Guest post by Editor & Author of Writing New Adult Fiction Deborah Halverson, Writer's Digest Books (July 24, 2014), Sylvia Day (Foreword)
YA fiction has a youthful sensibility that matches the age range of its 12- to 18-year-old protagonists. Let’s leave the under-17s out of this, though, since it’s really the upper edge of teenhood that plays into this discussion. The way these older teens process the world and their place in it differs greatly from the way new adults do the same, and those differences play into how YA characters process their fictional world and react to it. Teens don’t have much experience with the world yet, so even when they are intellectually advanced, their emotional and social naïveté causes them to judge, act, and react differently than they will in just a few years, after they’ve lived through the hard stuff we throw at them in a YA story. These older teens are often desperate to get out from under their parents’ thumbs, or from under other authoritative oversight, and they believe that when they do, life will be so much better. They are an optimistic bunch—usually overly so, thanks to their inexperience. Their ability to put things into perspective is still budding.
NA fiction features 18- to 26-year-olds fully engaged in wisdom acquisition. They’ve got that freedom they dreamed of—only, now they carry the responsibilities that come with it. Turns out, it’s stressful living a self-responsible life when just about everything in your life is in transition. New social circles, new jobs, new living situations…. There’s lots of exploring and experimenting going on, lots of planning and reassessing plans and reassessing again. This is why NA fiction includes first forays into careers—that’s still a time of experimenting and assessing the Life Plan that they’ll settle into as adults with spouses, kids, and committed careers. New adulthood is also the time when young people use the wisdom they’re attaining to form their world view (which includes things like faith, political views, personal well being) and to establish their identities. They began identity exploration in their teen years but give it a serious work-through during this phase.
All of this plays out in a fictional character’s priorities, concerns, words, and actions, and in what the narrative focuses on (especially if that narrative is a first person point of view, which essentially puts readers inside the protagonist’s head). The things your characters talk about reveal their priorities and perspectives, and the way they act or react to situations makes those priorities and perspectives clear. A teen might think, “Is this what love feels like?”, whereas a new adult might say, “How do I behave when I’m with him? What do I want in a guy, in this guy? What do I need from a relationship?” All of these things—point of view, dialogue, action, word choice—contribute to a narrative’s sensibility.
So that’s why I say that the key difference between NA fiction and YA fiction lies is their narrative sensibilities. Yes, the ages of the characters are different and the settings may be different too (think high school versus college), but it’s the way the characters process their experiences that define the category. Send a seventeen-year-old protagonist to college early and she’s going to interact with that world through the emotions and social filters of a seventeen-year-old. Thus, it’s up to writers to make sure all the elements in our stories sync—character age, setting, problems, coping skills—so that the story is believable to its readership. NA characters talk and act like new adults and face problems that would befall new adults. If you don’t, you’ve got a YA that feels preachy or an NA that feels too young. And of course what we want is a book that feels right on target for our chosen category’s audience.
Luckily, as abstract as narrative sensibility seems to be, you can actively sculpt it from many different directions, using techniques and strategies for tangible elements like dialogue, plot choices, characterization, and even setting. That’s how I filled up an entire book with NA-focused writing advice, and why I dare to believe that writers will find Writing New Adult Fiction applicable as well
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