Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing Teens or New Adults – Two Very Different Worlds

Warning: this contains spoilers of Twilight, Mortal Instruments, and Fallen.

There have been a lot of wildly successful novels with teen protagonists in the last 5 years whose readership clearly expands beyond teens. I have theories about why us grownups enjoy these stories, but today I want to talk about the age of the character as a writing device, and why I chose a new adult character in The Gathering of the Three.

When characters in a story are teens, there will be some inherent challenges that must be addressed that go along with the age. Three things come immediately to mind: parents, school and sex. How a writer chooses to relate to these can create a sense of urgency or obstacle for the characters to overcome. Not only does the character have to escape from evil vampires, she also has to be back in bed before her parents know she’s missing. And has she finished her homework? With teens, parents and school responsibilities will always have to be addressed.

In Twilight, we have a mom who is living out of state, along with a workaholic father who is the chief of police. Initially Bella has a lot of leeway because of hard-earned trust from years of being very reliable. She breaks the trust when she disappears for three days in New Moon after she goes to stop Edward from killing himself in Italy. Even though she is 18 by that point, she is still in high school and living under her father’s roof. In the beginning of Eclipse, she has been grounded and can’t leave the house. All of these things create complications that the characters have to address or overcome.

In most cases, the adventure requires that the authority figures be kept in the dark. If Luce’s parents in Fallen knew she was hanging around with fallen angels at her boarding school, Sword and Cross, they probably would have removed her from the school. It adds a different element of risk – if the parents find out, will they get in the way of the completion of the mission? Are they in danger from dark forces our hero thinks she must manage alone?

Another topic that almost always has to be addressed is sex. If the character is over 18, there is more freedom, but as much as times have changed, teen sexuality is still a charged topic. On one hand is the reality that a majority of teens are having sex before graduating from high school (I’ve read estimates as high as 80%). Books that preach abstinence for its own sake might feel out of touch to many teen readers. On the other hand is our still widely held cultural belief (mostly among adults) that sex is for people 18 and over. (I’m going to stay carefully neutral about that one!)

In most YA fiction I’ve read in the paranormal/fantasy genre, the characters often find themselves with a barrier to sex besides a desire for abstinence, which makes me wonder if it’s a way for authors/publishers to find an intentional safe ground between opposing perspectives. It makes me laugh sometimes when characters end up in situations where death is a likely outcome of sex. I’m thinking of Edward and Bella in Twilight, in which if he loses control he could accidentally kill her, or Jace and Clary in Mortal Instruments when Jace gets infused with Heavenly fire and could accidentally burn her to cinders if they do so much as kiss – and that’s after they find out they aren’t in fact siblings, which was their first sexual barrier.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s choice whether to use aspects of typical teen life for their tension building qualities, or to explore the journey of a slightly older character. In my book The Gathering of the Three, I chose to make my characters around 21 for several reasons. First, I didn’t want them to have to focus on parents and school while they run around trying to save the world. My main character, Hannah, is in medical school and has a part time job – both of which are responsibilities she takes very seriously, but they are not the same kind of obligation as high school, for example.

She also has a very domineering roommate, who subtly reminds her that, as a person from a humble background, she does not have the connections and financial advantages of her peers. In order to be accepted, she must be exceptionally normal – having a supernatural healing ability makes this a bit of a challenge.  

Parents also come into play, but mainly because the book is set during the holidays. Hannah makes the obligatory trip home to a very uncomfortable family situation. She also considers them when she begins to think about new directions her career could take if she has healing powers, and feels a responsibility to both her family and a community that has supported her. All of these things come from Hannah’s own choice. She is an adult, and her ethics and boundaries come from her own moral development.

The second reason I chose to write Hannah as a new adult has to do with how she demonstrates how people often follow their destiny even before the path is really clear. Hannah falls in love with helping and healing when she is very little. Tragedy threatens to pull her away, but ultimately she makes the choice to come back to healing and defies the odds by getting into medical school. It would be harder to demonstrate her commitment to her path if she were younger.

As a device, both age groups have really interesting factors to work with. Hannah is a new adult and is still figuring out who she is. She is free from the boundaries of childhood, but finds that often what stands in her way are the limits she holds within herself – that’s something I can relate to.

If you are writing in the genre, you might want to check out Deborah Halverson’s “Write to the Editor” Page on her website, “,” where she is giving in depth advice about the NA genre. She also has a book that was just released this week, called Writing New Adult Fiction. I haven't seen the book yet, but if her posts are any indicator, it will be worth reading if NA is your genre.

Now it’s your turn – tell me some of your favorite teen characters and help me discover some more good new adult paranormal/fantasy novels.

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