trauma and dehumanization of war, Harry Potter engages with racism from many different angles, while Little Women draws on the death of a family member for its narrative heft.
Unlike a genre such as crime fiction, which can draw on adult themes for titillation or pure entertainment, YA fiction offers its readers a gateway into sincere reflection on these topics.
This is a concept perfectly expounded in the TV series Louie. In one episode the father character is trying to buy a book for his teenage daughter, but has no clue what to get her. He asks the advice of an employee at the bookstore who understands exactly what his daughter needs from a book.
Some of these books take these feelings, these big emotions, they let you take them out for a safe kind of spin…
Give her this. Give her this, and tell her not to read it at night because it’s too scary. The idea is that she will read it at night. It’ll be a little wrongful thrill for her.
– ‘Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 1’, Louie, Louis C.K and Pamela Adlon
Here we see that YA fiction is a tool not just of formation, but of individuality. The YA author has a covenant with the reader – that their philosophical needs will be addressed above and beyond all other considerations.
Rule #2 – Understand the need for a reader proxy
While the stereotype of the self-involved teen is patently unfair, there is a valuable truth hidden within it that the YA author should appreciate. This is that an adolescent starting their journey into adulthood will have many questions, but those which burn most fiercely centre around definitions of self.
No-one can be expected to understand the world around them before they’ve considered their place in it, or to unravel the morality of others before they’ve pondered their own. That’s why so many YA stories benefit from the inclusion of a reader proxy.
A reader proxy is a character who stands in for the reader. Bella Swan in the Twilight series, or Ralph in Lord of the Flies. These characters often receive little physical description, and are frequently ingénues to the world of the story. In Twilight, for example, Bella is a human who stumbles into a world of vampires and werewolves.
I left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.
– Stephenie Meyer
Since YA readers’ most insistent questions are often about their place in the world, the reader proxy character is near-vital for maximum appreciation of the story. While other genres can contain characters that the reader neither identifies with nor likes, YA fiction is strongest when the reader can insert themselves into the narrative.
There are always exceptions of course (the works of Jacqueline Wilson often star protagonists to whom readers may not instantly relate) but giving the reader a voice within the story should be at the top of the list for any YA author’s story plan. Right after it should be…
Rule #3 – Respect emotional truth
Many genres benefit from a forensic adherence to the factual – police procedurals are quite literally dependent on it, for example. By sticking to a realistic depiction of the world these stories aid their readers’ suspension of disbelief and take them on a journey to an unfamiliar but believable place.
While this journey is something YA readers also covet, in this genre it’s emotional truth that will get you there. No life is the same, but there are many emotional realities to adolescence which most YA readers will experience at one time or another. The most effective, and thus most popular, books create fantastical worlds which rigidly adhere to these perceived emotional realities.
Harry Potter addresses the hidden, and secretly cherished, belief that the reader has hidden depths which will lead them to a better life. Twilight represents the emotional rollercoaster of young love not as ‘puppy love’, but as the life and death affair which its readers feel it to be. The Divergent series is all about one girl’s quest to avoid simple categorization. Books like The Hunger Games and the Animorphs series take place in worlds where society and its authority figures, often familial, are arrayed against the efforts of the young protagonists.
We can’t tell you who we are. Or where we live. It’s too risky, and we’ve got to be careful. Really careful. So we don’t trust anyone. Because if they find us… well, we just won’t let them find us. The thing you’ve got to know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.
– K.A. Applegate, recurring Animorphs series blurb
Above, I’ve listed some of the main themes of each YA work, but each book contains some measure of every theme listed. If you’ve ever wondered why a seemingly banal or trite YA series takes off, this is the answer; its depiction of its readers’ emotional reality is spot on and is therefore – to the only audience that matters – excruciatingly relevant.
Putting it all together
If there’s a common thread to these rules, it’s that a great YA novel is written solely for the reader. This starts with considering the emotional reality of the reader, and then displaying complete fidelity to the things they need from a story.
A YA novel is a tool a YA reader can use for introspection and interrogation of the world around them. It’s easy to cross a line and begin trying to shape a reader’s perceptions, but YA readers are used to this kind of trick and are too smart to play along with it. There’s a reason that Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, written to entertain individual adolescents, are classics and his sermonizing Sylvie and Bruno stories are almost universally ignored.
If YA fiction isn’t the most important genre of writing then it is certainly the one where the bond between author and reader is strongest. Each bildungsroman is in prime position to be the most important book a person will ever read, something vital to their sense of self. It’s what makes YA fiction so difficult, but so satisfying, to get right.
For more in the ‘golden rules’ series check out The 3 golden rules of writing a science fiction book, or for more on young adult fiction try The ultimate guide to writing awesome Young Adult books.
What books defined your adolescence? Do you have some YA writing wisdom to share? Let me know in the comments.